SNP’s word of the day: Pastoral

Illustration by Lewis Mirrett

Illustration by Lewis Mirrett

Word: Pastoral

Meaning: Adjective referring to a) the slow, farm-style life and b) more commonly, now, to the idyllic/idealized way such a life is represented—in art, novels, music, etcetera—to hard-bitten city peeps.

Usage: “Thou silent form, dost tease us out of thought / As doth eternity: Cold Pastoral!”—John Keats in “Ode to a Grecian Urn,” which you probably had to read in 12th grade.

You should know it because: Lady Gaga‘s latest video, for her song “You and I,” has her looking remarkably down-to-earth. Okay, she might be dressed as a black widow spider turned semi-human, but she’s in a very real place: Nebraska. Land of fresh air, blue skies, and corn.

In troubled times (and between class riots, economic crises, and Michelle Bachmann, who’d pretend these are anything but that?) urbanites tend to romanticize an escape to the past, as represented by purer, undeveloped scenes of country life. Anyone who actually lives in the country will tell you that it’s a load of work and everything smells like manure, but to 16th-floor dwellers it’s a daydream where the sun is always mellow and the breeze always warm. Pastoral literature dates back almost to the beginning of civilization (well, Ancient Greece), which must also have been the beginning of nostalgia. It reached its height in the writing of Henry David Thoreau, who escaped to Walden in America’s turbulent mid–19th century. And in art, especially painting, you can trace the pastoral through centuries: from Dutch Golden Age landscapes to 19th-century Romantic landscapes to Monet‘s haystacks.

Of course, Gaga’s contemporary take on the golden country is tarnished by her obsessive need to terrify small children. Her video, which features her wandering along dusty roads like some kind of goth Shania, then playing piano near a very Children of the Corntype field, is something like if “Disturbia” were the capital of Nebraska. Still, it’s not shocking that one of her more romantic and hopeful odes is set in natural America. The pastoral remains everyone’s Plan B for happiness.