Andrew Bird’s Noble Beast, Part 7: “Masterswarm”

Come what may
Lay your eggs where it’s warm
We come here to swarm
Come by sea
Swarm like smoke in the dawn
We were the young
We were the swarm
Radiolarians
Midges and Moths
Cut from a cloth
We were the young
We were the swarm

Flailing feudal fleas (or fetal fleas?)
Feeding from the arms of the master
Burrow into me
This is sure to misspell disaster

Oh and their young
In the larval stage
Orchestrating plays
In vestments of translucent alabaster

So they took me to the hospital
They put my body through a scan
What they saw there would impress them all

For inside me grows a man
He speaks with perfect diction
As he orders my eviction
As he acts with more conviction than I

Oh burrow into me
This is sure to misspell disaster
Burrow into me
Feeding from the arms of the master

We were the young
We were the swarm
We were the young radiolarians

Come what may, Come what may, Come…

copyright Andrew Bird, 2009 Fat Possum Records

This is the final review of songs from Andrew Bird’s 2009 album “Noble Beast.” I believe each of the songs I reviewed in some sense deals fairly specifically with the title of the album. My first posts in this series discussed the possible origin of the title as borrowed from the genius mathemetician/theologian Blaise Pascal. I also raised the question whether any of the songs were in some way reflecting the “scientism” worldview of the writer H.G. Wells. I will add a concluding post in which I will discuss the Pascal/Wells connections.

This song is titled “Masterswarm” and as with much of Andrew Bird’s material even the title presents some ambiguity. Does he mean a master swarm (a large swarm of creatures) or does he mean master’s warm (our master is warm) or does he mean master’s swarm (the swarm of the master)? It is quite possible that he is using all these ‘phenomena’ in this song.

He is definitely speaking of a swarm: “we come here to swarm”; “we were the swarm”.

He is definitely speaking of a form of parasitism: “lay your eggs where it’s warm”; “burrow into me”, “fleas”.

He is definitely speaking of a master: “feeding from the arms of the master”.

So what is the song actually saying? It seems to me that it is the narration of the “evolution” of the one celled radiolarians into midges, moths, fleas and finally into man.

The first part deals with the swarm of young radiolarians, midges and moths that were “cut from a cloth” or in other words they are all of the same original material. These then became fleas that feed from/on the master which “is sure to misspell disaster” (the opposite of natural disaster? – see post on that song) or in other words it is a good progress and not a disaster.

The second part is even more difficult to conceive of in literal terms:

So they took me to the hospital
They put my body through a scan
What they saw there would impress them all

For inside me grows a man
He speaks with perfect diction
As he orders my eviction
As he acts with more conviction than I

But this seems to be the key to the song as the evolving organisms “cut from a cloth” now become the host in which grew “a man” who is superior to what he was since he “speaks with perfect diction, as he orders my eviction, and he acts with more conviction than I”. In other words the “man” parasite “evicts” the host as if the host is now the parasite. And the song then repeats that this process of growth/parasitism/evolution is “sure to misspell disaster.”

The song begins and ends with the words “come what may…come” which seems to be saying that whatever the result of this evolutionary process of “chance” is, it is either inevitable or desirable or both.

This raises the question of chance vs. some type of superintendence of the process. I do think that Andrew Bird seems to be saying that chance is involved inasmuch as “come what may” implies that what comes is what conditions permit, not that what comes is what “what” has the intrinsic ability to become (the difference between can and may). But Andrew Bird also has spoken of the master.

“Feeding from the arms of the master” seems to be an allusion to several verses in the Old Testament:

24 O Lord, how manifold are your works!
In wisdom have you made them all;
the earth is full of your creatures.
25 Here is the sea, great and wide,
which teems with creatures innumerable,
living things both small and great.
26 There go the ships,
and Leviathan, which you formed to play in it.
27 These all look to you,
to give them their food in due season.
28 When you give it to them, they gather it up;
when you open your hand, they are filled with good things. (Psalm 104:24-28; ESV)

14 The Lord upholds all who are falling
and raises up all who are bowed down.
15 The eyes of all look to you,
and you give them their food in due season.
16 You open your hand;
you satisfy the desire of every living thing. (Psalm 145:14-16; ESV)

Andrew Bird sings of the arms while the Bible speaks of the hands, but I do think this is an allusion. It is possible that he uses arms because it more easily admits the host/parasite imagery. So is Andrew Bird saying that the evolution of God’s creatures is like a form of parasitism? But what is even more difficult to understand is whether Andrew Bird is somehow equating the host/parasite in the process which is possible in the second section where the  parasite and host seem to trade places. Does this mean that Andrew Bird is espousing the “creative evolution” of H.G. Wells? (see Andrew Bird’s Noble Beast part 1)

Oddly enough though, just because we are generally repulsed by parasitical imagery, it does not mean that there is no sense in which parasitical imagery is applicable to even the biblical picture of God and human relations. Very broadly speaking, I don’t believe any theologian has ever totally figured out the exact nature of the picture endorsed  by Paul in the New Testament book of Acts of a Greek poet’s saying that in God “we live, and move, and have our being” (Acts 17:28). It is possible that in some sense we are all parasites in God. C.S. Lewis who I believe had some of the most profound theological intuitions also dared toward the imagery:

“God who needs nothing, loves into existence wholly superfluous creatures in order that He may love and perfect them. He creates the universe, already foreseeing – or should we say “seeing”? there are no tenses in God – the buzzing cloud of flies about the cross, the flayed back pressed against the uneven stake, the nails driven through the mesial nerves, the repeated incipient suffocation as the body droops, the repeated torture of back and arms as it is time after time, for breath’s sake, hitched up. If I may dare the biological image, God is a “host” who deliberately creates His own parasites; causes us to be that we may exploit and “take advantage” of Him. herein is love. this is the diagram of Love Himself, the inventor of all loves.” (C.S. Lewis, The Four Loves)

So what is Andrew Bird saying?

That humans are the master swarm?

That the master is warm?

That humans are the master’s swarm?

Or more specifically that we live in a pantheistic universe in which creative evolution shows that radiolarians/man/God are all “cut from a cloth”?

Or that a personal God, because of his love for us has been a host of sorts for us as we feed from his arms?

As I have often concluded in these song interpretations that it is impossible for me to know exactly what Andrew Bird is espousing. I have raised the possibility that I may take him to literally and he is merely using “scientific” imagery to portray aspects of human challenges and growth. But in my next and final post in this series I will return to a discussion of the two main worldviews that his “scientific” songs seem to be interacting with, namely the Pascalian anthropology vs. the Wellsian scientism, and why I believe it is important to understand the differences between these views.

Bryan M. Christman 4/22/12

Original Content © 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.

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