In a previous post, I examined the lyrics of Rush’s song ‘Freewill’, and commented that their lyrics in general were heavy handed and pretentious. A friend of mine pointed out that a 3 out of 3 combination of good musicianship, good composition and good writing in a rock song is very rare indeed. The wisest thing is to probably stick to appreciating rock music for what it is, a form of popular music, instead of trying to find philosophically meaningful content in it’s lyrics.
But then I couldn’t help but ask: Was there a song I liked that truly had philosophical significance in its lyrics? Alot of songs have interesting social commentary or poetic depictions of personal and emotional struggles, but I was looking for something deeper than that. Could I find a rock/metal number whose words dealt with a genuinely challenging philosophical concept?
I’m sure there are many such songs, but the one that came to mind for me was Blue Öyster Cult’s “Don’t Fear The Reaper”. The song is about the inevitability of death, and the author coming to terms with it and accepting it as a natural part of life instead of fearing it. But I’ve always felt that the song went deeper than that. Buck Dharma states that:
“Seasons don’t fear the reaper, Nor do the wind, the sun or the rain… we can be like they are”
And then later “Romeo and Juliet Are together in eternity”
This reminded me of the following passages from Nietzsche:
“Fellow man! Your whole life, like a sandglass, will always be reversed and will ever run out again, – a long minute of time will elapse until all those conditions out of which you were evolved return in the wheel of the cosmic process. And then you will find every pain and every pleasure, every friend and every enemy, every hope and every error, every blade of grass and every ray of sunshine once more, and the whole fabric of things which make up your life. This ring in which you are but a grain will glitter afresh forever. And in every one of these cycles of human life there will be one hour where, for the first time one man, and then many, will perceive the mighty thought of the eternal recurrence of all things” — Notes on the Eternal Recurrence
“This life as you now live it and have lived it, you will have to live once more and innumerable times more; and there will be nothing new in it, but every pain and every joy and every thought and sigh and everything unutterably small or great in your life will have to return to you, all in the same succession and sequence – even this spider and this moonlight between the trees, and even this moment and I myself. The eternal hourglass of existence is turned upside down again and again, and you with it, speck of dust!”
Would you not throw yourself down and gnash your teeth and curse the demon who spoke thus?… Or how well disposed would you have to become to yourself and to life to crave nothing more fervently than this ultimate eternal confirmation and seal?” — The Gay Science
In both of these quotes, Nietzsche was referring to the concept of Eternal Recurrence. Eternal Recurrence is a fairly intuitive concept once you accept the basic premise (popular in the 19th century) that time is infinite, but space is finite. Finite space implies a finite set of possible configurations of the material world. If time is infinite, then the universe will go through every possible configuration it can have, and eventually return to a configuration it has already been through before. Consider this thought experiment: We flip a coin 4 times, and get the following sequence [H,T,T,H]. We now continue flipping the coin indefinitely. Since there are only 16 (2^4) possible sequences of 4 flips, but an infinite number of trials, sooner or later we are going to get the same sequence [H,T,T,H] again (and again, and again, etc…). Eternal recurrence says that in a universe with infinite time but finite space, every possible configuration of the material world, from single events to entire human lifetimes, will eventually repeat itself exactly as it was before. The universe is thus inherently cyclical, and that’s why the concept of Eternal Recurrence is often represented by the Ouroboros, a mythical snake or dragon eating its own tail.
Nietzsche was ambiguous when it came the idea of Eternal Recurrence. He sometimes stated it as an ideal: We should live life as if Eternal Recurrence were true. In other places he affirms that Eternal Recurrence was indeed true – in fact he was working on formally trying to prove it – and that as such it was a life affirming and positive principle. This is where I see a parallel between Nietzsche and the lyrics to the B.Ö.C song. The seasons, the sun and the rain – all cyclical phenomena – don’t fear the reaper, because they know that they will eventually come back, and we can escape our fear of death by being like they are, knowing that we will lead the exact same existence another time. The singer then tells a hypothetical lover that they can be like Romeo and Juliet, having a love so strong for each other that they can live it over and over again for eternity. I do indeed find this idea to be positive and life affirming.
From the point of view of modern cosmology, Eternal recurrence is definitely possible (For example a never ending cycle of big bangs and big crunches), but very far from being established scientific fact. Moreover, all we have to go by for this interpretation of the song is the two verses I mentioned. Short of asking Buck Dharma directly, I can’t know for sure whether he really was talking about Eternal Recurrence or not. Still, the song (and its subject matter) is a very compelling one. It also has an awesome main guitar riff and, in my opinion, one of the most underrated guitar solos of all time. Which is all that really matters anyway.