You're Saying the Same Thing

Allusions/Illusions
ohdoubters:

Ten Stories Analysis
Introduction

A little over a year ago, mewithoutYou’s fifth studio album, Ten Stories, was released.  One thing was immediately apparent:  this was not an album that was simply made to be listened to while driving on a spring afternoon with the windows down.  But of course, none of their albums really are.  Ten Stories, though, is a beast of a different sort.  Lyricist Aaron Weiss has always been want to wade out into the river of obscure poetry, religious philosophy, and fable on past albums.  The allusions to Vonnegut’s Slaughterhouse Five on [A-B]: Life, for example, or writing a song to a porcupine in a tree on Brother, Sister.  Their previous album, It’s All Crazy!  It’s All False!  It’s All a Dream!  It’s Alright. boasted the lion’s share of the fairy tale approach to Weiss’ usual philosophical and introspective wordslinging.  Here foxes tricked narcissistic crows and beetle kings became one with the Divine in the form of a lone campfire, all with another layer of meaning spread out underneath it all like a second skin.

Which brings us to Ten Stories, an album as ambitious and beautiful as it is bizarre and at times, rather befuddling.  The day the album dropped, I sat down with the lyrics in front of me and compiled what became known as my “Ten Stories Glossary”.  Never before had so many strange references, literary allusions, and animal symbolism assaulted my ears on a mewithoutYou record.  After I had spend a good couple of hours defining to the best of my ability every word or phrase with which I, as the layman, would be unfamiliar, I sat back and thought to myself, “Gee that was swell.  A really very helpful exercise.”

But what’s really goin’ on here?

Because, to be honest, I still wasn’t sure.  I’m still not.  Was Elephant supposed to represent Christ?  Why is a rabbit in a relationship with a fortune teller?  Is the “I” really such an unintelligible lie?  And for God’s sake, why is there a song about someone who is apparently falling for a basket full of eggplants?

I haven’t a clue.  

But, I’d like to try and find out.  Thus I come to my small project, a year out from the release of Ten Stories.  I seek to explore the rich themes present in each of the songs on the album.  What is happening in the plot, to these animals and their circus folk jailers?  What do these characters and their circumstances represent?

It’s a challenging task to take on, mostly because there aren’t a whole lot of interviews with Aaron Weiss that really strive to pick the brain of such an interesting songwriter.  Also there is the problem of the dual, and often triple meanings present in the songs.  In “Fox’s Dream of the Log Flume”, Bear is speaking to his best friend and fellow traveller, Fox, about a past love and a disastrous night they had at a carnival in New Jersey.  On the surface, anyway.  But what is this saying about relationships?  Or about religion?  Or something else?  And let’s go further.  When Weiss sings, “in the past fourteen years there’s only one girl I’ve kissed” is this merely Bear speaking, or is this a more personal revelation stemming from the broken relationship so predominantly explored on earlier albums?  Could it at once be all of these?  It probably is.  

(I don’t much feel like speculating on an artist’s personal life, so I have attempted to leave out any theorizing as to what inner struggles Weiss might be specifically referencing and instead will focus on what the songs say for themselves.)

I have here attempted to wrestle with my own understanding of this incredible work of art.  I am a layman and will in all likelihood be wrong about most of the conclusions I come to.  The reason I even make the attempt is that, even a year later, not much has been done to really compile a thought piece on what everything could mean in Ten Stories.  This is meant to prompt discussion.  Disagree with what I’ve found and tell me about it.  Find out something new and add to this, please.  I’d be fascinated to read it.

One final note:  I owe nearly all of the better conclusions I have come to in this project to my long conversations with my friend and research partner Brian Walton over the last twelve months (and more intensely in the past week in preparation to dig into this).  

The mistakes were mine.




February, 1878

With the possible exception of the b-side “Julian the Onion”, the first track on Ten Stories is probably the most straightforward song plot-wise.  That doesn’t mean that there isn’t some thematic depth to dig into as the song progresses, of course.  “February, 1878” drops the listener right into the middle of the action with a clamoring crowd of geographical and railroad terms that are fairly baffling before a Google search or two sheds a bit of light on the subject.  

In an unspecified region of Montana, somewhere south of Trout Creek and west of Cedar Lake, a circus train navigates a winding mountain trail on a railroad built by Union Pacific [On a winding mountain trail of the North Pacific Union Rail].  Two problems are immediately apparent:  the train is running behind schedule, and a blizzard has hit [the snow arrived on time, the circus train was running late].  The repair track is long behind , and the hooks that link the train cars together are wearing out [rip spot’s past and all the knuckles worn].  The firebox, where the coal is burned to power the steam locomotive is overloading [firebox bursting to the running boards].  The engineer, his heart pounding in his chest, pushes the train faster and faster as it rounds the bend.  He holds on to the throttle and leans into the turn as the train almost comes off of the rails [a pounding in his chest, crushing like a cider press, the hogger rode the throttle ‘round the bender like a flank-strapped horse].

An exciting way to begin a fable, no doubt, but we soon move on to a more important area of the ailing circus train: the animal car.  It is here that we are introduced to what is arguably the most important character in Ten Stories.  

There is much speculation online as to exactly who or what Elephant represents.  A safe bet, considering mewithoutYou’s usual subject matter, would be God.  More specifically the person or idea of Jesus Christ.  Initially I was hesitant to assign a hard line 1:1 ratio of Elephant = Jesus.  In a later song, Elephant will display a definite feeling of regret for the way she has lived her life before the events of the story.  This seems to indicate she isn’t a completely blameless (or sinless) creature as Christian tradition teaches Christ was.  A few things brought me around to the idea that if Elephant isn’t representing Christ, she is representing, at the very least, a Christ-like and almost holy individual.  

First is the obvious.  As we shall soon see in this song, she sacrifices her own freedom (and, it is to be assumed, her life) in order to grant the animals unlimited freedom.  Sacrificing oneself for another is a very central idea to the Christian faith, and it will crop up numerous times on this album.

Second, the song title “Elephant in the Dock” seems to be a direct reference to the C.S. Lewis book, God in the Dock, which we will talk about later.  That seems to be a pretty definitive answer if ever there was one.  

The third aspect that points to the holiness, if not complete Divinity, of the Elephant character is rather more illusory and requires a bit of digging into past mewithoutYou albums.  Here, the animals refer to Elephant as their “mother”.  While God is usually referred to as a “He”, the Bible also states in many places that God has feminine qualities.  Or, more specifically, maternal ones.  Aaron Weiss is no stranger to this aspect of the Divine, and has referenced it numerous times on previous albums.  The song “Timothy Hay” is the best example of this because of the very bluntness of the lyrics in which Weiss sings, “Broke the news to Mom: we found a better mom we call G-d, (which she took quite well)”.  The motherhood of God is an oft-repeated theme in mewithoutYou’s catalog and Ten Stories seems to be following in that same vein.

My conclusion is that, for all intents and purposes of the fable presented, Mother Elephant does represent God.  Now, to return to the story.

The animal car of the train is filled with all manner of creatures, and as the menagerie rounds the bend, Mother Elephant addresses them.  “Let’s return now to the dust as dust we are; tonight our bridal fate, the hour’s come to consummate!”

Elephant’s words here are pretty important as they seem to emphasize a certain final decision she has come to that will definitely endanger them all, but may also save them in the end.  But before we get to that we have to consider what the animals will be saved from.

In later songs we will learn of the cruelty and “falsehood” of the circus itself, so on the surface it seems the animals mistreatment could be enough of a catalyst to risk everything and escape.  As always, there is more depth to plumb in this theme.  

Aaron Weiss has stated that the animals are living an “institutionalized” life in the circus.  In other words, they have become circus acts, rather than the wild and free beasts they should be.  The circus institution, then, could be a stand in for a number of things.  The simple answer is a “secular” or God-less lifestyle, but it isn’t really that simple.

Notice the features of the circus train mentioned here.  It is on a straight track.  It is working furiously toward a goal.  When the train derails, the animals are free and the rest of the album has them doing… What exactly?  Wandering the countryside.  They will meet other characters, most of whom will have vastly differing ideologies and outlooks, and they will struggle with their own long-held assumptions about faith and sacrifice.  The subliminal idea presented here seems to be that a lifestyle devoted to attaining fleeting societal and “earthly” goals is an institution that should be wholeheartedly rejected.

Even if to reject it means you will be disgraced and murdered.

And that brings us to Mother Elephant’s rallying cry.  They may die, and thus be returned to the dust from which all things sprang, but this would be a noble death.  And in death, it seems, there is more hope than even the circus offers.  The moment of decision, the sheer act of will required to remove oneself from the institution is here a fate compared to the consummation of a marriage.  An act of beauty.  Often times, an act that results in the conception of life.

The result of Elephant’s determination to free the animals is quite stunning.  She charges into the bars of her cage [and drove her massive body like a truck into the iron bars].  An open top train car loaded down with a cargo of limestone derails first in the wake of the impact [limestone thrown from out the hopper’s back], and the man responsible for fueling the fire is thrown bodily from the engine and against the smokestack [Ash Cat tossed against the diamond stack].  From the front of the train to the back, bolts long frozen in the cold Montana air break free and the animals’ cage spins off of the train car and into the snow [from cradle to caboose, the frozen bolts broke loose, sent that cage spinning like a dreidel off the icy tracks].

The song now switches gears, focusing on the animals escaping the wreckage.  The narrator, who seems here almost to be adopting the voice or thoughts of Elephant urges Rabbit to race on into the blizzard before dawn, and to keep running until his heart finds peace somewhere [Run on, Rabbit, run!  Before the East sky wakes the sun!  Sails set to the dreadful cold, until your anchor-heart takes hold].  Notice that here the emphasis is on setting sail to the wind, which is a freely wandering natural force.  This can be immediately compared to the rigid railway of predetermined destination and societal expectation.  

A train speeding down the tracks is easily derailed when an Elephant decides to alter its course.  The wind, however, can never be tamed.

The narration then turns to Fox and Bear, again urging them to run from the despair of circus life, and let the wind guide them.  [Run on, Fox & Bear, from this dismal dream’s despair!  Cast thoughts to the open ocean of air, until your thread catch somewhere].  This is the first literary reference we come across and it will certainly not be the last.  These lines are adapted from Walt Whitman’s “Noiseless Patient Spider” and a full reading of the short poem is quite helpful for illuminating the extent of what is happening here.

“A NOISELESS, patient spider,
I mark’d, where, on a little promontory, it stood, isolated;
Mark’d how, to explore the vacant, vast surrounding,
It launch’d forth filament, filament, filament, out of itself;
Ever unreeling them—ever tirelessly speeding them.  
And you, O my Soul, where you stand, 
Surrounded, surrounded, in measureless oceans of space, 
Ceaselessly musing, venturing, throwing,—seeking the spheres, to connect them; 
Till the bridge you will need, be form’d—till the ductile anchor hold; 
Till the gossamer thread you fling, catch somewhere, O my Soul.”

The spider in the poem inspires the author to think of his soul casting a net out into a mysterious world in hope of finding some connection.  This solidifies the idea that the journey the animals take will not merely be a physical one, but a spiritual one as well.  

A journey of salvation, and of ultimate freedom, for the soul.

The animals hesitate, however, because not everyone has chosen to escape as they have.  Elephant remains in her cage, despite the animals calling to her [“Mother, please come along!” they cried, but Elephant remained inside].  Elephant refuses to leave.  She believes herself to be too old and weak to make good her getaway.  Instead she chooses to accept the fate that awaits her.  Her words to the animals are fascinating and must be studied closely: “My tusks are dull, my eyes half-blind, too old to run, too big to hide, and have neither friend nor enemy nor that phantom, ‘self-identity’, nor concern for what ‘they’ll’ do to ‘me’.  Now, my children, run free!”

There is a lot to unpack here.  First, the idea of Elephant’s sacrifice.  She isn’t just deciding to accept fate and die in the cold.  No, as she well knows, there is an active danger in being captured by men once again.  She is choosing, for now metaphorically, to die rather than risk slowing the other animals down in their flight to freedom.  Furthermore, she considers no one her explicit friend and no one her explicit enemy.  She has divorced herself from such notions of friends and enemies, which is a rather worldy idea.  A circus sort of thing, one might say.  With her next words, however, we must again cast our nets further into mewithoutYou’s lyrical past.

The idea of personhood as some sort of an arbitrary illusion runs deep in Aaron Weiss’ lyrics.  And it is not merely a denial of self, although it seems to begin there.  A common refrain on Brother, Sister is “I do not exist”, as in, “I do not exist, we faithfully insist,” and,  “I do not exist, only YOU exist!”  The idea is expounded on in many of the songs from It’s All Crazy! It’s All False! It’s All a Dream! It’s Alright!.  In “Cattail Down” Weiss writes, “You think you’re you, but you don’t know who you are, you’re not you… You’re Everyone Else!”  There is even a song explicitly titled “Goodbye, I!” on the album.  In fact, the idea of forgetting oneself seems somewhat toned down in Ten Stories as compared to the previous album, in which that seemed to be the theme on just about every song.  It will no doubt crop up many times before we are through, though.

For our purposes here, Elephant seems to have completely denied her “self”.  She refers to “self-identity” as a phantom idea, and even seems to put quotes around every pronoun she uses, for herself and others.  It is as if the idea of individual identity has been completely emptied from her.  She sees herself in everyone, and everyone in herself.  Thus she is willing to lay down her life for the animals, and has no ill will toward those that would normally be labeled “enemies”.  All of her worry is gone.

The narrator chimes in again, this time to Tiger.  Tiger sits still in his cage, also refusing to leave as the authorities approach the scene [But Tiger, why sit still, as the officers climb the hill?].  Once again we are treated to a literary reference.  This time it is in phrasing adapted from “The Tyger” by William Blake [What stars cast down their spears cooled your fire with their tears?].  The poem is really quite beautiful:

“Tyger! Tyger! burning bright 
In the forests of the night, 
What immortal hand or eye 
Could frame thy fearful symmetry? 
In what distant deeps or skies  Burnt the fire of thine eyes?  On what wings dare he aspire?  What the hand dare sieze the fire? 
And what shoulder, & what art.  Could twist the sinews of thy heart?  And when thy heart began to beat,  What dread hand? & what dread feet? 
What the hammer? what the chain?  In what furnace was thy brain?  What the anvil? what dread grasp  Dare its deadly terrors clasp? 
When the stars threw down their spears,  And watered heaven with their tears,  Did he smile his work to see?  Did he who made the Lamb make thee? 
Tyger! Tyger! burning bright  In the forests of the night,  What immortal hand or eye  Dare frame thy fearful symmetry?”
In the poem, the author extols the magnificence of such a fierce and elegant animal as the tiger.  Weiss seems to have appropriated a couple of different lines and thematic elements from the poem and incorporated it into the section of the song devoted to Tiger.  The Narrator asks Tiger, in essence, “Why do you sit still?  What cosmic force could have even cooled your fiery spirit in the past?”
Tiger’s response is as sad as it is understandable for someone in his situation.  The enchanting song of freedom no longer reaches his ears.  His family is gone, long dead or long forgotten in his circus life.  Everything he once knew now resides simply in his memory and his heart.  What is there for him in freedom?  Nothing more, he believes, than what the circus offers [Tiger: “Gone that siren sound, it’s a silence now pours down.  Gone my next of kin, and all once without now lives within.”]
Fox and Rabbit call to Tiger, in what appears to be at once a warning and a eulogy.  “You sit still on display like a tiger cut from an unmoving shrub, and yet once you blazed bright like fire!” [Topiary Tiger once burned bright!]  They tell him to receive their wisdom and leave behind this belief that he has received some special fore-knowledge of what awaits them [Save your tales of gnostic sight and take heed on this (most) auspicious night!  Topiary Tiger once burned bright!].  Tiger still refuses, and the song here ends.
Notice first the comparison between Tiger’s choice to remain in his cage and Elephant’s choice to remain in hers.  For Elephant it was not only practical because of her ailing body, but it was also a determined choice of self denial.  For Tiger, it was utter pessimism and hopelessness that caused him to remain.  He has ignored his friends and, essentially, God.  All have made the case that he is able bodied and was once a truly amazing creature.  Tiger should have every reason in the world to leave his cage.  Certainly he wont be apprehended, for he can be agile, swift, and dangerous.  It is in part his refusal to see the freedom in front of his face that roots him to the spot.  Or, rather, that he defines that same freedom as nothing more than a larger version of the circus.  This, in turn, is the very definition of an institutionalized life:  to become so lost in the sorrows of the institution that you fail to see anything other than that same institution in the idea of freedom.  Tiger has transgressed even further, considering his despair wisdom.  Despair in and of itself is not wrong.  Being so consumed by your situation that you attribute your despair to some holy wisdom is something else entirely.  
That, then, is the ultimate difference between someone like Mother Elephant and someone like Tiger.  Elephant chooses death because she has sacrificed self and thus ended her earthly worries.  Tiger, however, has become consumed by self and the baggage that comes with it.  His sorrows and fears overtake him, and he denies himself a chance at the eternal happiness that is right in front of him because, ironically, he is too sad to accept it.
The circus has won, and Tiger will not escape.

Proceeding to reblog all of these. Sorry they’re not quite in order on You’re Saying the Same Thing. 

ohdoubters:

Ten Stories Analysis

Introduction

A little over a year ago, mewithoutYou’s fifth studio album, Ten Stories, was released.  One thing was immediately apparent:  this was not an album that was simply made to be listened to while driving on a spring afternoon with the windows down.  But of course, none of their albums really are.  Ten Stories, though, is a beast of a different sort.  Lyricist Aaron Weiss has always been want to wade out into the river of obscure poetry, religious philosophy, and fable on past albums.  The allusions to Vonnegut’s Slaughterhouse Five on [A-B]: Life, for example, or writing a song to a porcupine in a tree on Brother, Sister.  Their previous album, It’s All Crazy!  It’s All False!  It’s All a Dream!  It’s Alright. boasted the lion’s share of the fairy tale approach to Weiss’ usual philosophical and introspective wordslinging.  Here foxes tricked narcissistic crows and beetle kings became one with the Divine in the form of a lone campfire, all with another layer of meaning spread out underneath it all like a second skin.

Which brings us to Ten Stories, an album as ambitious and beautiful as it is bizarre and at times, rather befuddling.  The day the album dropped, I sat down with the lyrics in front of me and compiled what became known as my “Ten Stories Glossary”.  Never before had so many strange references, literary allusions, and animal symbolism assaulted my ears on a mewithoutYou record.  After I had spend a good couple of hours defining to the best of my ability every word or phrase with which I, as the layman, would be unfamiliar, I sat back and thought to myself, “Gee that was swell.  A really very helpful exercise.”

But what’s really goin’ on here?

Because, to be honest, I still wasn’t sure.  I’m still not.  Was Elephant supposed to represent Christ?  Why is a rabbit in a relationship with a fortune teller?  Is the “I” really such an unintelligible lie?  And for God’s sake, why is there a song about someone who is apparently falling for a basket full of eggplants?

I haven’t a clue.  

But, I’d like to try and find out.  Thus I come to my small project, a year out from the release of Ten Stories.  I seek to explore the rich themes present in each of the songs on the album.  What is happening in the plot, to these animals and their circus folk jailers?  What do these characters and their circumstances represent?

It’s a challenging task to take on, mostly because there aren’t a whole lot of interviews with Aaron Weiss that really strive to pick the brain of such an interesting songwriter.  Also there is the problem of the dual, and often triple meanings present in the songs.  In “Fox’s Dream of the Log Flume”, Bear is speaking to his best friend and fellow traveller, Fox, about a past love and a disastrous night they had at a carnival in New Jersey.  On the surface, anyway.  But what is this saying about relationships?  Or about religion?  Or something else?  And let’s go further.  When Weiss sings, “in the past fourteen years there’s only one girl I’ve kissed” is this merely Bear speaking, or is this a more personal revelation stemming from the broken relationship so predominantly explored on earlier albums?  Could it at once be all of these?  It probably is.  

(I don’t much feel like speculating on an artist’s personal life, so I have attempted to leave out any theorizing as to what inner struggles Weiss might be specifically referencing and instead will focus on what the songs say for themselves.)

I have here attempted to wrestle with my own understanding of this incredible work of art.  I am a layman and will in all likelihood be wrong about most of the conclusions I come to.  The reason I even make the attempt is that, even a year later, not much has been done to really compile a thought piece on what everything could mean in Ten Stories.  This is meant to prompt discussion.  Disagree with what I’ve found and tell me about it.  Find out something new and add to this, please.  I’d be fascinated to read it.

One final note:  I owe nearly all of the better conclusions I have come to in this project to my long conversations with my friend and research partner Brian Walton over the last twelve months (and more intensely in the past week in preparation to dig into this).  

The mistakes were mine.

February, 1878

With the possible exception of the b-side “Julian the Onion”, the first track on Ten Stories is probably the most straightforward song plot-wise.  That doesn’t mean that there isn’t some thematic depth to dig into as the song progresses, of course.  “February, 1878” drops the listener right into the middle of the action with a clamoring crowd of geographical and railroad terms that are fairly baffling before a Google search or two sheds a bit of light on the subject.  

In an unspecified region of Montana, somewhere south of Trout Creek and west of Cedar Lake, a circus train navigates a winding mountain trail on a railroad built by Union Pacific [On a winding mountain trail of the North Pacific Union Rail].  Two problems are immediately apparent:  the train is running behind schedule, and a blizzard has hit [the snow arrived on time, the circus train was running late].  The repair track is long behind , and the hooks that link the train cars together are wearing out [rip spot’s past and all the knuckles worn].  The firebox, where the coal is burned to power the steam locomotive is overloading [firebox bursting to the running boards].  The engineer, his heart pounding in his chest, pushes the train faster and faster as it rounds the bend.  He holds on to the throttle and leans into the turn as the train almost comes off of the rails [a pounding in his chest, crushing like a cider press, the hogger rode the throttle ‘round the bender like a flank-strapped horse].

An exciting way to begin a fable, no doubt, but we soon move on to a more important area of the ailing circus train: the animal car.  It is here that we are introduced to what is arguably the most important character in Ten Stories.  

There is much speculation online as to exactly who or what Elephant represents.  A safe bet, considering mewithoutYou’s usual subject matter, would be God.  More specifically the person or idea of Jesus Christ.  Initially I was hesitant to assign a hard line 1:1 ratio of Elephant = Jesus.  In a later song, Elephant will display a definite feeling of regret for the way she has lived her life before the events of the story.  This seems to indicate she isn’t a completely blameless (or sinless) creature as Christian tradition teaches Christ was.  A few things brought me around to the idea that if Elephant isn’t representing Christ, she is representing, at the very least, a Christ-like and almost holy individual.  

First is the obvious.  As we shall soon see in this song, she sacrifices her own freedom (and, it is to be assumed, her life) in order to grant the animals unlimited freedom.  Sacrificing oneself for another is a very central idea to the Christian faith, and it will crop up numerous times on this album.

Second, the song title “Elephant in the Dock” seems to be a direct reference to the C.S. Lewis book, God in the Dock, which we will talk about later.  That seems to be a pretty definitive answer if ever there was one.  

The third aspect that points to the holiness, if not complete Divinity, of the Elephant character is rather more illusory and requires a bit of digging into past mewithoutYou albums.  Here, the animals refer to Elephant as their “mother”.  While God is usually referred to as a “He”, the Bible also states in many places that God has feminine qualities.  Or, more specifically, maternal ones.  Aaron Weiss is no stranger to this aspect of the Divine, and has referenced it numerous times on previous albums.  The song “Timothy Hay” is the best example of this because of the very bluntness of the lyrics in which Weiss sings, “Broke the news to Mom: we found a better mom we call G-d, (which she took quite well)”.  The motherhood of God is an oft-repeated theme in mewithoutYou’s catalog and Ten Stories seems to be following in that same vein.

My conclusion is that, for all intents and purposes of the fable presented, Mother Elephant does represent God.  Now, to return to the story.

The animal car of the train is filled with all manner of creatures, and as the menagerie rounds the bend, Mother Elephant addresses them.  “Let’s return now to the dust as dust we are; tonight our bridal fate, the hour’s come to consummate!”

Elephant’s words here are pretty important as they seem to emphasize a certain final decision she has come to that will definitely endanger them all, but may also save them in the end.  But before we get to that we have to consider what the animals will be saved from.

In later songs we will learn of the cruelty and “falsehood” of the circus itself, so on the surface it seems the animals mistreatment could be enough of a catalyst to risk everything and escape.  As always, there is more depth to plumb in this theme.  

Aaron Weiss has stated that the animals are living an “institutionalized” life in the circus.  In other words, they have become circus acts, rather than the wild and free beasts they should be.  The circus institution, then, could be a stand in for a number of things.  The simple answer is a “secular” or God-less lifestyle, but it isn’t really that simple.

Notice the features of the circus train mentioned here.  It is on a straight track.  It is working furiously toward a goal.  When the train derails, the animals are free and the rest of the album has them doing… What exactly?  Wandering the countryside.  They will meet other characters, most of whom will have vastly differing ideologies and outlooks, and they will struggle with their own long-held assumptions about faith and sacrifice.  The subliminal idea presented here seems to be that a lifestyle devoted to attaining fleeting societal and “earthly” goals is an institution that should be wholeheartedly rejected.

Even if to reject it means you will be disgraced and murdered.

And that brings us to Mother Elephant’s rallying cry.  They may die, and thus be returned to the dust from which all things sprang, but this would be a noble death.  And in death, it seems, there is more hope than even the circus offers.  The moment of decision, the sheer act of will required to remove oneself from the institution is here a fate compared to the consummation of a marriage.  An act of beauty.  Often times, an act that results in the conception of life.

The result of Elephant’s determination to free the animals is quite stunning.  She charges into the bars of her cage [and drove her massive body like a truck into the iron bars].  An open top train car loaded down with a cargo of limestone derails first in the wake of the impact [limestone thrown from out the hopper’s back], and the man responsible for fueling the fire is thrown bodily from the engine and against the smokestack [Ash Cat tossed against the diamond stack].  From the front of the train to the back, bolts long frozen in the cold Montana air break free and the animals’ cage spins off of the train car and into the snow [from cradle to caboose, the frozen bolts broke loose, sent that cage spinning like a dreidel off the icy tracks].

The song now switches gears, focusing on the animals escaping the wreckage.  The narrator, who seems here almost to be adopting the voice or thoughts of Elephant urges Rabbit to race on into the blizzard before dawn, and to keep running until his heart finds peace somewhere [Run on, Rabbit, run!  Before the East sky wakes the sun!  Sails set to the dreadful cold, until your anchor-heart takes hold].  Notice that here the emphasis is on setting sail to the wind, which is a freely wandering natural force.  This can be immediately compared to the rigid railway of predetermined destination and societal expectation.  

A train speeding down the tracks is easily derailed when an Elephant decides to alter its course.  The wind, however, can never be tamed.

The narration then turns to Fox and Bear, again urging them to run from the despair of circus life, and let the wind guide them.  [Run on, Fox & Bear, from this dismal dream’s despair!  Cast thoughts to the open ocean of air, until your thread catch somewhere].  This is the first literary reference we come across and it will certainly not be the last.  These lines are adapted from Walt Whitman’s “Noiseless Patient Spider” and a full reading of the short poem is quite helpful for illuminating the extent of what is happening here.

“A NOISELESS, patient spider,

I mark’d, where, on a little promontory, it stood, isolated;

Mark’d how, to explore the vacant, vast surrounding,

It launch’d forth filament, filament, filament, out of itself;

Ever unreeling them—ever tirelessly speeding them.  

And you, O my Soul, where you stand, 

Surrounded, surrounded, in measureless oceans of space, 

Ceaselessly musing, venturing, throwing,—seeking the spheres, to connect them; 

Till the bridge you will need, be form’d—till the ductile anchor hold; 

Till the gossamer thread you fling, catch somewhere, O my Soul.”

The spider in the poem inspires the author to think of his soul casting a net out into a mysterious world in hope of finding some connection.  This solidifies the idea that the journey the animals take will not merely be a physical one, but a spiritual one as well.  

A journey of salvation, and of ultimate freedom, for the soul.

The animals hesitate, however, because not everyone has chosen to escape as they have.  Elephant remains in her cage, despite the animals calling to her [“Mother, please come along!” they cried, but Elephant remained inside].  Elephant refuses to leave.  She believes herself to be too old and weak to make good her getaway.  Instead she chooses to accept the fate that awaits her.  Her words to the animals are fascinating and must be studied closely: “My tusks are dull, my eyes half-blind, too old to run, too big to hide, and have neither friend nor enemy nor that phantom, ‘self-identity’, nor concern for what ‘they’ll’ do to ‘me’.  Now, my children, run free!”

There is a lot to unpack here.  First, the idea of Elephant’s sacrifice.  She isn’t just deciding to accept fate and die in the cold.  No, as she well knows, there is an active danger in being captured by men once again.  She is choosing, for now metaphorically, to die rather than risk slowing the other animals down in their flight to freedom.  Furthermore, she considers no one her explicit friend and no one her explicit enemy.  She has divorced herself from such notions of friends and enemies, which is a rather worldy idea.  A circus sort of thing, one might say.  With her next words, however, we must again cast our nets further into mewithoutYou’s lyrical past.

The idea of personhood as some sort of an arbitrary illusion runs deep in Aaron Weiss’ lyrics.  And it is not merely a denial of self, although it seems to begin there.  A common refrain on Brother, Sister is “I do not exist”, as in, “I do not exist, we faithfully insist,” and,  “I do not exist, only YOU exist!”  The idea is expounded on in many of the songs from It’s All Crazy! It’s All False! It’s All a Dream! It’s Alright!.  In “Cattail Down” Weiss writes, “You think you’re you, but you don’t know who you are, you’re not you… You’re Everyone Else!”  There is even a song explicitly titled “Goodbye, I!” on the album.  In fact, the idea of forgetting oneself seems somewhat toned down in Ten Stories as compared to the previous album, in which that seemed to be the theme on just about every song.  It will no doubt crop up many times before we are through, though.

For our purposes here, Elephant seems to have completely denied her “self”.  She refers to “self-identity” as a phantom idea, and even seems to put quotes around every pronoun she uses, for herself and others.  It is as if the idea of individual identity has been completely emptied from her.  She sees herself in everyone, and everyone in herself.  Thus she is willing to lay down her life for the animals, and has no ill will toward those that would normally be labeled “enemies”.  All of her worry is gone.

The narrator chimes in again, this time to Tiger.  Tiger sits still in his cage, also refusing to leave as the authorities approach the scene [But Tiger, why sit still, as the officers climb the hill?].  Once again we are treated to a literary reference.  This time it is in phrasing adapted from “The Tyger” by William Blake [What stars cast down their spears cooled your fire with their tears?].  The poem is really quite beautiful:

“Tyger! Tyger! burning bright 

In the forests of the night, 

What immortal hand or eye 

Could frame thy fearful symmetry? 

In what distant deeps or skies
Burnt the fire of thine eyes?
On what wings dare he aspire?
What the hand dare sieze the fire? 

And what shoulder, & what art.
Could twist the sinews of thy heart?
And when thy heart began to beat,
What dread hand? & what dread feet? 

What the hammer? what the chain?
In what furnace was thy brain?
What the anvil? what dread grasp
Dare its deadly terrors clasp? 

When the stars threw down their spears,
And watered heaven with their tears,
Did he smile his work to see?
Did he who made the Lamb make thee? 

Tyger! Tyger! burning bright
In the forests of the night,
What immortal hand or eye
Dare frame thy fearful symmetry?”

In the poem, the author extols the magnificence of such a fierce and elegant animal as the tiger.  Weiss seems to have appropriated a couple of different lines and thematic elements from the poem and incorporated it into the section of the song devoted to Tiger.  The Narrator asks Tiger, in essence, “Why do you sit still?  What cosmic force could have even cooled your fiery spirit in the past?

Tiger’s response is as sad as it is understandable for someone in his situation.  The enchanting song of freedom no longer reaches his ears.  His family is gone, long dead or long forgotten in his circus life.  Everything he once knew now resides simply in his memory and his heart.  What is there for him in freedom?  Nothing more, he believes, than what the circus offers [Tiger: “Gone that siren sound, it’s a silence now pours down.  Gone my next of kin, and all once without now lives within.”]

Fox and Rabbit call to Tiger, in what appears to be at once a warning and a eulogy.  “You sit still on display like a tiger cut from an unmoving shrub, and yet once you blazed bright like fire!” [Topiary Tiger once burned bright!]  They tell him to receive their wisdom and leave behind this belief that he has received some special fore-knowledge of what awaits them [Save your tales of gnostic sight and take heed on this (most) auspicious night!  Topiary Tiger once burned bright!].  Tiger still refuses, and the song here ends.

Notice first the comparison between Tiger’s choice to remain in his cage and Elephant’s choice to remain in hers.  For Elephant it was not only practical because of her ailing body, but it was also a determined choice of self denial.  For Tiger, it was utter pessimism and hopelessness that caused him to remain.  He has ignored his friends and, essentially, God.  All have made the case that he is able bodied and was once a truly amazing creature.  Tiger should have every reason in the world to leave his cage.  Certainly he wont be apprehended, for he can be agile, swift, and dangerous.  It is in part his refusal to see the freedom in front of his face that roots him to the spot.  Or, rather, that he defines that same freedom as nothing more than a larger version of the circus.  This, in turn, is the very definition of an institutionalized life:  to become so lost in the sorrows of the institution that you fail to see anything other than that same institution in the idea of freedom.  Tiger has transgressed even further, considering his despair wisdom.  Despair in and of itself is not wrong.  Being so consumed by your situation that you attribute your despair to some holy wisdom is something else entirely.  

That, then, is the ultimate difference between someone like Mother Elephant and someone like Tiger.  Elephant chooses death because she has sacrificed self and thus ended her earthly worries.  Tiger, however, has become consumed by self and the baggage that comes with it.  His sorrows and fears overtake him, and he denies himself a chance at the eternal happiness that is right in front of him because, ironically, he is too sad to accept it.

The circus has won, and Tiger will not escape.

Proceeding to reblog all of these. Sorry they’re not quite in order on You’re Saying the Same Thing. 

ohdoubters:

Elephant in the Dock

In his essay God in the Dock, C.S. Lewis writes, “The ancient man approached God (or even the gods) as the accused person approaches his judge. For the modern  man the roles are reversed, He is the judge: God is in the dock. He is quite a kindly judge: if God should have a reasonable defense for being the god who permits war, poverty and disease, he is ready to listen to it. The trial may even end in God’s acquittal.  But the important thing is that Man is on the Bench and God in the Dock.”  With an image of God put on trial by a jury of men, we thus begin our examination of the most pivotal song on Ten Stories, “Elephant in the Dock”, the title of which is an overt reference to the essay quoted above.

The first line of the song sets the scene.  The gallows stands tall over the platform where the accused shall plead her case, surrounded by instruments of imprisonment, like stocks and pillories [Pillory and stocks at the gallows tree dock].  A crowd has gathered and await this “trial” impatiently as a storm approaches [the crowd grew impatient, as the clouds threatened rain].  Mother Elephant is led in by the police constable with her trunk and ankles firmly chained [Elephant arrive at the constable’s side, with her trunk locked in shackles and her ankles in chains].  Let us pause now to examine this trial about to take place, and what makes it a complete sham.  In any normal circumstance, a trial would be held in a courtroom in order to determine whether or not the accused is guilty.  Mother Elephant, despite being innocent of any crime, is already at the gallows when they put her on “trial”.  There is no possibility they will acquit her in this case.  The trial is all a show, as the song will soon indicate.

The Bailiff announces the arrival of the judge, who enters the scene to a fanfare of trumpets [Bailiff: “All rise, All rise!  His honor presides!”  The judge took the bench to the village brass cavalcade.]  This fanfare solidifies the image of this whole trial as merely a show to satiate the bloodlust of the villagers, who have worked themselves into a frenzy with their rumor-mongering about the train crash that we witnessed in “Grist for the Malady Mill”.  In fact, the word usage here almost brings to mind a certain carnival atmosphere to the proceedings, as if there is a circus in town and the center attractions is the hanging death of a criminal elephant.  One can almost imagine children eating cotton candy and tossing darts at balloons while the townspeople string up God Himself.  Elephant calls them on it pretty quickly, and refuses to swear any oath they offer her [Elephant refused to swear the oath].

Her words are quite profound.  Some of what she says throws a bit of a monkey wrench into the theory that Elephant is a complete representation of God or Christ, but the important thing to take away from the character of Elephant is not in the minutia that may or may not indicate she is representative of the Divine, but that she fulfilled such a role allegorically in the lives of our central animal characters.  Despite her admitting past failings in this section of the song, she should still be thought of as Divine for the thematic purposes of the fable being presented.

“I don’t know anything about truth, but I know falsehood when I see it, and it looks like this whole world you’ve made,” Mother Elephant proclaims.  It is a sentence that reveals her humility and self-denial in the refusal to admit any personally attained higher knowledge, but it is also an overt condemnation levied at the townspeople, who have made their portion of the outside world just as false as the circus was for her.  The next few lines she gives us require an, admittedly cursory, examination of Herman Melville’s novella Billy Budd.  Billy Budd is about the titular sailor, who takes a position aboard a ship where is well-loved by all of the men and officers, but nevertheless attracts the ire of the Master-at-Arms, an evil man named Claggart who frames Billy for treason and has him executed.  The novella ends by bringing about three different perspectives, and thus a measured sense of ambiguity, to the person of Billy Budd.  The final chapter of these is a poem called “Billy in the Darbies”, written by one of his shipmates as an elegy.  I have included it below in full so that we may be prepared for some of the imagery we are about to experience in this present song.

Good of the Chaplain to enter Lone Bay 
And down on his marrow-bones here and pray 
For the likes just o’ me, Billy Budd. — But look: 
Through the port comes the moon-shine astray! 
It tips the guard’s cutlas and silvers this nook; 
But ‘twill die in the dawning of Billy’s last day. 
A jewel-block they’ll make of me to-morrow, 
Pendant pearl from the yard-arm-end 
Like the ear-drop I gave to Bristol Molly — 
O, ‘tis me, not the sentence they’ll suspend. 
Ay, Ay, Ay, all is up; and I must up to 
Early in the morning, aloft from alow. 
On an empty stomach, now, never it would do. 
They’ll give me a nibble — bit o’ biscuit ere I go. 
Sure, a messmate will reach me the last parting cup; 
But, turning heads away from the hoist and the belay, 
Heaven knows who will have the running of me up! 
No pipe to those halyards. — But aren’t it all sham? 
A blur’s in my eyes; it is dreaming that I am. 
A hatchet to my hawser? all adrift to go? 
The drum roll to grog, and Billy never know? 
But Donald he has promised to stand by the plank; 
So I’ll shake a friendly hand ere I sink. 
But — no! It is dead then I’ll be, come to think. 
I remember Taff the Welshman when he sank. 
And his cheek it was like the budding pink. 
But me they’ll lash me in hammock, drop me deep. 
Fathoms down, fathoms down, how I’ll dream fast asleep. 
I feel it stealing now. Sentry, are you there? 
Just ease this darbies at the wrist, and roll me over fair, 
I am sleepy, and the oozy weeds about me twist. 

Having read an account of the trial and death of the sailor Billy Budd, we can now turn back to Mother Elephant’s own words as she awaits her execution.  “Good of our Chaplain to sail Kalispell Bay.  And now down on his marrows, for this old fool to pray’”.  The village Chaplain has come to give Mother Elephant her final moment of prayer.  While we still must keep in mind the imagery from “Billy in the Darbies”, we now must examine yet another literary reference.  Elephant refers to herself as an “old fool”, and goes on to explain that she has spent over sixty years devoted to the imagery of kindness, but not the actual acts of kindness required to be considered truly kind [Who for sixty-some years had surrendered her love to emblems of kindness and not the kindness they were emblems of].  The word “kindness” here is representative of any good and true attribute, and not merely kindness itself.  Though, it should be noted, many attributes and actions that are truly good can be boiled down in their simplest forms to mean basically “kindness”, and thus the word choice here is an apt one.  This distinction between emblems and that which they represent is taken from the end of the second stanza in William Butler Yeat’s poem entitled (appropriately enough), “The Circus Animals’ Desertion”.  The significant portion can be read below:

And when the Fool and Blind Man stole the bread Cuchulain fought the ungovernable sea; Heart-mysteries there, and yet when all is said It was the dream itself enchanted me: Character isolated by a deed To engross the present and dominate memory. Players and painted stage took all my love, And not those things that they were emblems of.
Reading Yeats’ last lines, imagery of Peacock and Tiger’s circus performances are recalled.  The emblematic distinction in “Elephant in the Dock” is a cutting examination of the attitude many people who hold themselves to some higher belief seem to display.  A person of the Christian faith, for example, can pay all the fealty he or she likes to crucifixes and Biblical inerrancy and the “gifts of the spirit”, but if that person lacks the heart Christ requires his followers to have, he or she has gone quite far astray.  It is an idea that brings to mind the Apostle Paul’s letter to the church at Corinth in 1 Corinthians 13.  “If I speak in the tongues of men or of angels, but do not have love, I am only a resounding gong or a clanging cymbal. 2 If I have the gift of prophecy and can fathom all mysteries and all knowledge, and if I have a faith that can move mountains, but do not have love, I am nothing. 3 If I give all I possess to the poor and give over my body to hardship that I may boast, but do not have love, I gain nothing.”
Elephant continues, proclaiming that the tools they have used to contain her are ones she could easily break [trammels and rings with the strength of old strings].  Her restraint is another form of her self-sacrifice and humility.  Elephant continues, “In some hobbleskirt spring, by the old problem caught.”  She is comparing her imprisonment to a hobbleshkirt, which was a type of skirt worn by women that hampered the movement of the legs and was named after a device used to restrain horses.  This imprisonment is caught again in the “old problem”, this ancient evil in human nature.  Perhaps, more specifically, the old problem here is the self-indulgence of humanity to the point that, as C.S. Lewis pointed out, the roles of man and God have been reversed and God is now being judged.  Humans, like Mother Elephant, have been restrained by this old problem, and like Mother Elephant could break free easily if they could see the chains for the weak strings they are and make a move to do so.  
Elephant’s next quandary sums up her thoughts on the matter quite succinctly: “Children, sometimes I think all our thoughts are just things and then sometimes think things are just thoughts.”  Like Tiger’s change in perspective leading him to wonder if the “I” is an unintelligible lie, Mother Elephant’s perspective is one that encompasses more than just the notion of self-identity and self-sacrifice, but rather extends to the very nature of reality and existence itself.  Like the next song will explore thematically more thoroughly, Elephant has rejected any admittance to understanding what the universe is, and instead chooses to accept the mystery and entrench her beliefs in pure, unadulterated faith.  The gathering crowd is not swayed by her words, and has become whipped up into a state of fervent bloodlust, calling for the hanging of Mother Elephant [And the rabble rang: “Hang the Elephant!  The Elephant must hang!”].
Elephant’s retort is at once both calm and condemning.  She compares the material world - and by association everything in it from herself to her captors - to tea-pots and oatcakes in purses: fleeting, unimportant, and soon to rot away.  [A thirteen coil knot for the samovar pot!  Scottish oatcakes in haversacks, each to it’s grave].  She goes on to decry the sham nature of the trial, insisting that even if they kill her today, that will not be what determines her ultimate fate.  It would be as if a floating piece of driftwood attempted to control the waves it rides on [This mock trial can no more determine my lot than can driftwood determine the ocean’s waves].  She challenges them to go ahead and threaten her with ropes, boards, and swords.  Nothing they do could be as much of a punishment as what would have been her fate - in this life and in the next - if she had not followed her conscience and done what was right [Brandish your ropes and your boards and your basket-hilt swords, but what is there can punish like a conscience ignored].  Elephant concludes her monologue by admitting her guilt for what happened to the circus train, while once again refusing to accept that this has anything to do with a selfish desire to gain personal freedom or acclaim [Yes, my body did just as you imply, while some ghost we’ll call ‘I’ idly watched through its eyes].
The assembled jurors now make their decision, joining in the chanting of the crowd with, “Hang the Elephant!  The elephant must hang!”  On a slight side note, it interests me that when the “rabble” of townspeople call for Mother Elephant’s hanging, the liner notes have “Elephant” capitalized twice, making it a proper noun.  However, when the jury stands to proclaim their decision, “elephant” is only capitalized once.  If this is not a typographical error or a merely arbitrary choice, the difference suggests to me that the townspeople in their secret hearts revere Mother Elephant enough to identify her as a sentient, wise, and noble creature despite the fact that their vengeful bloodlust has for the moment blinded them to such.  In the same way, this could illustrate that the jury thinks of Mother Elephant as nothing more than a dumb brute who did what they consider an evil thing.  This further brings to mind the differing attitudes of those present when Christ was condemned to die in the gospel accounts.  The same crowd jeering, “Crucify Him!” had only a week before honored him as their king upon his arrival to Jerusalem.  The Romans that carried out the sentence, however, only saw another Jewish zealot that could cause a rebellion, and had very little qualms in sending Him to torture and death.  Perhaps I am reading a little bit too much into the typography in my copy of the booklet for Ten Stories, but even if I am wrong about the different uses of the word “elephant”, the comparison to Christ remains an apt one.
The final verse of the song adapt lines again from the poem, “Billy in the Darbies” by Herman Melville, as Mother Elephant is hung before the ruthless crowd and describes her own feelings of death [I feel it stealing now.  All adrift, fathoms down].  God stood in judgment before the people of Kalispell, Montana this day, and was condemned to die.

BRILLIANT. BILLY BUDD. IT’S PERFECT. This gave me that mewithoutYou-phoria (I’m coining that btw) that happens when you find one of those beautiful allusions that reveals a new layer to an already-brilliant song. 
Now every single one of you followers should go read some Melville. Get in your dose of Christian allegory and American lit at the same time. See how well this allusion works for yourself. I won’t spoil it for you.

ohdoubters:

Elephant in the Dock

In his essay God in the Dock, C.S. Lewis writes, “The ancient man approached God (or even the gods) as the accused person approaches his judge. For the modern  man the roles are reversed, He is the judge: God is in the dock. He is quite a kindly judge: if God should have a reasonable defense for being the god who permits war, poverty and disease, he is ready to listen to it. The trial may even end in God’s acquittal.  But the important thing is that Man is on the Bench and God in the Dock.”  With an image of God put on trial by a jury of men, we thus begin our examination of the most pivotal song on Ten Stories, “Elephant in the Dock”, the title of which is an overt reference to the essay quoted above.

The first line of the song sets the scene.  The gallows stands tall over the platform where the accused shall plead her case, surrounded by instruments of imprisonment, like stocks and pillories [Pillory and stocks at the gallows tree dock].  A crowd has gathered and await this “trial” impatiently as a storm approaches [the crowd grew impatient, as the clouds threatened rain].  Mother Elephant is led in by the police constable with her trunk and ankles firmly chained [Elephant arrive at the constable’s side, with her trunk locked in shackles and her ankles in chains].  Let us pause now to examine this trial about to take place, and what makes it a complete sham.  In any normal circumstance, a trial would be held in a courtroom in order to determine whether or not the accused is guilty.  Mother Elephant, despite being innocent of any crime, is already at the gallows when they put her on “trial”.  There is no possibility they will acquit her in this case.  The trial is all a show, as the song will soon indicate.

The Bailiff announces the arrival of the judge, who enters the scene to a fanfare of trumpets [Bailiff: “All rise, All rise!  His honor presides!”  The judge took the bench to the village brass cavalcade.]  This fanfare solidifies the image of this whole trial as merely a show to satiate the bloodlust of the villagers, who have worked themselves into a frenzy with their rumor-mongering about the train crash that we witnessed in “Grist for the Malady Mill”.  In fact, the word usage here almost brings to mind a certain carnival atmosphere to the proceedings, as if there is a circus in town and the center attractions is the hanging death of a criminal elephant.  One can almost imagine children eating cotton candy and tossing darts at balloons while the townspeople string up God Himself.  Elephant calls them on it pretty quickly, and refuses to swear any oath they offer her [Elephant refused to swear the oath].

Her words are quite profound.  Some of what she says throws a bit of a monkey wrench into the theory that Elephant is a complete representation of God or Christ, but the important thing to take away from the character of Elephant is not in the minutia that may or may not indicate she is representative of the Divine, but that she fulfilled such a role allegorically in the lives of our central animal characters.  Despite her admitting past failings in this section of the song, she should still be thought of as Divine for the thematic purposes of the fable being presented.

I don’t know anything about truth, but I know falsehood when I see it, and it looks like this whole world you’ve made,” Mother Elephant proclaims.  It is a sentence that reveals her humility and self-denial in the refusal to admit any personally attained higher knowledge, but it is also an overt condemnation levied at the townspeople, who have made their portion of the outside world just as false as the circus was for her.  The next few lines she gives us require an, admittedly cursory, examination of Herman Melville’s novella Billy BuddBilly Budd is about the titular sailor, who takes a position aboard a ship where is well-loved by all of the men and officers, but nevertheless attracts the ire of the Master-at-Arms, an evil man named Claggart who frames Billy for treason and has him executed.  The novella ends by bringing about three different perspectives, and thus a measured sense of ambiguity, to the person of Billy Budd.  The final chapter of these is a poem called “Billy in the Darbies”, written by one of his shipmates as an elegy.  I have included it below in full so that we may be prepared for some of the imagery we are about to experience in this present song.

Good of the Chaplain to enter Lone Bay 

And down on his marrow-bones here and pray 

For the likes just o’ me, Billy Budd. — But look: 

Through the port comes the moon-shine astray! 

It tips the guard’s cutlas and silvers this nook; 

But ‘twill die in the dawning of Billy’s last day. 

A jewel-block they’ll make of me to-morrow, 

Pendant pearl from the yard-arm-end 

Like the ear-drop I gave to Bristol Molly —

O, ‘tis me, not the sentence they’ll suspend. 

Ay, Ay, Ay, all is up; and I must up to 

Early in the morning, aloft from alow. 

On an empty stomach, now, never it would do. 

They’ll give me a nibble — bit o’ biscuit ere I go. 

Sure, a messmate will reach me the last parting cup; 

But, turning heads away from the hoist and the belay, 

Heaven knows who will have the running of me up! 

No pipe to those halyards. — But aren’t it all sham? 

A blur’s in my eyes; it is dreaming that I am. 

A hatchet to my hawser? all adrift to go? 

The drum roll to grog, and Billy never know? 

But Donald he has promised to stand by the plank; 

So I’ll shake a friendly hand ere I sink. 

But — no! It is dead then I’ll be, come to think. 

I remember Taff the Welshman when he sank. 

And his cheek it was like the budding pink. 

But me they’ll lash me in hammock, drop me deep. 

Fathoms down, fathoms down, how I’ll dream fast asleep. 

I feel it stealing now. Sentry, are you there? 

Just ease this darbies at the wrist, and roll me over fair, 

I am sleepy, and the oozy weeds about me twist. 

Having read an account of the trial and death of the sailor Billy Budd, we can now turn back to Mother Elephant’s own words as she awaits her execution.  “Good of our Chaplain to sail Kalispell Bay.  And now down on his marrows, for this old fool to pray’”.  The village Chaplain has come to give Mother Elephant her final moment of prayer.  While we still must keep in mind the imagery from “Billy in the Darbies”, we now must examine yet another literary reference.  Elephant refers to herself as an “old fool”, and goes on to explain that she has spent over sixty years devoted to the imagery of kindness, but not the actual acts of kindness required to be considered truly kind [Who for sixty-some years had surrendered her love to emblems of kindness and not the kindness they were emblems of].  The word “kindness” here is representative of any good and true attribute, and not merely kindness itself.  Though, it should be noted, many attributes and actions that are truly good can be boiled down in their simplest forms to mean basically “kindness”, and thus the word choice here is an apt one.  This distinction between emblems and that which they represent is taken from the end of the second stanza in William Butler Yeat’s poem entitled (appropriately enough), “The Circus Animals’ Desertion”.  The significant portion can be read below:

And when the Fool and Blind Man stole the bread
Cuchulain fought the ungovernable sea;
Heart-mysteries there, and yet when all is said
It was the dream itself enchanted me:
Character isolated by a deed
To engross the present and dominate memory.
Players and painted stage took all my love,
And not those things that they were emblems of.

Reading Yeats’ last lines, imagery of Peacock and Tiger’s circus performances are recalled.  The emblematic distinction in “Elephant in the Dock” is a cutting examination of the attitude many people who hold themselves to some higher belief seem to display.  A person of the Christian faith, for example, can pay all the fealty he or she likes to crucifixes and Biblical inerrancy and the “gifts of the spirit”, but if that person lacks the heart Christ requires his followers to have, he or she has gone quite far astray.  It is an idea that brings to mind the Apostle Paul’s letter to the church at Corinth in 1 Corinthians 13.  “If I speak in the tongues of men or of angels, but do not have love, I am only a resounding gong or a clanging cymbal. 2 If I have the gift of prophecy and can fathom all mysteries and all knowledge, and if I have a faith that can move mountains, but do not have love, I am nothing. 3 If I give all I possess to the poor and give over my body to hardship that I may boast, but do not have love, I gain nothing.”

Elephant continues, proclaiming that the tools they have used to contain her are ones she could easily break [trammels and rings with the strength of old strings].  Her restraint is another form of her self-sacrifice and humility.  Elephant continues, “In some hobbleskirt spring, by the old problem caught.”  She is comparing her imprisonment to a hobbleshkirt, which was a type of skirt worn by women that hampered the movement of the legs and was named after a device used to restrain horses.  This imprisonment is caught again in the “old problem”, this ancient evil in human nature.  Perhaps, more specifically, the old problem here is the self-indulgence of humanity to the point that, as C.S. Lewis pointed out, the roles of man and God have been reversed and God is now being judged.  Humans, like Mother Elephant, have been restrained by this old problem, and like Mother Elephant could break free easily if they could see the chains for the weak strings they are and make a move to do so.  

Elephant’s next quandary sums up her thoughts on the matter quite succinctly: “Children, sometimes I think all our thoughts are just things and then sometimes think things are just thoughts.”  Like Tiger’s change in perspective leading him to wonder if the “I” is an unintelligible lie, Mother Elephant’s perspective is one that encompasses more than just the notion of self-identity and self-sacrifice, but rather extends to the very nature of reality and existence itself.  Like the next song will explore thematically more thoroughly, Elephant has rejected any admittance to understanding what the universe is, and instead chooses to accept the mystery and entrench her beliefs in pure, unadulterated faith.  The gathering crowd is not swayed by her words, and has become whipped up into a state of fervent bloodlust, calling for the hanging of Mother Elephant [And the rabble rang: “Hang the Elephant!  The Elephant must hang!”].

Elephant’s retort is at once both calm and condemning.  She compares the material world - and by association everything in it from herself to her captors - to tea-pots and oatcakes in purses: fleeting, unimportant, and soon to rot away.  [A thirteen coil knot for the samovar pot!  Scottish oatcakes in haversacks, each to it’s grave].  She goes on to decry the sham nature of the trial, insisting that even if they kill her today, that will not be what determines her ultimate fate.  It would be as if a floating piece of driftwood attempted to control the waves it rides on [This mock trial can no more determine my lot than can driftwood determine the ocean’s waves].  She challenges them to go ahead and threaten her with ropes, boards, and swords.  Nothing they do could be as much of a punishment as what would have been her fate - in this life and in the next - if she had not followed her conscience and done what was right [Brandish your ropes and your boards and your basket-hilt swords, but what is there can punish like a conscience ignored].  Elephant concludes her monologue by admitting her guilt for what happened to the circus train, while once again refusing to accept that this has anything to do with a selfish desire to gain personal freedom or acclaim [Yes, my body did just as you imply, while some ghost we’ll call ‘I’ idly watched through its eyes].

The assembled jurors now make their decision, joining in the chanting of the crowd with, “Hang the Elephant!  The elephant must hang!”  On a slight side note, it interests me that when the “rabble” of townspeople call for Mother Elephant’s hanging, the liner notes have “Elephant” capitalized twice, making it a proper noun.  However, when the jury stands to proclaim their decision, “elephant” is only capitalized once.  If this is not a typographical error or a merely arbitrary choice, the difference suggests to me that the townspeople in their secret hearts revere Mother Elephant enough to identify her as a sentient, wise, and noble creature despite the fact that their vengeful bloodlust has for the moment blinded them to such.  In the same way, this could illustrate that the jury thinks of Mother Elephant as nothing more than a dumb brute who did what they consider an evil thing.  This further brings to mind the differing attitudes of those present when Christ was condemned to die in the gospel accounts.  The same crowd jeering, “Crucify Him!” had only a week before honored him as their king upon his arrival to Jerusalem.  The Romans that carried out the sentence, however, only saw another Jewish zealot that could cause a rebellion, and had very little qualms in sending Him to torture and death.  Perhaps I am reading a little bit too much into the typography in my copy of the booklet for Ten Stories, but even if I am wrong about the different uses of the word “elephant”, the comparison to Christ remains an apt one.

The final verse of the song adapt lines again from the poem, “Billy in the Darbies” by Herman Melville, as Mother Elephant is hung before the ruthless crowd and describes her own feelings of death [I feel it stealing now.  All adrift, fathoms down].  God stood in judgment before the people of Kalispell, Montana this day, and was condemned to die.

BRILLIANT. BILLY BUDD. IT’S PERFECT. This gave me that mewithoutYou-phoria (I’m coining that btw) that happens when you find one of those beautiful allusions that reveals a new layer to an already-brilliant song. 

Now every single one of you followers should go read some Melville. Get in your dose of Christian allegory and American lit at the same time. See how well this allusion works for yourself. I won’t spoil it for you.

I love mwY fans almost as much I love this pic. 

(posting pics because I’ve run out of song references)

I love mwY fans almost as much I love this pic. 

(posting pics because I’ve run out of song references)

Those who know don’t talk, and those who talk don’t know

-Lao Tzu, Tao Te Ching

-mewithoutYou, “goodbye, I!”

Son of a Widow

"The son of the widow
You raised from the dead
Where did his soul go
When he died again?”

— mewithoutYou, “Son of a Widow”


Luke 7:11-17 (ESV) or “Jesus Raises a Widow’s Son”

11 Soon afterward[c] he went to a town called Nain, and his disciples and a great crowd went with him. 12 As he drew near to the gate of the town, behold, a man who had died was being carried out, the only son of his mother, and she was a widow, and a considerable crowd from the town was with her. 13 And when the Lord saw her, he had compassion on her and said to her, “Do not weep.” 14 Then he came up and touched the bier, and the bearers stood still. And he said, “Young man, I say to you, arise.” 15 And the dead man sat up and began to speak, and Jesus[d] gave him to his mother. 16 Fear seized them all, and they glorified God, saying, “A great prophet has arisen among us!” and “God has visited his people!” 17 And this report about him spread through the whole of Judea and all the surrounding country.

All Creation Groans

"The stones cry out,
Bells shake the sky!
All of creation groans…

Listen to it!”

-mewithoutYou, O Porcupine

Romans 8:22-24, NIV:

22 We know that the whole creation has been groaning as in the pains of childbirth right up to the present time. 23 Not only so, but we ourselves, who have the firstfruits of the Spirit, groan inwardly as we wait eagerly for our adoption to sonship, the redemption of our bodies. 24 For in this hope we were saved. But hope that is seen is no hope at all. Who hopes for what they already have?


"Stop the noise

and you will hear His voice

in the silence”

-Rumi

shiftingscenery:

This makes me so happy. 

Now I want to write an imitation of Messes of Men about the internet.
This page does not exist, we faithfully insist.
Scrolling down our separate sites and from this tiny window
Tiring and trying
There’s unnecessary findings
and an online shopper in its proper season sheds its cash
Such distance from tech trends
like a scratch across the the lens
made everything look wrong from any site we viewed.
Our paper blew away
With the digital outbreak
So half-trying I wrote this song in pixelated form. 

I could go on, but I’ll spare you. 

shiftingscenery:

This makes me so happy. 

Now I want to write an imitation of Messes of Men about the internet.

This page does not exist, we faithfully insist.

Scrolling down our separate sites and from this tiny window

Tiring and trying

There’s unnecessary findings

and an online shopper in its proper season sheds its cash

Such distance from tech trends

like a scratch across the the lens

made everything look wrong from any site we viewed.

Our paper blew away

With the digital outbreak

So half-trying I wrote this song in pixelated form. 

I could go on, but I’ll spare you. 

longvividdreams:

but sister in our darkness a light shines
and all I ever want to say for the rest of my life
is how that light is God,
and though I’ve been mistaken on this or that point,
that light is nevertheless God.
mewithoutYou- Oh, Porcupine


aaand..



This is all that I’ve known for certain, that God is love. Even if I have been mistaken on this or that point: God is nevertheless love.

Soren Kierkegaard, The Journals, 1850

[a brief, somewhat unrelated anecdote]

  • My roommate (who does not know about mwY) and I, discussing imaginary numbers.
  • Roommate: "i" is not a real number. It does not exist.
  • Me: The "I" is an unintelligible lie!

You played the flute

"You played the flute, but no one was dancing. 

You played a sad song, but none of us cried.”

- mewithoutYou, “Torches Together”


Matthew 11:16-17 (Jesus is speaking)

16 “To what can I compare this generation? They are like children sitting in the marketplaces and calling out to others:

17 “‘We played the pipe for you,
    and you did not dance;
we sang a dirge,
    and you did not mourn.’