Always a fan of the Situationists, I decided early on to create a system to choose which chapter I would write about on any given day — I start at Chapter 1, write a song, blindly move the bookmark forward a small chunk of pages, and then open at the bookmark to write the next day. When I get to the end, I cycle back to Chapter 1 and start again. A truer system would probably involve me moving the bookmark forward a set number of pages, say 20 pages each time, but the system works just as well this way, and I like the crap shoot feel it lends to the process. The system has created an interesting side-effect, as systems often do — a large clump of completed songs at the front of the book, as well as clumps around the longer chapters. It all makes sense, I only mention it to say: expect a front-heavy selection in early posts. However, my first time through the book, I had no system, and I wrote about whichever chapter happened to inspire me along the way, which brings us to this week’s song, “Chapter 96: The Try-Works.”
To borrow a line from my friend, Rachel, “How could a bourgeoning proto-marxist songwriter such as yourself not be inspired by ‘The Try-Works?'” Indeed. “The Try-Works” is one of those famous chunks of perfect literature that drops the jaws of all in view, so dense and complex it becomes difficult to narrow into written reflection. There are a couple of big things going on here. Certainly we see the Marxist ruminations: the hellish visions of industry and industry’s imprisonment and mutation of man; Blake’s “mind-forged manacles,” if you will. Ishmael gives his famous warning, “Look not into the face of the fire, O man!” and we think of industrial life as a lullaby into madness.
We’re also presented with a different kind of madness: “There is a wisdom that is woe; but there is a woe that is madness.” My soon-to-be wife, Amy, joked about a pop-psych interpretation of Moby Dick as a book about Ishmael dealing with his depressive tendencies, and it’s funny because it kind of works. Much of “The Try-Works,” presents us with a fundamental truth in sorrow and a fundamental dishonesty or charlatanism in an abundance of joy. To go along with the perpetual joy of our fellows, though comfortable and safe, is to turn our backs from a deeper truth born inward. To paraphrase Ishmael, the Earth, like man, is two-thirds a darkness. To pretend otherwise is to lie.
These two ideas touch ends at “madness,” and we’re left with Ishmael the outsider, the one member of the crew spiritually, if not physically, free from Ahab, a single holdout weighing the joys of his charge against the sorrows of the same. And Ishmael is left the sole survivor of Ahab’s industry.
For me today, all the above leaves me thinking about systems. The Situationists used systems as a means of overcoming existing systems of control; for example, a rigid pattern of movement would overcome the control of movement achieved through urban design — the elimination of choice altogether prevents the control achieved through habitual and/or perceived choice. Systems can also bring us relief from undue thought about unimportant or unnecessary decisions. Systems feel safe and comfortable; they can serve as a smokescreen for that which is not joyful. But the same smokescreen can also obscure purpose. One can become a system of thought, a system of belief, a system of labor, a system of coping, rather than a person at the helm of those systems. Tomorrow, or perhaps the next day, join me in spiking the tiller sharply leftward, if only for a minute.
Chapter 96: The Try-Works
The sun shows the ocean,
A two-thirds of darkness.
And what more to man than that he realize
His two-thirds of darkness just the same?
Turn from the fire
With hand on the helm.
Tomorrow the sun will light those demons,
And show the honest face of man.
Truth in your sorrows
When lit from your mirth.
As eagles would fly into canyons
And live to soar above the peaks,
The canyons do soar above the lowlands
And birds who shun their majesty.
(c) and (p) 2008 Patrick Shea
Words and music written by Patrick Shea July 28, 2008
All parts performed, arranged, and recorded by Patrick Shea August 5, 2008