Monday, June 30, 2008

The End of Death's Reign? Morning Musings on Coldplay

I've been enjoying Coldplay's latest offering, Viva la Vida or Death and All of his Friends. But the lyrics of "Viva la Vida" have been a thorn in my side, mainly because I just haven't been able to determine the referent (not that I think there need to be ONE, ULTIMATE referent--indeed, I'm not entirely sure that Martin knows what the song is referring to). A quick internet skim seems to indicate that this has been a matter of discussion. Here are the lyrics (though they really need to be listened to, not just read):

I used to rule the world
Seas would rise when I gave the word
Now in the morning I sleep alone
Sweep the streets I used to own

I used to roll the dice
Feel the fear in my enemy's eyes
Listen as the crowd would sing
"Now the old king is dead, long live the king"

One minute I held the key
Next the walls were closed on me
And I discovered that my castles stand
Upon pillars of salt and pillars of sand

I hear Jerusalem bells a-ringing
Roman cavalry choirs are singing
Be my mirror, my sword and shield
My missionaries in a foreign field
For some reason I can't explain
Once you'd gone there was never
Never an honest word
That was when I ruled the world

It was a wicked and wild wind
Blew down the doors to let me in
Shattered windows and the sound of drums
People couldn't believe what I'd become

Revolutionaries wait
For my head on a silver plate
Just a puppet on a lonely string
Oh, who would ever want to be king?

I hear Jerusalem bells a-ringing
Roman cavalry choirs are singing
Be my mirror, my sword and shield
My missionaries in a foreign field
For some reason I can't explain
I know St. Peter won't call my name
Never an honest word
But that was when I ruled the world


Hear Jerusalem bells a-ringing
Roman cavalry choirs are singing
Be my mirror, my sword and shield
My missionaries in a foreign field
For some reason I can't explain
I know St. Peter won't call my name
Never an honest word
But that was when I ruled the world

But then yesterday I had a bit of an interpretive inspiration from a sermon on the resurrection (focusing on the Creed's affirmation, "...the third day he rose again from the dead"). This took me to the end of 1 Corinthians 15 where Paul makes a confident, triumphant, albeit eschatological announcement about something "to come": "When this perishable body puts on imperishability, and this mortal body puts on immortality, then the saying that is written will be fulfilled: ' Death has been swallowed up in victory.' 'Where, O Death, is your victory? Where, O Death, is your sting?'"

Paul notes that this victory is, in an important sense, still to come: when that transformation (resurrection) takes place, then we will almost be able to taunt death as he does here: "Where, O Death, is your victory now?" But given the resurrection of Christ, there is also a sense in which that eschatological reality--that reality to come--has already broken in upon the world. The first victory has been won. Death's reign has been deposed, though we live in a (horribly long) interim where death is a kind of lame duck king. Thus John Owen, the great Puritan divine, penned a masterful treatise on The Death of Death in the Death of Christ.

This got me thinking: could it be that the track "Viva la Vida" is an anthem in this tradition? That is, could it be that the subject or referent of the song is actually "Death and all of his friends?" Is death perhaps this deposed king who once ruled the world? Granted, it requires a radical faith to not think that death still rules the world. But could "Viva la Vida" be an eschatological hymn, sung in hope, with some intimation that death has been deposed? Indeed, could we hear Coldplay's catchy little tune as a popular, 21st-century rendition of John Donne's great metaphysical poem:
DEATH be not proud, though some have called thee
Mighty and dreadfull, for, thou art not so,
For, those, whom thou think'st, thou dost overthrow,
Die not, poore death, nor yet canst thou kill me.
From rest and sleepe, which but thy pictures bee,
Much pleasure, then from thee, much more must flow,
And soonest our best men with thee doe goe,
Rest of their bones, and soules deliverie.
Thou art slave to Fate, Chance, kings, and desperate men,
And dost with poyson, warre, and sicknesse dwell,
And poppie, or charmes can make us sleepe as well,
And better then thy stroake; why swell'st thou then;
One short sleepe past, wee wake eternally,
And death shall be no more; death, thou shalt die.
I hope so. I hope as such.

Thursday, June 26, 2008

Orwell: On the Invisible Underbelly of our Consumption

I'm currently finishing a book project in which I briefly discuss the way in which the liturgies of consumerism also feed off the invisible--vast networks of production and distribution which are almost entirely hidden from view, and about which we rarely ask. This brought to mind Orwell's straight-shooting analysis of Western (especially British) culture's dependence upon coal, which also seemed to "magically" appear in the grate of the homes of the middle class. Here are two exemplary passages from The Road to Wigan Pier:

Watching coal-miners at work, you realise momentarily what different universes different people inhabit. Down there where coal is dug it is a sort of world apart which one can quite easily go through life without ever hearing about. Probably a majority of people would even prefer not to hear about it. Yet it is the absolutely necessary counterpart of our world above. Practically everything we do, from eating an ice to crossing the Atlantic, and from baking a loaf to writing a novel, involves the use of coal, directly or indirectly. For all the arts of peace coal is needed; if war breaks out it is needed all the more. In time of revolution the miner must go on working or the revolution must stop, for revolution as much as reaction needs coal. Whatever may be happening on the surface, the hacking and shovelling have got to continue without a pause, or at any rate without pausing for more than a few weeks at most. In order that Hitler may march the goose-step, that the Pope may denounce Bolshevism, that the cricket crowds may assemble at Lord’s, that the Nancy poets may scratch one another’s backs, coal has got to be forthcoming. But on the whole we are not aware of it; we all know that we ‘must have coal,’ but we seldom or never remember what coal-getting involves. Here am I, sitting writing in front of my comfortable coal fire. It is April but I still need a fire. Once a fortnight the coal cart drives up to the door and men in leather jerkins carry the coal indoors in stout sacks smelling of tar and shoot it clanking into the coal-hole under the stairs. It is only very rarely, when I make a definite mental effort, that I connect this coal with that far-off labour in the mines. [...] You could quite easily drive a car right across the north of England and never once remember that hundreds of feet below the road you are on the miners are hacking at the coal. Yet in a sense it is the miners who are diving your car forward (pp. 29-30).

In a way it is even humiliating to watch coal-miners working. It raises in you a momentary doubt about your own status as an ‘intellectual’ and a superior person generally. For it is brought home to you, at least while you are watching, that it is only because miners sweat their guts out that superior persons can remain superior. You and I and the editor of the Times Literary Sup., and the Nancy poets and the Archbishop of Canterbury and Comerade X, author of Marxism for Infants–all of us really owe the comparative decency of our lives to poor drudges underground, blackened to the eyes, with their throats full of coal dust, driving their shovels forward with arms and belly muscles of steel (pp. 30-31).