This is part 5 in my series of considering the theme of the album Noble Beast by Andrew Bird. I have already considered the songs Oh No, Nomenclature, and Fitz and the Dizzyspells. These three songs all dealt in one way or another with the theme of liberation from the Zeitgeist (dominant worldview) with its technological reductionism of human life. In each of these three songs it seemed as though Andrew Bird sees human life itself as containing a “manifest propensity” to resist such reductionism. I have noted that in each song, it seems that Andrew Bird’s “anthropology” is similar to that of the great mathemetician/scientist/philosopher, Blaise Pascal, who believed because man was specially created by God he retains traits, evidences, and intuitions of his high place of creation, although he has fallen from that place by sin (choosing autonomous independence from God.)
In “Natural Disaster” we find a different topic that, along with two other songs from Noble Beast, provides a second theme. This second theme is a meditation on the nature of life as known through science. This theme is not totally unrelated to the first theme. The first theme could be seen as a meditation on the nature of man that is based in the “common sense observations” of human life. The second theme could be seen as a meditation on the nature of man that is based in the “scientific observations” of the origin of human life. Obviously there is some tension between these two views, which I think is the reason they are both presented. Taken together, it seems that the two themes are together providing a meditation on the challenge of integrating the two views. Are the “scientific knowledge of humankind” and the “intuitive reasons of the heart” incompatible or compatible? Is only one, or are both “realms of knowledge” true? These questions bring into focus why the title “Noble Beast” is fitting as the overall theme of the album. Is man Noble, or a Beast, or is he both?
“Natural Disaster” is a song that begins to explore these things by providing a meditation on the nature of life as we understand it through science.
Look upon a field of snow to find a desert sea
Under the ice the springs will flow to release Fecundities
like a natural disaster
From the first drop of water to the rage of Niagara
Collapse upon the forest floor and downupon your knees
Anthurium Lacrimae decays underneaththe canopies
like a natural disaster
It’s the one that’s been happening over andover and over again
No peace in the valleysmalarial alleys
Where the kittens have pleurisy
Donning our gogglesValerian ogles
To see microscopically
A colony of dermestids undressed and digested
A grey spotted owland a wolf with a lung disease
Andrew Bird, 2009, Fat Possum Records.
The overall observation of the song is that life itself is a “Natural Disaster.” We use the term to describe episodes in the natural world that are large scale disasters, such as earthquakes, tsunamis, hurricanes, tornadoes, floods, droughts, and other such events. But Andrew Bird is saying that all of life is based on a natural disaster that keeps happening “over and over and over again.”
The way that Andrew Bird presents the tension that exists in this “DISASTER” is to highlight its surprising and subversive “facts” with the observed beauty that we “experience” in the “NATURAL.” Is our “experience” in light of the “facts” just another evidence that life is just a “Natural Disaster?” In other words, can life have any “higher” meaning for humans when for everything else it only amounts to a disaster?
As we have noted in the previous songs, Andrew Bird is a master of music, imagery and language, and I will now consider his artistry in this song. My first observation is simply of the beauty of the song, the pastoral mood. Musically it seems a serene pastoral meditation on nature, but lyrically the scene provokes subversion to that serenity.
This subversion begins with the simple imperative, “Look upon a field of snow” that leads more dramatically to the image of prayer, “Collapse upon the forest floor and down upon your knees.” He begins with our experience of observing and our reaction of prayer to what we see. But he then points out what the “facts of our experience” actually are. We first see a “field of snow” that appears on the surface frozen, lifeless and sterile, but underneath is a “desert sea” with “springs” that ironically bear the capacity of fruitfulness for the “natural disaster”. The natural disaster exists minutely in “the first drop of water” and maximally in “the rage of Niagara”. He does not really explain how the “disaster” exists in these microcosms and macrocosms, but I think he is implying that the continual death existing in the life in the microscopic world of organisms amounts to the disaster. Also, a disaster is not usually thought of as something good. I believe that Andrew Bird simply fills out this picture of “reality” in the rest of the song, as he moves out to the macrocosmic things we see more easily.
He does this by moving from the world of organisms in a drop of water; to the decaying world underneath our praying knees on the forest floor that contains the “tears of flowers” (Anthurium Lacrimae?); to the “Malarial alleys” that remove the “peace in the valleys”; to the “kittens with pleurisy”; to the “colony of dermestids” (flesh eating beetles) that are “undressed” (revealed?) and “digested” (satisfied after a good meal?); to a predatory “grey spotted owl” and a “wolf with a lung disease.”
It seems as though Andrew Bird has rather theatrically shown life to be like in the movies we have seen where the heroes fall deeply into a dark pit. When they strike a light they shockingly see skulls and bones and find to their horror that they are in the midst of a graveyard of decay and death. And of course, their immediate and violent reaction is to want out as they wrestle with the boneyard which invariably also teems with the supposed subterranean world of snakes and beetles!
So this view, if it is what the song is actually hinting at, raises several questions. Is this an accurate depiction of natural life? I would say that in life, at all levels, we are surrounded and in many ways supported by death, so the answer seems like it must be yes. But is this reality a “natural disaster?” I would say that a there can only be a disaster if there is some ideal that it violates, like life itself. This is how we normally think of natural disasters. It is also seems evident, though often overlooked, that a natural disaster only has meaning if life itself has some meaning, and especially if we suppose that there is a God that created everything. In essence, a natural disaster causes us to question how well the creator has done his job! So we suppose the disasters show that he has not been very successful, and we extrapolate from this that he must not exist after all. In other words, a natural disaster is only a meaningful term if there is a beneficent Creator. If there were not such a Creator, we would have no sense that anything was “wrong.” This “argument from rationalism” is something that C.S. Lewis realized in his journey from Atheism to Theism:
“I was at that time living like many atheists; in a whirl of contradictions. I maintained that God did not exist. I was also very angry with God for not existing. I was equally angry with him for creating a world. Why should creatures have the burden of existence forced on them without their consent?” (Quote is from “The Question of God” by PBS)
In essence Lewis said the argument against God that the world is a “Natural Disaster”, is an argument which is based in our rationalism, is self refuting, because if the world were wholly the result of irrationalism then no part of that irrational world would know by rationality that the world was irrational! (Of course there is the Wellsian scientism of creative evolution in which the “life force” itself is “creative”, and it is possible that Bird may in this song be refuting traditional Theism and espousing creative evoution. On the basis of this song it is not possible to tell if that is something he is trying to do here.)
Another question is whether Andrew Bird’s picture of reality is wholly accurate. I have agreed above that it is scientifically accurate. But is it really accurate in regard to life as a whole? I cannot but think that Andrew Bird is being semi-autobiographical in this song, when he says “Look upon a field of snow” and “Collapse upon the forest floor and down upon your knees.” He is aware of the power of nature/creation to evoke wonder and even reverence. Thus he is again recognizing the Pascalian anthropology that posits intuitive “reasons of the heart” that in spite of all the death there is a core of life at the heart of all things. (I think that the group Midlake is hinting at this in their song “Core of Nature“.) So again Andrew Bird may be walking the tightrope between the Pascalian anthropology and the Wellsian scientism. But though Andrew Bird seems to recognize the intuitions, he seems to “cave” to the “reality” that “science” gives us. I would like to share two arguments against this essentially pessimistic view of reality. The first is from James Orr:
When we rise to animal life, the problem does appear, for here we have sentiency and suffering. Yet abstracting for a moment from this sentiency, the same thing applies to animals as to plants. They are finite, merely natural creatures, not ends in themselves, but subserving some general use in the economy of nature, and, by the law of their creation, exposed to corruption and death. How is this modified by the fact of sentiency! I think we have only to look at the matter fairly to see that it is not modified in any way which is incompatible with the justice and goodness of the Creator. Leaving out of reckoning the pain of human life, and the sufferings inflicted on the animal world by man, we might fairly ask the pessimist to face the question, Is the world of sentient beings an unhappy one? Look at the fish in the stream, the bird in the air, the insect on the wing, the creatures of the forest,—is their lot one of greater pleasure or pain? I do not think it is unhappy. We speak of “the struggle for existence,” but is this necessarily pain? The capacity or pleasure, indeed, implies as its counterpart the susceptibility of pain, but whereas the avenues for pleasure are many, the experience of pain is minimised by the suddenness with which death comes, the absence of the power of reflection, the paralysis of feeling through fascination or excitement, etc. I have been struck with observing the predominatingly optimistic way in which the Bible, and especially Jesus, all through regard the natural and sentient world, dwelling on its brightness, its beauty, its rejoicing, the care of Providence over the creatures, their happy freedom,—in striking contrast with the morbid brooding over the aspects of struggle in nature which fill our modern treatises. The thing which strikes us most as a difficulty, perhaps, is the universal preying of species on species —“nature red in tooth and claw”—which seems so strange a feature in a government assumed to have for its motive beneficence. But the difficulty is modified by the consideration that food in some way must be provided for the creatures; and if sentiency is better than insentiency, greater beneficence is shown in giving the bird or insect its brief span of life than in with holding existence from it altogether. The present plan provides for the multiplication of sentient creatures. to an extent which would not be possible on any other system; it provides, too, since death must rule over such organisms, for their removal from nature in the way which least pollutes nature with. corruption. The real question which underlies the problem in relation to the natural world is,—Is there to be room in the universe for any grades of existence short of the highest? In nature, as the evolutionist is fond of showing, we find every blank space filled—every corner and niche that would be otherwise empty occupied by some form of life. Why should it not be so? If, in addition to the higher orders of being, lower grades of sentient existence are possible, enhancing the total sum of life and happiness, why should they not also be created? Why—to give our thoughts for a moment the widest possible range—if there is in the universe, as Dorner supposes, “a world standing in the light of eternity, a world of pure spirits, withdrawn from all relation to succession” (the angelic world), should there not be also a material and time-developing world? Why, in this temporal world, should there be only the highest creature, man, and not also an infinity of creatures under him, stocking the seas, rivers, plains, forests, and taking possession of every vacant opening and nook which present themselves? Or, in a developing world, could the highest be reached except through the lower—the spiritual except through the natural? Is not this the law of Scripture, as well as of nature—“that was not first which is spiritual, but that which is natural, and afterwards that which is spiritual”? The mere fact that in a world of this kind the denizens would be finite and perishable—exposed to incidental pains, as well as constituted for pleasures—would not be a reason for not creating it, unless the pains were a predominant feature, and constituted a surplusage over the pleasures. But this we do not acknowledge to be the case. The pleasures of the animal world we take to be the rule; the pains are the exception.
The second argument is from the semi-autobiographical tale of C.S. Lewis called “The Pilgrim’s Regress“. Here are several excerpts:
John lay in his fetters all night in the cold and stench of the dungeon. And when morning came there was a little light at the grating, and looking round, John saw that he had many fellow prisoners, of all sexes and ages. But instead of speaking to him, they all huddles away from the grating, as they could. But John thought if he could breath a little fresh air he would be better, and he crawled up to the grating. But as soon as he looked out and saw the giant, it crushed the heart out of him; and even as he looked, the giant began to open his eyes and John, without knowing why he did it, shrank from the grating. Now I dreamed that the giants eyes had this property, that whatever they looked at became transparent. Consequently, when John looked round into the dungeon, he retreated from his fellow prisoners in terror for the place seemed to be thronged with demons. a woman was seated near him, but he did not know it was a woman, because through the face, he saw the skull and through that the brains and the passage of the nose, and the larynx, and the saliva moving in the glands and the blood in the veins: and lower down the lungs panting like sponges and the liver, and the intestines like a coil of snakes. And when he averted his eyes they fell on an old man, and this was worse for the old man has a cancer. And when John sat down and dropped his head, not to see the horrors, he saw only the workings of his own inwards. Then I dreamed of all these creatures living in that hole under the giant’s eye for many days and nights. And John looked round on it all and suddenly he fell on his face and thrust his hands into his eyes and cried out, ‘It is the black hole. There may be no Landlord, but it is true about the black hole. I am mad. I am dead. I am in hell for ever.’
The giant is eventually slain by ‘Reason’ who is a female rider with a sword on a ‘great black stallion.’ This is part of the ‘warfare’:
‘This is my first riddle,’ said Reason.
‘What is the colour of things in dark places, of fish in the depth of the sea, or the entrails in the body of man?’
‘I cannot say,’ said the giant.
Later on, as they journey together, ‘Reason’ explains the truth to ‘John’:
‘Then do you not see how the giant has deceived you?’
‘Not quite clearly.’
‘He showed you by a trick what our inwards would look like if they were visible. that is, he showed you something that is not, but something that would be if the world were made all other than it is. But in the real world our inwards are invisible. They are not coloured shapes at all, they are feelings. The warmth in your limbs at this moment, the sweetness of your breath as you draw it in, the comfort in your belly because we breakfasted well, and your hunger for the next meal – these are the reality: all the sponges and tubes that you saw in the dungeon are the lie.’
‘But if I cut a man open I should see them in him.’
‘A man cut open is, so far, not a man: and if you did not swe him up speedily you would be seeing not organs, but death. I am not denying that death is ugly: but the giant made you believe that life is ugly.’
‘I cannot forget the man with cancer.’
‘What you saw was unreality. The ugly lump was the giant’s trick: the reality was pain, which has no colour or shape.’
‘Is that much better?’
‘That depends on the man.’
‘I think I begin to see…’
‘…Is there, then, no truth at all in what I saw under the giant’s eyes?’
‘Such pictures are useful to physicians.’
So has Andrew Bird here fallen prey to the Zeitgeist of “Nomenclature”, that classifies man by scientism, even though he so strongly exposed it in his song by that title? Or was this his thought narration before he asked for “a different nomenclature”? Of one thing I can be sure, Andrew Bird has created a beautiful song that meditates on this question on different levels, namely the aesthetic/musical, intellectual/ethical, and the religious/spiritual levels. And I can again thank him for presenting a challenge to our modern life where we are all to often “fast asleep”, unaware of the life within which we “live, and move, and have our being.”
© Bryan M. Christman and Manifest Propensity, 2012. Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without express and written permission from this blog’s author and/or owner is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to Bryan M. Christman and Manifest Propensity with appropriate and specific direction to the original content.