I love this song but also the roughly hewn quality of the video with its endearingly wonky performance… He looks like a busy university lecturer who’s just returned from popping outside for a post-lunch fag to squeeze in a quick jamming sesh with his technician housemate in the Faculty of Engineering basement, ahead of their regular Sunday slot at a local pub, before shooting off to lead a seminar with a group of freshers, which thankfully means zero pre-class preparation on either side. (I reckon).
Whatever the backstory, I find its matter of factness and lack of pretence beguiling, and his lyrics a thing of poetic, anachronistic beauty:
Enthralled was I, so enthralled was I,
As I walked the woods and the mountains high, As I walked the woods and the mountains high, All in the morning early.
Then coming from anon nearby, I heard the sound of a baby cry, And I paused awhile, and I gazed and sighed, The cry was mine, the babe was I.
I was bilious, I was saturnine, As I walked from shrine to wayside shrine, So bilious, so saturnine All in the noontime early.
Then coming from an old mash tongue I heard the sound of a young man come, And I paused awhile, and I gazed and sighed, The come was mine, the man was I.
So bored was I, so bored was I, I stifled yawns, I swallowed sighs, As I strolled ‘mid tombs and sarcophagi All in the evening gloomy.
Then coming from a broken throne I heard the sound of an old man moan, I paused awhile, and I gazed upon The man was me, the groan my own.
Then they moaned and came and cried And raised their voices in dark triad, Saying, “The music of our tethered sphere Is only silence failing. It’s mere distraction, mere veneer, As we await our great our unveiling.”
Dark triad, dark triad, dark triad.
I tried to figure out what the final part means, including whether such a thing as a ‘dark triad’ exists and was delighted to discover it’s a psychological term. Psychology Today describes it as ‘three unusually negative personality traits: narcissism, psychopathy and Machiavellianism’, which essentially amounts to unempathic, manipulative and ruthlessly self-interested behaviour.
I have no evidence to confirm what Mr Roberts was referring to when he penned this but I know he has a strong interest in northern European folklore. And when asked if his reworking of traditional ballads was because they’re ‘a primitive form of psychoanalysis, a way of releasing the collective unconscious’, his reply was affirmative, noting ‘particularly in their interest in dark familial relationships, those Jungian archetypes and fears’. I love this reply and it sounds like a major preoccupation of mine; a curiosity directed below the surface of the tangible and visible, towards less rational, more unconscious, spaces.
Back to the dark triad. Alasdair’s reference to ‘the music of our tethered sphere Is only silence failing’ speaks to me of attempts by the unconscious to gain voice within the conscious sphere and ‘It’s mere distraction, mere veneer As we await our great unveiling’ the possibility of this occurring one day. I’m reminded of Jung’s shadow, a hidden aspect of the personality, containing some traits that might resemble those of a dark triad.
I also love the way he keeps realising through the song that things he believed to be outside himself actually reside within him. This sounds to me like projection – unconsciously ‘placing’ something that originates within oneself into someone else. For example, I might be feeling angry but am not aware of the fact; instead, I see someone else as angry when it is, in fact, me looking at myself. This reminds me of one of my favourite poems, I go among the trees by Wendell Berry. (It’s written in pencil on a canvas hanging in my hallway). Take the following lines:
Then what I am afraid of comes.
I live for a while in its sight.
What I fear in it leaves it,
and the fear of it leaves me.
It sings, and I hear its song.
After days of labor,
mute in my consternations,
I hear my song at last,
and I sing it.
[Deep sigh, gazing off into the middle distance]
My thoughts turn to the current lockdown and to dark triad activity currently running riot behind certain closed doors, resulting in unimaginable suffering and despair; by way of an example, calls to the National Domestic Abuse helpline have increased by a quarter since the start of the lockdown. A heartbreaking thought.
My thoughts also turn to the spiralling levels of grief this pandemic has and is showering upon humanity. There is considerable individual and collective grieving to be done in the years to come.
It’s also an extremely precarious time for many, myself included. Thankfully so far, other than a few initial moments of anxiety and sadness, which I made sure not to suppress or dismiss, but to open up to and feel fully, I’ve managed to stay positive and mindful that self-compassion is a prerequisite for compassion to others. A good old cry every now and again works wonders as a form of emotional release. I’ve also found that regularly counting my blessings and expressing gratitude has helped greatly. But most significant has been finding something meaningful to focus on. More on that in a bit.
In order to process grief – from either bereavement or the loss of one’s normal life – and to navigate the fear produced by high levels of uncertainty, it’s important to remain in touch with one’s body and soul. Creativity, which necessitates remaining open to outcome and steering away from a fixed mindset, is a powerful vehicle through which to sublimate anxieties arising from uncertainties by tapping in to the essence of what it means to be alive. It’s been heartening to hear about an explosion of creative acts around the world amidst widespread lockdowns. What it clearly demonstrates is that, even within sometimes severe restrictions, creativity can still flourish with a little help from its friends: resourcefulness, lateral thinking and experimentation. But this doesn’t need to be in the form of ‘Art’. Coming up with a witty word play, freestyling with a recipe or using leftovers to create something original, even repurposing something for an alternative use – basically, opening up to new ways of doing things – are all expressions of everyday creativity.
The time and space afforded by my current situation, one that’s enabling me to live in rhythm with my natural flow, for a change, has led to me spending increasing periods of time creating. (I’ve been so preoccupied with writing today that I had a shock when I found myself about to put my Macbook Air in the oven, instead of my lunch… Mac n cheese, anyone?) But, unlike normal life, my labour is now creative. Despite feeling tired from working much longer days than I would in my paid work, I’ve felt nourished, rather than drained. I’m getting to spend an extended period of time being me, rather than who I need to be to pay my bills. Like most people, my income-generating work doesn’t provide scope for creative expression. Rather, it has tended to block it, resulting in periods during which I’ve struggled to feel inspired or energetic enough to create anything. Not so now. During this lockdown, despite being housebound, I’ve felt as though I’ve travelled far and wide via my thoughts and the process of writing to new, previously unknown, locations. It’s been so liberating; at last, I can breathe freely.
And since I’ve started reconnecting with my inner child through my creative practice, I’ve also started playing with her again – singing my heart out, dancing like a banshee and generally making merry, (code for acting like an idiot, which happens to be a particular forte of mine).
I hope, dear reader, that you too get to sing your heart out, dance like a banshee and make merry – be it with your technician housemate, family members including pets or, in my case, lots of houseplants.
Going crazy sometimes is the only way we can hope to stay sane.