A New World

As Eric awoke this morning from uneasy dreams he found himself transformed in his bed into Björk. [Sorry; I always wanted to start a piece that way.] Actually, I awoke with a song in my head, which is, for good or ill, not typical of my mornings. The song was Björk’s "New World" from her album SelmaSongs, the soundtrack to Lars von Trier’s 2000 film Dancer in the Dark, in which Björk also starred.

On its "face," the song is joyous, almost ecstatic. Being aware of the narrative context of the film, however, I find my heart breaking every time I hear it. This will not be a discussion of von Trier’s film (that will wait until Aaron & I rent it and screen it together), but I do want to seize the occasion of the autumnal equinox to consider the distinction between wistful acknowledgement of the passing of summer and petulant despair at the advance of darkness. The former is born of faith in the return of the sun; a pagan faith, but faith nonetheless. In this age of eco-collapse, it is increasingly twee to rely on the turn of the seasons for meaning, but I prefer such reliance to the other-worldly refusal to let go of a Golden Age, an endless summer.

If the solstices are times of reflection, the equinoxes are times of action. Like many Americans, I am generations removed from the duties imposed by agriculture, yet their rhythms long ago shaped the cadence of our culture. Where we once roused ourselves to harvest our crops and store up food and fuel for winter, we now begin school, hold elections, and launch wars. All these enterprises depend upon a recognition of the necessity of the seasons, an acceptance of the dark as well as the light, of decay as well as growth. For reasons which do not flatter him, von Trier conceived Björk’s character Selma as being arrested in late summer, raging childishly (but oh so beautifully) against the dying of the light. When she sings of a new world, she does not long for a temporal spring born of an equally temporal winter but a permanent youth, a break from the cycle of seasons altogether. I’m not without sympathy for such longing (it would not have touched me otherwise), but that does not diminish its faithlessness in a very old world.

One reward for faith in eternal recurrence: after ten years, Peter Gabriel has a new album out.

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