Clouds, Love, and Life: Joni Mitchell’s Use of the Hermeneutic Circle

Posted on July 9, 2011 by


I’d like to introduce you to something called the hermeneutic circle. It sounds all high-minded and philosophery, but don’t worry, it’s not as hard as it sounds. Theoretical terms rarely are. Unsurprisingly, the most thorough explanation can be found here  , but I’ll try my hardest to explain it the way I understand it and the way I was taught.

The Hermeneutic Circle

According to Heidegger, great big ideas rely upon tiny little details. When it comes to interpretation and analysis, understanding big ideas like the ones expressed in grand works of art is contingent upon understanding the little details about those works of art. Examining the details leads us to realizations about greater ideas, which are expressed through details, which form greater ideas, and so on and such like. It’s a circle because the two, little details and big ideas, rely upon each other. When you look at one, you’ll be led to the other, which will lead you back to where you began.

It’s cloud illusions I recall”

Many critics, when commenting upon Joni Mitchell’s music, note that covers of her compositions so frequently fall flat because her songs are just so personal. To which I say: yes and no. Yes, her songs are personal. No, that doesn’t mean that no one else can sing them. (Proof here, if you require it.) They’re so seemingly impenetrably personal because she uses the hermeneutic circle. Mitchell imbues her songs with the tiniest, most mundane and fantastical details, which make her songs highly personal. Yet somehow she also manages to communicate some great joy or grief with which we can all identify. She does this by employing the hermeneutic circle, starting with the details first, then circling out to the big ideas.

Let me explain. I’ll use “Both Sides Now”  (lyrics here), which is a personal favorite and uses the hermeneutic circle most cleverly. The song uses an AAB/AAB/AABB format with each AAB focusing on a different topic: clouds, love, and life.

We start with clouds:

Rows and flows of angel hair
And ice cream castles in the air
And feather canyons everywhere
I’ve looked at clouds that way

But now they only block the sun
They rain and snow on everyone
So many things I would have done
But clouds got in my way
I’ve looked at clouds from both sides now

From up and down, and still somehow
It’s cloud illusions I recall
I really don’t know clouds at all

She starts with this very specific detail: cloud gazing. She not only shares the fact that she does it, but the particular pictures she sees in the clouds. Some days she sees castles, some days rain. She’s seen both the optimist’s and pessimist’s side of the clouds. Yet someone’s approach to cloud gazing doesn’t seem to say a lot about, well, anything.

It’s not until the second AAB that we get to a bigger, grander idea. Love:

Moons and Junes and Ferris wheels
The dizzy dancing way you feel
As ev’ry fairy tale comes real
I’ve looked at love that way

But now it’s just another show
You leave ’em laughing when you go
And if you care, don’t let them know
Don’t give yourself away

I’ve looked at love from both sides now
From give and take, and still somehow
It’s love’s illusions I recall
I really don’t know love at all

Tears and fears and feeling proud
To say “I love you” right out loud
Dreams and schemes and circus crowds
I’ve looked at life that way

This seems like a jump from the specific to the general – after all, how many hundreds of songs can you name composed about love? – but Mitchell grounds her big ideas in the little details, the moons and Junes and Ferris wheels of her own experience, while still keeping them relatable by speaking of them in the second person. She makes even the least romantic listener commiserate with “the dizzy dancing way you feel” just as she advises them to hide their latent romanticism – “don’t let them know”. Here, the romantic’s and the cynic’s sides are both expressed by examining the specifics of love.

Finally, she brings out the big guns:

Tears and fears and feeling proud
To say “I love you” right out loud
Dreams and schemes and circus crowds
I’ve looked at life that way

But now old friends are acting strange
They shake their heads, they say I’ve changed
Well something’s lost, but something’s gained
In living every day

I’ve looked at life from both sides now
From win and lose and still somehow
It’s life’s illusions I recall
I really don’t know life at all
I’ve looked at life from both sides now
From up and down, and still somehow
It’s life’s illusions I recall
I really don’t know life at all

After circling around the subject with increasingly general observations on love, Mitchell gets to the point of “Both Sides Now”, the great life experiences we can all relate to, the tears, fears, and hubris of life.

What the hell was she talking about?”

All this talk of clouds and Ferris wheels seems hippy-dippy; in fact, I recall a cultural commentator whose name I can’t recall asking, “I liked that song, but what the hell was she talking about?” However, the song’s meaning is really quite clear when we employ the hermeneutic circle. Mitchell is trying to talk about life in general by first talking some seemingly woo-woo nonsense about clouds, then waxing more specifically about love, then getting to the goods. She traps listeners with details, luring us in, making us feel that, since we’ve related to the tiny details, we can also relate to her grand pronouncements on “life’s illusions”. As listeners, we follow her as she musically inscribes the hermeneutic circle.

Posted in: Music, Philosophy