24 February 2012

The Sirens Come

I often have the experience of finding that the world is, in fact, flooded with things of which I only recently became aware. Of course they were there all along, but I simply didn’t notice them until some incident or another brought them to my attention. I think this is a fairly common experience; you don’t notice a certain make of car until you’ve been researching it, then suddenly you see it everywhere. You become apprised of a TV show or band, and suddenly avid fans and frequent references appear, as if by summons, to greet you. Or, as in the case that follows, you don’t know how pervasive a certain theme is in art and literature until you really truly begin to get it.

I have known of the siren story long before I became aware of it. Like many, I was made to read "The Odyssey" in high school. I did not particularly like it. I don’t think it was a very good translation. But that is beside the point. It is the best known origin of the siren story. Herein we have this idea that a beautiful enchanting song will lure passing sailors to their death, and the only means to avoid it is to either stop up your ears (as Odysseus’ sailors were instructed to do) or physically tie oneself up so that you could hear the enchanting song, but not be doomed by it (as Odysseus did himself). It is of interesting note that, in many languages, the word for mermaid is some variation on the word siren; they are dangerous, beautiful things that live in the abyss and mean to bring you into it.

But as I said, Homer and Odysseus did not enlighten me much on this score. It was only recently that I suddenly began to be lambasted by this siren metaphor from myriad angles and the strength of the thing hit me between the eyes. The use of the metaphor tends towards the following instruction:

“Do what you can to fix yourself to the right course now, so that when trials and deceits come, and you no longer want to stay the course, you still will”

Singer Laura Marling pitched the metaphor in terms of love and commitment:

“The sirens come…they always will.
But the dart between my heart and his
Is as good as a diamond chain”

People love to portray a version of the “stay-the-course” attitude in films; how many romantic comedies have a running-through-the-airport-to-try-and-stop-the-beloved-before-the-plane-takes-off scene? Many, many. The idea of overcoming a lot of obstacles on behalf of love is, of course, appealing. And right. But the romantic films often fall short of the real meat of the siren metaphor. The sirens are not challenges so much as they are distractions. Lures. They cannot be barreled through, or leapt over. They have to be denied. Ignored. And, according to legend, this is impossible to do if you allow yourself to hear them without something more than your own will to restrain you because:

“The devil has a pretty voice
If you listen, you’re the fool that I became”

Another use of the metaphor—more closely tied to the original—is that of returning to where you ought to be. You’re going home, in every possible good sense of the word. Like Odysseus, back to his wife and son after years of hardship:

“I’m sailing home to you
I won’t be long
By the light of the moon
I will press on
Until I find my love

…Sirens call my name, they say they’ll ease my pain
And break me on the stones
But true love is the burden
That will carry me back home
Carry me with the memories of a
Beauty I have known

…So tie me to the mast of this old ship
And point me home”

-Josh Garrels

That song is, in fact, called Ulysses (another name of Odysseus) and the album from which it is drawn is very aptly named “Love & War & the Sea In Between.” The thing I love about this usage is the emphasis on what drives him home: true love and “memories of a beauty I have known.” That line implies that he is being driven, not by how he feels now, but by what he knew for sure then. There is a beauty he had known, and no mimicry or shadow along the way should supplant it, even though the mimcries can perhaps be seen or felt…whereas the beauty he knew is still a long way off and vaguely remembered.

Our culture constantly tells us to ‘live in the moment’ and insofar as that connotes the ability to be content wherever you are and appreciate the present, I applaud the notion, as it is not an easy thing to do. But what it should not mean, and very often does, is ‘do what you feel when you feel it’; it implies a readiness to give up a belief or a love the moment it seems to be out of reach, out of vogue, or in some way difficult to reconcile. Love is a commitment. Faith is a commitment. Sometimes feelings precede, sometimes they recede, and sometimes they follow a long way in the wake of decision. As the band Mumford & Sons put it in another song, you must:

“…Hold on to what you believed, in the light
When the darkness has robbed you of all your sight”

These lyrics are sung in the context of someone who is terrified to make that initial commitment:

“I ran away, I could not take the burden of both me and you…
It was too fast, casting love on me as if it was a spell I could not break
When it was a promise I could not make.
But what if I was wrong?
Oh, hold on to what you believed, in the light
When the darkness has robbed you of all your sight”
The singer realizes that it was fear that kept him from making the promise. He admonishes the hearer not to give up what they knew when their eyes were clear...when they chose to make the promise. The point of a promise is that you’re not to escape from it. It is like ropes, lashing you to your word even when you no longer want anything to do with it. It is swearing to your own hurt now, for the joy of truth and purpose in the long run:

“So tie me to a post and block my ears
I can see widows and orphans through my tears
I know my call despite my faults and despite my growing fears
…So make your siren’s call
And sing all you want
I will not hear what you have to say
‘Cause I need freedom now
And I need to know how
To live my life as it’s meant to be”

This example is much more about purpose and duty, whereas the others were about love and return. I cannot say for certain what the lyricists intended, but I get the sense that the sirens in this song are not what you might think. Is the singer saying that sometimes the distractions from purpose might even be causes that are socially and morally laudable (speaking of the widows and orphans)? Or is he saying that the ‘widows and orphans’ are his call? I suppose it could be either.

There are many just causes in this world, but that doesn’t mean that people don’t often take them up for very wrong reasons. Sometimes the sirens are our desire to appear right, rather than to be right—to be viewed as just rather than to be just—to be commended rather than to be commendable "before the eyes of him to whom we must give account." (Hebrews 4:13) The point is that the singer “knows his call” and he will not be distracted from it by any manner of siren. And notice how he sings “'Cause I need freedom now”...and the way in which he manages to gain that freedom is to give it up, by being tied to the post. Very counter to the logic of the age, I’d say.

So, the sirens come. In all forms, both as obvious and less obvious temptations to destruction, and seemingly benign distractions from a once-known purpose. If God is the ship, and faith is the mast, best batten down, because the seas are rough.

Lastly (and this one not from a song):

“God’s relationship to Israel is most commonly described as a covenant. The word “covenant” conveys permanence, steadfastness, and mutuality rather than the personal depth of that relationship. Is the covenant a tether, a chain, or is it a living intercourse?

In the domain of imagination the most powerful reality is love between man and woman. Man is even in love with an image of that love, but it is the image of a love spiced with temptation rather than a love phrased in service and depth-understanding; a love that happens rather than a love that continues; the image of tension rather than of peace; the image of a moment rather than of permanence; the image of fire rather than of light. But God said “Let there be light.””
-Abraham Joshua Heschel

I would add but one thing to Heschel’s unintended summary of the difference between a siren and the Truth (obviously he said nothing of sirens): God is also described as a consuming fire. Fire and light. Passion and permanence. The point is that the covenant comes first and sets the course.