Analysis of ‘A Farewell to Kings’

A Farewell to Kings is the fifth studio album by Rush, released in 1977. The album demonstrates remarkable musical growth in the band, with their shifting away from their original, Led Zeppelin-inspired hard rock sound and into the realm of progressive rock.

To this musical end, the trio expanded from a basic guitar/bass/drums sound to one incorporating not only six- and twelve-string acoustic guitars, but also classical guitar (by Alex Lifeson). Furthermore, singer/bassist Geddy Lee adds a Minimoog, and both he and Lifeson play bass pedal synthesizers; this electronic sound would be further expanded to the use of more synthesizers by the 1980s, this being a dominant aspect of their music throughout that decade.

Drummer Neil Peart adds a wide array of percussion instruments on this album, including glockenspiel, tubular bells, Vibraslap (heard during Lifeson’s solo on “Closer to the Heart“), and Chinese temple blocks. These new musical colours, combined with Peart’s growth from his original Keith Moon-inspired aggressive drumming style to one of prog rock virtuosity, show the newer influence of the crackingly precise chops of Carl Palmer and Bill Bruford.

But just as newer musical ideas are being phased in, so are older ideas being phased out. As I said above, the hard rock sound, though still present to a large degree, is noticeably less here than on previous albums. And although Lee’s soaring head voice (with its grating vibrato) is as evident as ever here (in fact, on “Cygnus X-1,” he hits his highest note ever, a B-flat 5…or 6?), it won’t be long after this album (two albums later, specifically) that he will phase out the use of head voice and limit his highest notes generally to those within mixed voice, and focus on his lower, chest voice.

A Farewell to Kings is an album that Rush were most pleased with: Lee has never found fault with it, and Peart said that the title track “seems to encapsulate everything that we want Rush to represent.” It’s one of my personal favourites of the band’s, if not the favourite–it’s the first of theirs that I’d heard as a little kid, not long after it was released. Apart from all the musical colours I described above, A Farewell to Kings is genuine art rock, not only with long songs divided into sections, but also with a more prominent use of odd time signatures and superb musicianship that had since become synonymous with Rush.

Here is a link to all the song lyrics on the album.

The cover, by Hugh Syme, shows a demolition site in the background as juxtaposed with, in the foreground, a king slumped on a throne and made to look like a marionette. The picture expresses some of the themes of the title track, and by extension, those of the rest of the songs on the album, as I’ll explain below.

Decades ago, I spotted the obvious theme of morality, but a much more important theme is idealism, particularly the idealizing of the past as against the disillusionment felt in the modern world. Also, there’s the theme of the danger of recklessly seeking to attain those ideals, leading to one’s self-destruction.

The title track begins softly, with Lifeson playing a classical guitar melody with one bar in 3/4, then three bars in 4/4 before returning to the 3/4 beginning, and playing the whole cycle all over again. He plays it a third time, but with the first two of the three 4/4 bars, replacing the third with a transitional bar in 5/4, then one in 4/4, to introduce a middle passage with Lee’s Minimoog and Peart’s glockenspiel.

The first theme returns with all three instruments, and with the 5/4 theme played three times. Though this gentle introductory tune includes a synthesizer, the classical guitar’s lute-like sound makes one think of a time hundreds of years ago. The music’s tranquility makes one imagine, correctly or incorrectly, that that old time was a better, more peaceful one.

A sharp contrast is heard when the electric guitar, bass, and drums come crashing in, suggesting the turmoil of the modern world, a sad decline from that (perceived) idyllic opening. We hear two bars of 4/4, then a switch to several bars of 7/4 before returning to 4/4.

Now, the lyrics come in, Lee singing what amounts to be a conservative’s complaint of “Whatever happened to the good old days?” (If one didn’t know any better, one might think of Archie and Edith Bunker singing “Those Were the Days” at the piano.)

Added to this conservative lament is the use of medieval imagery in Peart’s lyric (i.e., references to “castles,” all things “kingly,” and “nobles”). Let me just get this straight: a farewell to kings, that is, to feudalism, is a bad thing? Morality can be upheld only through the absolute power of a monarch, the ‘divine right’ of kings?

Such would be a very strange position for three young, long-haired rockers (who only the previous year sang of the pleasures of dope in “A Passage to Bangkok“) to take. Either Peart was being ironic, or he was being metaphorical in his references to kings and castles as an ideal, or the lyric is in the voice of a reactionary whose political ideals are in sharp contrast with those of the band.

I’d say that a hint to what Peart was really writing about, perhaps by way of a Freudian slip, is in the line “Ancient nobles showering their bitterness on youth.” Does this line not encapsulate what the whole lyric presents to the listener–grumpy old men griping about all these bad kids, with their long hair, loud rock music, and sex and drugs, only it’s expressed with all this medieval imagery, just to reinforce how “ancient” the complainers are?

One thing to remember about Rush, and about Peart in the 1970s in particular, was the influence of right-wing libertarianism, and of “the genius of Ayn Rand” in their reworking of her novella, Anthem, in their side-long suite, “2112” (not to mention their song of the same name as her book, and in the name of Rush’s record label). Surely, these three haters of ‘Big Brother government’ weren’t holding up the monarchy as a fitting alternative. And if the idealizing of monarchy is meant as a metaphor, then for what?

I want to give Rush credit here, and say that this song, however much Peart insisted would “encapsulate everything that [they wanted] Rush to represent,” is meant as an ironic presentation of the views of authoritarian conservatives “showering their bitterness on youth.”

In other words, Rush represents ironic tongue-in-cheek.

Sandwiched in between these verses is a tight instrumental section in alternating 4/4 and 2/4, with Lifeson doing a solo with a delightfully angular tone on his Gibson ES-355 over Lee’s Rickenbacker bass octaves in A, and Peart’s tight drumming. Lifeson stops soloing for a moment and plays an A-chord with Lee’s A octaves and Peart’s drumming of the 4/4 and 2/4 rhythm; then we have just 4/4 and a chord progression of A major, G major, and D major, over which Lifeson resumes soloing before a reprise of the “Cities full of hatred…” verse.

A final verse, to the same music as that of the reprised verse, ends with the hope for a world that’s “closer to the heart,” an allusion to the famous song that acts as a solution to the problem presented in the title track. More on that later, of course.

Though lyrically, “Xanadu” is inspired by Samuel Taylor Coleridge’s classic poem “Kubla Khan,” Peart’s idea originally came from the classic film Citizen Kane, in which the titular character (based in part on William Randolph Hearst) owns a mansion called Xanadu. Just as the title track yearns for an ideal morality in the feudal past (metaphorically, if not literally), so does “Xanadu” involve a quest for the ideal of eternal life.

As with the title track, “Xanadu” begins with birdsong (indeed, Messiaen would have loved it!). We also hear a low E played on the bass pedal synthesizer, along with Lifeson soloing with a volume pedal, and Peart playing the Chinese temple blocks, swiping the chimes, and tapping an E on the tubular bells.

Next, Lifeson plays–no longer with the volume pedal–a seven-note cycle of E–E (octave higher)–A–B–E-flat–A-flat–A, which then brings in the bass and drums. After this passage in 7/8, we return to 4/4, still in E major, with a riff including a whirlwind of notes starting on D, in the E-Mixolydian mode. Then, we’re back to 7/8 (Rush’s favourite odd time), with Lifeson quickly strumming chords of E-major, D-major, B-major, A-major, and G-major, but with an open high E string (he does a lot of this–playing E-shape barre chords, but with the high E-string open, without the barre–at various points in the song). Peart joins in with cowbells of different pitches, and Lee with the bass pedals set at a treble range. The bass and drums soon join Lifeson in this 7/8 passage.

The instrumental opening goes on for about five minutes before Lee finally begins singing, making allusions to Coleridge’s poem. “Drink[ing] the milk of Paradise” is what the speaker hopes will confer immortality onto him, though the milk, combined with honeydew, also suggests the use of narcotics (recall, in this connection, “A Passage to Bangkok,” as well as Coleridge’s own drug use).

The speaker seeks the ideal of eternal life, and hopes to find in Kubla Khan’s “pleasure dome” the ideal abode, paradise. But just as hoping for moral ideals in a romanticized past in “A Farewell to Kings” is foolish, so is the speaker’s hope for happiness in immortality in Xanadu foolish.

A thousand years pass, and the speaker has no hope of dying. He yearns for the end of the world, hoping to be destroyed with it, and thus to be freed of the “prison of the lost Xanadu.” Just as Charles Foster Kane can find no happiness or fulfillment in his wealth and power, the speaker, in his “bitter triumph,” cannot find any in honeydew and the milk of paradise.

Wealth, power, immortality, ideals…these don’t provide happiness. That’s what A Farewell to Kings is all about.

Now, “A Farewell to Kings” may have presented the problem of immorality (just as “Xanadu” explored the problem of immortality), but “Closer to the Heart” presents an attempt at finding solutions. Obviously, “the heart” is meant to indicate that we need a world of love as the solution, though as I’ll later argue, the solution as given isn’t adequate.

From a formal, structural perspective, the song’s lyrics (written by Peart, but inspired by a verse by Peter Talbot, a friend of the band’s) are cleverly written, with parallel structure from verse to verse. Examples of such parallelism include the rhyming last words of the third line of each verse (“reality,” “creativity,” “mentality,” and “destiny”); in the first line of each verse are references to different careers one could have (“men who hold high places,” “the blacksmith and the artist,” “philosophers and ploughmen,” and “captain”); the blacksmith would “forge,” and the artist use his “creativity,” ploughmen “sow” the philosophers’ “new mentality,” and the captain goes “sailing into [the] destiny” of “the chart” that “I will draw.” The most obvious parallelism is the repeat of the song’s title in the last line of each verse.

Now, this all makes for fine rhetoric, which again uses archaic diction, as in the album’s title track, the question song to which “Closer to the Heart” is the proposed answer. Here’s the problem: nothing in the song actually details how we are supposed to move towards a more loving world.

Matters start to get a little disturbing when we consider how the band that’s preaching how we must move “closer to the heart” was only the previous year touting the ‘philosophy’ of an embittered Russian bourgeois expat in the US, she who wrote of The Virtue of Selfishness, which espoused “rational egoism,” or as I would call it, rationalized selfishness.

In all fairness to Rush, and to Peart in particular, when they recorded these 1970s albums, they were young and naïve about the world. Their expertise was in music, not politics. Given the intense anti-communist propaganda of the Cold War, the kind that raised a hack writer like Rand to fame (seriously, I read Anthem when I was young and, being similarly naïve at the time, was more sympathetic to the story’s anti-socialist message, and even then, I was not impressed with her prose), it’s easy to see how Peart could have been seduced by her ideas, as so many have been. And to be even fairer to Peart, in the last decade of his life, he confessed that he’d renounced Rand (who, incidentally, was no libertarian, but rather an advocate for capitalist government) and begun calling himself a “bleeding-heart libertarian“…translation: a liberal. Indeed, it was the individualism of her message, not the pro-capitalist one, that he’d always liked, anyway.

As for those conservative politicians whose Rand influence has stayed with them, look over the past forty years of neoliberalism and ask yourself honestly if their politics have steered the world any “closer to the heart.” Tax cuts for the rich have resulted in their wealth ballooning to the point that they can essentially buy politicians and both American political parties, ensuring that the owners of the big corporations determine the direction the world goes in, which means more for them and less for the rest of us (all of this has given a new, bitter irony to Peart’s complaints of “the seeds that we let grow”). As I’ve explained in other posts, the “free market” dialectically leads to “corporatism,” or the capitalist government that Rand wanted, the dictatorship of the bourgeoisie.

So, with the song’s championing of a more loving world, with its clever rhetoric and a lack of a concrete plan for realizing its goal, “Closer to the Heart” is another example of the album’s theme of idealism. Note that utopian thinking exists on the left and on the right. Everyone has his or her own notion of the ‘perfect world’: there are, for example, the Nazi ideals of Lebensraum and judenrein, though decent people would never espouse such horrors. “Free market” fundamentalists’ notion of unbridled capitalism, through the voodoo of the invisible hand, leading to happiness and harmony is another utopian fantasy: how does unchecked selfishness help the world? It’s easy to see how it results in unaccountable corporate tyranny, though. And leftism isn’t necessarily all idealistic: contrary to popular belief, Marxism is not, as I explained here, utopian socialism, but scientific, grounded in revolutionary theory.

Now, “Closer to the Heart” may have failed to provide a method for achieving the more loving society, but Lee’s lyric for “Cinderella Man” gives us something of an idea. Just as “Xanadu” was inspired (in part) by a classic old black-and-white movie, so was this one: namely, by Mr. Deeds Goes to Town, one of Lee’s favourites.

Longfellow Deeds (played by Gary Cooper) is dubbed the “Cinderella Man” by a newspaper reporter, named Louise “Babe” Bennett (played by Jean Arthur), because of his sudden rags-to-riches inheritance of his late uncle’s $20,000,000 fortune. He’s from a town called Mandrake Falls, and he goes to New York to get the money.

Since Deeds eventually decides to give all of the money to poor, starving farmers (the 1936 film is set during the Great Depression), powerful men scheme to get their hands on his money by having him declared insane, and therefore too mentally incompetent to be trusted with the responsibility of managing and dispensing with so huge a sum of money. His eccentric behavior, which includes suddenly punching men for no apparent reason, walking in the rain, and feeding a horse an excess of donuts, seems to confirm that he’s insane. In fact, a psychiatrist deems him to be a manic depressive. In the end, though, they “just couldn’t beat him.”

So, Lee’s lyric tells the plot of the film in an extremely abbreviated form. The proposed ideal moral solution to the problem of poverty is, essentially, a kind of charity, acts of generosity done of one’s free, individual will, as opposed to the workers’ revolutionary seizing control of the means of production, resulting in a state-planned economy providing free healthcare, education, housing, and full employment.

It’s interesting to note, in light of Rand’s influence on Peart, that Mr. Deeds Goes to Town is a film by Frank Capra, who also did It’s a Wonderful Life, another film about the value of Christian charity, and one despised by the likes of Rand, who have idiotically claimed it is a “communist” film. Capra, a kind of right-wing libertarian in his own right, didn’t even like FDR’s New Deal, which was meant to keep the Depression-era American working class from agitating for a socialist revolution. As I argued in my analysis of this latter film (link above), the notion that altruism of any kind can be airily called “communist” really only displays the mean-spiritedness of the “rational egoists.”

“Madrigal” is a simple love song, with a sweet melody that Lee plays on his Minimoog, and with Peart’s drums recorded in an echo room. Even this love song can be seen as a manifestation of the theme of ideals, for when one is in love, one idealizes the love object, ignoring his or her faults, and exaggerating his or her virtues, especially as a contrasting bulwark against this harsh world we live in, as expressed in Peart’s lyric. That the song is called madrigal is again, as with much of the diction of its lyric, an example of the use of archaic imagery (suggesting associations with courtly love poetry, which idealized the Lady as love object), reinforcing that sense of idealizing a distant past against our troubled modern world.

“Cygnus X-1 Book One: The Voyage” is, in contrast to the previous songs’ settings at different points in the past, a science fiction story about going “across the Milky Way” in a spaceship to reach a black hole “in the constellation of Cygnus.” It’s in four parts, the Prologue opening with an electronically-altered narration by Terry Brown, the producer of A Farewell to Kings and all the other Rush albums from their second, Fly by Night, up to Signals.

1 is very brief, with Lee singing of how entry “through the void” of the black hole leads one “to be destroyed,” or could it be a wormhole into either another part of the universe, or a door to a parallel one? Our protagonist dares to find out.

Lee begins playing broken-up segments of the bass line that, when Lifeson and Peart join in, will comprise a riff in 3/4, 7/8, 3/4, and 4/4. Soon after, a frantic riff comes in with chords of C-sharp minor, E minor, and G-sharp minor, which we’ll hear again at the climactic end of the song. A guitar line of G, A-flat, B, C, D, E-flat, F-sharp, and G leads into a riff in 11/8, 12/8, and 11/8, with chords in C minor, a passing chord of B minor to F-sharp major, E-flat minor, and a passing chord of D minor back to C minor. The Minimoog eventually comes in, largely doubling the chords.

2, narrated by the protagonist, describes the flight on his ship, the Rocinante, which is named after the horse ridden by Don Quixote, a foolish idealist who, having read so many chivalric romances, fancies himself such a hero, a knight-errant in search of adventure. He’s an awkward fool, engaging in a task far beyond his abilities. The protagonist in the spaceship is similarly foolish and idealistic, engaging in a dangerous quest (though, in “Book Two: Hemispheres,” he enters–through a wormhole, presumably–the world of the Apollonian and Dionysian battle of the mind and heart, achieving the ideal of balance between the two).

Beginning this section is an upbeat chord progression of C major, F major, D major, and G major, musically suggesting the rosy optimism of the protagonist. Things don’t stay positive for long, though.

A repeat of the G, A-flat, B, C, D, E-flat, F-sharp, and G leads to a solo by Lifeson with the wah-wah pedal. Next is a quieter section suggesting the traveling of the Rocinante deep into space, with Lifeson playing octaves of C, A-flat, and B. Backed by Peart’s drumming, Lee comes in with his bass soon after, with fragments of his bass line from that frantic, climactic progression heard in the Prologue and soon to be heard again–notes of C-sharp, E and G-sharp…hearing this is a foreshadowing of the protagonist’s doom. Fittingly, the bass line does a bitonal clash with the guitar line, reinforcing the sense of tension building up to the climax. But just before that climax, there’s a louder section in E, in 4/8, 3/8, and 4/8.

3 has the Rocinante spinning out of control as it reaches the black hole, with that frantic chord progression fully developed in the form of C-sharp minor, E minor, G-sharp major, and G major, then C-sharp minor, E minor, and C minor, all in 6/8. The protagonist screams out that his “every nerve is torn apart.” (The tragedy of his self-destruction in his spaceship is paralleled by the farce of Don Quixote charging, on his horse, the windmills.)

The song ends with soft but eerie chords of C minor, E-flat minor, and E minor added ninth, then E minor again, but without the ninth. This fades out, suggesting the fading out of the protagonist’s life.

The protagonist thus goes through the whole Hegelian dialectic of being, nothingness, and in Book Two, the sublation of being and non-being, that of becoming, the balance between the two (as well as that between the Apollonian mind and the Dionysian heart), the achievement of the Hegelian ideal.

But this ideal isn’t to be reached until the next album. Instead, as far as A Farewell to Kings is concerned, our quixotic hero just destroyed himself, as does the drinker of the milk of paradise in the other long song ending Side One of this album. The first hero destroys his mind in madness, and the second destroys his body; the first erases the possibility of his non-existence, the second erases his existence…both heroes doing so in the foolish pursuit of unattainable ideals.

Analysis of ‘Easy Rider’

Easy Rider is a 1969 film produced by Peter Fonda, directed by Dennis Hopper, starring both of them, and written by them and Terry Southern. The film co-stars Jack Nicholson (in a role that made him a star), Karen Black, Toni Basil (later of “Mickey” fame), and Luke Askew.

A landmark counterculture film, Easy Rider not only explored the rise of the hippie movement, drug use, and communal lifestyle, but it also helped spark the New Hollywood era of filmmaking in the early 1970s. Real drugs were used in the film.

Critics praised the performances, directing, writing, soundtrack, and visuals. Easy Rider was nominated for two Oscars, for Best Original Screenplay and for Best Supporting Actor (Nicholson).

Here is a link to quotes from the film.

Though the film is understood to be a film for ‘rebels,’ one needs to look deeper. Wyatt, or “Captain America [!]” (Fonda), and Billy (Hopper) have names inspired by Wyatt Earp and outlaw Billy the Kid, reinforcing their image as anti-establishment rebels by associating them with the rough and violent types of the Old West. Instead of horses, they’re on bikes. What immediately should strike one with suspicion, though, is Wyatt’s display of the Stars and Stripes on his black leather jacket, helmet, and the chopper he buys after he and Billy profit off of a sale of cocaine. Wearing such colours indicates the duo’s acceptance of the values of American capitalism, not a rebellion against them.

Indeed, the film begins with Wyatt and Billy in Mexico, riding on dirt bikes to a bar where they’ll buy cocaine so they can smuggle it into the US to sell for a much higher price. Their clothes are as humble as their bikes at this time. They sell the cocaine to their “connection” (played by none other than Phil Spector, of “Wall of Sound” fame) outside at an airport, where airplanes are flying noisily overhead, as if representing the heavenly host watching over Wyatt and Billy, and judging them for their sins.

And what is their sin? I’m not so much interested in moralizing about their drug trafficking as I am in discussing what Marx wrote about in Capital, vol. 3, about “Commercial Capital” (chapter 16, pages 379-383). A merchant buys a commodity from a producer, then sells it again for a higher price to obtain a profit. Wyatt and Billy sell the cocaine they bought in Mexico to their American connection for a much, much higher price. Some might call this white Wyatt’s and Billy’s exploitation of the poor Mexicans they bought from.

Small wonder we hear, right at the end of the deal with the American connection, “The Pusher,” in which originally Hoyt Axton sang “Goddamn the pusher man” because he “is a monster,” selling you hard drugs like heroin or cocaine, and not caring “if you live or if you die.” (In the film, though, we hear Steppenwolf‘s cover of the song.) We hear these lyrics as Wyatt is stuffing their dollar bills down a plastic tube hidden inside his US-flag designed chopper. Hence, his bike is symbolic of American capitalism…Wyatt and Billy are just as much the establishment as are all the hicks who later antagonize them.

So when we see these two cool dudes riding their new choppers on the road, and we hear “Born to be Wild” by Steppenwolf as the credits flash across the screen, we have to be clear about what the contradiction is that is examined in Easy Rider. It isn’t between the right and the left: both sides here are capitalists through and through. It’s between conservatives and liberals. This distinction is important to make because there are many politically illiterate people out there who confuse the left with bourgeois liberalism (e.g., hippies, the Democratic Party, etc.). It’s significant that we hear Steppenwolf perform both the Hoyt Axton song and “Born to be Wild,” one immediately after the other, at this point in the film; this juxtaposition of songs emphasizes the dual nature of Wyatt and Billy, being both establishment (commercial capitalists) and anti-establishment (biker rebels) at the same time.

Now, conservative capitalists–owners of such private property as motels–won’t accommodate these two liberal capitalists. This lack of shelter for Wyatt and Billy puts them in a paradoxical situation: that of being, on the one hand, a pair of privileged white men with that secret stash of cash in Wyatt’s bike, their profit from the drug deal; and on the other hand, two men reduced to the status of the homeless.

Bourgeois lumpenproletariat: who’d a thunk it? In a sense, one might even think of what happens to King Lear.

One is reminded, in contemplating how the conservative capitalists are bullying these two liberal capitalists, of something Marx said in Capital, vol. 1: “One capitalist always strikes down many others,”(Marx, page 929)…or in this case, some capitalists often strike down these two others.

…and some far-right dummies out there equate the likes of Wyatt and Billy with communists. Give me strength.

Still, we see these two riding their choppers on roads with beautiful American landscapes and scenery on either side. One thing to remember about this land, though, is who it belonged to originally.

In a movie largely about white male rebels, we might not pay too much attention to those who are marginalized in it…probably because these people are so very marginalized: blacks, Hispanics, Native Americans, and women. It can be just as instructive to note who or what is not seen in a movie as who is seen in it.

Our two biker rebels stop at the home of a humble farmer to fix a flat tire on Wyatt’s bike. They have dinner with the farmer’s family, who say Grace before eating. This is a humble, conservative Christian family, though the father is liberal and unprejudiced enough to marry a Hispanic Catholic. Still, he expects her to run off and get more coffee.

What should be noted is not so much the contrast between, on the one side, Wyatt, Billy, and the hippies they’ll meet soon enough, and on the other side, the bigoted and outright dangerous conservatives. One should rather see these opposing sides as on a continuum with people like this farmer’s family as somewhere in between. All of these people play a role of some kind in the white settler colonial state that is the US. It is those aforementioned marginalized people (including the Mexican seller of the cocaine and the farmer’s wife) who should be set in opposition to all the others, including Wyatt and Billy, in this film.

Indeed, this dinner with the farmer’s family has a double in the later dinner at the hippie commune, before which they also pray, the camera slowly moving and showing us the faces of everyone about to eat. We’ll see that the hippies, for all their drug use and practice of free love, have a lot more in common with the Christian farmers than meets the eye.

Wyatt and Billy ride on, and soon they pick up a hitchhiking hippie, a Stranger on the Highway (Askew). When at a gas station, the hippie fills up Wyatt’s bike, having taken off the gas cap and leaving the possibility of him seeing the plastic tube with all the money in it, Billy gets nervous and wants to stop him. He’s just as protective of his wealth as any capitalist would be.

At nightfall, the three stop by the side of the road to smoke some grass, then to sleep. When Billy asks the hippie where he’s from, he’s evasive in his answer, feeling that all cities are the same. People who’ve done LSD, something the hippie will give Wyatt and Billy to do at a fitting time later, often sense a unity in everything and everyone, that everywhere is ‘here,’ so to speak. The hippie would also have Wyatt and Billy take heart of how this land they’re sitting on has its original owners, the Native Americans, buried under it.

He says that Wyatt and Billy could be “a trifle polite” in their attitude towards those dead aboriginals whose land the white man has taken from them. Billy chuckles at the hippie’s words; his attitude should be a reminder to us, as much as Wyatt’s Stars and Stripes, that these two bikers are not sticking it to the Man the way they should be.

All the two men want to do is pursue a life of physical pleasure: drugs, drinking, chasing women, and freely riding their choppers along the American landscape…from a land taken from the aboriginals. Wyatt and Billy are going to New Orleans to enjoy the Mardi Gras festival: “Fat Tuesday,” a great indulgence in pleasure before the great abstinence of Lent…in which they, of course, have no interest.

Their rebellion is against repressive, right-wing conservative authority, but it doesn’t go far enough. One cannot just do one’s own thing while coexisting with those reactionary types, for the reactionaries refuse to coexist with society’s long-haired rebels, as we’ll see by the end of the movie. Those reactionaries must be defeated and wiped out, not merely given the finger to, or else they’ll wipe out the rebels. This is the reality as understood in the intensification of class struggle, and why a dictatorship of the proletariat is needed to prevent the return of reactionary capitalism.

Wyatt and Billy take the hippie to his commune, where we see two young women who show an immediate sexual interest in the two bikers, just as they’ve been openly affectionate with the hippie. (One of these women thinks Wyatt is “beautiful,” in his Stars and Stripes outfit, which should tell you something about her and her attitude towards straight America.) Billy briefly plays ‘cowboys and Indians’ with the children of the commune, an indication not only of the spirit of levity felt by these whites towards the genocide of the Native Americans as noted above, but also how these hippies, in not teaching their kids that even playing war might lead to a warlike mentality when they grow up, don’t seem all that committed to the anti-war cause, a reminder that hippies are liberals, not revolutionaries–they’re the phonies that Zappa accused them of being.

Yet there are right-wing morons out there who claim that hippies are communists. Pathetic.

Other examples of traditionalism among these hippies–which give the lie to their ‘anti-establishment’ and ‘counterculture’ posturing–include, apart from the prayer before eating mentioned above, their singing of old-fashioned, traditional songs like “Does Your Hair [originally “Do Your Ears”] Hang Low?” and “She’ll Be Coming ‘Round the Mountain” (as opposed to singing, for example, 60s antiwar/pro-drug songs), and their reluctance to accommodate any more visitors. Such a reluctance isn’t too far removed from when Archie Bunker refused to accommodate two unmarried hippie visitors to his house.

As I said above, all these groups of people in Easy Rider lie on a continuum, ranging from the bigoted hecklers and killers of Wyatt, Billy, and George Hanson (Nicholson) on the far-right side, then a little to the left of the bigots, there are the Christian farmer and his Catholic, Hispanic wife, then a little further left from them are the people in this hippie commune, then further left are Hanson, then Wyatt and Billy, and finally the hippie hitchhiker, who acknowledges the genocide of the aboriginals (without helping to do anything about it), on the other side. A real far-left opposition would include people like the Black Panthers and any Native American activists struggling against white settler colonialism, something we’ll never see in this film. To paraphrase Noam Chomsky, the mainstream media ensures a very narrow, but lively, range of debate between the “left” and the right.

Wyatt and Billy–after engaging in skinny-dipping and free love with those two women from the commune, then taking some LSD from the hippie hitchhiker–continue on their way into a town in New Mexico where a parade is going on. They ride their choppers along with the parade, as if to join it, then they get arrested for “parading without a permit.” Actually, the cops just don’t like long-haired men.

Here is where they meet alcoholic Hanson, himself locked up for having overindulged in booze the night before.

Now, George Hanson, as a lawyer who has done work for the ACLU, is rather square, but also liberal and open-minded, as well as knowledgeable about the social issues of the day. He knows that this town they’re in is full of right-wing reactionaries who’d love to shave the heads of Wyatt and Billy, taking away their symbol of rebellion…like taking away Samson‘s strength by cutting his hair.

George can help Wyatt and Billy get out of jail as long as the two bikers haven’t done anything like killing someone…white, which George says with a sardonic grin, indicating his awareness of his society’s double standards against the marginalized black community.

He gets them and himself out of jail, has a bit of the hair of the dog, sees their impressive bikes, and learns of their plan to go to New Orleans for Mardi Gras. George is so intrigued that he’d like to tag along; he even tells them about a whorehouse there, calling the girls “US prime.” Once again, we see that these ‘rebels’ can be just as marginalizing of people as the ‘hicks’ they’re rebelling against.

So George rides as a passenger on Wyatt’s bike (something Nicholson would metaphorically be in a later film also dealing with an uncommitted progressive), wearing his nerdy helmet. They stop somewhere off of the road, as usual, that night and smoke some marijuana, which George has for the first time, him at first being reluctant, then opening his mind to it.

As they’re getting high, Billy speaks of a ‘satellite’ he’s just seen in the night sky (which, incidentally, can be vaguely associated with those airplanes flying overhead during the cocaine deal). George tells him and Wyatt about the “Venusian” pilots of the UFOs, about whom the world governments apparently know, but keep a secret for fear of creating a general panic among the world population.

Apparently, these “Venusians” have a far more advanced civilization than ours: egalitarian, pacifist, money-less, and with futuristic technology. George says they’ve been coming here since 1946…which by the way was around the beginning of the Cold War. They’re people just like us, George says, working with us all over the Earth in an advisory capacity.

These “Venusians” sound an awful lots like communists (egalitarian, money-less, and with advanced technology) and Marxists (i.e., leftist professors in Western universities–working ‘in an advisory capacity’) to me. The capitalist governments don’t want us to know about them (as they did so embarrassingly, via McCarthy, during the 1950s) because our antiquated capitalist system, with our leaders, is no match for theirs.

You don’t believe me? That’s because the US government doesn’t want you to know how the Soviet Union went from a backward, agrarian society in the 1920s to a nuclear-armed superpower that won the space race in the late 1950s…technological advances all achieved within a mere three decades, along with progress towards equal rights for women, universal housing, education, employment, and healthcare for all. To this day, Stalin–far from being regarded as a ‘cruel dictator,’ is loved by millions of Russians for his leadership in defeating the Nazis, and majorities of Russians have consistently preferred the Soviet era, for all of its imperfections, to current-day, capitalist Russia. The same can be said of China, from the Maoist era to today.

Now, Billy, like most people brainwashed by bourgeois propaganda, thinks that what George is saying is “a crackpot idea,” because he and Wyatt are, at heart, not all that far from establishment thinking as they might seem to be. The two bikers just want to get stoned, each of the two an easy-going rider of a chopper.

…and the two of them lead me to my next point.

Duality is a major theme in Easy Rider. Apart from the two biker protagonists, there are two cocaine deals: first, the buying of it in Mexico, then the selling of it in the US–M-C-M’, or money to commodity to valorized money, that is, money with a profit, or increased value.

Wyatt and Billy visit and eat at two farms: that of the man and his Catholic wife, and that of the hippie commune, both of which include prayers before eating, and both of which have their own mixture of traditional and liberal values, in itself another duality in the film.

There are airplanes and satellites (or UFOs) flying overhead.

Wyatt and Billy spend time with two male companions, the hippie hitchhiker, and George Hanson, both of whom share valuable insights about the world while smoking dope with them (i.e., insights about the marginalized aboriginals buried in the ground where they are, and the marginalized “Venusians,” or communists, as I interpret them to be).

Wyatt and Billy have sexual encounters with two pairs of women: the two hippies they skinny dip with, and the two prostitutes they do the LSD with in New Orleans.

There are two parades: the one in New Mexico, and the Mardi Gras parade in New Orleans.

There are two violent assaults with intent to kill: the first in which George is bludgeoned to death at night, and the second at the end of the film, when Billy, then Wyatt, are shot and killed on their bikes.

These pairs of incidents have their parallels and their dialectical contrasts. Billy is more adversarial and self-centered; Wyatt is more laid-back and generous. The first coke deal is the buying of it: the second, a selling of it.

The first farm they visit is more conservative; the second is more liberal. The first flying machines are very real, the second are more imaginary.

The hippie hitchhiker and Hanson, as well as the pairs of women, are, in their respective ways, thoroughly paralleled.

After the first parade, Wyatt and Billy are put in jail. After the second parade, their minds are ‘freed’ with the LSD.

The first violent assault leaves Wyatt and Billy hurt, but still alive. The second assault leaves them dead.

Furthermore, there are two kinds of drugs enjoyed in this film: the narcotic kind (cocaine, marijuana, and LSD), and the religious kind (the “opium of the people“). Both kinds are attempts to escape, rather than solve, the world’s problems.

There are also doublings of performers playing songs on this famous soundtrack: I already mentioned the two Steppenwolf recordings; there are also two songs by Bob Dylan and performed by Roger McGuinn–“It’s Alright, Ma (I’m Only Bleeding)” and “Ballad of Easy Rider.”

There is also a duality of time, the present vs the future, in the form of the film’s “flashforwards” that occur at various points in the story, a quick flashing ahead to the future, then back to the present. The most important of these is when Wyatt and Billy are in the New Orleans whorehouse: Wyatt reads something about death freezing one’s reputation forever, then there’s a premonition of his death, his chopper in flames and flying in pieces by the roadside. Such a fusing of present and future symbolically suggests the feeling of timelessness experienced when using psychedelic drugs.

Now, the ultimate duality–or rather, the ultimate two dualities, as I’ll explain immediately after–is the conservative vs liberal contradiction. Since the liberals here are capitalist white men enjoying the privileges of US settler colonialism not all that much less than the conservatives are, then the conservative/liberal contradiction is really hiding a much more profound contradiction that one can only see if one is paying close attention. This is the white bourgeois vs the marginalized black/aboriginal/proletarian contradiction.

Indeed, as Wyatt and Billy are riding their choppers, or walking the streets of New Orleans, we get brief peeks of rural black families, or blacks playing music during Mardi Gras, or someone dressed as a Native American in the Mardi Gras parade. All marginalized people.

To get back to the story, Wyatt, Billy, and George continue on their way, while we hear “Don’t Bogart That Joint,” by Fraternity of Man, then “If 6 Was 9,” by Jimi Hendrix. Both of these songs reflect our bikers’ attitude to life in general, and to reactionaries in particular: just keep on smoking dope, and who cares what’s going on in the rest of the world? We do our own thing, and who cares if the conservatives don’t like it?

Umm…actually, Wyatt, Billy, and George do need to care.

They stop off in a little diner where the locals make no secret of their surprised reaction to these three strangely dressed visitors. Once again, there’s a duality in these reactions: first, a bevy of cute teenage girls finds the three men handsome and fascinating; second, all the men, being bigoted, narrow-minded conservatives, engage in non-stop heckling of Wyatt, Billy, and George.

It doesn’t take long for our three heroes to face the fact that they’re clearly not welcome, so they leave, in spite of the girls’ coming out to talk to them at their bikes.

That night, Wyatt, Billy, and George camp outside as usual. George laments the direction he sees his country going in. He says, “This used to be a helluva good country.” He’s wrong. A country founded on black slavery and the genocide of its aboriginals was never a good country. What’s more, these old sins laid the foundation for the three men’s current predicament.

Though lip-service is routinely paid to the notion of the US being a country founded on the principles of “freedom and democracy,” a deeper investigation of the intents of the Founding Fathers reveals that these land-owning, upper-class white men were primarily out to protect their class interests. They made a few concessions to working class Americans as a result of indispensable political agitation.

Nonetheless, those class interests have to this day been continually maintained in such divide-and-conquer forms as racism against blacks, Native Americans, Hispanics, and all non-WASP immigrants; other forms of the divide-and-conquer of the proletariat have included sex roles, keeping women in the home and away from such things as voting, and belief in such nonsense as ‘capitalism is freedom,’ the ‘free market,’ the ‘American Dream,‘ and the ‘land of opportunity.’ These illusory freedoms are what the reactionary nemeses of Wyatt and Billy will fight to the death for (as George explains), while condemning the freedom that our two protagonists practice.

As soon as the illusory form of freedom is exposed as such by the real exponents of freedom, these reactionaries further expose their fascist mentality through violence. This expression of violence is why one cannot coexist with these kinds of people: they must be fought and defeated; if they aren’t defeated, they’ll not only defeat, but also kill us. This harsh reality is what Wyatt and Billy won’t accept, and it’s also what gets them and George killed.

Freedom does not come for free.

One cannot escape the fascist mentality through drugs, though Wyatt and Billy continue to try to after George’s murder.

The two get to New Orleans and decide to find the brothel that George recommended. As they’re dining in a restaurant, getting drunk, and talking about going to the brothel, we hear a song by The Electric Prunes that does a psychedelic rendition of the Mass’s Kyrie. We continue to hear the song as they wander into the brothel and look around at the artwork. These two druggies are pursuing pleasure while we hear more music about the opium of the people.

They get two prostitutes, Karen (Black) and Mary (Basil), and all four of them drop the hippie hitchhiker’s acid after entering a cemetery in New Orleans’s French Quarter. As they’re all tripping out, we hear the voices of other people there reciting the Credo, Ave Maria, and Pater Noster. Again, we have a juxtaposition of drug use with the opium of the people.

Mary gets naked, and she and Wyatt screw. Karen has a bad trip. Wyatt embraces a statue of a goddess, and, weeping, complains of his abusive mother as if the statue were of her. He seems to be having an epiphany that Billy, unfortunately, isn’t having: Wyatt seems to realize that his rebellion against society is based on his rebellion against his parents, which would seem to be the basis of Billy’s own social revolt. This is why the two bikers can’t be revolutionaries: they won’t take on the system because all they want to do is stick it to their parents, their Oedipal, love/hate relationship with their parents being a universal narcissistic trauma.

The two bikers ride out the next day, and that night, camping out as usual, they chat for a while before sleeping. Billy is thrilled to be rich from their cocaine deal, thinking with the materialism of a typical capitalist and equating their material success with freedom. Wyatt, however, knows better, saying they “blew it.” That acid trip must have helped him understand how superficial their “freedom” is.

A common experience during an acid trip is a dissolving of the barrier between self and other. One feels a sense of unity between oneself and all of humanity, like the equating of Atman with Brahman, resulting in stronger empathy. Wyatt could very well have felt such an emotional connection with the marginalized aboriginals, blacks, and female lumpenproletariat (i.e., those two prostitutes, Karen and Mary). This would have made him realize that mainstream American liberalism just isn’t progressive enough.

Accordingly, he wears his “Captain America” leather jacket far more sparingly, that is, only outside at night, when it’s much too cool not to wear it. When Billy is shot by the man in the truck, the hick who doesn’t like his long hair, Wyatt rides back to help Billy and puts his star-spangled jacket on Billy’s wounds.

He’ll die anyway, because the gunman shoots Wyatt next, destroying his star-spangled bike. What does all of this mean, symbolically? It means that the American flag won’t heal your wounds, and that American capitalism will one day destroy itself through the violence of its own bigoted, reactionary, fascist mentality. Interpreted this way, the ending of Easy Rider can be seen as a prophetic warning of what would happen to the US, and to the world it dominates, decades after the film was made.

Please indulge me in a digression through recent political history.

The US of the mid-twentieth century–with its strong unions, high taxes for the rich, and welfare, to say nothing of the birth of the Civil Rights Movement, second-wave feminism, and gay liberation–had enormous progressive potential. The American government, however, was also giving safe haven to former Nazis in NASA, NATO, and the West German government, all rationalized as part of the effort to contain communism.

This tolerance of fascism (as seen in an allegorical sense in Easy Rider in the form of these reactionary hicks who are never properly fought off) has led to the dissolution of the Soviet Union, which, for all of its imperfections, was an effective counterweight against US/NATO imperialism, aiding liberation movements in the Third World and goading the US government to adopt more economically progressive policies to keep the American working class from resorting to socialist revolution.

Without the USSR as that effective counterweight, the US government has since been able to do anything it wants with impunity: hence, the gutting of welfare, the Telecommunications Act of 1996, which allowed the mergers and acquisitions of American media until now only six corporations control most of Americans’ access to information. Then, there’s been one imperialist war after another: Yugoslavia, Afghanistan, Iraq, Libya, Syria, and the ongoing threats of war with Iran, Russia, and China.

Hollywood liberals (including one or two Jewish ones) are now cheering on a Ukrainian government and military under the strong influence of Neo-Nazis. Instead of using its revenue to help the poor (a huge section of which are, of course, aboriginal, black, and female), to repair roads and crumbling infrastructure, to end homelessness, to fund education and healthcare, and to create jobs, the US government sends billions and billions of dollars to those Ukrainian Nazis in a proxy war to weaken Russia (as it had in the 1980s in Afghanistan), as part of an ambitious, yet maniacal, plan to go after China in a similar way (through Taiwan). All of these events risk a nuclear WWIII, which would kill everyone on the planet.

This is what happens when we let things slide, like an easy rider on the road that leads to the far right. The violent hicks who kill Wyatt, Billy, and George aren’t literal fascists, of course, but they share the same vicious, intolerant mentality; hence, they can be easily seen as representative of the fascists I mentioned in the previous paragraphs. If one can’t tolerate something as simple as longer hair on a white man, one isn’t going to tolerate much of anything else. These intolerant people, however, have been tolerated by liberals, not just in the film, but in our society for all these decades, leading not only to the film’s ending, but also to our current political predicament, which is why I brought it up.

The hicks fear the freedom of the longhairs because such freedom has the potential to lead to the liberation of the marginalized groups I mentioned above, including, ultimately, the liberation of the global proletariat (not that the liberals, as represented by Wyatt and Billy, are doing anything to pave the way towards such liberation). The hicks have a black-and-white view of the world in which one is either absolutely like their reactionary selves, or absolutely like long-haired ‘commies’…and the only good commie is one that’s dead, remember. This conception of the world is what links the violent end of Easy Rider to the precarious state of the world today.

Once again, the hicks are coming to get us. We’ll have to do a lot more than just give them the finger.

Analysis of ‘A Passion Play’

A Passion Play is a 1973 concept album by Jethro Tull, their sixth album. This album moved the band further in the direction of progressive rock, a move started with their previous album, Thick as a Brick.

Both albums have the format of continuous music spread over two sides of the original vinyl releases; but with A Passion Play, the music became much more elaborate and complex. Also, while Thick as a Brick has been largely well received critically, A Passion Play was panned by the critics, who soundly thrashed bandleader Ian Anderson for his perceived self-indulgence (i.e., the over-the-top “Story of the Hare Who Lost His Spectacles”) and pretentiousness.

Nevertheless, the album sold well, reaching No. 1 on the charts in the US and Canada. It also sold well in Germany, Norway, and the UK. Though I agree that the “Story of the Hare” is little more than outright silly, I feel it’s unfortunate that the album has such a bad rap, for musically it’s among Tull’s most accomplished, with Anderson expanding on his already considerable multi-instrumentalist abilities to include soprano and sopranino saxophones. He does some fine acoustic guitar playing here, too; and John Evan‘s keyboards and Barriemore Barlow‘s virtuosic drumming and percussion add lots of musical colour.

Here are links to the lyrics, and here is a link to the album.

When I bought my copy of the LP as a teen in the 1980s, it didn’t have the gatefold inner sleeve with the lyrics and the drama masks (let alone the six-page programme included in the original album to tell us the characters, etc.). All I had was the outer cover, with the pictures of the ballerinas. As gleaned from just the lyrics, the story is quite unclear.

Indeed, what do they mean by “a passion play”? The story of the album isn’t a dramatization of the suffering and death of Christ, so the title is obviously a metaphor…but of what? Here’s where everything is open to interpretation–so here’s mine.

A “passion play” is a metaphor for life. Instead of Christ, our protagonist, as indicated in the programme, is “Ronnie Pilgrim,” an everyman whose death at the beginning of the story, and whose progress through the judgement of his life, then through heaven and hell, and back to corporeal existence (rebirth), is an ironic cross between passion plays and a variation on John Bunyan‘s allegory, The Pilgrim’s Progress.

Now, the story is full of Christian imagery, though Jesus is only briefly and occasionally referred to. On the other hand, since passion here has its original meaning of “suffering,” rather than “ardent emotion,” and play refers to life, as in “All the world’s a stage,/And all the men and women merely players,” then “a passion play” as a metaphor for life means a life full of suffering, which sounds more like the Buddhist concept of dukkha. After all, the first of the Four Noble Truths is that all life is suffering. Furthermore, Pilgrim ends his progress by being reincarnated.

Whether Anderson consciously or unconsciously intended A Passion Play to have a Buddhist subtext hidden under Christian concepts is ultimately irrelevant; my point is that such a subtext can be found in the story.

Another irony is how a story about the suffering of life is mostly presented in the afterlife, causing one to wonder if this “afterlife” is literal or metaphorical. Indeed, how does one go from being accepted into heaven, then opting for hell, and finally coming back to physical life if this is all understood to be literally happening? After all, when entering hell, aren’t we all supposed to “abandon all hope” (i.e., of leaving hell)?

I’d say the Pilgrim’s “death” is really either a coma in which he, dreaming, mistakenly believes he’s dead, and from which he eventually wakes; or, the death, heaven, and hell experiences are just temporary psychological states between incarnations. Whatever the answer may be, let’s dive into the music.

Side One begins with a fade-in during which we hear Evan’s synth imitating a heartbeat. This is mixed with various other instruments, including the organ and Anderson’s sax; it has a trippy, psychedelic quality, suggesting a dream-like state, as if Ronnie Pilgrim is merely imagining the whole story.

Barlow’s drums kick in with the rest of the band, and we hear them playing a brief instrumental fittingly called “Lifebeats.” It has an almost march-like rhythm in triple time, until there’s an interruption in 9/8 (subdivided 2+2+2+3), first played only on organ, then with added acoustic guitar, whistling, and tritones on Martin Barre‘s guitar and Jeffrey Hammond-Hammond‘s bass.

This brief 9/8 passage ends with a ritardando of the synth-heartbeat, which also lowers in pitch, indicating that Pilgrim is dying. A crashing sound then indicates that he is now dead, as Anderson sings, beginning the narration of the predicament of our protagonist. “The Silver Cord,” which ties mortal flesh to the spirit, now “lies on the ground”…and so Pilgrim is dead. Evan’s soft and pretty piano accompanies Anderson’s singing.

Pilgrim sees his friends all attending his funeral, though they’ve arrived too late by taxi. “A hush in the Passion Play” means that death is the silence when life ends.

Pilgrim meditates on the good and bad moments in his life, though the “rich attainments” are “all imagined,” and “sad misdeeds in disarray” seem more prominent. Such is the essence of life as an experience of sorrow, or a “passion play” that we all must go through. To compare the suffering of life (e.g., aging) to music, we could speak of “melodies decaying in sweet dissonance.”

“The Ever-Passion Play,” or eternal life of suffering, with death conceived as an integral part of this eternal experience, suggests the cyclical suffering of samsāra. Since the Passion of Jesus ends with His harrowing of hell (as Pilgrim will do on Side Two) and resurrection, Pilgrim’s ‘resurrection’ could be seen as symbolic of reincarnation.

An instrumental section interrupts the narration, starting with a reprise of that 9/8 tune, now played slower on the organ and with Barlow’s marimba and the tritones on the guitar and bass. After this, a jazzy passage is heard in 11/8 time, featuring a sax solo by Anderson. Then there’s a return to the narration, with Evan’s dainty piano playing.

An angel descends to meet Pilgrim, and “a band of gentlemen” escort him out of Limbo. An instrumental “Re-Assuring Tune” comes next, including an acoustic guitar solo displaying Anderson’s skill on the instrument. This leads to “Memory Bank,” in which we find Pilgrim in “the viewing room,” where he’ll watch video of his entire life. They have him taped; he’s “in the play” of life, which will now be judged.

We’re coming into what is perhaps the most musically tense part of the album, and fittingly so, since this is the moment that determines whether Ronnie Pilgrim will go to heaven or to hell. Still, this issue is resolved with him going to heaven by the end of Side One. Pilgrim’s real issue isn’t whether or not he’ll be saved, but rather if he even likes it in heaven, or if he likes the afterlife in general.

In contrast, the pilgrim of John Bunyan’s Pilgrim’s Progress (the protagonist fittingly named “Christian,” for the purposes of Bunyan’s allegory) has to go through an ordeal of temptations and dangers of being led astray, and therefore he’s in danger of not being saved. Of course, Christian passes all the tests and makes it to the “Celestial City,” or heaven. Ronnie Pilgrim’s “progress” is about contemplating the vey nature of the afterlife, and making up his mind whether it’s worth venturing into at all…or would one rather just stay in this material world.

An instrumental passage in 11/8 leads to a reprise of that jazzy section originally with the sax solo, but this time instead of the sax, we hear the album’s major showcasing of Anderson’s trademark breathy flute soloing. Though there is, of course, lots of flute heard on this album before and after this particular passage (on which Anderson overdubs two solos), since Jethro Tull in general is more or less synonymous with the flute, by Tull standards, A Passion Play has far less of the instrument highlighted.

“Memory Bank” ends with the judges watching the videotape of Pilgrim’s life and noting some of those ‘rich attainments’ of his (“Captain of the cricket team,/Public speaking…” and “a knighthood…”), I must wonder if he really did attain these honours, or were these attainments “all imagined,” as stated above. In any case, this section segues into “Best Friends.”

Apparently, Pilgrim never stopped chatting on the phone with his best friends. Rain coming through a tear in his old umbrella, rain like tears, seems to represent old sorrows of his; still, “the rain only gets in sometimes,” and the sun, which seems to represent his fiery passions, never left him alone, as we’ll judge soon enough.

The next section is the particularly dark, heavy, and tense “Critique Oblique,” which opens with an ostinato of six notes (G, A, B-flat, D, D-flat, and C, each with an inverted parallel fifth below these tonic notes) that starts slowly on the organ and is repeated accelerando. These six notes (and their inverted fifths) will form the basis of the riff for this whole section, backed by Barlow’s pounding drums.

The judges watching the videotape of Pilgrim’s life seem to be judging him here for a sexual indiscretion of his, which has resulted in an illegitimate child. As a comment on this sin, we hear comically melodramatic voices singing an example of the album’s fatuous infatuation with puns: “The examining body examined her body.”

After a judgement of Pilgrim’s moral imperfections, we have one on the limitations of his intelligence. Since life is a passion play, we who live life are the actors, and Pilgrim is one “of the low IQ.” Not only was his sexual indiscretion sinful, but it was also foolish, leaving the illegitimate child’s mother “faded,” that is, her life ruined.

Still, in spite of his errant ways, the judges “won’t cross [him] out.” Pilgrim is loved like a son, or like the Son (John 3:16). Indeed, the only way Pilgrim could be saved is through Christ’s blood on the Cross, because of “how absolutely awful [he] really [is],” awful the way Lucifer is awful, as we’ll learn on Side Two, the way the state of unredeemed sin makes us awful.

In any case, Pilgrim is admitted into heaven, and the blissful state of the celestial paradise is reflected in “Forest Dance No. 1,” which leads to “The Story of the Hare Who Lost His Spectacles,” ending Side One and beginning Side Two.

It’s curious how “The Story of the Hare Who Lost His Spectacles” is sandwiched in between the two ‘Forest Dances’ of Pilgrim’s experience of heaven. As we will discover on Side Two of the album, he becomes disenchanted with heaven when he finds its inhabitants all reminiscing about their lives on Earth rather than simply enjoying eternal life (indeed, at the beginning of “Forest Dance No. 1,” we hear that synth heartbeat of life again).

The story, narrated by Hammond-Hammond in an over-the-top, affected Lancashire accent, seems a mixture of Prokofiev‘s Peter and the Wolf (i.e., the music), Peter Rabbit (i.e., the hare), Winnie-the-Pooh (i.e., the kangaroo and rabbit), and Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland (i.e., not only the rabbit but also the extensive use of puns). As pretentious, self-indulgent, and generally annoying as this story is as an interruption of Pilgrim’s story (I used to skip this part when listening to my LP, and when I taped it, I omitted the story), in a sense it could be considered a fitting inclusion, in that, as a children’s story placed in the middle of Pilgrim’s experience of heaven, it represents how one must be a child to enter the Kingdom of God (Luke 18:17).

The hare losing his spectacles sounds like someone who has lost his vision, lost his way. This is an odd experience to have when in heaven…unless the whole point is that heaven was an illusion from the beginning. We all fantasize about a perfect world that can never be, and in that fantasizing we grow myopic, if not outright blind.

Or perhaps the point is that in heaven, our troubles are only slight. The hare loses his spectacles, yet has a spare pair, so his problem is quickly solved. Heaven is thus perceived as a charming children’s world, with the cute hare, a kangaroo, an owl, a newt, and a bee. (Here is a link to a video dramatizing the story.)

During the course of the story, we hear a number of puns on the animals’ names: “Bee…began,” “Owl…scowling,” “Kangaroo…hopping mad…” and “…can guru,” “Newt knew too…”, and Hare did have a spare pair/A-pair.”

After this nonsense we hear the heavenly “Forest Dance No. 2.”

In “The Foot of Our Stairs,” Pilgrim expresses his astonishment, incredulity, and surprise at how disappointing he finds heaven to be. Instead of enjoying eternal bliss, the saved just remember their old lives on Earth. Apparently, our life here in the physical world, in spite of all its suffering (“a passion play”), is the only life worth having. Indeed, dukkha as the Buddhists understand includes even the mildest of unpleasant feelings, like disillusionment, or the foreknowledge that even the best of parties have to come to an end sooner or later.

Pilgrim, in fact, is so disappointed with heaven that he’s decided, as AC/DC would observe years later, that “Hell Ain’t a Bad Place to Be” (though he’ll regret his decision soon enough). He tells God that his “is the right to be wrong,” and requests to be sent to the Other Place; for the reward of heaven is just “Pie in the sky.”

Could “Jack rabbit mister” be a link to the hare who lost his spectacles? In any case, “The last hymn is sung, and the Devil cries, ‘More’,” suggesting that the Devil has all the best tunes. What we note in this qualifying of heavenly bliss vs. hellish torment is that the two places aren’t as black and white as we’ve been told; that as in life, there’s a considerable grey area in both heaven and hell, and that ultimately we never really escape suffering as long as we keep existing.

After an instrumental passage with a sax solo, Pilgrim carries on in his qualifying and relativizing of heaven and hell by singing of “that forsaken paradise that calls itself ‘hell’.” Pilgrim’s decision to leave heaven for hell is made all the more ironic with his allusion to Christ’s healing of a paralytic (Mark 2:9) by singing “Pick up thy bed and rise up from your gloom smiling,” since Christ spoke of how much easier it is to forgive sins (i.e., deliver a sinner from hell and admit him into heaven) than it is to cure paralysis.

Anyway, Pilgrim has left heaven and gone to hell, where in “Overseer Overture,” we are given Satan’s perspective, him being “the overseer.” One would expect music depicting the hellish experience to be of the gloomiest, most hopeless and evil sort; oddly, what we get instead is music of a mostly merry sort, with a bouncy rhythm in triplets. There’s even a joining “round the maypole in dance.”

The only exception to this merry tune are two brief, dissonant moments with synthesizer arpeggios and groaning. These appear before the lyrics “Colours I’ve none…” and “Legends were born…” These are the only truly musically infernal moments in this part of the story. These brief moanings put among larger passages of musical merriment reinforce the sense that heaven and hell are not meant to be understood here in the classical, Christian sense of being absolute opposites. Again, I suspect that Pilgrim either hasn’t really died, but is merely mulling over the idea of the afterlife in his mind, or he’s experiencing a temporary, relative heaven and hell before being reincarnated.

So his dissatisfaction with hell is really just like his dissatisfaction with heaven and everything else–all is dukkha.

In “Flight From Lucifer,” the Devil being “an awful fellow” sounds like extreme understatement for describing Satan, once again reinforcing the relativity of hellish torments as felt in Pilgrim’s experience of the place. Though the Devil is “icy,” a reference to Dante‘s Inferno, Canto XXXIV, in which Lucifer is trapped waist-deep in ice, he is called by his original name, Lucifer (“Light-Bringer”), back when he was once held by God to be fairest of the angels before his pride became his infernal undoing.

The musical structure of the louder, more rhythmically pounding verses of this section is interesting in its trickiness. (I refer to the verses beginning with “Flee the icy Lucifer,” “Here’s the everlasting rub” [an allusion to Hamlet, perhaps?], “Twist my right arm in the dark,” “I would gladly be a dog…”, “Pick me up at half past none,”and “Station master rings his bell.”) In the first, third, and fifth of these verses, we have 4/4, 2/4, 5/4, 4/4, 5/8, and three bars of 4/4. This pattern happens again in the second, fourth, and sixth of these verses, but instead of the bar in 5/4, it’s one in 6/4, with a pounding of Barlow’s tympani providing the added beat.

In Pilgrim’s regret over coming to hell, he realizes he’s “neither…good nor bad.” He wants to come back to physical existence; it’s “Time for awaking,” or coming back from the sleep of death. He politely says he’d like to stay, but his (angel’s, or devil’s?) “wings have just dropped off.”

Another pounding of the tympani, as well as some organ, fades out and segues into the next section, an instrumental passage called “To Paddington,” on which we hear overdubs of sweet acoustic guitar playing by Anderson in 5/4.

Next comes “Magus Perdé,” with a scratchy, angular electric guitar riff by Barre, including quickly strummed harmonics, as well as hammer-ons and pull-offs. Anderson’s flute joins in, along with shaken tambourine from Barlow and Evan’s synth.

Pilgrim, “voyager into life,” wants to come back to the material world. He’s with “The passengers upon the ferry crossing, waiting to be born”; normally, Charon would be taking them in the opposite direction, to Hades. There is an instrumental section in 7/8, then a tricky passage with jumps, starts, and interruptions before a restating of the main guitar riff, and the final verse.

Here, reincarnation is given the metaphor of resurrection. Christ’s in particular is alluded to in “son of man” and “Roll the stone away.” Note that in the Old Testament, “son of man” (ben-‘adam), lacking the definite article, refers to humanity in general; whereas in the New Testament, Christ tends to refer to Himself as “the son of man” (ὁ υἱὸς τοὺ ἀνθρώπου, or ho huios tou anthropou). So this last verse, while linking reincarnation metaphorically with resurrection, is also linking man in general (and Pilgrim in particular) with Christ.

In the “Epilogue,” we hear a brief reprise of the soft piano melody from Side One and Anderson singing about “the ever-passion play.” The word ever was heard repeatedly in the verses of “Magus Perdé,” namely “ever-dying,” “ever-burning fire,” “ever-door,” “ever-life,” and “ever-day.” In all of these “evers,” we have the eternal sense of recurrent death, pain, and movement through the (as it were) doorway of changing states of life experience, as well as the eternality of existence in the light of day. In this sense, we move away from Christian symbolism to the Buddhist concept of the endless cycle of life, death, and rebirth…samsara.

So Pilgrim returns to physical life, and we hear that synth heartbeat again, as well as what would seem, at first, a reprise of the Forest Dance of heaven as heard at the end of Side One, just before “The Story of the Hare.” Both of these sections begin with the “passion play” reprise of the soft piano and Anderson singing “play,” ending the word in falsetto, suggesting a conceptual link between the reprises.

So, coming back into the physical world, despite its suffering, is the closest we’ll ever come to anything like heaven.

Why do people believe in an afterlife? A simple fear of death, which is of course unavoidable, but we feel a yearning for at least some kind of existence afterwards. Belief in hell satisfies our wish for justice against the evildoers of the world, but that belief also carries with it the negative trade-off of a fear that we ourselves may be included among the wrong-doers. The afterlife, as a solace against the fear of death, becomes a cause for an even greater fear of death.

The conclusion of A Passion Play is that we should focus on this material life here, with all of its pain and contradictions (as symbolized in the fadeout of Side Two, with its dissonant, startling organ chords, etc.). Instead of fantasizing about a utopian heaven for our narcissistic selves (as parodied in the absurd “Story of the Hare”) to enjoy, and an infernal concentration camp for those we hate, we should do what we can to improve our material conditions here as best we can.

Instead of admiring and imitating a resurrected Christ who has suffered a passion for us, we should be like the bodhisattvas, who swear off entering into the blissful state of nirvana to return to the physical world and help all of humanity to end suffering. Instead of emulating the passion play of life, one should end the passion of it (i.e., life’s suffering), liberating us all to enjoy the play.

Analysis of ‘We’re Only in It for the Money’

We’re Only in It for the Money is the third album by Frank Zappa‘s band, The Mothers of Invention. It came out in 1968, the album cover parodying the Beatles’ Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band.

As is typical with Zappa’s music, the lyrics of this concept album satirize the social hypocrisies of 1960s straight America–in this particular case, those of conservatives and of a particular kind of liberals whose hair was as long as that of Zappa and the Mothers…the hippies. Musically, we hear a mix of psychedelic rock (a parody of it), and the influence of such post-war avant-garde composers as Varèse and Stockhausen.

Zappa used montage recording techniques, including musique concrète, speeding up the tape, and abrupt interruptions between abbreviated songs, splicing in segments of dialogue and unrelated music. These montage techniques were also used on Zappa’s first solo album, Lumpy Gravy, which came out at about the same time as Money, and is its sequel, or “Phase 2.”

While Zappa had intended the outer front and back cover, as well as the inner sleeve photo, to parallel those of Sgt. Pepper, Verve decided to reverse the intended inner and outer designs out of fear of legal action resulting from a lack of assurance of permission from the Beatles’ business managers.

So on the front cover, we see–from left to right–bassist/vocalist Roy Estrada, keyboardist Don Preston, drummer Jimmy Carl Black (“the Indian of the group,” as he himself tells us twice on Side One), and keyboardist/wind player Ian Underwood; and on the back, we see–from left to right–Zappa (asking if this album is Phase One of Lumpy Gravy), drummer Billy Mundi, and saxophonist Bunk Gardner. They are posed against a yellow background, as in the inner sleeve of the Sgt. Pepper album, but instead of wearing marching band uniforms as the Beatles wore, Zappa and the Mothers are all in drag, their facial hair all intact, for sure, and Zappa’s hair in the cutest of pigtails (or ‘bunches,’ if you prefer).

The inner sleeve shows the parody with the Mothers in drag again, as well as a collage of faces in the background, those generally more obscure than the famous faces seen on Sgt. Pepper. These include Zappa’s father, Lee Harvey Oswald when he was shot, a pregnant Gail Zappa, Jimi Hendrix, and LBJ. Instead of the bright blue sky at the top of the Beatles’ front cover, we see a dark, stormy sky with lightning.

The other side of the inner sleeve shows the lyrics and album credits against a red background, with the Mothers in drag again at the bottom; though instead of seeing most of the band facing forward (as in the case of Lennon, Harrison, and Starr) and one member facing backward (i.e., McCartney, who, recall, was “dead”), here all of the Mothers have their backs to us, and only saxophonist Jim “Motorhead” Sherwood is facing us, which I guess is because he had the “teen appeal” that the band needed so desperately.

The title of the album is a cynical take on the financial success of bands like the Beatles, who presented their music as an inspiration to the hippie counterculture; yet as with the hippies themselves, the music of these bands was something Zappa considered to be equally fake. The album’s title is also ironic, since no one would seriously consider music of such an experimental nature (far more avant-garde than the sonic experimentation of Sgt. Pepper) to have been conceived to make much of any money, let alone solely to make lots of money.

The overall theme of Money is phoniness: the phoniness of conservative parents, of the hippie ‘counterculture,’ and of “American womanhood.” On a deeper level, we can see the dichotomy of conservative vs. liberal to be a false one, as exposed as such on this album. Indeed, both groups of seemingly opposed people are really just upper-middle class bourgeois who, though pretending in their own respective ways to uphold either traditional or progressive moral values, are really just preserving their class status in society.

This is not at all to say that Zappa himself was ever interested in upturning class privilege any more than the hippies were. He openly expressed his dislike of communists and his disdain for any kind of labour movement. During a gig in Berlin back in the late 1960s, he was annoyed when radical leftists in the audience heckled him and his band by calling them “The Mothers of Reaction.” Similarly, as a bandleader, he was clearly the boss, making his musicians play only his music, and dictatorially demanding exacting performances of his music from them.

Still, Zappa wasn’t as paranoid about communism as so many on the right in the US have always been. I would characterize his politics as a libertarian-leaning centrism: socially liberal, but fiscally conservative. Though he would never have advocated my proposed solutions to the problems of conservative vs. liberal/hippie phoniness, I can nonetheless use his satirical depiction of the faults of these only seemingly opposed groups as a basis for diagnosing them as bourgeois symptoms, indications of class and imperialist privilege that would be alleviated by a revolutionary class struggle that Zappa would have wanted no part of, having been quite bourgeois himself.

Side One fittingly opens with Eric Clapton asking a question whose answer in the affirmative would seem to be the root of all the phoniness Zappa observed in the conservatives and liberals/hippies of the time: “Are You Hung Up?” A preoccupation Zappa had throughout his career, and the basis of his work as a social critic and satirist, was people’s mental health…are we, or are we not, hung up? Are the repressions of our conformist society inhibiting us from expressing ourselves, each of us in a unique, creative way?

Zappa’s preferred alternative to the hippie scene was the California freak scene, a group he hoped to promote and organize into a Mothers fan club called “The United Mutations.” He preferred the freaks to the hippies because the former group dressed, acted out, and danced to his music in creative and non-conforming ways without the use of drugs, of which he never approved. (Back in the 1960s, Zappa tried smoking marijuana about ten times, but he never liked it.)

The next track on the album is “Who Needs the Peace Corps?“, which it’s safe to assume isn’t about the American government organization, but is rather a metaphor for the peacenik hippies. Zappa despised the phoniness of the hippies not just because of their conformist adherence to the fashion trends of the time (long hair, beads, leather headbands, etc.), or their getting stoned and partying, only to go back home to Mom and Dad; but also because their dreaming of a world of peace and love was hopelessly naïve and utopian.

It’s only natural that most of us want to end all the wars in the world (especially now, in the 2020s!), but before we can end war, we have to understand it. People from upper-middle-class, petite bourgeois America are the least likely or motivated to take the time to learn of the origins of warmongering. Their class privilege makes the hippies far too complacent.

The Russian working class and peasants, back in the 1910s, eagerly wanted to get out of WWI. Lenin, who theorized about the imperialist competition for land that was the basis for the war, promisedPeace, Land, and Bread” to the Russian people, and when the Bolsheviks came to power, they delivered on their promise, though they had to make a number of unpleasant compromises in the process. (And granted, the Russian Civil War came almost immediately after that, but that was the fault of the capitalist invaders, not of the Bolsheviks.)

Communists have fought wars far more often out of necessity than out of choice, as we’ve seen imperialists do routinely; the Soviets often tried to influence the peace movement. Even Soviet military interventions were less the result of wanting to fight than of being manipulated into it, as was the case with Afghanistan in the 80s. The Red Army bore the brunt of a Nazi invasion that Stalin bought time against with a non-aggression pact (since a detailed discussion of the history of this is beyond the scope of this post, I refer the reader to this).

My point in bringing all this up is that the only realistic way to end war and achieve a lasting peace is to eliminate imperialism, which is a chronic cause of war, as we’ve seen to be especially true since the dissolution of the USSR. Similarly, the only way we’ll all sincerely love one another is to end the alienation that capitalism causes. Hippies, with their typically bourgeois social background, are hardly inclined to make the necessary changes. These people are phonies because they lack revolutionary potential.

In fact, hippies are so reactionary that they tended to go from the 60s counterculture to the liberal establishment of the 70s, 80s, 90s, 2000s…up until now. They’ll tell you, “Vote blue no matter who!”, even if the blue candidate is an imperialist warmonger like Biden, who is pals with the GOP. Zappa once observed that hippie types would even reinforce conformity in the music industry.

The next song is “Concentration Moon.” The first word of the title is clearly referring to a concentration camp, so we prisoners see the moon at night outside our cell there. The references in the song to the police shooting and killing “creeps,” as with the reference in the previous song to the police who “kick the shit out of me,” are indications of the fascist nature of the authorities associated with a concentration camp. “Over the camp in the valley” cements this interpretation, since it also alludes to Kafka‘s “In the Penal Colony” (more on this short story later), which is a concentration camp in a valley on an island.

Note the juxtaposition of a concentration camp with hippies in the song, and keep this in mind when you recall what I said above about hippies all too quickly becoming part of the political establishment…a liberal establishment that, far from promoting peace, has for years now been banging the war drums against Russia. Instead of wanting a quick end to the war with Ukraine, these liberals are cheering on the Ukrainian army, which includes Neo-Nazis, of whom they’re either willfully ignorant or in denial, or whose existence they’re rationalizing and/or minimizing.

Social democracy is, essentially, left-leaning liberalism, like the kind these former hippies tend to espouse. Recall, however, Stalin’s words: “Social-Democracy is objectively the moderate wing of fascism.” Small wonder Zappa considered hippies to be a bunch of phonies.

So the juxtaposition of hippies in a concentration camp, hippies who’d rather be “back in the alley,” is symbolic of the surprisingly close relationship between conservatives and liberals. Contrary to the spurious horseshoe theory indicating a closeness between communists and fascists (actually two ideologies as far apart from each other as any could be), it’s the liberals who are far closer to fascism.

Next comes “Mom and Dad,” which is, by Zappa’s standards, a surprisingly serious song. Here we have a kind of diagnosis of American society’s problems at their root: the dysfunctional, emotionally neglectful family.

The cops’ violent reactions to the hippies and freaks made it difficult for the Mothers to perform on the West Coast; instead, they had to play in New York City if they wanted to make any money. In the song, however, the parents’ callous attitude to the “creeps” whom the cops were killing is rationalized with the observation that “they looked too weird.”

The song’s indictment of the parents grows bitter during the bridge, when it’s asked if they’ve ever taken a minute “just to show a real emotion.” Do the parents have any appreciation of their kids’ talents, or even a sincere love for them? Just as the hippies have drugs, their good, upstanding, God-fearing parents have a drug of their own–alcohol, which they’re usually too embarrassed to let their kids watch them drink.

Do the parents even notice how unhappy their kids are? For all their pretensions to being good, virtuous, Christian families, these conservative parents are every bit as phony in their own way as are the hippies, who as we know will become quite conservative themselves when they get older. The idea that you “have to love a plastic mom and dad” really gets you in the heart. In these toxic families, “love” is really just obligation; one “loves” one’s family because one has to, not because one wants to. Small wonder the teens become hippies, as a way not to be like their moms and dads.

After the “Telephone Conversation” with Suzy Creamcheese (Pamela Zarubica, actually) comes “Bow Tie Daddy,” which continues the satire on conservative parents, but is light-hearted and focuses on the father’s hypocrisies rather than those of the mother, as we heard in “Mom and Dad.” We sense that the root of Dad’s bad temper is his frustrations with his personal inadequacies (i.e., “getting too old,” and his “drinkin'”). The bow-tie and parody of old-fashioned music, of course, emphasize how decidedly unhip Daddy is, hence the teens’ desire to rebel against him.

Harry, You’re a Beast” opens with dramatic piano arpeggios played by Ian Underwood. The song satirizes “American womanhood” by pointing out how “phony” these females are with their use of makeup (“You paint your head.”) rather than accept their facial imperfections (a lack of acceptance that is society’s fault, mind you, not theirs), as well as how air-headed Zappa perceived them to be.

Now, this song’s satire of American women borders on, if it doesn’t lapse into, outright misogyny in how it makes light of a rape. “Harry” the “beast” attacks a woman, “Madge,” and while the censored version of the rape is played backwards, the uncensored version gives us an allusion to part of an old Lenny Bruce routine, “‘To’ is a Preposition; ‘Come’ Is a Verb” (“Don’t come in me, in me,” the woman begs her rapist, four times.). Her comical crying afterwards (with a return of the piano arpeggios), and his buffoonish excuse that he “couldn’t help it…doggone it,” is a kind of humor that should apply only to Harry’s hypocrisies of an outward mask of virtue (“it’s not merely physical”) and not to Madge’s trauma.

Next comes, “What’s the Ugliest Part of Your Body?“, which is a parody of the doo-wop that Zappa loved to listen to as a teen back in the 1950s, and which he made a tribute to–and a parody of–on the album Cruising With Ruben and the Jets. As we listen for the first time, we assume that a criticism of one’s physicality is coming, and we’re surprised to hear that it’s our mind that is the ugliest body part.

The ugly minds are those of the teens’ parents, who don’t like “all those creeps” the teens hang out with; they’re “creeps” because of how ‘ugly’–in the parents’ judgement–they look in their non-conforming clothes. The parents’ intolerance and narrow-mindedness is what makes their minds so ugly, and what makes their teen kids rebel to the extreme point of doing drugs and engaging in free love.

The doo-wop suddenly switches to a 7/8 section in which Zappa indicts the parents with telling their kids “lies”–emotionally abusing them by teaching them bigoted ideas and moulding them into adopting a socially conformist mindset. A brief section in 3/4 time expresses a mother’s worry that her daughter, Annie, is hanging out with “creeps” before returning to the 7/8 riff and Zappa’s further indicting of the parents’ “ignorance.”

A pretty piano passage by Underwood, with arpeggiated chords played so fast that they sound strummed, opens the next song, “Absolutely Free,” another Zappa parody of hippie idealism and psychedelic music, somewhat imitative of the Beatles’ “Lucy In the Sky with Diamonds,” with its almost Baroque keyboards and trippy imagery in the lyrics. At the end of the opening piano, we hear Suzy Creamcheese say she “won’t do publicity balling…anymore,” with the word “balling” originally censored from the album.

When Zappa begins by saying “discorporate,” meaning “to leave your body,” he’s talking about the mind-expanding effects of drugs, and the naïve belief that they will liberate us from the stunting effects of conformist society. While some, like George Carlin, have had positive, mind-opening experiences from doing LSD, even he acknowledged how dangerous such experimentation can be (i.e., doing too much, or doing the wrong kind).

Most of the music has a waltz-like triple metre, except for a bar of 4/4 played on the harpsichord before we hear “Unbind your mind, there is no time,” which is sung in three bars of 3/4 and one in 2/4, before going back to the usual triple metre. ‘Unbinding one’s mind’ can refer to the ‘liberating’ drug use, or to the letting go of inhibitions to lead the carefree, hippie life. After the first declaration that “You’ll be absolutely free, only if you want to be,” we hear a brief riff in 7/8 before going back to 3/4.

A reminder that Zappa doesn’t believe a word of what he’s singing is in another censored line: “Flower power sucks!”

The next song to make fun of hippies is “Flower Punk.” The main riff is played in a fast 7/8 time, which alternates with 5/8 sections with singing. With this album, we note the conspicuous absence of lead singer Ray Collins, who briefly left the band, meaning Zappa here is singing pretty much all the lead vocals, though his voice often isn’t recognizable, as he tends to speed up the vocal track, which he did on “Flower Punk.” (Here is a version with digitally slowed-down vocals, making his voice recognizable.)

The “Hey, Punk” questions are a parody of “Hey Joe,” a song made famous by Jimi Hendrix. The usual hypocrisies of hippies are exposed in how, far from being committed to promoting peace and love, these are people who just want to party and get laid, or who have fantasies of becoming “rich and famous” rock stars. One of the air-headed hippies that Zappa (with sped-up tape for his voice) lampoons even acknowledges that it’s all a “gigantic mass deception.”

Hot Poop” ends Side One with the whispering, paranoid voice of Gary Kellgren, who has been doing this whispering at various points on the album, and will do so again on Side Two. He usually speaks of Zappa as if obsessed with him, as if Zappa’s presence in the control room of the recording studio were omniscient and oppressive. The first side of the LP that I used to own, when a teen, ended with a particularly delightful, even melodious, “snork” (by Dick Barber) that I, regrettably, haven’t been able to find on any of the YouTube videos of Money.

Side Two begins with the musique concrète of “Nasal Retentive Calliope Music,” which includes Eric Clapton’s declaration that he has ‘seen God.’ Towards the end of it, we hear a bit of surf music interrupted by what sounds like a stylus being abruptly pulled off of a record.

Let’s Make the Water Turn Black” is based on the true story of the antics of Ronald “Ronnie” and Kenneth “Kenny” Williams, neighbours of Zappa when he was living in Ontario, California back in the early 1960s. Ronnie and Kenny would engage in such after-school fun as making “blue angels,” that is, to “burn…poots away,” all while their parents, “Daddy Dinky” and their mom were at work, her in a restaurant “with her apron and her pad” (this latter being censored after being confused with a sanitary napkin).

I think that the point behind Zappa’s inclusion of this story among the songs on this album was to contrast the weird antics of Ronnie and Kenny against, on the one hand, the phony conformity of the conservative parents who, for all their posturing as good Christians, just emotionally neglect their kids and get drunk, and on the other hand, the phony ‘non-conformity’ of the hippies who, for all their posturing as progressive pacifists, just want to party, get high and get laid, then “go home to bed.”

As odd–and outright disgusting–as lighting farts, pissing in jars, and collecting snot (“pneumies”) on one’s bedroom window are as pastimes, at least Ronnie and Kenny were engaging in behaviour that can be genuinely called non-conformist. These two freaks, or “creeps” were being different in an honest way; they weren’t just following a fashion trend.

The Idiot Bastard Son” is a kind of sequel to the previous track, since it also involves Ronnie and Kenny, who raise the abandoned “idiot boy,” the illegitimate love-child of a congressman and an LA prostitute. (Fittingly sandwiched between these two songs is the actual Ronnie Williams performing “a little bit of vocal teenage heaven, right here on Earth”: backwards, distorted, guttural vocal noise that makes me imagine what an alien might consider to be beautiful, lyrical, mellifluous singing. It’s another manifestation of Zappa’s favouring of the creativity of freaks over hippie phoniness.)

That the congressman would be called a Nazi is apt, for it fits in with the theme I’ve described above, of how there’s a continuum ranging from hippie ‘counterculture’ to mainstream liberalism, then to the conservatism of one’s parents, ultimately leading, under the right social and economic conditions, to fascism. As we’ve watched the degeneration of American society over the past sixty years, from parental conservatism to the hippies in the 60s, to the mainstream liberalism of the 70s, then to the return of conservatism (in the form of neoliberalism) in the 80s, 90s, and 2000s, and now to the resurgence of fascism in the 2010s and 2020s, we can see how prophetic Zappa really was. Recall his fears of the US developing into a “fascist theocracy,” and how Roe vs. Wade recently got overturned.

Again, the hypocrisy of the conservative congressman and his ‘good, Christian values’ is exposed by his getting the hooker pregnant and abandoning the baby “in back of a car.” He’s an “idiot boy” because his neglectful upbringing, stashed “away in a jar” by Kenny, precludes any proper education, something most of those on the American right are averse to providing.

The song is interrupted by another spoken word segment, a chaos of voices, some with sped-up tape, of men talking about the different kinds of booze they’ve drunk. Just like hippies’ use of drugs, getting drunk is another manic defence against facing the depressing realities of life, another time-wasting indulgence Zappa disapproved of.

Back to the song, we’re reminded of all that snot on Ronnie’s bedroom window. Elsewhere, the idiot bastard son will spend his time at church, “warming his pew,” which could mean that he’s just sitting there because he’s been made to go, and he isn’t listening to the preacher; or he could be warming his pew with his flatulence, the result of the loving influence of Ronnie and Kenny.

Under the tutelage of the flatulent duo, indeed, the boy will “thrive and grow,” entering our world of corrupt “liars and cheaters”…for what other world is there for him to enter? The hippie communes won’t be much better for him.

Lonely Little Girl” was originally listed as “It’s His Voice on the Radio,” which was how I had it on my old LP. Apart from being another complaint about emotionally neglectful, psychologically abusive, conservative parents, this short song also repeats a line from “What’s the Ugliest Part of Your Body,” namely, “All your children are poor unfortunate victims…” etc. A quick flurry of guitar notes segues into the next song.

Take Your Clothes Off When You Danceexisted in other forms prior to this one. There was an instrumental version Zappa recorded back in 1961, then one with lyrics in 1965, a straightforward pop song called “I’m So Happy I Could Cry,” and there’s another instrumental version, “Take Your Clothes Off,” ending Side Two of Lumpy Gravy.

The version on Money is another satirical dig at the hippies and their idealistic view of how life will be one day when we’re all “free to sing and dance and love.” We won’t care how our hair looks, we won’t be ashamed if we’re overweight, and one day, we’ll even dance naked. Of course, no program of social transformation to bring about this utopia is ever discussed; communists have revolutionary theory, whereas liberal hippies are just dreamers.

The next song is a reprise of “What’s the Ugliest Part of Your Body?“, which replays the doo-wop opening, and ends with a weird, comically eerie repeat of voices saying, “I think it’s your mind.” Recall that these ugly minds are those of both the conservatives and the hippie liberals, against whom Zappa would contrast his preferred freaks, or “creeps,” or…

Mother People,” which begins fittingly with some snorks, has a guitar/keyboard riff first in 3/4 (for three bars), then a bar of 6/16, then one in 3/8, then two in 6/16, these last two bars with a guitar lead playing notes a perfect fifth between them. These Mother People “are the other people,” those other than the conformist conservatives and the phony hippie liberals.

You might think they’re “crazy, out of [their] mind,” but wait ’til they tell you who they really are, and what their plan is, for each of them is “another person” than the “creepy” one you’ve misunderstood them to be. This section, clearing up the misunderstanding, is musically set in a tense 7/8, which soon switches to 6/8.

The music of this 7/8, then 6/8, section has a second verse with naughty words; this verse was originally censored, but Zappa put it backwards on the end of Side One. (Here is the uncensored version of the song.) Before the third playing of this section, with the lyrics described in the previous paragraph, the song is interrupted with a brief orchestral arrangement, rather like something in a film soundtrack; it can also be heard on Lumpy Gravy.

The final track on Side Two is “The Chrome Plated Megaphone of Destiny.” This piece is another example of Zappa’s avant-garde, experimental leanings. We hear dissonant piano after an ominous fade in, then birdsong-like woodwinds and chaotic percussion, then a dark section including an eerie bass clarinet, then maniacal laughing with the…arbitrary…inclusion of the word “arbitrary.” Finally, we have acoustic guitar playing dubbed notes, accompanied by percussion, and an ominous fade-out.

Zappa advises us, in the liner notes, to read Franz Kafka’s short story “In the Penal Colony” before listening to this final track. Once we’ve listened to it, our own crime will have been carved on our back. A brief synopsis of Kafka’s story is thus indispensable here.

An officer demonstrates to an “explorer” an “apparatus” for executing criminals in a most sadistic way, carving the crime on the back of the condemned. Though the explorer, as any reasonable person would, disapproves of the cruelty of the apparatus, the officer is in fanatical support of it, loving the former commandant of the island’s concentration camp for having devised it. Despairing over the explorer’s disapproval, and knowing the camp’s new and more humane commandant would do away with the apparatus, the officer gets naked and puts himself in the apparatus, killing himself with it, with the intention of having the message “BE JUST!” carved on his back (though the poorly-maintained machine fails to do so). After seeing the grave of the old commandant, the explorer gets on a boat and leaves the island.

What I find to be the most significant part of the story is how the old commandant’s gravestone has an inscription prophesying that he will rise again and lead his followers to retake the penal colony…”Have faith and wait!” Though Zappa was thinking about the Japanese internment camps of WWII, and how Reagan, then-Governor of California, might have used the camps for the hippies, I see other dangers in this prophecy.

Though Kafka wrote the story in 1914 and published it in 1919, the cruel, authoritarian nature of the old commandant and his loyal, son-like officer seems to anticipate the then-imminent arrival of fascism. That these two men’s sadistic ways were defeated by the more liberal-minded new commandant (old ways that are prophesied to return) is in turn a prophecy–as I see it–of the return of fascism today, something Zappa was surely predicting, however indirectly, by referring to Kafka’s story on this album. This was a fear of his back in the late 60s, when one would never have imagined a return of fascism…that is, if one were blinded by the ideals of the mainstream liberalism of the time.

As I said above, only the communists of today have remained vigilant against the recent resurgence of fascism, while partisans of the DNC and GOP have turned a blind eye to it in Ukraine. Even Zappa, addled by anticommunist propaganda, didn’t really see it coming back when he was hanging out with Václav Havel.

As a registered Democrat, Zappa may have gotten politically active in the 80s as he, rightly, fought the PMRC; still, his real focus was never politics but, of course, music. He didn’t live to see the evils wrought by the Clintons in the 90s, evils exacerbated not only by Bush and Trump, but also by Obama and Biden today. Though Zappa was no hippie, thank God, and though he rightly saw the danger of allowing the Christian fundamentalists among Reagan and his ilk to have their way, he didn’t see the road fiscal conservatism was taking us all on.

So in sum, though We’re Only in It for the Money does do a legitimate and important critique of many aspects of the problems of American society, I’m sorry to say that it doesn’t do enough. All the same, I believe we can use the album as a starting point to critique those other aspects.

Analysis of ‘Central Park in the Dark’ and ‘The Unanswered Question’

I: Introduction

Charles Ives‘s Two Contemplations (1908) are his Central Park in the Dark (1906) and The Unanswered Question (1908), though Central Park in the Dark has also been grouped with his Hallowe’en and The Pond in “Three Outdoor Scenes.” Central Park in the Dark and The Unanswered Question embody many of the avant-garde musical ideas that Ives famously toyed with, independently of the European experimentation that took place often in the years following the completion of these two compositions.

In fact, Ives’s own innovations had precedent in the curious musical experimentation of his father, George Ives, who was fascinated with the clash of harmony heard in, for example, the polytonal effect of two marching bands playing completely different pieces while passing each other on the street. Young Charles picked up on his father’s then-highly-unusual open-mindedness about the different possibilities of musical expression, and he incorporated these ideas in his own compositions.

Indeed, independently of Stravinsky and Darius Milhaud, Ives made use of polytonality and polyrhythms. Before Bartók, Ives composed agonizing dissonances. Before Henry Cowell, Ives used tone clusters. Without any cognizance of such pieces as, say, Schoenberg‘s 1906-7 Chamber Symphony No. 1, Ives used quartal and quintal harmony (in Central Park in the Dark, as we’ll see). Independently of Alois Hába, Ives composed music with quarter tones. And before Stockhausen, Ives experimented with spatial effects.

The first of these two pieces I’ll be looking at was originally called A Contemplation of Nothing Serious or Central Park in the Dark in “The Good Old Summer Time”. In contrast, the second of these was originally called A Contemplation of a Serious Matter or The Unanswered Perennial Question. Ives wrote detailed notes explaining the programmatic meaning of these pieces. As to whether either of these pieces deal with matters that are or aren’t serious, I’ll give my opinion on that later.

Both pieces are scored for chamber orchestra, allowing for at least some degree of variation in the instrumentation: for example, the two pianos in Central Park in the Dark can be a player piano and a grand piano; while in The Unanswered Question, the woodwind quartet can be all flutes, or two flutes, an oboe, and a clarinet. Both pieces have string sections, each playing a repeated progression representing “silence,” a kind of static music that hovers in the background, while the other instruments (in The Unanswered Question, the four woodwinds and a solo trumpet; in Central Park in the Dark, piccolo, flute, oboe, E-flat (B-flat) clarinet, bassoon, trumpet, trombone, percussion, and the two pianos) play independently of the strings, and to a great extent at least, independently of each other, culminating in a huge chaos of dissonance.

So, though the two pieces are understood to be programmatically opposed to each other, there is actually much that is paralleled between them, suggesting (in my opinion, at least) that the opposition of “Serious” and “Nothing Serious” is a dialectical opposition.

Here is a link (with the score) to Central Park in the Dark, here is a link (also with the score) to The Unanswered Question, and here is a link to Samuel Andreyev‘s analysis of The Unanswered Question.

II: Central Park in the Dark

Ives’s programmatic notes for the piece are as follows:

“This piece purports to be a picture-in-sounds of the sounds of nature and of happenings that men would hear some thirty or so years ago (before the combustion engine and radio monopolized the earth and air), when sitting on a bench in Central Park on a hot summer night.”

and

“The strings represent the night sounds and silent darkness – interrupted by sounds from the Casino over the pond – of street singers coming up from the Circle singing, in spots, the tunes of those days – of some “night owls” from Healy’s whistling the latest of the Freshman March – the “occasional elevated”, a street parade, or a “break-down” in the distance – of newsboys crying “uxtries” – of pianolas having a ragtime war in the apartment house “over the garden wall”, a street car and a street band join in the chorus – a fire engine, a cab horse runs away, lands “over the fence and out”, the wayfarers shout – again the darkness is heard – an echo over the pond – and we walk home.”

As much as Ives’s notes insist that the story, if you will, of this piece is of something trifling and even pleasantly amusing, I can’t help hearing in that string arrangement, “the night sounds and silent darkness,” an eerie, foreboding quality, as if dangers are lurking in the dark. Indeed, that string arrangement is a brilliantly experimental progression using dissonant, non-triadic harmony.

The string progression is, for the most part, in parallel motion, with a number of notable exceptions, some of which I’ll point out. Both the cellos and contrabasses are playing a sustained A-flat for two bars before going up to a B-flat, then the cellos tend to follow the intervallic structures of the upper strings, often moving in parallel motion with them, while the contrabasses stick to B-flat for three bars, then go down to F-sharp for three bars, then to E-flat for the final two bars of the cycle before going back to A-flat.

The first and second violins and the violas play, for the first two bars, stacks of pairs of augmented triads, starting at the bottom with a stack of D and F-sharp and B-flat, and on top of it, E, G-sharp, and C. All of these notes together, along with the A-flats in the cellos and contrabasses (enharmonic with the G-sharp), make up the whole-tone scale.

These violins and violas move up and down by minor thirds in parallel motion over the course of these first two bars, thus returning to the notes I mentioned in the previous paragraph before switching from augmented triads to stacks of perfect fourths, going from the third measure to the end of the fifth measure.

The cellos join the violins and violas in making these stacks of perfect fourths, going mostly in parallel motion until the sixth measure, when the intervals change to eerily dissonant stacks of tritones, starting with a stack of G-flat and C-natural (cellos), G and C-sharp (violas), and G-sharp and D-natural (second violins), with the first violins playing a high A. Each pair of tritones is also a minor ninth apart from the one above or below it, creating especially sharp discords.

These tritones of second violins, violas, and cellos move mostly in parallel motion, culminating in a chromatic ascension topped with the first violins of F-sharp, G, G-sharp, and A-natural that resolves to stacks of perfect fifths in the ninth bar, starting with a stack of E-flat (contrabasses), B-flat (cellos), F (violas), C-natural and G-natural (second violins), and D-natural and that A in the first violins that was tied over from the previous bar.

The perfect fifth stacks continue for the ninth and tenth bars, in mostly parallel motion without the contrabasses, which sustain the E-flat. The very last high note of the first violin pairing, a D-flat, isn’t a perfect fifth from the note under it, a B, because this D-flat must flow comfortably by a half-step to the C of the first high note of the first violins, to return us to the beginning of the cycle, with the augmented triad stacks.

So what we get in this progression in the strings is generally an expansion of intervals from augmented triads (i.e., major thirds), to perfect fourths, to tritones, and to perfect fifths, then back to the augmented triads to begin the cycle all over again. These strings–which, recall, “represent the night sounds and silent darkness,” notated ppp–in their cyclical expansion of intervals and mostly parallel motion, represent a sense of sameness underneath all the surface changes about to be heard in the woodwinds, pianos, brass, and percussion.

Just as with the stasis of the strings in The Unanswered Question, these strings would seem to represent a spiritual mystery incomprehensible to the senses, or to the noisy, dissonant winds and other instruments that fight for dominance at repeated points in the rest of the piece.

The first of these other instruments is a B-flat clarinet playing a piano melody that seems to be in G-flat major, though if that’s true, we never hear the tonic, and an A-natural, heard when the clarinet decrescendos to pianissimo, would be outside of the G-flat major scale. Therefore, if this clarinet tune is understood to be tonal, its tonality is unclear.

The same uncertainty of tonality is heard in the tune that the next woodwind, a flute, plays–coming after a second tune on the clarinet that is almost the same as the first tune, though it ends differently. As the second clarinet tune ends, the flute begins with quarter notes in C, then B, A, and B again in a quintuplet. The flute tune would seem to be in C major, but again, accidentals make its tonality unsure. The same is true of the next woodwind melody, one played pianissimo on the oboe.

What is sure about all three woodwinds, as well as the lyrical solo violin and bouncy piano parts to appear after a statement of the string progression alone (from the last bar of the perfect fourth stacks onward), is that these added parts are, for the most part, melodically, harmonically, and rhythmically independent of the strings. As we know, Ives liked having clashing, independent instrumental parts heard simultaneously.

In traditional music, the melodic, harmonic, and rhythmic reconciliation of all the different instrumental parts is meant to give coherence and unity to a composition, a sense that all of the parts are conforming to and ‘obeying,’ as it were, the rules to give a piece a single direction to be followed, a collective of tones moving to the beat and tonality of, so to speak, one master. The music of Ives, however, defies this insistence on musical conformity and uniformity, preferring to allow each part to go its own way.

In this ‘going one’s own way,’ we can perceive a kind of individualist philosophy underlying the musical experimentation of Ives. If we understand the woodwinds, brass, pianos, and percussion of Central Park in the Dark (as well as the trumpet and woodwind quartet of The Unanswered Question) to be representative of people, then their clashing independence can be heard to be telling us that we should welcome differences of opinion and habit, rather than frown on them.

Vive la différence! Ives seems to be saying.

On the other hand, the soft string parts of both pieces seem to represent that mystical, subatomic unity underneath all the differences that our senses perceive. To use Hindu concepts as metaphors for my purpose, the string progressions are Brahman, while the clashing, independent woodwind, brass, piano, and percussion parts represent the sensory illusion of Māyā.

To attain spiritual peace, Ives seems to be saying through his music, we must stop trying to force everything around us to follow any one, dominant way of doing things. We must just let things be as they are and tolerate them, like the man sitting in Central Park that summer night, listening to all those clashing, conflicting sounds, accepting the fact that contradiction is a universal reality.

[Now, speaking of contradiction, in case any of the readers of my political posts thinks I’m contradicting myself here, realize that the dominant way of doing things that we today are being forced to follow is that of capitalism/imperialism, which when completely wiped off the face of the Earth will result in the withering away of the state, because the class differences that necessitate the existence of a state (to protect the dominant class’s interests) will be eliminated. The slavish obeying of bosses, worker alienation, and addiction to wealth, social status, and material things are far more destructive to individual freedom than socialism could ever be.]

As with The Unanswered Question, in Central Park in the Dark the independent parts pop up and disappear on and off throughout the work. In both works, the instrumental groups are also to be separated spatially (in the case of The Unanswered Question, the strings are to be “off stage,” if possible, away from the trumpet and woodwinds). These spatial separations reinforce the idea that the music each group plays is to be understood as coming from different worlds (i.e., Brahman vs. illusory Māyā, nirvana vs. samsāra).

Approaching the climax of Central Park in the Dark, we hear ragtime piano tunes, flute, and oboe. We also hear the B-flat clarinet quoting Hello! Ma Baby, which will be heard again on the trumpet (One may recall that old Warner Bros. cartoon with the singing and dancing frog). Apparently, the Washington Post March is also played by the marching band group, though I can’t locate it, buried in the chaos and cacophony of everyone playing together. The climax ends with a huge, dissonant swell in the brass and woodwinds, all playing trills in fff.

We return to hearing just the soft string progression. The clarinet comes in softly soon after (piano), then the flute, both of them playing pianissimo together, then we hear the lyrical solo violin part. The winds and solo violin stop, allowing the string progression to play alone again, from the chromatic ascension at the end of the tritone-stack section to that of the perfect fifths stacks.

The piece ends with just the beginning augmented triad stack of (top to bottom) C, G-sharp, E, and B-flat, F-sharp, D. These whole notes decrescendo from pppp to silence.

III: The Unanswered Question

Now, Central Park in the Dark is supposed to be “a contemplation of nothing serious”; whereas The Unanswered Question is supposed to be “a contemplation of a serious matter.” Recall above, though, how I treated that ‘non-serious’ contemplation as actually being the one that is truly edifying in a spiritual, philosophical sense: we should welcome differences of opinion, and note that these contradictory elements are just the illusion of Māyā, deceptions of the senses that cloak the mystical, unifying reality that the strings represent.

I would argue, on the other hand, that the futility of answering “the perennial question of existence” proves how absurd the very pondering of that question is, let alone trying to answer it. Therefore, such a futile pondering is a truly trivial matter. If the question can’t be answered, why waste one’s time asking it? Put away such distractions, and as Camus would later teach us, accept the absurdity and meaninglessness of life. Like Sisyphus, be happy while rolling the stone uphill, as pointless and fruitless as the labour is. Be like the fellow in Central Park at night, hearing the conflicting musical parts: don’t try to make sense of the senseless, and just sit there, receive it all, and be.

Such an understanding is the dialectical unity of the serious vs. non-serious in these two Ives works. Instead of seeing them as opposites of each other, we should see them as paradoxical parallels of each other. Hence, both have ‘silent’ strings looming in the background (or offstage), with conflicting, independent parts clashing with each other and with the strings, these independent parts appearing, disappearing, and reappearing throughout both pieces.

The musical parallels thus reflect the philosophical parallels I described above.

The strings, which open The Unanswered Question playing a G-major chord, ppp and con sordino, represent “the silence of the Druids–who Know, See and Hear Nothing,” according to the text Ives wrote to explain the meaning of the work. The Druids never recorded their knowledge in written form; we know of it only through the writings of others. I can’t say for sure what Ives meant by the Druids ‘knowing, seeing, and hearing nothing,’ but perhaps the point is that even the Druids, for all their wisdom, had the humility to admit to themselves that in that wisdom, “all is vanity,” hence their refusal to write it down.

So the ever-so-softly played, muted strings represent the ‘silent’ Druids’ reticence, their wise reluctance to describe the ineffable reality of life, a reality too fluid to be captured in the ossification of words, words that would distort our perception of that reality too much to be effective. Each string part is also spaced widely apart from the others, giving them all a hovering, ethereal effect. As Ives further describes the strings, they are “like the eternal music of the spheres“; or as I described them (and those of Central Park in the Dark) above, they represent Brahman, nirvana.

The string progression, to simplify, goes from a G-major chord to a B-minor chord, then to a C-major chord (at first, with a suspension second [D] before the second violins do a retardation to the third [E]). Then we have an A-minor chord, which ultimately resolves back to G-major. This, essentially, is the string progression for the whole piece (with some variations later): I, III, VI (a six-four chord), IV, I (with an added 6th), II, I. Note the conspicuous lack of a dominant (V) chord–e.g., no D-dominant seventh chord. The lack of a V chord reinforces the progression’s sense of stasis, which is fitting, since the strings represent that sense of the eternal–unchanging, unaffected by impermanence of the material world.

Still, there are fools among us who aspire to wisdom, to intellectual preeminence, and must ask the question: “What is the meaning of life? Why are we here? What is God’s plan for us?” This question is represented by the trumpet (or English horn, or oboe, or clarinet, according to the score). The tune it plays is without a discernible tonal centre: B-flat, C-sharp, E-natural, E-flat, and C-natural (this last note alternating with B-natural in each reiteration of the tune). Actually, they’re (pretty much) all notes from the octatonic scale.

This lack of a tonal centre is fitting, given the absurdity of trying to receive an understanding of the infinite complexity of life through a straightforward answer, given presumably in the form of a brief sentence. The question itself is pointless, since it can’t be answered.

There are folks out there who aspire to such a stratospheric level of wisdom. Yet as it says in the Tao Te Ching, 56, “He who knows does not speak. He who speaks does not know.” And as Touchstone observed in As You Like It, “The fool doth think he is wise, but the wise man knows himself to be a fool.” (V, i)

Speaking of such talkative fools, the woodwinds (as I said above, either four flutes, or two flutes, an oboe, and a clarinet) attempt an answer to the perennial question. We shouldn’t be surprised to hear how dissonant and atonal their answer is, for after all, which two people will have the same, or even harmonious, answers to such an absurd question? They can only fight with each other for dominance, as religions have done throughout history.

The first of these woodwind answers, marked adagio and piano, is a tentative, cautious, timid attempt, yet ultimately failing. We have mostly tied, held notes, rather than a flurry of them. With each successive attempt, though, the notes are played a bit faster, a bit louder, and with slightly shorter rhythmic values.

Indeed, as the piece carries on, these woodwind answers get more and more frustrated and desperate to get it right, though of course always getting it wrong. By the time of the final attempt at an answer, the woodwinds are frantic, marked molto agitato, con fuoco–a flurry of frenetic notes that botch the answer so badly, they end in a piercing tone cluster.

In the end, the woodwinds give up. The trumpet asks the question one last time, without getting another attempt at an answer. The piece concludes with just the strings holding the G-major chord in whole notes tied over several bars, in a decrescendo to ppp, then to pppp.

IV: Conclusion

So, as we can see, which contemplation is “a serious matter,” and which is “nothing serious,” is at the least a matter of opinion, and at the most the dialectical reverse of each other. Is sitting in a park listening to conflicting tunes “nothing serious,” and is wanting an answer to the meaning of life “a serious matter,” or is it the other way around?

You know my answer; and just for the sake of clarity, my articles on The Three Unities aren’t an attempt to answer “the perennial question,” or to provide life with meaning. Rather, they’re an attempt to provide a sense of organization to the cosmos. Nonetheless, these attempts of mine, too, are more than likely horribly wrong–just more flatulent flutes being dissonant windbags, blowing out fetid, intellectual nonsense.

In sum: don’t take life too seriously. We aren’t getting out of it alive, anyway.

What Might Save Us

Back in the 1980s, Sting wrote a song called “Russians.” Though powerful artistically and melodically (even incorporating a theme from Prokofiev‘s Lieutenant Kijé), the song was a typical liberal perspective on the Cold War of the time, taking a ‘neutral’ stance as far as political left and right are concerned, the kind of stance that only helped ensure that the right won by the 1990s.

The song ends with the line “what might save us, me and you/is if the Russians love their children too.” What might save us from MAD is something one would naturally assume that we all do, but do ‘them Russkies’ also do it? I’m not sure if Sting meant his words to be taken at face value, or if he was being ironic; but with all the Russophobia and anti-Putin hysteria going on since the Russian invasion of Ukraine, many in the West seem to be doubting that the Russians love their children, among other things deemed natural for most of humanity.

It doesn’t seem to occur to these Russophobes that it’s actually the Western ruling classes that don’t seem to love their children…not those beyond their own immediate families, anyway. Consider all the billions that have gone into military spending and into prolonging the Ukrainian war with Russia, billions that could end homelessness in the US and feed American schoolchildren at lunchtime.

Sanctions against Russia largely haven’t harmed the country, which is now trading in rubles, as China is slowly trading in the yuan in foreign markets. The sanctions have backfired on the West, raising gas prices, causing food shortages, and hurting low-income families who were already struggling before the global economic meltdown of 2020, which was of course exacerbated by the pandemic.

Trading in other currencies is causing the petrodollar to go down in value. If this continues much more, it could crush the already-ailing American economy beyond repair. What we’re witnessing could be that final collapse of capitalism.

Now, in my post, The End of the World?, I was being extremely pessimistic, as the title indicates. I’m a little less pessimistic now, though, provided things continue on the trajectory on which I see them going; it’ll still be terribly painful, and there may still be no good end to the world’s troubles, but there is a faint hope that a nuclear WWIII between the West on the one side, and Russia and China on the other, could at least be prevented.

What might save us is the complete self-destruction of the United States and its war machine.

Allow me to clarify what I mean by the above, provocative statement. No, I’m not advocating a genocide of the American people. I’m referring rather to the ending of the warmongering, imperialist, white settler colonial state, replacing it with a federation of socialist entities, allowing full civil rights for people of all colours, but also owned and governed by the aboriginals, as I discussed here. Such a transformation of American society would be excruciating, a phoenix-rising-from-the-ashes kind of thing, but it would be a necessary, growing pain, a death/rebirth. Recall what Gramsci once said: “The old world is dying, and the new world struggles to be born: now is the time of monsters.”

Granted, I would hate to imagine the suffering of ordinary Americans from such an economic and civilizational collapse, but the reduction of the petrodollar to next to nothing could be the one thing that just might also cripple the ruling class and its ability to continue promoting wars for the defence contractors. Will the collapse of the petrodollar be extreme enough to reduce the value of the capitalist class’s billions to insignificance, an insignificance sufficient to nullify their ability to buy their way out of their problems, to pay for their protection?

I have no way of being able to answer my question with an assured affirmative, but if the masses of poor Americans suffer (and they already are, and will doubtless continue to for far too long a time), I hope the ruling class gets a good scathing, too. Another thing the aggravated suffering of the poor could (and should) provoke is revolution.

Rainer Shea has written a number of articles on how American leftists can organize, train, and protect their groups against infiltration by opportunists, wreckers, agent provocateurs, and anyone with an adventurist, gang mentality, as an anticipation of the civilizational collapse. Shea also wrote an article that made a reference to a rich man’s worries about not being able to pay his security men when, because of the anticipated economic and civilizational collapse, money will no longer have value. Hence, my speculation that the collapse of the petrodollar could wipe out the spending power of even the ruling class.

This collapse of the American economy, if it’s as extreme as I imagine it could be, would have a ripple effect on all the other countries of the world. Canada, with the US as our number one trading partner, will suffer. Europe is already suffering, not being able, due to the sanctions on Russia, to buy their ever-so-needed Russian oil, unless in rubles. The desperation all of this will cause could very well trigger revolutions in these areas and elsewhere, too.

Russia, in contrast, is doing well, at least for now. The ruble has gone up in value. In response to all of the Western businesses that have left the country, Russia has, for example, simply replaced McDonald’s with “Vkusno i tochka.” Elsewhere, China is considering buying Saudi oil in the yuan, which would be more bad news for the US dollar.

Far from slowly bleeding Russia dry, as had happened to the Soviet Union during the American proxy war in Afghanistan in the 1980s, this new US/NATO proxy war in Ukraine is losing badly to the Russians (despite all the propaganda that Ukraine is winning), to the point of Ukrainians no longer being willing to fight. China is watching this debacle, not needing to do a thing: they’re calmly waiting for the self-destruction of the US to unfold.

If this American collapse happens, the failed Ukrainian proxy war just might deter the US from provoking a similarly disastrous Taiwanese proxy war with China. Taiwan could then peacefully rejoin China and benefit from the latter’s socialism. As a resident of the island, I’d no longer worry about my home being torn apart as a war zone; sensible Taiwanese would accept joining with China, as war is hardly a reasonable alternative. Xi Jinping could move China further leftward, eliminating the billionaire status of the country’s wealthiest and reduce its income inequality, a process that newly-joined Taiwan could enjoy, too.

A US as economically, and thus politically, crippled as I’m imagining it could become might have an even farther-reaching ripple effect. Latin American countries might be able to elect left-wing governments without fear of the kind of CIA coups of the Operation Condor years. US war criminals might no longer have the wealth to avoid being tried in the International Criminal Court. Without the wealth and influence of his persecutors, Assange might get freed. Leftists worldwide would be encouraged to pursue revolutionary change.

Now, I’m probably dreaming just a little too much here, and my predictions of the collapse of the petrodollar are probably wildly exaggerated, based on my own wish-fulfillment for the capitalist system to lose. After all, the economic experts are assuring everyone in the West that the petrodollar won’t be all that badly affected by all these recent upsets. I suspect, however, that these experts are reassuring everyone less because of what they objectively know than out of a wish-fulfillment of their own. They don’t want to see the West lose.

We must remember what a huge deficit the US has already had for many years: it’s a ticking time bomb that’s only grown larger and larger. Sooner or later, that debt–now in the trillions!–is going to have to be paid, and it will be a lot harder to pay if the value of the petrodollar plummets. Add to this all the grievances of an impoverished American people, many of whom have no jobs, who have crumbling infrastructure and increasingly trigger-happy desperation.

A major thing that will stop a communist revolution in the US is a probable takeover by fascists and their sympathizers–socialism, or barbarism. This is why American leftists must train hard when everything comes to a head…which will be sooner than we think.

To get back to Sting’s song, though, he recently re-recorded it with a cellist as a comment on the Russian invasion of Ukraine. Predictably, he meant it as a liberal defence of Ukraine and a judgement on Putin, sympathizing with the “peaceful, unthreatening” Ukrainians.

It saddens me that a man as erudite, intelligent, and talented as Sting is could be so horribly wrong about a conflict that actually started in 2014, when a violent coup d’état replaced the democratically-elected Viktor Yanukovych with a government and military including neo-Nazis, who had been killing ethnic Russians in the Donbass region for the eight years between the coup and the current war. This is a problem that the mainstream media acknowledged before the war, but is now either denying, downplaying, or rationalizing. (I go into these issues much more in these articles, so you can read about them there, as I don’t feel like going into it in detail here.)

I’m sure there’s a large peaceful, unthreatening portion of the Ukrainian population that opposes these neo-Nazis, but it’s apparent that far too many of another portion of Ukrainians do support them. In any case, Sting’s well-intended, but misguided support for them (his area of expertise is music, not politics) reminds me of what Stalin once said of similarly liberal-minded people: “Social-democracy is objectively the moderate wing of fascism.”

To conclude, I’ll tie in Sting’s song with what I’ve been saying in the middle of this post, ending it by altering the last line of his song: What might save us, me and you, is if the richest lose their money, too.

Analysis of ‘Threnody for the Victims of Hiroshima’

I: Introduction

Threnody for the Victims of Hiroshima (or to the Victims…whichever–in Polish, it’s Tren Ofiarom Hiroszimy) is an avant-garde composition for 52 string instruments by Krzysztof Penderecki (pronounced  [ˈkʂɨʂtɔf pɛndɛˈrɛt͡skʲi], the Polish c in his surname, like that of hanyu pinyin, being pronounced ‘ts’).

Composed and premiered in 1961, the piece was originally to be called 8’37”, after its length of performance, since the durations of the sound events of the piece are given in seconds, rather than through the use of, for example, the quarter and eighth notes of conventional notation. Indeed, Penderecki’s score is as experimental as is the music, using a variety of unorthodox ways to indicate how the music is to be played.

The piece was originally meant to be just an experiment with new musical ideas, as Penderecki said, to “develop a new musical language,” hence the original absolute music title. It was meant as an example of sonorism, focusing on timbre, texture, articulation, dynamics, counterpoint, and motion to create a form free of traditional ideas of “expressivity” in the playing of instruments. “It existed only in my imagination, in a somewhat abstract way,” he later said.

When he heard it performed, though, he was struck by the emotive power of what he had written. It was no longer just an abstract experiment with sounds. With what could he associate the feelings of terror evoked in the music?…the victims of Hiroshima, when the atomic bomb was dropped on them at the end of WWII. Hence, the piece’s new name, a threnody, or wailing ode of mourning for the victims’ suffering and deaths.

So though the piece was composed throughout with just the intention of experimenting with new ways to organize musical sound, its new name and dedication have given the piece a whole new dimension of meaning, a meaning that not only inspires compassion for the victims to whom it’s dedicated, but one that also makes the piece especially relevant for our troubled times today, with all the reckless nuclear brinksmanship of the US and NATO against Russia and China.

The 52 string instruments used in the piece are grouped into 24 violins, ten violas, ten cellos, and eight double basses. The unconventional sounds they are manipulated to make include tone clusters, faster and slower vibratos, slapping, and playing on the tailpiece and behind the bridge. While the sound durations are, as noted above, given precisely in seconds, other aspects of the music are aleatoric, allowing the players a choice of techniques. Nonetheless, specific note clusters are used, as well as quarter tones.

Such unorthodox techniques give the music its terrifying character, which is why the Threnody, as well as other avant-garde works by Penderecki–such as his Utrenja, The Awakening of Jacob, De Natura Sonoris, Kanon, and Polymorphia–have been used in such horror films and thrillers as The Shining, The Exorcist, and Children of Men. Purists in the world of avant-garde music may not like the, to them, excessive associations of experimental soundscapes with the horror genre, but Penderecki’s association of 8’37” with the suffering of the Japanese at the end of WWII was more than justified, as I will argue below.

II: The Historical Background of the Nuking

It is still believed by many that the nuking of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, killing about 200,000 people, was regrettable but necessary, so that a long, protracted ground assault, risking the lives of many American soldiers, could be avoided. A closer look, however, at the actual, historical circumstances surrounding the bombings will indicate how wrong this rationalization is.

At the time, Japan’s leaders were ready to surrender, though hoping for at least a conditional surrender, to save their emperor, Hirohito, from being harmed or removed, as a handful of high-ranking Nazis would be tried for war crimes. The US, however, still seething with virulent racial hatred for the Japanese over the bombing of Pearl Harbor, wanted nothing less than an unconditional surrender.

Pretty much the whole of the Japanese islands were being pummelled with conventional American bombs. The Japanese knew they’d lost. In fact, when the atomic bombs were dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki, the Japanese at first couldn’t tell the difference between the effect of the older and new kinds of bombs. The use of these two new bombs did not end the war, as many assume; therefore, where was the justification to use them?

A number of American generals dissented over the use of those awful bombs. So what was the real reason they were dropped on those two unfortunate cities? They were a demonstration of a new, deadly toy of the American military…not to intimidate Japan, but to frighten that nation that was already understood to be the new enemy of the US: the Soviet Union!

…and what really made Japan surrender, if it wasn’t the bomb? A convincing explanation comes from what the USSR did, not the US. Up until their surrender, the Japanese were holding out on the small hope that the USSR would mediate negotiations with the US and influence a conditional surrender, one that wouldn’t favour the US too much, to give Japan better terms for their surrender. The USSR, however, invaded Manchuria, clearly indicating no interest in siding with Japan in any way, meaning Japan would be forced to surrender unconditionally. In short, it was the Soviet Union, not the American nuking, that decisively stopped Japan.

Therefore, the dropping of the nuclear bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki had no redeeming moral justification of any kind. They were acts of mass murder on a mostly civilian population (the military portion of which was admittedly significant, but still a minority); in spite of the heinous war crimes of the Japanese military on Korea, China, the Philippines, etc., these victims had done no direct harm to Americans.

Granted, all Japanese were part of the war effort in some sense, as is the case with the people of other countries involved in WWII. Civilian Japanese helped in industry, making weapons, giving material support to the military, etc.; but to a great extent, this civilian support was for defence as well as offence–these particular people weren’t themselves raping and beheading their Asian neighbours, so the way they were killed was way out of proportion to their crime of equipping their soldiers to commit their ugly deeds. Japan’s loss of the war, with the conventional bombings that more accurately targeted military areas, should have been punishment enough for them.

As much as I abhor Nazi Germany, and I would never consider defensible the average “Aryan” civilian supporting Nazi ideology and helping out in their war effort, I would also never consider nuking any German city to be an acceptable way of forcing the fascists and fascist sympathizers to surrender. Similarly, though I detest the US military-industrial complex and wish wholeheartedly for its imminent defeat, I would never dream of such a defeat coming from nukes.

III: The Composition

Here is a link to a video of the Threnody, with footage of the aftermath of the bombing, with images of the destruction and the suffering of the surviving victims of radiation poisoning, and the doctors trying to help them.

And here is a link to a video of the piece with an animated score, so you can follow what is happening in the music, and you can see it broken down into its many parts.

The piece opens with fortissimo tone clusters played first on the first five of the ten violas, next on the first six of the twenty-four violins, then on the first four of the eight double basses, etc., until all of the subdivided groups of strings are playing their own set of clusters. This piling on of tone clusters lasts for fifteen seconds.

The cacophony of all of these clusters suggests the screaming of the residents of Hiroshima as they look up into the sky and see the Enola Gay flying over their city, knowing they’d be bombed, but not knowing the brand new nature of the horror they were about to experience.

After the first fifteen seconds, the music immediately comes down from fortissimo to forte (sub. f), and a slow vibrato is heard on the first six violins, and soon after on the third six, the second six, and the fourth six. This all goes on for the next eleven seconds.

The following four seconds has the first five of the celli doing the slow vibrato; and the last six of the violins switch from a slow vibrato to a fast one, as the two groups of violas have been doing from the previous eleven seconds until now. These vibratos, slow and fast, add an eeriness to the dark, terrifying atmosphere so unmistakably established.

Those violas will, during the next six seconds, immediately come down to pianissimissimo (sub. ppp), as will all the other strings at the beginning of the next thirty seconds. During the six-second section, the last five of the celli will play the slow vibratos as the strings hitherto playing slow vibratos are, group by group, replacing slow vibratos with fast ones.

The switch to ppp sounds especially scary, like a suspenseful scene in a horror movie right after an initial shock of terror. Small wonder Penderecki’s music is, rightly or wrongly, so associated with horror films. One senses, at this moment in the music, the trembling people of Hiroshima looking up at the bomber plane in all helplessness, waiting for “Little Boy” to be dropped.

Next come the experimental sound effects to be made on the strings. In the score, an arrow pointing up indicates the playing of a note of the highest, though indefinite, pitch (recall the aleatoric aspects of this music). An icon of four vertical lines with a horizontal arc crossing them represents, respectively, the instrument’s four strings and its bridge; the straight line under the arc indicates a four-note arpeggio to be played under the bridge.

Some notes are to be plucked (pizzicatopizz.), others bowed (arco). Again, if the straight line is below an arc, one is to play between the bridge and the tailpiece. Vertical lines intersected with short, upwardly diagonal lines indicate a percussion effect: striking the upper sounding board of the instrument with the nut or fingertips.

The symbol of a short, vertical line with a cone shape pointing to the right tells the last five cellists to bow the tailpiece. An umbrella-like symbol tells the first five cellists to play on the bridge.

These string effects are not required to be played at exact speeds. Only the order in which they are to be played matters. As Angus Lee explains in his video analysis of the Threnody, different performers will have varying levels of difficulty or ease in executing each different technique; so there will be considerable freedom in playing these parts, another example of the aleatoric aspects of Penderecki’s piece.

The result, when one hears the differing timing of each player, bowing, plucking, or tapping his or her instrument, is a rather chaotic flurry of sounds. Controlled chaos, yet chaos all the same. When we hear this chaotic texture of sounds, it suggests to us the frenzied panic of the people of Hiroshima, them all frenetically scrambling to run for cover and escape their doom.

Next, a pianissimo note in F is heard on the ten celli, which is briefly sustained, but soon after, some celli slide down to lower notes, others to higher ones (indeterminate pitches here, graphically presented in the score with a thick black line), while the remaining celli stay on the F. This results in another tone cluster; then those upwardly and downwardly straying notes return to the F. This goes on for fifteen seconds. It’s a moment of relative calm, as if some of the people of Hiroshima have found a place to protect themselves from the bomb, and are trying to reassure themselves that they are safe…at least for the moment.

Other strings do the same effect, with the first twelve violins sustaining a note on E and branching out upwards and downwards into a larger tone cluster, this time ppp. Then, the eight double basses, also ppp, do this on an E-flat, then bloat out into a huge dissonant chord before returning to that E-flat.

The ten violas, playing mezzo-forte, give out a huge cluster chord that decrescendos and slides into an A. The last twelve violins then play a sustained high B-flat in ppp, which fans out into a large tone cluster, which is accompanied by another mf cluster chord on the ten violas, which in turn decrescendos and slides into an A.

This shifting back and forth, from single notes to tone clusters and back again, on different groups of strings and at softer and louder dynamics, continues for some time. One senses during this moment that those people are trembling in suspense, waiting for the bombing to be over with.

There’s a brief silence, then groups of ppp tone clusters from all the strings are heard, the notation indicating all the pitches to be played. We’re almost halfway into the piece by now. The feeling one gets from all of these creepy dissonances is a sense of nausea from all those terrified Japanese, nausea from their despair.

Next, a fortissimo cluster chord is heard on the ten violas, notes ranging from about an F (above middle C) to about a c′′. This is soon followed by a similar tone cluster, also ff, on the last twelve of the violins, playing a range of notes from about c′′ to about f′′-sharp. Other groups of strings come in with their own loud cluster chords. It’s as though the bomb has now been released, and the people of Hiroshima are all screaming together as they watch it fall from the bomber and come closer and closer to the ground.

Eventually, all these cluster chords played on all the groups of strings decrescendo and do upward or downward glissandi. It’s as though terror among the people has been replaced with resignation to their fate, just as the bomb is about to hit the ground.

Next, we hear individual notes of distinct pitches played by each cello, notes that are sustained and that fan out upwards and downwards. These are played softly, and are followed by the same fanning out of individual notes played piano on the last twelve of the violins, then on the ten violas, and ultimately on all the strings, ending with each group playing loud tone clusters.

This fanning out of notes suggests the impact of the bomb on the ground, each individual note representing each piece of rock, concrete, brick, etc., that has been shattered from the blast. Again, the clusters represent the screams of those people not yet killed.

We then hear creepy glissandi in the cluster chords of the celli and double basses, suggesting the moaning and groaning of the traumatized survivors, many of whom won’t be survivors for very long. These clusters thin out into single tones and go from fff to f, then decrescendo from f to silence in the double basses, and to p in the celli, and to pp with slow vibrato, ending off with a ten-second decrescendo to pppp.

This slow fading to another brief silence suggests the dying-off of many hitherto survivors, leaving those still living to be doubly traumatized, from their own suffering and from the deaths of loved ones they’ve witnessed dying.

The string effects come back, including the one with the upward arrow symbol mentioned above, as well as certain pizzicato and arco notes of definite pitch. These are played by individual strings from all the groups. The tension in this section suggests the traumatic reaction of the survivors to the horrors just experienced.

The percussive effects remind us of those heard earlier, as if they are PTSD-like flashbacks of the panic felt before the bomb dropped. Sometimes we have individual players making the bowed, plucked, or percussive effects, as if we’re hearing the pain of lonely survivors with no living family or friends to mourn with. Sometimes we have players in groups, suggesting the mourning of living family and friends who are weeping and wailing together, trying to comfort each other in all futility.

A little later on, we get the string effects notated with the umbrella-like symbols mentioned earlier, as well as those with the vertical line going through a cone pointing to the right. These are played on the celli and the double basses. Other string effects are heard on groups of three or four violins, violas, and celli, accompanied by a sustained cluster chord on the violins. The ten violas will join in with a cluster chord of their own as those violins, having done a crescendo from mf to fortissimo, play another slow vibrato.

As the above continues, other strings come in with their own tone clusters. The dissonances pile up, with slow vibratos played on some groups. The dynamics go down to piano and pianissimo, but soon crescendo and abruptly stop, leaving a brief silence.

Next, a climactic cluster chord is played on all the groups of strings, a huge dissonance with notes ranging all the way from about a c to a c′′. The totality of it is like a culmination of all the preceding horrors, as well as of the suffering they caused. The slow decrescendo, fading to silence, suggests again the slow, painful dying-off of many more victims.

IV: Conclusion–What Can the Threnody Mean for Us Today?

Needless to say, this music is disturbing to listen to, especially on the YouTube video (link above) that combines the music with the footage of the aftermath of the bombing. It’s disturbing because it should be. Nuclear war is nothing other than disturbing, though some nut-jobs think it can be used to defeat Russia today.

Another one of the reasons that those two bombs should never have been dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki is that it ushered in the nuclear age. Faced with the threat of such bombs being dropped on the USSR and, later, China and the DPRK, these socialist states were compelled to make their own nuclear arsenals.

…and look at where we are today.

Threatened with the loss of their unipolar global hegemony, the US and the extension of its imperialism, NATO, have been provoking Russia ever since the counterrevolutionary dissolution of the USSR, with the aid of Ukrainian neo-Nazis (and no, you don’t stop them from being fascists by a mere change of logo), culminating in the current conflict between Russia and Ukraine. Even cold-blooded war criminal Henry Kissinger has enough sense to know that the only way out of this war is to give Putin what he wants: Ukrainian neutrality, no NATO membership for the country, and a reasonable amount of autonomy for the Donetsk and Luhansk Peoples’ Republics…perfectly acceptable requests for the sake of Russian security, except that the US and NATO refuse to grant them.

That this war, if not ended, could escalate into a very nuclear WWIII (as could also happen when the US–via Taiwanprovokes China into a similar war), should be obvious to anyone with half a brain. Still, the US and NATO keep pressing their–and everyone else’s–luck…all because they don’t want to accept the emerging multipolar world with rising Russia and China, a world which, if handled well, could lead to a balance of power that could facilitate world peace.

(I go into more detail about these issues in these posts, if you’re interested, Dear Reader.)

The current-day threat of nuclear annihilation is what makes Penderecki’s Threnody not only relevant, but outright urgent to listen to. Let this terrifying music stir up your survival instinct and inspire you to do whatever we can do to stop the psychopaths in power from killing everyone and everything on our fragile planet.

Analysis of ‘Gesang der Jünglinge’

I: Introduction

Gesang der Jünglinge (“Song of the Youths”) is a 1955-1956 electronic music piece by avant-garde composer Karlheinz Stockhausen. It was realized in the Westdeutscher Rundfunk (WDR) studio in Cologne. The vocal parts were sung by then-12-year-old Josef Protschka. The piece is exactly 13 minutes, fourteen seconds long.

Ryan Simms called it “the first masterpiece of electronic music,” and Pascal Decroupet and Elena Ungeheuer called it “an opus, in the most emphatic sense of the term.” The work has influenced such musicians as the Beatles (“Tomorrow Never Knows” and “Revolution 9“; Stockhausen’s face is also seen on the Sgt. Pepper album) and Frank Zappa (check out his own electronic sound montage experimentation on We’re Only In It for the Money).

Gesang der Jünglinge is also an early example of the use of spatial effects in music; it was originally meant to be played in five-channel sound, but this was reduced to four, then mixed to mono and later to stereo for commercial recording release. Similarly, it was originally meant to have seven sections, but it was truncated to six due to time constraints.

Here is the composition (with Kontakte, from the record I bought in my late teens, introducing me to Stockhausen’s music), and here is the analysis of Gesang der Jünglinge by Samuel Andreyev, to whom I owe a huge debt for my own analysis of the work.

In 1954, Stockhausen wanted to compose a mass for electronic sounds and voices. He was hoping to have the piece played in the Cologne Cathedral, but his request for permission was refused on the grounds that having loudspeakers in a church would be inappropriate. So instead of composing the mass, Stockhausen created Gesang der Jünglinge.

II: Sound Continua and the Unity of Opposites

The three types of material used to make the electronic sounds are sine tones, impulses or “clicks” (i.e., short, staccato-like sounds), and filtered white noise. Paralleled to these electronically generated sounds are three kinds of sound made with the recorded voice of the boy soprano: vowels (corresponding with the sine tones), fricatives and sibilants (corresponding with the filtered noise), and plosives (corresponding with the impulses). Each of these goes on a continuum ranging from the purest or simplest to the most complex.

What’s particularly fascinating about Stockhausen’s meticulous manipulating of these sound continua (structured statistically) is how he managed to make seamless links between vocal and electronic sounds, as well as seamless links between, on the one hand, the electronic sounds–from sine tones to impulsions to filtered white noise–and, on the other hand, the vocal sounds–from vowels to fricatives/sibilants to plosive consonants.

Gesang der Jünglinge, therefore, demonstrates in musical form the unity between the opposing worlds of electronically generated sound and the sounds of the human voice (as recorded and manipulated in the manner of musique concrète). Added to this unity in diversity is Stockhausen’s total organization of all the other musical parameters, total serialism, which is an expansion of Arnold Schoenberg‘s twelve-tone technique (the serializing of the twelve semitones) to a formal ordering of such elements as frequencies, durations, timbres, etc. To hear such music, it might sound chaotic, but nothing could be more precisely organized; thus, through his use of total serialism, Stockhausen also achieved the paradoxical unity of “chaos” and order.

III: Catholic Mysticism

Now, a discussion of the unity of opposites as manifested in this composition can only meaningfully be approached through an acknowledging of Stockhausen’s sense of Catholic mysticism. This means addressing the text sung by young Protschka, which is derived from Song of the Three Children, verses 35-51, from the Apocrypha. In the Bible, the entire set of verses is meant to follow the Book of Daniel, chapter three, which tells the story of three young men, Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego, who are thrown into a fiery furnace for refusing to bow to a giant, golden idol of King Nebuchadnezzar; God saves them from the flames, so they sing praises to Him.

Original text in German: 

Preiset (Jubelt) den(m) Herrn, ihr Werke alle des Hernn—
lobt ihn und über alles erhebt ihn in Ewigkeit.

Preiset den Herrn, ihr Engel des Herrn—
preiset den Herrn, ihr Himmel droben.

Preiset den Herrn, ihr Wasser alle, die über den Himmeln sind—
preiset den Herrn, ihr Scharen alle des Herrn.

Preiset den Herrn, Sonne und Mond—
preiset den Herrn, des Himmels Sterne.

Preiset den Herrn, aller Regen und Tau—
preiset den Herrn, alle Winde.

Preiset den Herrn, Feuer und Sommersglut—
preiset den Herrn, Kälte und starrer Winter.

Preiset den Herrn, Tau und des Regens Fall—
preiset den Herrn, Eis und Frost.

Preiset den Herrn, Reif und Schnee—
preiset den Herrn, Nächte und Tage.

Preiset den Herrn, Licht und Dunkel—
preiset den Herrn, Blitze und Wolken.
Original text in English: 

O all ye works of the Lord—
praise (exalt) ye the Lord above all forever.

O ye angels of the Lord, praise ye the Lord—
O ye heavens, praise ye the Lord.

O all ye waters that are above heaven, praise ye the Lord—
O all ye hosts of the Lord, praise ye the Lord.

O ye sun and moon, praise ye the Lord—
O ye stars of heaven, praise ye the Lord.

O every shower and dew, praise ye the Lord—
O all ye winds, praise ye the Lord.

O ye fire and summer’s heat, praise ye the Lord—
O ye cold and hard winter, praise ye the Lord.

O ye dew and fall of rain, praise ye the Lord—
O ye ice and frost, praise ye the Lord.

O ye hoar frost and snow, praise ye the Lord—
O ye nights and days, praise ye the Lord.

O ye light and darkness, praise ye the Lord—
O ye lightning and clouds, praise ye the Lord.

IV: Garbled Words

Now, you wouldn’t know that this text was being sung (apart from the obvious refrain, Preiset den Herrn, or “Praise the Lord,” which is heard at least once in all six sections of the piece) to hear how it’s presented in the recording, with neither the printed text in front of you nor fluency in German. These varying levels of comprehensibility vs incomprehensibility–seven, to be exact, which range from the one extreme to the other– are due to Stockhausen’s having cut up the text into such fragments as scrambled words, scrambled syllables, and even scrambled phonemes.

His clever use of such permutations of vocal sounds was the result of his study of phonetics with Werner Meyer-Eppler at the University of Bonn. The vocal sound permutations, recall, have been placed on continua paralleling analogous electronic sounds, to get that seamless sense of transition from the former kinds of sounds to the latter, and vice versa. So in the juxtaposition of fragmented words, syllables, and phonemes with these seamless transitions between vocal and electronic sounds, we have yet another instance of the unity of opposites in Gesang der Jünglinge, here a unity of brokenness and smoothness.

V: The Unity of Opposites in the Biblical Story

To explore further this idea of the unity of opposites, let’s recall the story. The three youths have angered the king by refusing to bow before his idol, so he has them thrown into the fiery furnace to be burned alive. Their faith in God, however, saves them, and so though they’re engulfed in the flames, they are completely unscathed. They emerge praising God in the manner shown in the text above.

What’s interesting about them being thrown into a fiery furnace is how the image immediately invites comparison to being thrown into hell, into the Lake of Fire (Revelation 19:20, 20:10, 20:1415, and 21:8). Damnation by faith in God, or salvation by blaspheming, as it were, the Neo-Babylonian god-king? Deliverance from the flames while sitting among them? These paradoxes of heaven in hell, and of hell in heaven, are pregnant with meaning.

Connected with these paradoxes in the story is one manifested in the vocal harmony at one point in the first section of Gesang der Jünglinge. We hear the recordings of Protschka singing a dense chord of the word Ihn (“Him,” referring to God). This chord is sustained for a while, though some of the notes fade in and out, at the end with only two left in the interval of the tritone. Stockhausen would have known that the tritone is the diabolus in musica, the “devil in music,” and he therefore at least unconsciously had Ihn, for God, represented musically this way. Is God the Devil? I’m sure he never meant to blaspheme the object of his religious devotion, but my point is that, in this moment, Stockhausen the mystic was acknowledging, if only unconsciously, more spiritual paradoxes. Like heaven in hell, it’s more of the unity of opposites.

It shouldn’t be too shocking to speak of God having both good and evil sides. After all, Isaiah 45:7 says, “I form the light and create darkness: I make peace, and I create evil: I the LORD do all these things.” We can connect this verse with the last part of the text Stockhausen uses in Gesang der Jünglinge, which says, Preiset den Herrn, Licht und Dunkel, or “Praise the Lord, light and darkness.” In the text, the three youths sing of how everything God has created should praise Him. Such elements include the light and the dark…symbolically, good and evil.

VI: Resolving the Paradoxes

We must now try to make sense of these paradoxes, to sublate the dialectical contradictions of heaven and hell, God and Satan, salvation and damnation. To do this, we must be able to imagine the mental state of the three youths as they are being taken to the fiery furnace.

They may have righteousness and conviction of their belief in God, but none of this means that they’re going into the fiery furnace with smiles on their faces and relaxed heartbeats. We mustn’t assume they’re in a state of total blissful calm. They have faith in God…but is their faith sufficient to please Him? They have no way of being sure of this, and as Paul wrote, “he that doubteth is damned if he eat, because he eateth not of faith: for whatsoever is not of faith is sin.” (Romans 14:23)

There’s always some doubt, even among the most faithful. Just as all of the sounds used in Gesang der Jünglinge are on continua, so are faith and doubt on a continuum. The three youths would have feared that any doubt in their minds, however small, might have been enough to cause God to abandon them in the flames. Contemplation of such a possibility must have been terrifying to them; such terror is part of the true test of faith.

This fear would have been their hell in the flames; and yet when they realized that God wasn’t letting the fire burn them, they’d experienced heaven in the metaphorical hell of the fiery furnace. Danna Nolan Fewell said, “we hoped for deliverance from the fire; we had not expected deliverance within the fire […] God doesn’t extinguish the fire but joins them in it.” (Danna Nolan Fewell) So in this moment, we have heaven in hell, salvation in damnation, and even God in Satan’s (metaphorical) dwelling. Recall that among the trio of singing youths is a fourth “like a son of God,” suggesting an angelic presence in that hellish dwelling.

VII: Stockhausen’s Suffering

Stockhausen was inspired by these Biblical texts because he found himself identifying with the three youths. Just as they suffered and prevailed, so had he, though of course in very different ways.

WWII under the Nazi regime was difficult for young Karlheinz in many ways. His mother, having suffered from mental health issues, was deemed a “useless eater” by the Nazis, and therefore forcibly euthanized by them through Aktion T4. Later, his father, as a soldier during the war, was killed. Perhaps most traumatic of all, as a youth during WWII young Karlheinz had to do work as a stretcher bearer in Bedburg; he found himself often in close contact with cadavers!

Apart from these trying experiences in the war, Stockhausen would later have to endure negative receptions of his experimental, and therefore challenging, music. Still, he grew from all of these difficulties and became a stronger man, in his estimation, because of them. In these ways, he could be said to have gone through his own fiery furnace, and since then his faith in God grew stronger, and he sang to God, in his own way, through not only Gesang der Jünglinge but also such other mystical musical works as his gargantuan opera cycle, Licht, of which a full performance requires no less than 29 hours.

VIII: Heaven in Hell

To get back to my point about the paradox of heaven in hell, one way we can interpret the meaning, or lack thereof, in Stockhausen’s cutting up of the text into fragments of words, syllables, and phonemes is to think of the resulting extents of incomprehensibility as showing the difficulty, or impossibility, of verbalizing a traumatic experience. As I said above, even though the three youths are physically unharmed, they are still terrified by the possibility of being so harmed.

This inability to put trauma into words is part of what Lacan was talking about in his conception of the Real. The psychology of the Real is an inexpressible experience of non-differentiation. Gesang der Jünglinge achieves, by means of those sound continua I described above, a fluid sense of unity, a sense of non-differentiation between vocal and electronic sound.

Now, as I’ve written elsewhere, the non-differentiated unity that Lacan called the Real is not necessarily all hellish and traumatic. Like Wilfred Bion‘s O, this unity can be a heavenly, blissful experience, depending on one’s attitude to it. The difference lies in whether or not one is capable of, or willing to accept, a giving up of one’s ego. The three youths, as I see it, could and would give up that attachment, and so they were saved.

Still, it was a terrifying experience for them, as Stockhausen’s experiences of WWII were for him, so even though the youths are singing God’s praises through the harmonized chorus of Protschka’s angelic, overdubbed voice, the voice of a child (recall Luke 18:17), the recent terror of the fire makes articulation of those praises next to impossible, save Preiset den Herrn.

IX: Heaven and Hell in the Music

Another way to sublate the thesis (heaven) with its negation (fiery furnace as metaphorical hell) is to consider a number of ascending and descending electronic motions in the piece, as well as combinations of such ascents and descents. Samuel Andreyev, in his analysis (link above in the introduction), mentions these at around 30:00-31:08 in his video.

These ascending/descending impulse complexes can be seen to symbolize movements up to heaven or descents to hell (literal or figurative). Section A of the piece, going from 0:00 to 1:10, begins with an ascending impulse complex, a swarm-like flurry of impulsions of varying pitches, but nonetheless moving in an upward path.

At the apex of this ascension, arriving at heaven, so to speak, we hear the angelic voice of the boy soprano singing jubelt (“exalt”), the two syllables sung in a descending perfect fourth. Immediately before this word, though, we hear two soft impulsions of an ascending tritone–again, the diabolus in musica juxtaposed with an angelic exalting of God.

Next comes a chorus of overdubs of the boy’s voice, quite unintelligible except for the word alles, and interrupted twice by electronic sounds. Then we hear jubelt Ihn (“exalt Him”), the syllables sung in an ascending minor third (or is it a microtone between that interval and a major second?) and a descending minor ninth. Section A ends with that dense chord in which the sustained Ihn is sung, as discussed above: such a complex chord with notes fading in and out, and ending with a soft fadeout of the aforementioned tritone. Ihn–God, that is–is a complex, mysterious being, requiring no less than an extremely complex mass of sound to represent Him.

Early in Section B, we clearly hear Preiset den Herrn (the singing of Herrn ending with a descending tritone…that diabolus again!). We can also make out the word Scharen (“hosts”). Preiset den Herrn is soon heard again, with the same notes as before…including that tritone, and bear in mind that obvious instances of repetition are rare in Gesang der Jünglinge.

X: Juxtaposed Opposites in the Text

Though it is uncertain if the apocryphal Biblical text, on which Stockhausen’s German translation is based, was originally composed in Hebrew or Aramaic, since what exists of it is only in Greek, Syriac, or Latin translations, it does nonetheless have the hallmarks of ancient Hebrew Biblical poetry, namely, its use of parallelism (e.g., the “praise ye the Lord” refrain; also, “sun and moon” with “stars of heaven,” “O every shower and dew” with “O all ye winds”; and parallels of opposition, such as “fire and summer’s heat” with “cold and hard winter,” “dew and fall of rain” with “ice and frost,” and “nights and days” with “light and darkness”). [See also Carmi, pages 58-59.]

These oppositions are of particular interest in how they support my interpretation of Gesang der Jünglinge as a musical, mystical unifying of opposites. Sometimes, such pairings of opposites can be deemed merisms, meant to express the idea of not only the two extremes, but also everything in between. Noteworthy Biblical examples of this are in the early chapters of Genesis (e.g., “God created the heaven and earth,” meaning He created the whole universe; or “the tree of knowledge of good and evil” meaning knowledge of everything, that is, from the best to the worst). It would thus be reasonable to assume that the text’s references to extreme winter and summer weather are merisms for all the seasons of the year, from hottest to coldest; and “light and darkness” includes all the tints and shades in between–unifying continua of opposites.

These unifying continua of opposites in the text are, of course, paralleled in those in the musical structure and in those ranging back and forth between vocal and electronic sound. For this reason, it’s logical to regard the pairs of opposites in the text as merisms.

XI: The Electronic Sounds as Fire

Now, if Protschka’s superimposed vocal recordings are meant to represent the three youths, then it’s reasonable to hear the electronic sounds as symbolic of the boys’ surroundings: remember that the four speakers playing the music surround the audience, making them feel as if they are with the three youths in the fiery furnace.

These surroundings that the electronic sounds represent include the metallic casing of the furnace (i.e., some of the electronic sounds suggest the resonant ringing of voices bouncing off the metal–see 2:28-2:32 of this recording for a brief example of what I mean). The resonance of the boys’ voices inside the furnace can also be heard through the use of reverb on Protschka’s voice from time to time. And, most importantly, the electronic sounds can represent the sound of the flames.

Now, the electronic sounds don’t generally imitate the crackling sound of fire; I’d say, instead, that they simply represent it. As for those ascending and descending impulse complexes, they do tend to have a bubbling sound, suggestive of boiling liquids, and therefore associative with scalding heat.

To bring out this association more clearly, recall how, in the middle of the piece (about 6:20-6:40 in this recording), Protschka’s voice, one voice alone, sings the disjointed syllables of Kälte und starer Winter (“cold and hard winter”), with largely no electronic accompaniment at all (especially from und onwards), suggesting the loneliness and desolation of winter. No heat.

XII: On the Unity of Opposites…Again

The opposites of Sonne und Mond (“sun and moon”) are heard clearly, as are those of aller Regen und Tau (“every shower and dew”). These are the opposite lights of nights and days (Nächte und Tage, heard later; and while the moon isn’t technically a light, back in Biblical times, it would have been regarded as a “lesser light“), and of great waters above (rain) and lesser waters below (dew).

We can also clearly hear the opposites of Feuer und Sommersglut (“fire and summer’s heat”), as against the above-mentioned Kälte und starer Winter. Tau und des Regens Fall (“dew and rainfall”), as opposing Eis und Frost (“ice and frost”), are also heard clearly; melted vs frozen water. I can make out Dunkel (“darkness”) but not Licht (“light”); still, in all of these opposites generally, we have plenty of their implied unity via juxtaposition.

Now, another point should be made about this unity of opposites, be it implied or explicit. Though Christianity is generally understood to be dualistic in nature (a more moderate dualism than that of Gnosticism or especially Manichaeism, but sufficiently so in a general sense), none of this precludes the possibility, at least, of unifying these dualities while remaining essentially Christian. Stockhausen’s Catholicism could allow this without him having to make any syncretist forays into, say, Eastern mysticism. There are the dualisms of God vs Satan, good vs evil, and the spirit vs the flesh, but as George K Haggett says in his blog post on Gesang der Jünglinge, “In Catholic theology, the soul–a person’s incorporeal essence–is not as dichotomized from the body as it might be in popular imagination.”

Recall that Christ came and died in the flesh; the more radically dualistic Gnostics and Manichaeans were the ones who could not accept His having been crucified, and so they followed an alternative tradition of someone else being substituted for Him on the Cross, a tradition that even appeared in the Koran (see also note 663 in Abdullah Yusuf Ali‘s translation). Furthermore, at Mass, one takes Communion, eating the transubstantiated body of Christ.

In the concluding paragraph of Haggett’s blog post, he says, “the body and the soul are a one-ness, the more-than-integrated sacred and profane; they are sanctified flesh and blood, both breathed into life and breathing through it.” Recall that God breathed a very physical breath into Adam, and he became a living soul. (Genesis 2:7)

XIII: Conclusion: What Can This Piece Mean for a Secular Audience?

The unity of body and soul can be extended to a unity of materialist and idealist dialectics, too. This leads our discussion in a new direction: the religious, spiritual meaning of Gesang der Jünglinge has been dealt with; but is there a way this piece of music can be relevant to a secular audience? I believe there is.

Now, before I go into my secular interpretation of the piece, it should be acknowledged that Stockhausen was essentially a liberal; he was no staunch leftist by any stretch of the imagination. His controversial remarks about 9/11 may have angered conservatives, but his quip that the attacks were “the greatest work of art that exists for the whole Cosmos” was misunderstood (as a work of art of Lucifer, he meant a great evil work of art). Still, his hostility to Nazi imperialism is enough, I think, to warrant the interpretation below; for even if he himself wasn’t an anti-imperialist in his life, this piece in itself can easily be seen as such.

If we consider Nebuchadnezzar and his idol as representative of imperialism, and the ancient Judaeans in the Babylonian captivity as being oppressed under that imperialism, then the three youths’ refusal to bow before the idol is an anti-imperialist, revolutionary act, rather like any country today that refuses to bow before US/NATO imperialism (e.g., Russia, China, Venezuela, Bolivia, etc.). Remember that the idol is golden, sixty cubits tall (Daniel 3:1); as such, it is a symbol not only of the imperialist authority of a king, but also of the wealth of the ruling class, be this class the ancient slave-masters of such civilizations as the Babylonian empire, or the subsequent feudal landlords of Europe, or the capitalist class of today.

Anyone who dares challenge the authority of imperial rule, be it past or present, will be put to the test, as the three young men are, and will suffer persecution. When they are put to this test, though, they must not lose their nerve. Though the three youths are afraid, as they’re tied up and thrown into the fiery furnace, they keep their faith in God, just as the anti-imperialist of today, regardless of his or her religious beliefs (or lack of them), must keep faith in the eventual achievement of the revolutionary cause.

Just as the religious may have doubts that God will intervene and save them, so do secular-minded revolutionaries have doubts that they’ll succeed in overthrowing the ruling class. When in doubt, they should recall Rosa Luxemburg‘s words: “Before a revolution happens, it is perceived as impossible; after it happens, it is seen as having been inevitable.”

So, just as the three youths sing their praises to God while surrounded in flames that don’t touch them, so were the Russian workers and peasants in 1917 thrilled to be rid of tsarist rule, and rid of continued involvement in WWI; so were the Cubans in 1959 rejoicing over having removed that butcher Batista from power; and so were the Vietnamese joyful over having ousted the French colonialists.

Of course, just as the rejoicing three boys continue to be surrounded in flames (and the Judaeans continue to be held in Babylonia), so did the RSFSR have to fight off the capitalist White Army during the Russian Civil War; so has Cuba had to endure the cruel US economic embargo; and so did the Vietnamese have to confront the US army. Still, all three prevailed in these struggles, and while times are particularly dark for anti-imperialism now, we can listen to Gesang der Jünglinge, and the recordings of that boy’s sweet, angelic voice, for inspiration as the flames of oppression draw closer.

Analysis of ‘The Rite of Spring’

I: Introduction

The Rite of Spring (Le Sacre du printemps) is a 1913 ballet and orchestral piece composed by Igor Stravinsky, with choreography originally by Vaslav Nijinsky and stage designs and costuming by Nicholas Roerich. This was the third of Stravinsky’s three great ballets (the other two being The Firebird and Petrushka) commissioned by impresario Sergei Diaghilev for his Ballets Russes, premiered in Paris.

The ballet is subtitled “Pictures of Pagan Russia in Two Parts.” When Stravinsky was finishing work on The Firebird, he claimed he had a vision of “a solemn pagan rite: sage elders, seated in a circle, watching a young girl dance herself to death. They were sacrificing her to propitiate the god of Spring.” I assume that by “the god of Spring,” he was referring to a Russian variant of Yarilo, a Slavic pagan god of vegetation, fertility, and springtime.

The brutality of human sacrifice, meant to appease the gods and avert such disasters as a bad harvest, is well-linked to the revolutionary aspects of Stravinsky’s music here: namely, his use of polytonality, polyrhythms, asymmetric and constantly changing meters, irregular accents, and harsh dissonance. These controversial departures from the more traditional, post-Romantic style of The Firebird and Petrushka (though these two also have their share of musical innovations–in the latter, the use of bitonality is especially to be noted), along with Nijinsky’s stomping choreography, resulted in an infamous riot at the ballet’s premiere on May 29th, 1913, at the Théâtre des Champs-Elysées.

The riot, to paraphrase Cocteau, centred around two warring groups in the audience: the wealthy conservatives, who hated the ballet, and the “Bohemians,” who were thrilled at this new provocation of the stuffy cultural establishment. The controversy began early, with the dissonant winds of the Introduction; but the disturbances got worse when the curtain rose and Nijinsky’s eccentric choreography began. The uproar got so bad, the shouting of the audience drowning out the music, that Nijinsky had to shout the step numbers to his confused dancers.

I was introduced to the piece as a child through the truncated version of it heard in Walt Disney’s Fantasia, which replaced the pagan rites with cartoon sequences of the formation of the Earth and fighting dinosaurs struggling…and failing…to survive. The brutality of life was thus preserved in the adaptation; and The Rite of Spring has been my all-time favourite piece of music ever since my teens, this being the CD I enjoyed listening to.

Verses, set to music by Henry Cowell (another musical innovator who must have found the verses amusing), express the displeasure conservative ears have to Stravinsky’s ballet. Nonetheless, over the years, public opinion has changed, and now The Rite of Spring, whether performed as a ballet (with notable later choreographies, for example, by Léonide Massine in the 1920s–which revived performances of the ballet–and by Maurice Béjart) or as a concert suite, is acknowledged not only as one of the great masterpieces of 20th century classical music, influencing many modernist composers–such as Varèse, with his Amériques, and Messiaen, who constantly analyzed it–but also as one of the most recorded works in the classical repertoire.

Here is a performance of the ballet with Nijinsky’s choreography (the music starts at 4:38). [Please bear in mind that when I refer to ‘Nijinsky’s choreography,’ I really mean the reconstruction of it performed by the Joffrey Ballet in 1987, which is probably as close as we can get to an accurate version of Nijinsky’s intentions.] Here‘s one with Béjart’s choreography. Here‘s the Fantasia cartoon sequence. And here‘s a version with the orchestral score. Please refer back to the links of this paragraph for the sources to my commentary.

II: Adoration of the Earth

The “Introduction” of Part One of the ballet begins with a bassoon playing in a register so unusually high for the instrument that it sounds like anything but a bassoon: indeed, the beginning high C sounds like that of a flute to my ears. Other woodwinds join in, with strings later. Stravinsky said it was meant to sound like “a swarm of spring pipes,” or dudki. Peter Hill, in his book, Stravinsky: The Rite of Spring, wrote of the build-up of tension–before a sudden return to silence–saying, “it is bursting ecstatically into bloom.”

The Fantasia sequence shows the beginning formation of the universe, a darkness suggesting that of the Greek creation myth, then the fire of desire lights everything up, and we see the fiery, volcanic Earth by the beginning of “Augurs of Spring,” just before which the bassoon theme returns, but a semitone lower.

The curtain comes up, and we see the dancers stamping to the strong rhythms of “Augurs of Spring–Dances of the Young Girls.” An E-flat dominant seventh chord, played over a triad of E, G-sharp, and B (or F-flat, A-flat, and C-flat, as seen in the strings in the score), is heard on the horns and strings. This polychord is one of many instances of polytonality in the ballet, or of bitonality in this particular instance. Just as the bitonality of Petrushka was meant to represent the half-human, half-puppet nature of the titular character of that ballet, so can the bitonality of The Rite be heard to represent, among other conflicts, a duality in the adored Mother Earth.

The Earth mother goddess of Slavic pagan myth, Mat Zemlya, would have been both adored and feared, depending on whether she provided a bountiful harvest in the fall (i.e., the flourishing of Yarilo) or a bad one. The plenty or dearth that she provided would have been the salvation of the pagan tribe, or its doom…hence the tension in the music.

Recall what Camille Paglia had to say about the use of society and culture as an illusory shield against nature, and we can begin to understand the pagan tribe’s need for these ritual dances: “Human life began in flight and fear. Religion rose from rituals of propitiation, spells to lull the punishing elements…Civilized man conceals from himself the extent of his subordination to nature. The grandeur of culture, the consolation of religion absorb his attention and win his faith. But let nature shrug, and all is in ruin. Fire, flood, lightning, tornado, hurricane, volcano, earthquake–anywhere at any time. Disaster falls upon the good and bad. Civilized life requires a state of illusion. The idea of the ultimate benevolence of nature and God is the most potent of man’s survival mechanisms. Without it, culture would revert to fear and despair.” (Paglia, page 1)

Recall how, in the Fantasia sequence during this section of the music, we see erupting volcanoes, with bursts of lava synchronized at each of Stravinsky’s irregular accents that are played on the horns over the scraping strings. Consider the contrast of these visuals with those of the ballet, with the girls dancing a ritual to appease Mother Nature.

The Earth mother goddess, therefore, can be understood to be like the dual mother of Kleinian psychoanalysis: she is the good mother and the bad mother, the good breast that provides milk for her baby, and the bad breast that won’t provide. Sometimes Mat Zemlya provides a plentiful harvest; sometimes she doesn’t.

The people of the pagan tribe are like helpless babies, all dependent on their Earth mother goddess. They’re in what Melanie Klein called the depressive position, knowing that the good and bad breasts belong to the same good and bad mother. In their helplessness, the tribe must accept her as she is, in her capricious state, for they lack the scientific knowledge we today take for granted.

Utterly bereft of modern knowledge, the pagans have to believe in something to give them comfort and hope, so they have their ritual dances. Otherwise, the turbulent, chaotic, and unpredictable ways of nature–symbolized in the music by Stravinsky’s use of irregular accents, as we hear from the beginning of this section, with the dissonant E-flat major seventh chord on the E-major triad–would be unbearable for these people.

The pagans’ adoration of Mother Earth, thus, is them currying her favour. When Mommy is angry, her child blames him- or herself; for to contemplate the possibility of Mommy being the guilty one is far too frightening for the helpless child…or in this case, the helpless pagan tribe.

Since gods and goddesses are modelled on male and female authority figures respectively (e.g., mothers and fathers, as noted above), we can link the authority of Mother Earth with that of the old matriarch of the tribe who, during this section of the piece, comes out, prophesies the future of the tribe, and teaches rituals to the girls. One can imagine her prophesies to include a future doom to the tribe if one of the girls isn’t sacrificed.

“The Ritual of Abduction” gets even more violent and dissonant, with pounding tympani and frenzied instrumentation beginning in 9/8 time. French horns, playing an up-and-down tune of perfect fifths, contrast polytonally with shrill flutes and piccolos playing a frantic tune in eighth notes that repeats the same theme just heard by them, but in a lower key, two pages earlier in the score, with the trumpet in D and woodwinds.

Men appear and join the dancing girls. Each man grabs a girl, and they all dance: the men’s seizing of the girls is presumably what is meant by “abduction,” a word with far more forceful, violent connotations. Since the music is getting more and more intense, with growing dissonance and changing meters, I sense that each “abduction” of each girl is meant to be an omen for the girl among them to be chosen as the sacrificial victim, forced by the men surrounding her to dance herself to death, as happens at the end of the ballet.

The tension ceases with a soft passage of woodwinds. Flute trills are heard in the background, while clarinets in E-flat and B-flat play a tune octaves apart from each other in a bar of 5/4, then 7/4, then three bars of 6/4, and a bar of 5/4 again, before getting into the main theme of “Spring Rounds.”

This main theme was taken from a brief passage in “Augurs of Spring,” a hymn-like theme played in seventh chords, but now played more slowly, and with a mournful quality. The girls dance a Khorovod to it. Though all of Part One of this ballet, as an “adoration of the Earth,” is ostensibly about a celebration of the beginning of spring, with rituals meant to honour Mat Zemlya, the deep sadness felt in this section suggests one’s sense of resignation to one’s fate: one of these girls must die for her tribe. The depressive position, recognizing that Mat Zemlya is both a loving and cruel mother, is keenly felt.

Such a sad resignation isn’t without a sense of horror at the cruelty of the imminent sacrifice, though, for the sad theme suddenly transforms into an explosion of dissonant violence, punctuated by the tympani and the crashing of the tam-tam. After that, a frenzied passage precedes a repeat of that soft woodwind passage, ending this section.

“Ritual of the Rival Tribes” puts the men of the tribe in war games. Two groups compete: like the ritual preparations for human sacrifice to ensure the survival of the tribe in an unpredictable, treacherous world, so must there be preparations for the possible danger of invading tribes. The music is fittingly dissonant, violent, and metrically irregular, with lots of banging of the tympani.

A soft, rising and falling melody is heard first in the woodwinds, then in the brass, then in the violins and clarinets, with polytonal counterpoint in the pizzicato cellos and contrabasses. After that, a loud, martial theme is heard in the horns, suggesting those war games. The rising and falling theme returns and segues into the “Procession of the Sage,” but it’s even more dissonant and foreboding, with the brass in the background.

A wise tribal elder is brought onstage; from the Nijinsky choreography as seen in the performance in the video provided (link above), the old man appears to be blind, his disability allowing him to have a closer link to the spirit world, not distracted by the sights around him.

The violence of the music abruptly comes to a halt. Very soft, tentative music is heard as “The Sage” kneels down and kisses the Earth, blessing Her. Again, this sanctifying of the mother goddess, as an act of love, is actually performed out of fear of Her. Will the sacrifice be pleasing to Her and to Yarilo, or will there be a bad harvest after all, the victim having died in vain?

This question should be kept in mind with the explosive crescendo of the bass drum, tam-tam, and tympani leading to the “Dance of the Earth,” meant by the tribe to be a sanctifying and becoming one with the mother goddess. The tribe would express their love for Her, but the dissonance and irregular, stabbing rhythms suggest fear.

The Disney cartoon sequence puts this section at the very end, after the “Ritual Action of the Ancestors” (which shows the dinosaurs dying off from a heatwave and drought). Significantly, we see an extreme earthquake tearing up the land, a furious mother goddess to contrast with the passionate, celebratory dance seen onstage with Nijinsky’s choreography. The dancing is meant to prevent the wrath of the goddess. Stravinsky once described the dancers as “stomping like Indians trying to put out a prairie fire”: how aptly put.

The pagan tribe’s senses are assailed by the sundry irritants of a hostile world that they, in their pre-scientific mindset, haven’t a prayer of understanding. Their only way of expelling the pain heaped upon them is to project it all onto a chosen sacrificial victim.

III: The Sacrifice

The “Introduction” to Part Two of this ballet, as its title implies, leads us directly to which girl will be the chosen sacrificial victim. That is, we’re moving straight to the heart of the matter…the sacrificial death.

The Disney cartoon sequence, however, begins with the origin of life on Earth at this point in the music–a kind of dialectical irony…the end of life, and its beginning. It has often been said that we begin dying as soon as we’re born, so beginning Part Two of the cartoon in this way is fitting.

The music begins with a soft but eerie, wavelike theme of up-and-down eighth notes played on flutes and clarinets, the rising and falling possibly a symbolic suggestion of that relationship between the rising of birth and the falling of death. Adding to this eeriness is a melody, introduced with violin harmonics, in a bar of 4/4, then one of 2/4: A-G-A-E-D-G-E. This seven-note theme will be developed, with other instrumentation and transposed, throughout this introduction and in the following section.

A soft theme shared by two trumpets in C in 5/4, with a slight variation in 6/4, is another to be developed; a creepy background is heard in the violas and cellos for two bars of 5/4, then two bars later, an upward splashing of sextuplet 32nd notes is heard in the E-flat clarinet, backed by a similar upward splashing of notes in the violins and with viola harmonics. All of these sound effects create a portentous atmosphere.

“Mystical Circles of the Young Girls,” paralleling the “Augurs of Spring–Dances of the Young Girls,” sees the curtain rise to show a group of female dancers moving in a circle, as the title implies. (Interestingly, in the Béjart choreography [link above], we first see the female dancers only in the ‘Introduction’ of Part Two, for Part One is all male dancers; both sexes will dance together from the third section of Part Two.) Musically, this section begins with that theme first heard in violin harmonics from the “Introduction,” but now played by a sextet of three violins and three violas, not in harmonics, with the six of them playing in the key of B.

The girl to fall from the circle will be the chosen victim. According to Nijinsky’s choreography (see link above), the chosen one will fall twice, to music of a paralleled arrangement, heard on trumpets in C and on French horns. This horn arrangement gives us a feeling of surprise, and the second time we hear it, with the confirmation of the chosen victim, the horns repeat the motif, little by little getting louder and faster, and climaxing in a dissonant shriek, bringing us to the violent next section with a barbaric pounding in a bar of 11/4.

“Glorification of the Chosen One” opens with brutal, pounding rhythms in 5/8, 9/8, 5/8, 7/8, 3/8, and 4/8. All the girls dance in a circle around the chosen victim, who stands still and looks up with a frozen gaze, accepting her fate and repressing her fear, for even the slightest flinching on her part may displease the gods and jeopardize the tribe’s hopes for a good harvest.

It’s interesting to contrast Nijinsky’s choreography with the Disney cartoon sequence, which at this point in the music shows a Tyrannosaurus Rex (or some similar such predatory carnivore) appearing among a group of other dinosaurs, and fighting (and killing) a Stegosaurus. The dancing girls may be ‘glorifying’ and honouring the heroine who will lovingly give her life ostensibly to save her tribe, but she is an ill-fated Stegosaur in her own right (and rite), facing a T-Rex of superstitious tradition that is demanding her life.

In what way could her predicament be a metaphor for social phenomena in our lives today? I ask this question in the hopes of finding a way to make The Rite of Spring relatable to our modern world. Just as she, the chosen victim, is being made to die in a rite of human sacrifice, in the hopes that her death will improve the lives of the tribe, so do we, as a society in today’s alienated world, choose people to victimize in the hopes of making our own lives more bearable, to take our pain out on them.

I’m not speaking of human sacrifice, of course, nor am I even speaking necessarily of having someone die for us. I speak of bullies choosing a victim, picking on someone, to bear the brunt of all our pain, a victim to be bullied so we can hate ourselves a bit less, to release some of our own pent-up frustrations.

This maltreatment of others is so commonplace in our world–at school, in the family, in the workplace, and online–as to be a universal experience. Such universality of pain can symbolically give the pagan story of The Rite of Spring an unexpected relevance in a world far removed from that of superstitious people terrified of the wrath of the gods.

After all, the tribe bullies the girl, essentially, into dancing herself to death, because the tribe, in turn, feels bullied by the parent-like gods, who threaten such things as droughts or bad harvests if a sacrificial victim isn’t offered to them. Similarly, people who bully others tend to have been bullied themselves, so bullying others is a quick and easy, but cowardly way of ridding themselves of their pain.

The gods thus are like bullying parents, for example, the Kleinian bad mother I described above; and the children the parental gods bully–the tribe–are like elder siblings who pass the abuse down to younger siblings, like the tribe’s chosen victim. Remember that her “glorification” is just a bribe to motivate her to cooperate in doing something–dancing herself to death–that no one in his or her right mind would otherwise ever agree to doing.

“Evocation of the Ancestors” is brief, with fanfare-like brass and woodwinds, and pounding drum rolls. As the title of this section implies, the girls dance to invoke the tribal ancestors. We see, in Nijinsky’s choreography, the girls in a circle around the chosen one, falling towards her or away from her, with every drum roll. It’s as if they were falling to their deaths, yet ritualistically projecting the fall to death onto her.

Male dancers, representing the old men of the tribe, appear for the “Ritual Action of the Ancestors.” The music starts off very softly, with pizzicatos in the strings playing quarter notes with the French horns and the soft tapping of the bass drum, and a kettledrum and tambourine are hit during the offbeats. The cor anglais repeatedly plays a chromatic ascension of four 32nd notes (encased in a triplet), each phrase ending with a tied whole note (the first time), then with a tied, dotted half note.

At this point in the ballet, the victim is given to the care of these old men. This is a euphemistic way of saying that the men make sure that she goes through with her ritualistic suicide, and is never able to back down. It’s implied bullying, and the creepy, building tension of the music attests to this implication.

After a brief, pianissimo moment with the kettledrum and pizzicato strings, this ominous feeling heightens when we hear an undulating flute melody in the octatonic scale; soon after, a melody in the trumpets is also octatonic. The Disney cartoon sequence at this point in the music shows the dinosaurs plodding in a desert during a heatwave that has dried up everything. They’re doomed to an imminent death, as is the chosen one, surrounded by old men of the tribe.

Suddenly, the music gets loud, with French horns blasting that octatonic trumpet theme. In Nijinsky’s choreography, we see the male dancers going in circles around the victim, who still stands frozen in her spot in the centre, trembling and breathing heavily, as trapped and helpless as those dying dinosaurs in the cartoon.

The music gets softer, yet intensely suspenseful, for a brief moment. Female dancers join the males in the circles around the victim, and the loud octatonic French horn theme returns. A tense, rising four-note tremolo theme is played repeatedly in the first violins during this loud reprise of the French horn theme. In the Disney film, we see a Tyrannosaur fall on a sand dune, dying from dehydration and exhaustion. The chosen victim, too, will die of exhaustion from her endless dancing.

The music gets soft again, rather like the beginning of this section, but with a bass trumpet in E-flat playing the repeated, ascending chromatic line of 32nd notes played previously on the cor anglais. Flurries of notes are heard on the clarinets and bass clarinets. A bar of 2/4, with a quick descending of sixteenth notes in a septuplet on the bass clarinet, segues this section into the climactic last one.

The “Sacrificial Dance” (of “The Chosen One”) begins with particularly harsh dissonances in the strings, immediately followed by the oboes, cor anglais, and horns, with changes of time signature at almost every bar. The discords are so harsh, they almost sound like tone clusters.

The time has come: the victim begins her dance to the death. In Nijinsky’s choreography, we see her jumping, flailing her arms, and kicking her feet backward in frantic desperation.

What is interesting about this particular rite of human sacrifice is that we don’t see her ceremonially killed by someone else: no decapitation, no knife cutting her heart out. She must do the dirty work all by herself.

This is a forced suicide. This is the ultimate abuse, forcing her to destroy herself while all the others watch, her knowing no one will save her, which would shame her before the whole tribe.

The use of extreme dissonance and constantly irregular meters is fitting, for such music aptly expresses the Chaos-like, disorderly sense of what Lacan called The Real, an undifferentiated, and therefore traumatizing, world that cannot be symbolized or verbalized. This sense of the undifferentiated comes from the fact that the sacrificial victim, in giving her life for the tribe, is renouncing her sense of individuation to be submerged in the Dionysian unity of all things.

Nietzsche, in The Birth of Tragedy, described this Dionysian oneness as the opposite of Apollonian individuation: ‘Under the charm of the Dionysian not only is the union between man and man reaffirmed, but nature which has become alienated, hostile, or subjugated, celebrates once more her reconciliation with her lost son, man. Freely, earth proffers her gifts, and peacefully the beasts of prey of the rocks and desert approach…Now the slave is a free man; now all the rigid, hostile barriers that necessity, caprice, or “impudent convention” have fixed between man and man are broken. Now, with the gospel of universal harmony, each one feels himself not only united, reconciled, and fused with his neighbour, but as one with him, as if the veil of māyā had been torn aside and were now merely fluttering in tatters before the mysterious primordial unity.” (Nietzsche, page 37)

Now, one’s individuality being absorbed into the unifying All, like Atman into Brahman, can be a blissful experience, nirvana, if one voluntarily goes into it. This girl, however, has no choice but to be thus absorbed; and as I’ve explained elsewhere, there’s a dialectical unity between what we typically call Heaven and Hell, so her absorption into that unity under duress means she’ll be experiencing the hellish aspect of The Real, Bion‘s O, “the void and formless infinite” of Milton.

We see the men circling around the chosen victim as she stands trembling in the centre. The music has softened, yet is full of suspense and dread of the worst to come. Staccato sixteenth notes are played on bassoons, contrabassoon, and strings, with staccato 32nd notes on French horns. A threatening chromatic descent of sixteenth notes in a quintuplet is heard twice in the trombones, then in the trumpets. She briefly resumes her dancing with the sound of these brass instruments, as if their threatening notes were coming from the men.

She freezes for a moment again, as if her resolve to go through with her dance of death were faltering. Those staccato 32nd notes, once softly played on the French horns, are now loudly and aggressively bowed on the strings, and she is nervously moving again. The threatening chromatic descent is now heard in a different key in the trumpets in D and in the piccolos and piccolo clarinet in E-flat, raising the tension to an agonizingly dissonant climax in the brass and woodwinds, in a bar of 3/8, then of 4/8.

The soft staccato notes in the strings and French horns return. She is still and trembling again. She’s afraid to carry on with the dance…but she knows she must. Tense, chromatic waves of 32nd notes in quintuplets in the first violins, aided by similar playing in the piccolos, seem to restore her resolve (at least for the moment), and she’s moving about again.

The dissonant, metrically irregular beginning theme of the sacrificial dance returns, with added, extra pounding of the tympani. She’s doing the same jumping as before. She’s getting exhausted…but she cannot stop dancing. The men are sitting around her, not allowing her to rest.

The music explodes into a barbaric and chaotic sea-storm of sound, with sustained bursts of energy that sadistically pressure her to go to the polar opposite of her exhaustion. The tympani are pounding away, the horns are blaring, and she falls…but she must get up and continue!

She hits her fist on the ground in frustration, then gets up to dance again. She falls again, hits her fist on the ground again, gets up, falls…

Her leg is in pain. She mustn’t stop! More men in the circle surrounding her approach her, their dancing meant to inspire her…or threaten her, more likely…to continue. She’s twirling and flailing her arms about in a desperate attempt to give the best dance she can to the gods.

Any sacrificial victim would far prefer a quick death, the pain only brief before passing out. She cannot hope for such a happy death. As with crucifixion, hers will be a long, drawn-out, agonizing death in which one must keep moving long after total exhaustion makes even the slightest budge pure torture.

Though the “Sacrificial Dance” is only about four or five minutes long, we can assume that the girl’s dance to the death would be much longer. In a state of total exhaustion, yet still being required to dance, our poor victim will be moving around with every inch of her body in excruciating pain.

She is suffering the trauma of the undifferentiated state of The Real; life and death are one to her. Accordingly, the music ends with pounding rhythms of metric irregularity and dissonance after dissonance. After a brief, soft moment, the music gets loud and pounding, and it climaxes with her finally collapsing. The men pick up her dead body as an offering to the gods. The music ends with a final pounding of the bass and kettledrums.

IV: Conclusion

As I said above, we can find this music relatable to our world by seeing the human sacrifice, to appease the gods, as a metaphor for how we scapegoat people in our society as a cheap and easy way to rid ourselves of our pain. This is why the music is so dissonant: it’s a cathartic release of that pain.

Modern systems of farming, however, have ended the famines that plagued peasants living off the land throughout history, making such pain no longer an inevitability. The collectivization of agriculture in the USSR of the 1930s, contrary to popular belief and to Nazi propaganda about the “Holodomor,” actually ended the famines of that part of the world. The same is true of Maoist China, in spite of the bad start with the Great Leap Forward.

We now have the potential to feed, clothe, house, educate, and medically treat the people of the entire world…provided we use the world’s wealth properly. So why aren’t we doing this? Instead, some of our centi-billionaires are needlessly flying rockets into space while millions die each year of hunger. Aren’t these oligarchs, in a way, like the men in the circle, while the Earth’s wretches are like the girl dancing herself to death in the centre?

My point is that in today’s world, with the build-up of the productive forces, we have the potential for spreading love everywhere instead of dumping pain on the weak from a fear of scarcity that need no longer exist.

Forgive me, Dear Reader, if I’m getting too preachy here, but if our current world–with its ongoing ecocide, economic collapse, and threat of nuclear WWIII–continues down its present course, we’ll end up like those Disney dinosaurs.

Instead of destroying the Earth, let’s be in true adoration of Her. Let’s stop the dance to the death, and instead have a dance of life.

Analysis of ‘Conan the Barbarian’

I: Introduction

Conan the Barbarian is a 1982 epic sword and sorcery film directed by John Milius and written by him and Oliver Stone. Based on Robert E. Howard‘s Conan, the film stars Arnold Schwarzenegger in the title role and James Earl Jones, with Sandahl Bergman, Gerry Lopez, Max von Sydow, Mako, Sven-Ole Thorsen, and Ben Davidson.

The film gave Schwarzenegger worldwide recognition, and in the years since its release, it became a cult film, making a lot more money on home video. It spawned a sequel, Conan the Destroyer, in 1984, and a reboot was made in 2011.

A link to quotes from the film can be found here.

[My main concern in this analysis is the political agenda of this film. I very much like the movie, but that doesn’t mean I, as a leftist, agree with its politics, which I will criticize here. If you happen to love Conan the Barbarian, and you agree with the right-wing ideology that the film espouses–however subtly and allegorically–then this analysis is definitely not for you; therefore I recommend you read no further and find a more politically sympathetic write-up.]

II: Conservative Conan

I am analyzing Conan the Barbarian because it is very much a film of its time. Made in the early 1980s, it reflects, in symbolic and allegorical form, the politics of Reagan and his ilk. The film metaphorically not only glorifies the individualism that was and is part of the ideal of Reagan and other right-wing libertarians (who, incidentally, include Milius and Schwarzenegger), but also the reactionary hypermasculinity that went against feminist gains in the 1970s. There’s even a subtle nod to fascism in its light-brown-haired ‘Aryan’ muscleman hero fighting a black villain (Doom himself may not be black–he’s rather a member of an extinct pre-Atlantic race–but we see a black actor [Jones] playing him, and it’s the film’s social effect on our world that matters, not the fictional world it is literally presenting.), the decapitation of whom disturbed Roger Ebert. In fact, there was a white supremacist streak even in Robert E. Howard himself.

These three elements–right-wing libertarian individualism, hypermasculinity, and Aryan supremacist fascism–are interrelated, since the former two lie on a continuum with the extreme third (as even the social democracy of mainstream liberalism does, something Stalin noted). These three are especially interrelated in Conan the Barbarian, a highly entertaining film acting out the fantasies of mostly alienated pre-adolescent boys back in the early 80s (in spite of the film’s R-rating for violence, sex, and nudity); and it’s the mingling of these three ultraconservative elements that’s what makes the otherwise well-made film so dangerously seductive to such an impressionable young audience.

III: Steel

Let’s start with the notion of the “Riddle of Steel,” and what it can be seen to represent. While the fetish of weaponry (i.e., the steel of a sword) has long existed in literature–the Iliad, Beowulf, Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, etc.–since this film came out during the early Reagan era and reflects the ideology of the time, we must consider what the steel of a sword can be seen to symbolize in the context of the film.

Steel is an alloy of iron with a tiny percentage of carbon to improve its strength. Iron, in turn, is an element forming much of the Earth’s outer and inner core (hence Crom, Conan’s god, is a god of the Earth). The point is that steel is derived from the Earth, fashioned for men’s purposes, as we see during the film’s opening credits. As a metal, like gold, silver, or copper, steel thus can be associated with money, the fetish of capitalists.

Since our concern is with the steel of a sword, we now move from the money-loving, Earth-plundering capitalist to phallic symbolism, thus linking the steel of a sword with hypermasculinity. After all, we don’t just see Conan displaying his muscles and brandishing a sword, but we also see him bed several women.

This hypermasculine association with phallic steel swords is reinforced in his constant killing of his enemies with his sword. This constant going out to far-off lands to kill others links the metal alloy of steel (symbolically associated with gold and coins) with the hypermasculine phallic sword and ultimately with imperialist plunder. Since this is a movie of the early Reagan era, we shouldn’t be surprised to see how these three elements of the “Riddle of Steel” are centred in capitalism.

IV: Flesh is Stronger

Of course, it must be emphasized that what Conan learns over the course of the film is that steel, the literal metal, is not the great source of strength that he, as a boy, came to understand from his father’s teachings. It is rather the steel heart of determination that gives one strength. In fact, Thulsa Doom (Jones), though originally coveting steel and killing Conan’s father and mother to acquire one of those swords, eventually learns that flesh is more powerful than steel, hence Doom’s snake cult.

Now, since Conan represents the heroic ideal of Milius’ libertarian/hypermasculine/cryptofascist myth, the villain of the film must be the ideological opposite. Conan, Valeria (Bergman), and Subotai (Lopez) are on Reagan’s side, so Doom must be symbolic of communist leaders like Stalin and Mao. Doom’s death cult is thus, thanks to the spurious anticommunist propaganda that flooded the Western media during the Cold War, representative of the wildly exaggerated death toll associated with communism.

Having a black man play Doom reinforces these associations for the film’s intended right-wing, white male audience. As I said above, it doesn’t matter that Doom, with his blue eyes and straight, long hair, is not actually a black man in the story: we as an audience see Jones, a black actor wearing blue contact lenses and a wig, on the screen. We make the necessary association, in spite of the actual race of the fictional character. If anything, the blue eyes and no Afro make one think of the experiments of Josef Mengele, who injected blue dye into people’s eyes to make them ‘more acceptable Aryans.’ The film’s fascist ideology is subtle, not obvious. The reason for this subtlety should also be obvious in the liberal world of Hollywood.

Now, if Thulsa Doom’s snake cult in this allegory represents the ideology of communism, and if he is right to have recognized that flesh is more powerful than steel, then his correctness goes against the tendentious political bias that this film is promoting. His affirmation of the superiority of flesh to steel, of the human will’s mastery of the sword, is a kind of Freudian slip that exposes the error of the right-wing ideology championed in Conan the Barbarian. After all, it was the steely determination of the Red Army that defeated the Nazis in WWII, in spite of the metal of the tanks of the Wehrmacht.

V: Freudian Slips

I’ve argued elsewhere that ‘Freudian slips,’ if you will, exist in many films, parapraxes that go against the bias presented in each of the films. The one I mentioned above in Conan the Barbarian isn’t the only one in that film. Others include the fact that our heroes, representing the “free market” capitalist agenda advocated by Milius and Schwarzenegger in the film’s allegory, are thieves by their own admission.

We on the left have always complained that capitalists–who exploit labour by taking, as surplus value, much of the value that workers put into the commodities they produce–are thieves who deny workers the full fruit of their labour, all for the sake of maximizing profit. When right-wing libertarians gripe that “Taxation is theft!”, being especially irked when tax revenue is put into social programs for the poor, they fail to understand how this ‘stolen’ money is really being returned to the poor from whom it was originally stolen by the capitalists.

Another Freudian slip is in how this film is supposed to reflect the right-wing libertarian opposition to ‘big government,’ as symbolized by Doom’s cult (for recall, libertarians tend to regard all socialism as ‘something a government does’); yet our hero, Conan, is understood to become a king at the end of the film. Though the film is set in a world of kings and queens, suggesting either feudal times or the ancient master/slave contradiction, these past class relations are still analogous to the modern contradiction of the bourgeoisie (and the state that protects its interests) and the proletariat; so seeing King Conan on his throne at the end of the film is a metaphor for the ‘government-hating’ libertarian who becomes the head of the government…as Reagan was.

VI: Libertarianism and Fascism

The notion of ‘big vs small government’ was and is a big lie. It isn’t the size of the state that makes it oppressive vs liberating; it’s whom the state serves–the rich, or the people–that makes it the one way or the other. So Conan, the thief who decapitates and disembowels with his sword, then becomes king, is hardly any better than Doom and his snake cult.

Remember that right-wing libertarianism isn’t the same thing as fascism, but the one exists on a continuum with the other. The only difference between the two is in how the material conditions of the world give rise to the one or to the other. Libertarian thinking is usually popular during economic good times (as is mainstream liberalism), when socialism is propagandized against as it was during the Reagan era. But when times are financially hard, as during the Germany of the 1920s, or over the past ten years, fascist and authoritarian systems of government tend to arise and even become relatively popular. As for our current situation, in which fear of disease is prompting measures that are disturbingly approaching totalitarianism, anyone who thinks Republican-friendly Biden is a communist is an idiotseriously.

The fascist ideology cunningly woven into the film’s narrative includes elements either rightly or wrongly associated with Nazism. These include the opening quote from Nietzsche‘s Twilight of the Idols (‘Maxims and Arrows,’ 8): “What does not kill me makes me stronger,” though at the film’s beginning, it’s rendered, “That which does not kill us makes us stronger.”

Now, Nietzsche was about as far removed from being a proto-Nazi as anyone could be: just read his books, and note the many times he bashed his own country as a reaction against the disturbing growing trend of German nationalism that he saw all around him. Still, his pro-Nazi sister, Elisabeth Förster-Niezsche, edited his writing to make it seem sympathetic to Nazi ideology, and this association is sufficient for the film’s ideological purposes. After all, the opening quote, reflecting the film’s theme of determination, as well as such notions as The Will to Power, fit well with the themes of The Triumph of the Will. Add to these facts the film’s influence of Wagnerian opera, and we can further see the link, however subtle, with Nazism.

VII: The Barbarian’s Beginnings

Anyway, the story begins with Conan’s father telling him, a boy, to trust neither men, nor women, nor beasts…a perfect recipe for alienation. The boy is to trust steel and steel alone, which as I interpreted above means to trust the resources plundered from the Earth for the benefit of the rich, to trust the metal of coins fetishized by the rich, to trust a phallic symbol that encourages toxic masculinity, and to trust a weapon wielded for the sake of empire.

Later, Conan learns that he, indeed, can trust men (Subotai), women (Valeria), and beasts (the horses and camels he rides). His father was wrong. One of the most important things we learn as we grow up is, to our utter disillusion, how often our parents are wrong about things.

Since Thulsa Doom’s snake cult, in this allegory, represents the Soviet Union as demonized by right-wing propaganda, Doom’s raid on the Cimmerian village can be seen to represent how the Russian Revolution affected the country’s bourgeoisie in the late 1910s and in the 1920s (fittingly, the raid happens on a snowy day, suggesting a Russian winter). Conan’s steel-fetishizing parents can thus be seen to represent the Russian petite bourgeoisie, the confiscation of whose private property is symbolized by Doom’s taking of Conan’s father’s sword. The killing of Conan’s parents is, symbolically, just more anti-Soviet propaganda.

As a result, Conan’s simmering lust for revenge can be compared to the resentment of such Russian bourgeoisie as Ayn Rand, whose parents’ business was confiscated by the Soviets, and who emigrated to the US and got her revenge on the USSR by writing pro-capitalist novels and promoting her egoistic Objectivist philosophy.

VIII: Conan’s Coming-of-Age

Chained to the Wheel of Pain, young Conan grows up a slave. This is how self-pitying capitalists see themselves, not only under the dictatorship of the proletariat (where, thanks to Lenin’s NEP during the 1920s, the kulaks were allowed to make profits, and only when Stalin ended the NEP and collectivized agriculture, which benefitted the poor and ultimately ended famines, did the kulaks lose their profits, then, out of spite, hoarded food and killed livestock, thus exacerbating the bad harvests of the early 30s that were misrepresented as the “Holodomorhoax by Nazi propagandists), but also under social democratic forms of government, with their high taxes.

As a young man, Conan is given the opportunity to display his talents as a fighter. First we see this Aryan-looking Cimmerian (the casting of Schwarzenegger is more than ideal) fight and defeat a black man with razor-sharp teeth, the bestial savagery of whom reinforces that disturbing feeling we have at the end of the film, when Conan kills Doom. Recall Howard’s words contrasting whites and blacks: “The ancient empires fall, the dark-skinned peoples fade and even the demons of antiquity gasp their last, but over all stands the Aryan barbarian, white-skinned, cold-eyed, dominant, the supreme fighting man of the earth.”

This discovery and glorification of Conan’s abilities as a fighter represents a promotion of the capitalist ideal of competition. It is acceptable if the bourgeois, feudal lord, or ancient slave-master kills, but it’s never defensible if the proletarian vanguard, as represented in Thulsa Doom, kills.

IX: Women

Women in Conan the Barbarian are typically sexualized and treated as objects of men’s pleasure, hence the scene with the terrified, bare-breasted woman put in Conan’s cage so he can enjoy her while other men lecherously watch. It doesn’t matter that we see Conan put a blanket around her, playing the role of the ‘gentleman’: her fear and reluctance clearly demonstrate her non-consent. This is rape.

As for the beautiful witch (played by Cassandra Gava), who has presaged Conan’s coming, and who knows of Doom’s standard, with the snakes facing each other, again, it seems obligatory that she let him have her; note how she erotically crawls before him. And though Valeria is his equal fighting companion, he beds her, too. It is easy to see how all these women exist largely, if not almost exclusively, for male fantasy: this ties in with the hypermasculinity promoted in this right-wing film.

Connected to this is Conan’s ‘correct’ answer to the question, “What is best in life?” His answer, a paraphrasing of a Genghis Khan quote, glorifies conquest, implying a lust for imperialism, and the pleasure of hearing “the lamentation of [the enemy’s] women,” sounds like misogynistic sadism, a fascistic/imperialistic sadism. Small wonder right-wingers love this movie and Conan’s quote, delivered in Schwarzenegger’s German accent.

Why isn’t peace “what is best in life?” Why isn’t a society in which production is to provide for all “what is best in life,” rather than production to benefit a wealthy, privileged few? We wouldn’t expect these Mongol-like warmongers to embrace such pacifist, empathic values, of course, but the point is that the audience is expected to sympathize with the answer of the film’s light-brown-haired, Aryan-like hero.

X: Freedom and Friendships

Conan as a young man is freed, and in his travels is chased by dogs; he stumbles into an underground Atlantean colonist warrior’s tomb, where he finds an ancient sword. This going underground, then coming back up to the surface, is a symbolic death and resurrection, a theme to be repeated several times later in the film. His retrieval of the sword will make him feel as though he’s closer to discovering the Riddle of Steel, and his new, phallic weapon will make him feel like a rejuvenated man. What doesn’t kill me makes me stronger.

He soon meets Subotai (based on a Mongol), a Hyrkanian, meaning someone from the Eurasian Steppe. This means he is someone who ethnically could be anyone from Eastern Europe to Xinjiang, Mongolia, and/or Manchuria. He’s made to look Asian, though the actor, Lopez, is a Hawaiian of Mexican descent. Just as Jones was made to look ‘less black,’ so is Subotai ‘not so Asian.’ His voice, incidentally, was overdubbed by the Japanese-American actor, Sab Shimono.

Conan and Subotai discuss their gods while eating. Subotai prays to the Four Winds, whom he considers superior to Conan’s Crom; naturally, our hero considers his Earth-god better than Subotai’s wind-god. Once again, we see a promotion of the spirit of competition, the urge to be superior, or at least associated with superiority, in our heroes’ banter.

XI: Thieves

They meet Valeria in the city of Zamora, and all three raid the Tower of the Serpent, stealing jewels and killing a giant snake there. Among the snake art we see there, usually two snakes facing each other, we also see an ouroboros, my symbol of the dialectic, which is fitting for how Doom’s snake cult is meant to represent the philosophy of Marxism-Leninism.

King Osric (von Sydow), impressed with these three thieves’ daring, and detesting Doom’s cult, pays them with all the jewels they can carry to rescue his daughter, who has been seduced by Doom’s ideas. The king’s love for his daughter is so great that he can easily give up so many jewels…but the eyes of the trio of thieves light up at the sight of so much wealth.

Conan, still with revenge on his mind, goes out alone to face Doom, since Valeria feels content just to take Osric’s jewels. Conan meets the Wizard of the Mounds (Mako), who also narrates the story. It’s curious how he, the film’s narrator, refers to Conan as his “lord” and “master.” Since this wizard is Asian, his subservient attitude to Aryan Conan reinforces the white supremacist undercurrent in this right-wing film. (Recall how, at the beginning, the narrator refers to the “sons of Aryus.”)

XII: Doom’s Cult of Personality

Conan reaches Doom’s Temple of Set, or Mountain of Power. Set, in the Marvel Universe of demons used in the Conan comics, is the “God of the Dead.” Thulsa Doom is based on two of Howard’s characters: the villain in Kull of Atlantis, yet based even more so on Thoth-Amon, a Stygian sorcerer in “The Phoenix on the Sword.” (One might also associate Set with the ancient Egyptian deity of violence, disorder, and foreigners, among other things, who was at times vilified for having killed Osiris, but who was also seen by some as a heroic deity.) Many see Doom as being like Jim Jones, the “apostolic socialist” cult leader whose control over his people was so complete as to make hundreds of them willing to kill themselves, as we see Doom have one of his female followers drop to her death.

Since Doom, in terms of the film’s Reaganite allegory, represents the ideological foe of the political right, this seductive death-cult leader is meant to represent the “cult of personality” seen in communist leaders like Stalin, Mao, and the Kims…at least as they’re portrayed in right-wing propaganda. What is little known, however, is that left-wing leaders like Stalin and Mao rejected the kind of idolatrous status that men like Hitler and Mussolini were all too happy to receive. Far from being the dictator he was believed to be, Stalin actually tried unsuccessfully to resign as General Secretary of the Soviet Union no less than four times; he had only one vote in determining Soviet policy, and often lost in these votes; and the notion of a “cult of personality” surrounding Stalin was actually a Khrushchev lie.

XIII: Doom’s Followers

When we see Conan among Doom’s many followers by the temple, it’s curious to note how, in their dress and their hair, they resemble hippies. This, I believe, is significant because far right-wing types tend, idiotically, to equate hippies with communists, when the former are so obviously liberal.

Conan approaches one of the priests, and it’s implied that this priest is homosexual and interested in our muscleman hero, who beats him unconscious and steals his priestly robes to disguise himself in. One shouldn’t be surprised to see our beloved hero act in this way: recall the German gay men forced to wear pink triangles on their Nazi concentration camp uniforms.

The dark robes of some members of Doom’s snake cult, including those worn by, for example, Rexor (Davidson), have a design in its contrasts of white and dark that, to my eye, vaguely suggest the clothing of rabbis, particularly those of ancient times. One normally expects snake designs to be round and swirling; but these snake designs are angular, square-like, and being dark against a white background, they vaguely remind me of Hebrew letters. I’m not saying any of this was consciously intended; I bring this up to suggest another fascist association often made with communism: the notion of Jewish Bolshevism. This Nazi association is made even though very few high-ranking members of the Bolshevik Party were Jews.

XIV: Christian Symbolism

Conan is apprehended by Rexor and Thorgrim (Thorsen), a spike on the latter’s boot is stabbed into Conan’s hand, and Doom gives the command, “Crucify him,” reminding us of what “the Jews” told Pilate to do with Christ (John 19:14-16).

And so, Conan is crucified on the Tree of Woe. While the religious world of this film is thoroughly pagan, of course, any rejection of Christian symbolism in this scene is absurd. After all, much of the make-up of Christianity is pagan mystery tradition, as Hyam Maccoby pointed out in his book, The Mythmaker: Paul and the Invention of Christianity. Many Christians try to deny the pagan influence on their religion, but even CS Lewis expressed the belief, in his book Mere Christianity, that his Christian God put the foretelling of Jesus on the Cross into the dreams of the people of all the heathen religions (page 37 of this pdf). These pagans, in Lewis’s opinion, misunderstood the message, and distorted it with myths of dying and resurrecting gods, or like Odin when nailed to Yggdrasil, whom Conan resembles on the Tree of Woe.

The accommodation of Christian symbolism into Conan the Barbarian also dovetails with the film’s right-wing message, since fascism and other forms of conservative politics have always found Christianity to be a useful tool for reactionary purposes. Make the toiling masses believe they will be rewarded in heaven, and they’ll work harder without complaint. Even libertarian-centrist Frank Zappa was worried about the direction that right-wing libertarian/Christian Reagan was moving America in; he warned of a future “fascist theocracy.” One can debate whether or not Zappa’s fears have been realized in the US, but the links between right-wing libertarianism, fascism, and Christian traditionalism are undeniable; all three of these can be seen, in a veiled symbolic/allegorical form, in Conan the Barbarian.

Francoist Spain was a combination of Falange fascism, monarchism, and Catholicism; in 1959, their government adopted “free market” economic policies. Pinochet’s right-wing authoritarian government in Chile also had “free market” policies courtesy of the Chicago Boys. While Nazi Germany made use of much of Teutonic pagan myth, Hitler et al also accommodated Christian ideas; Catholic Hitler and Nazi ideology tried to promote an ‘Aryan Christ,’ one not too far removed from light-brown-haired Aryan Schwarzenegger on the Tree of Woe.

My associating of Doom’s cult symbolically with “Jewish Bolsheviks” dovetails with this Christian interpretation of Conan’s crucifixion, since Nazi antisemitism has its roots in a two-millennia-old Christian antisemitism. Recall how Hitler used to enjoy reading Luther‘s antisemitic rants. Recall also how 1 Thessalonians 2:14-16 blames the Jews for Christ’s crucifixion.

The relating of Conan the Barbarian with Christian ideas doesn’t end with our hero’s crucifixion. Valeria, Subotai, and the wizard rescue him, take him down from the tree, and treat his wounds in a manner reminiscent of the speculations of Hugh J Schonfield‘s Passover Plot. Unconscious Conan is beset by demons in the night, while Valeria fights them off (she’ll pay with her own life later); this scene symbolically suggests Jesus’ harrowing of Hell.

The next day, we see a rejuvenated Conan (“What doesn’t kill me, makes me stronger.”), suggesting the symbolism of a resurrected Christ. Now, Conan and his companions plan how they’ll infiltrate the Temple of Set and rescue Osric’s daughter.

XV: Orgiastic Music

Wearing stripes of black and white camouflage, our three thieves enter the mountain from the back. We hear choral music subtly reminding one of Orff‘s Carmina Burana (i.e., ‘O Fortuna’), but also suggesting Wagnerian opera, as Milius had always fancied his film to be. Images of large pots with the body parts of victims of cannibalism symbolically reinforce the anti-Soviet propaganda.

Added to this propaganda is the following scene, with our three heroes entering a large room with Doom and Osric’s daughter, and a bevy of beautiful women lying about orgiastically in the centre. Subotai remarks on the sight, calling it “paradise.” Right-wing ideologues assume that Stalin, Mao, the Kims, et al lived in the lap of luxury, when high-ranking members of communist parties lived only marginally better than their respective common populations. To see the obscene luxury of the capitalist über-wealthy, look no further than Bezos, Musk, Gates et al…and some of their ilk have been involved in their own orgiastic scenes.

Since I’ve been so critical of this film, I’ll take a brief moment to praise the waltz-like music in this scene. Film-score composer Basil Poledouris“Orgy” is a delight to listen to, with memorable melodies undulating throughout. It always stands out in my mind as one of the film’s highlights.

XVI: The Serpent

In this scene, we see Doom transform into a giant serpent. That his is a snake cult ties in well with the film’s Christian symbolism, for if Conan is our Christ-like hero, getting stronger after not dying from his crucifixion, then Doom as our villain is, fittingly, the Satanic serpent of the Garden of Eden, tempting such Eve-like women as Osric’s daughter and the half-naked women in the orgy.

The serpent, like the sword, is a phallic symbol in its own right, but one made of the stronger material of the flesh, not of steel. Phallic, serpentine Doom is leading women like Osric’s daughter astray, exploiting them, as the film would have us believe of leftist leaders; yet, was Conan any better with the bare-breasted woman in the cage?

Pre-Castro Cuba was teeming with prostitution when that right-wing butcher Batista was a puppet for American politicians and mafia. One of the first things communists do after a revolution is to work aggressively to rid their countries of prostitution, striving to provide women with the education, equal opportunities, and material conditions needed so they can avoid having to sell themselves to survive. Presenting Doom in an orgy symbolically portrays socialists as whoremongers; this pro-capitalist film is projecting right-wing guilt onto the left.

The thieves take the princess out and ride away. Doom, changed back into human form, makes a small snake into an arrow and fires it at Valeria, killing her. The superiority of phallic flesh over phallic steel is demonstrated again, for his command, “Seek,” is enough to ensure a hit. Valeria had paid the gods for interfering with the demons’ attack on unconscious Conan.

XVII: Valeria and the Princess

Conan burns her body with Subotai’s torch at her funeral. Subotai weeps for him, for as he observes, Cimmerians never weep. As the film’s masculine ideal, Conan reinforces the hypermasculine notion that ‘boys don’t cry.’ Subotai’s weeping for him suggests Asian servility to white supremacy, like the wizard’s servility.

We’re meant to believe that the princess’s continued allegiance to Doom is some kind of brainwashing, as right-wingers assume leftists to have, rather than a projection of right-wing brainwashing that ‘capitalism is freedom.’ So Doom’s shooting of a snake arrow at her is more symbolic anti-Soviet propaganda. The Battle of the Mounds, a desert-like region, reminds me of the then-already-underway Soviet-Afghan War that had been manipulated into being by Carter and Brzezinski: Conan and Subotai, luring Doom, Thorgrim, and Rexor to the mounds for a final battle, are thus like the mujahideen, well-paid and armed by the US (as Osric has paid the three thieves with an abundance of jewels), and bleeding Soviet power dry, as Conan does of Doom’s power, by killing Thorgrim and Rexor.

XVIII: Symbolic Castration, and Transcending a Father’s Wisdom

Indeed, the killing of Rexor is symbolic castration (with the help of Valeria as a glowing, Valkyrie-like spirit), with Conan’s breaking of his sword and realizing that the Riddle of Steel isn’t about steel per se, but about having the steely manhood to wield the sword with determination to win. In this way, Conan has outlearned his father, for part of becoming a man is going beyond the limitations of your father’s wisdom. Such an upstaging of your father is a symbolic castration of him (like Cronus‘ rising up against Uranus), and symbolic castration occurs in many forms in Conan the Barbarian.

Since I’ve equated serpents with the phallus, we can see Conan’s decapitation of the giant snake in his raid of the Tower of Serpents as a symbolic castration, too. And since Doom himself can be a giant serpent, his decapitation at the end of the film is also a symbolic castration. It’s interesting in this connection to note how Doom, immediately before Conan kills him, tries to hypnotize him and manipulate him by calling him his “son.” In Conan’s rise to manhood, he’ll have no one as his father, not even a father-figure in Crom, who, in Conan’s prayer to Him, says He can go to Hell if He won’t help him and Subotai defeat Doom.

In Conan’s prayer/curse to Crom, we see how the right-winger can take God or leave Him, depending on the circumstances. We’ve seen how Nazis can pose as Christians or as quasi-pagans. Similarly, such “new atheists” as Richard Dawkins, Christopher Hitchens, and Sam Harris have embraced neoconservatism as an imperialist reaction against Islam.

XIX: King Conan

The film ends with a shot of an older Conan sitting on a throne with an expression that suggests Henry IV‘s dictum, “Uneasy lies the head that wears a crown.” This image is reiterated at the end of Conan the Destroyer, with the narrative voiceover of Akiro the Wizard saying, “…he found his own kingdom and wore his crown upon a troubled brow.”

So Conan in the end will himself be a king, a ruler, the governor, as it were, of a people. Since this story, set in an ancient and fantastic world, is meant as an allegory of our times, his becoming a king represents how the libertarian ideal will eventually be the very government that people like Milius and Schwarzenegger so dislike (recall in this connection how Schwarzenegger would eventually be the Governor of California).

Similarly, the Koch brothers, of right-wing libertarian disposition, got heavily involved in influencing the government, as do Rand Paul and Ron Paul. The two Pauls, to be fair, are anti-war and opposed to the kind of rampant corruption we see in American politics today; but neither of them is willing to overturn the capitalist system that is, through the profit motive, the basis of all this corruption and all these wars. Perhaps that is the reason for King Conan’s “troubled brow,” his “uneasy…head.”

XX: Conclusion

Reagan ran on the idea that “government is the problem,” then he became the leader of that very government. His tax cuts to the rich, and those of similarly-minded politicians, allowed millionaires eventually to become billionaires, whose money has since been used to buy politicians to ensure that the state serves the rich rather than the people. The greater accumulation of capital, concentrating and centralizing it in the hands of the richest people, has required a larger government, not a smaller one, to protect all the resulting proliferation of private property. Libertarianism leads not to small government, but big, privatized government, hence Reagan’s inflated military budget. Conan, fighter of the powerful, will become one of them.

The right-wing message of Conan the Barbarian is subtle and muted–fittingly so, given the subtle and muted expression of the neoliberal agenda started by Reagan and Thatcher in the early 80s, when this film came out. Some on the left warned of the dangers of this resurgence of conservative ideas, but the warnings fell mostly on deaf ears, just as many would have considered this film to be harmless fun.

It seemed reasonable to most people of the time, myself included, to think of the collectivism of Doom’s followers to be representative of a supposedly similar Soviet collectivism, mindlessly obeying their leader and lacking in Conan’s virtuous individualism. But just as we don’t see what becomes of Doom’s followers after his head is thrown down the steps, neither did most people see how huge percentages of Russians and other Eastern Europeans didn’t want to see the security of the Soviet system give way to predatory capitalism.

Stalin rightly predicted that a dissolving of socialism would result in the most virulent reaction, grabbing the working class by the throat. In today’s post-Soviet world of extreme wealth inequality, the control of most of the American media by six corporations, epidemic homelessness, ecocide, and imperialist war threatening a nuclear WWIII, we see what Doom really is.

In the allegorical sense, Conan really was a barbarian…and a destroyer.