“Holocene” by Bon Iver – on humility, awe, and magnificence

Bon Iver (Justin Vernon) is a favorite musical artist of mine although I admit to having no idea what most of his songs are about. I find him more difficult in this regard than Andrew Bird who is also difficult but with work (and imagination?) I was able (I thought) to make some progress.

But the following repeated part of Holocene seemed to me to be a plain statement that possibly summarizes the point he was making in this song. The official video also seemed to confirm what I thought may have been his point.

And at once I knew I was not magnificent
High above the highway aisle (Jagged vacance, thick with ice)
But I could see for miles, miles, miles

I think that his point is this:

By some process or events he came to realize that he himself was “not magnificent” – but this seeming loss and subsequent  posture of humility enabled him to see “new” and great magnificence around him.

The word “but” is very key to this interpretation, along with the fact that I think this is a sort of summary of his main point even though I don’t know what the rest of the lyrics mean. Nevertheless, I still think this is the main point of the song.

Several parts of the video seem to confirm this:

  • The video’s main character is probably meant to portray an ideal “Justin Vernon” or “everyman” which is the child we all once were/still are?
  • The child observes the magnificence that is around him.
  • The child assumes postures of humility, play/interaction, joy, reverence, and peace.

One may ask what Justin Vernon believes should be the cause of humility.

  • Is it from disillusionment regarding self caused by some events or process that may be what the other lyrics are about?
  • Is it simply the feeling of awe that is evident in the video? (It seems to me that the song lyric may deal more with humility achieved through disillusionment while the video may deal more with humility achieved through re-enchantment; i.e.. one shows the more negative “path” while the other shows the more positive “path” to humility)
  • Is it the intellectual “humility” gained from science? (Note that the child wakes up in the holocene geological age?) I believe awe that is “primal awe” is certainly a factor but the holocene theme seems to present the scientific/intellectual aspect. (This very much is like Andrew Bird’s Nobel Beast album in which science and awe are used to create tensions and subtly ask questions regarding the nature of nature/man/existence/God.)

I wonder if Justin Vernon could be interacting with the theistic view of creation which since the time of Galileo has been considered to be suspect because of its supposed man-centered view of nature. In other words, the view that man is the “maginficent” center of creation. In the 1960’s the Jefferson Airplane critiqued this view with their album “Crown of Creation” which spoke of man as that crown “with no place to go” except to self-destruction through nuclear holocaust:

Crown Of Creation

On the other hand  Justin vernon may have used holocene as a metaphor for life as some sort of personal “ice age” in his life rather than as an actual scientific consideration regarding the nature of human existence. At any rate, he seems to believe that man(or at least himself) has some good reasons to become humble and realize his non-magnificence.

But this sometimes admitted fact of humankind actually raises the question whether, notwithstanding our propensity for non-magnificence,  we are is in some sense still magnificent. This question arises by simply reflecting on the phenomena of self-consciousness. The Grateful Dead sang “wake up to find out that you are the eyes of the world” which I think is about the phenomena of man’s consciousness in relation to the comparatively blind and deaf world we inhabit. I am not saying that man should not be humbled and awed through nature or geologic ages, or infinite space. But is there a sense in which man’s realization of some comparative non-magnificence is ironically an evidence for his essential magnificence?

To ask this question another way would be to ask why humans should be awed at nature or geologic ages or infinite space? Simply because they are larger or more powerful? Is power the only way to measure significance? Again, I am not saying that we should not be awed by these things, but apart from the reality of a God that created them I would say that they should instead be awed by us, since according to most modern science we are the “most evolved” conscious beings. Of course our magnificence is only increased by the proposal that nature should be awed by us, because nature cannot be awed since it is not conscious of itself or of us.

With these perhaps strange ways of thinking I am simply trying to point out that the feeling of awe is something that strongly supports the existence of a creator and likely would not be our experience otherwise. It is because we are looking at someone’s handiwork, and actually are someone’s handiwork  that we both do and can experience awe. We should even be awed  (and yet humbled) by our own magnificence because of the fact that this magnificence is the Creator’s gift to us, not our achievement or the achievement of the unconscious process of evolution. The fact of a Creator also is why I said we are more precisely awed through nature as creation (and not by nature as accident). 

Earlier this year I posted the following quote from C.S. Lewis in which he explains that from Pascal to Justin Vernon, we are meant to be a race of poets, and that this constitutes a magnificence:

“We are inveterate poets. When a quantity is very great we cease to regard it as a mere quantity. Our imaginations awake. Instead of mere quantity, we now have a quality-the sublime….Men of sensibility look up on the night sky with awe: brutal and stupid men do not. When the silence of the eternal spaces terrified Pascal, it was Pascal’s own greatness that enabled them to do so; to be frightened by the bigness of the nebulae is, almost literally, to be frightened of our own shadow. For light years and geological periods are mere arithmetic until the shadow of man, the poet, the maker of myths, falls upon them. As a Christian, I do not say we are wrong to tremble at that shadow; for I believe it to be the shadow of the image of God. But if the vastness of Nature ever threatens to overcrow our spirits, we must remember that it is only Nature spiritualized by human imagination which does so.” (from “Miracles” by C. S. Lewis)

I think therefore, that it is evident that we are both non-magnificent and magnificent, although obviously the sense in which these can both be true must be qualified lest we transgress the law of non-contradiction. (The fact that we can conceive of such a law is another evidence for some measure of magnificence.)

Psalm 8 is an interesting meditation/revelation that shows humankind as we manifestly are: namely inhabiting an in-between position of magnificence. Whatever scientific way that anyone may posit to theorize regarding how man came to be where he is, I believe it is fairly obvious that he is what he is, and that this in-between position is precisely the reason for his potential for great evil or for great good. I believe that recognizing this rightful place, neither at the highest, nor at the lowest, is needed for humankind to realize under and through God, the good.

O Lord, our Lord,
How excellent is Your name in all the earth,
Who have set Your glory above the heavens!
2 Out of the mouth of babes and nursing infants
You have ordained strength,
Because of Your enemies,
That You may silence the enemy and the avenger.
3 When I consider Your heavens, the work of Your fingers,
The moon and the stars, which You have ordained,
4 What is man that You are mindful of him,
And the son of man that You visit him?
5 For You have made him a little lower than the angels,
And You have crowned him with glory and honor.
6 You have made him to have dominion over the works of Your hands;
You have put all things under his feet,
7 All sheep and oxen—
Even the beasts of the field,
8 The birds of the air,
And the fish of the sea
That pass through the paths of the seas.
9 O Lord, our Lord,
How excellent is Your name in all the earth!

Hopefully, under and through God we will find that balance and will see the way “miles, miles, miles…” forward, toward a just dominion of responsibility for all creation. According to the Apostle Paul, it is what the creation is waiting for (“For the creation waits with eager longing for the revealing of the sons of God” – Romans 8:19)

And at once I knew I was not magnificent
High above the highway aisle (Jagged vacance, thick with ice)
But I could see for miles, miles, miles


Obviously all my comments are my own opinions and some may heartily disagree, but this is my attempt to understand why we are, in the term of Lewis, “inveterate poets” even when we declare with Bon Iver, “I was not magnificent.”

Please feel free to present your own understanding of why or whether you experience awe. Thanks

Original Content © Bryan M. Christman and Manifest Propensity, 2013. Excerpts, links, and reblogging 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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