Zombies, Dreams, and the Meaning of Music: A Tribute to The Cranberries’ Dolores O’Riordan

It never occurred to me until I heard the heartbreaking news of Dolores O’Riordan’s unexpected passing this Monday that the two songs of hers I knew best, and returned to instinctively whenever my mind itched for the lovely oxymoron of her percussive and soothing vocals, were in direct contrast to each other.

Zombie, as many times as I heard it, sounded less lyrical than enchantingly cacophonous, a beautiful shriek like the eponymous monster, whose undead cries mirror with uncanny longing the sensuality that can only be found in life.

Dreams is the properly Romantic perception of the transcendent in the arms of infatuation – the place where foolish young love (as stupefying to the elderly as it is to the youthful at whom they scoff) glimpses at wisdom that the most universal truths are the ones that seem the most private and particular.

I realized that these songs are in a real sense two sides of the same coin. Appearing on No Need to Argue, Zombie is the clarion call of the Abyss to the wide-eyed threshold of departure articulated in the ideal-espousing reach of Everybody Else is Doing It, So Why Can’t We?, a title which petulantly asserts meaning forward to the same voice that will sadly accuse your head of propagating a world of bombs, and bombs. And guns.

Written in response to an IRA bombing in 1993, Zombie is a protest song, but not just to the violence and the deaths it caused. It is a protest against a mind embedded in the self-emptying throes of ideology:

It’s the same old theme since nineteen-sixteen
In your head,
In your head they’re still fightin’
With their tanks and their bombs
And their bombs and their guns
In your head, in your head they are dyin’

It’s a protest against Modernism’s first war, that set the tone for those who would refuse to look outside the text and stay in their head – to write on the mind an internalized myth of violence that rejects responsibility for involvement in the root cause of mayhem:

But you see it’s not me
It’s not my family
In your head, in your
Head they are fighting

These tightly wound lyrics brilliantly accuse with guilt for that very accusation. The problem isn’t me – it’s you. Chesterton wrote a book entitled What’s Wrong with the World, and in the dedication he wrote, “…this book is what is wrong and no mistake.” This is where Modernism, like the Ouroboros, eats itself into becoming Postmodernism and sees the meaning we seek to find in the world as the violence that causes such silence.

Like the “How am I not myself?” scene in I Heart Huckabees, the question “Who are we mistaken?” is the hinge upon which modernism and postmodernism turn, or perhaps better a coin flipped with the rules “heads we lose, tails we don’t win,” with a pitiful hope that the coin might land on its edge, like a zombie caught between life and death. Or a vampire. [Skip to 6:05]

In Maps of Meaning, Jordan Peterson articulates the existential psychologist’s bid to land the coin on its edge, to find the thin line of meaning between chaos too brutal and order too binding, meditating on the fact that all the seeds of Nazism and suchlike evil ideologies are not flukes or freaks of nature but dangerous possibilities hidden in the subterranean dreams of everyone – “their” tanks, and “their” bombs, and “their” bombs, and “their” guns are in your head. The human mind crafted, painstakingly, those technologies, and the sleeping desire for the violence they promise is something our Zombie self reach for even as it labels that violence as theirs and not of ourselves and our families and the shadow of our ideals.

Peterson writes, “It has been almost twelve years since I first grasped the essence of the paradox that lies at the bottom of human motivation for evil: People need their group identification, because that identification protects them, literally, from the terrible forces of the unknown. It is for this reason that every individual who is not decadent will strive to protect his territory, actual and psychological. But the tendency to protect means hatred of the other, and the inevitability of war—and we are now too technologically powerful to engage in war. To allow victory to the other, however—or even continued existence, on his terms—means subjugation, dissolution of protective structure, and exposure to that which is most feared. For me, this meant ‘damned if you do, damned if you don’t”: belief systems regulate affect, but conflict between belief systems is inevitable” (Peterson, Maps of Meaning 460).

In your head, the identities are crying. The heart of belief is taking over…. In your head, in your head…. They are fighting. But in its rhythmic structure, “damned if you do, damned if you don’t,” despairingly true as the thought seems about the danger of believing thought (making us dangerous) or disbelieving it (making us helpless to danger), it is a colloquial codification of ugly truth in a balanced positive and negative: it’s music, and music is harmony between things which properly produce a tension that could be disharmonious. Zombie is a Petersonian celebration of tragedy.

Dreams, for that same reason, is a Petersonian comedy, because it roots transcendent meaning in an asymmetrical balance between the mystery of the nocturnal personal theatre (where the psycho-spiritual realm whispers gripping mythologies beyond the capacity of the individual to formulate while awake [internal formulations that couldn’t be ideological, because ideology is a tyranny of interpretive will] – but dreams are never quite what they seem, and so their encoded messages slip out of the easy bifurcations of waking oversimplifications) and the infatuation of the beautiful Other who opens the mind to external existence that brings dream into the visible world.

Life becomes transformative in the presence of dreams and romance because both are so subjectively impressed that they are far more objective than the emotions and even more so than the senses, which any Zombie can casually turn into tools of tanks and bombs and bombs and guns. Zombies can put the world into their head and force their head into the world, but you can’t be a zombie and really dream or really perceive a romantic Thou. Zombies can only see things, but dreamers and lovers want to ignore the impossibilities attendant upon the ever changing business so rudely stuffed into the monosyllabic title of Life.

“The soul departs from the face of beauty, when the eye begins to doubt if there be any soul behind it.” – George MacDonald, A Sketch of Individual Development, 34

Peterson’s book, Maps of Meaning, has on its cover an image called The Meaning of Music, which you can see here: https://jordanbpeterson.com/meaning-of-music/

“Damned if you do, damned if you don’t” is the message you receive if you attempt to fix the image into a solid, rational pattern, where lines and angles stand in frustrated near-irresolution, but behind it, if you let your eye dream over the edges, you find the tensions impossible to ignore, the uncompromising incompatibilities resolving into life. “Blessed are those who mourn, for they will be comforted,” is the sacred language of the profane catch-22, like a song about which you can say, “I know I’ve felt like this before, but I’m feeling it even more.”

46 is too young for a talented artist to die, and the raw meeting place of tragedy and beautiful music cannot and should not be contained in our heads. Tragedy cannot be explained because it is the actual place where reality breaks down and explanation loses coherency. But tragedy can be dreamed into meaning if we can set the coins to spinning instead of trying to make them still on their edges.

“The best way with music, I imagine, is not to bring the forces of our intellect to bear upon it, but to be still and let it work on that part of us for whose sake it exists.” – George MacDonald, The Fantastic Imagination 195

Science must give way to metaphysics if we let the dreams do their work. True psychology, soul-study, is the flight from the mistaken silence of zombies to the music of the most fully possible way, impossible to ignore.

A powerful dreamer sleeps, yet her voice still echoes to those who mourn. I pray that you rest in peace, Dolores O’Riordan.

Eagles, Ents, and Dwarves: Tolkien’s Taming of the Romantic Imagination

Tolkien shares his understanding of the imagination in On Fairy Stories, where he defines it as “the mental power of image-making” (47). He sternly yet with gentleness reproves those who would conflate the term with “the power of giving to ideal creations the inner consistency of reality.” This is, no doubt, a reproof of the Romantic movement’s enthusiasm for the imagination and defense of the attacks the faculty had endured at the hands of Enlightenment thinkers. We can see this Romantic sensibility in, for example, Emerson in Poetry and Imagination:

“For the value of a trope is that the hearer is one: and indeed Nature itself is a vast trope, and all particular natures are tropes. As the bird alights on the bough, then plunges into the air again, so the thoughts of God pause but for a moment in any form. All thinking is analogizing, and it is the use of life to learn metonymy. The endless passing of one element into new forms, the incessant metamorphosis, explains the rank which the imagination holds in our catalogue of mental powers. The imagination is the reader of these forms.”

Tolkien certainly would not object to the idea that the imagination is key in reading what medieval writers referred to as “the book of the world,” but I think his critique here is akin to Boethius’s ordering of the mental faculties: the imagination extracts patterns from the senses, and then reason fits those patterns to judgments. The great effort of continually matching sensory experiences, imaginative perception and rational assessment constitutes a Vision of a given subject matter – the experience of “an inner consistency of reality.” This process is as necessary to undergo in order to understand economics and gravity in the real world as it is the relationship between dragons and knights in fantasy literature, but it is in the realm of Fantasy that we in particular learn to develop and hone our skills of image-making – the craft of imagination, as I like to call it.

This means, I think, that Tolkien is critiquing, but not rejecting, the Romantic insight that imagination is more than just a stepping stone in the process of making meaning in the world (the goal to which fantasy is an indispensable adjunct). But it is the sustained application of Reason to imaginative creations which results in the sub-creation, and that process is where the Artistry lies, not merely in one’s ability to think up a dragon. This, I think, is where so much fantasy falls short – it gluts the reader on imaginative productions, but to little end or to bad ends altogether. The imagination is a perilous realm, let us not forget, and to think it is unequivocally good would be to treat it as wholly unlike anything else we experience (and if we are vigilant, unlike the imagination as we have experienced it in our lives). There’s a deficient account of perversity, as Poe would call it, in the Emersonian view, and that I think is what Tolkien’s regard for craft ameliorates in his vision of the imagination.

Chapter 2 of the Silmarillion, “Of Aule and Yavanna” presents, I believe, this critique in narrative form. Aule creates Dwarves in an act of genuine imagination, and yet something is off given his desire to keep the act secret: “But fearing that the other Valar might blame his work, he wrought in secret” (43). Reminiscent of Adam and Eve hiding after eating the fruit from the tree of knowledge of good and evil, Aule attempts to defend himself when Iluvatar confronts him for the improper deed: “And in my impatience I have fallen into folly. Yet the making of things is in my heart from my own making by thee.” He calls himself a “child of little understanding” although he intended “no mockery” of his father – he realizes that he had acted upon his imagination with no regard for the greater artistic vision of the reality for which he was in part to steward responsibly. In grief, Aule moves to destroy the Dwarves and Iluvatar stops him from so doing, merely requiring that the Dwarves be sent into a profound slumber until after Iluvatar’s children have awoken. The dignity of Aule’s imaginative homage to his father’s creative power (the father here being of course God, but also as such the voice of his duty to his community beyond his own imaginative pleasures) is made all the more pleasurable by his earnest repentance and the wonder of his work, which has already taken on a life of its own. (There is a whiff of Abraham and Isaac here, too, which I’m sure the Tolkien scholars have remarked upon.)

We see here the theme clearly: imagination is a productive, powerful, and beautiful force, but its creative powers must be employed with a reasoned duty to the larger concerns of propriety. Creating new living beings who (as the ensuing drama with Yavanna underscores, even after Iluvatar’s blessing) will have an impact on their environment, as well as now have the burden of existence foisted upon them, is no small decision, and the manner in which our imaginative flights of fancy might take on form in the world is likewise worth its own consideration. Careless making, or for that matter careless unmaking, in our personal fantasies may have unimaginable consequences beyond what we can immediately conceive.

Yavanna, aware that Aule’s work is not unlike Melkor’s in some ways and that it has impact on the environment about which she cares so deeply, thus goes to Manwe for permission to create guardians of the trees. Manwe is skeptical of the notion of these beings; “Yet it was in the song,” she tells him, “ For while thou wert in the heavens and with Ulmo built the clouds and poured out the rains, I lifted up the branches of great trees to receive them, and some sang to Iluvatar amid the wind and the rain.” Yavanna’s act of imagination, recourse to the great shared Vision of the Song of the Ainur, is circumscribed by consideration of her community, the authority of Manwe and the needs of the flora but also of her own internally cultivated wisdom. She is the Tolkienesque poet who speaks for the trees and their shepherds, but does not, unlike Aule, become tunnel-visioned by the enchantment of her own imagination. Her imagination follows the craft of art, a reasoned meditation on the vision provided by Iluvatar’s book of the world.

Manwe, inspired by her request, then has his own memory of the Song which leads to his conception of the Eagles, and here we see Tolkien conceding to the transcendentalist notion of the Romantic reverie: “Then Manwe sat silent, and the thought of Yavanna that she had put into his heart grew and unfolded… Then it seemed to Manwe that the Song rose once more about him, and he heeded now many things therein that though he had heard them he had not heeded before.” This, after all, is the mark of the great Songs – the music that we listen to again and again discovers to us new visions we had not guessed even when we judged it beautiful. This genesis of Eagles, Ents, and Dwarves is the philosophical and community-revivifying vision through which Tolkien emphasizes his narrative critique and recalibration of the Romantic imagination. Reasoned art lifts imagination out of the threat of narcissistic image-making, shepherding us into communion with unheeded glimpses of significance in the artistry of Being, forging us through the hammer of symbol and anvil of life to become children of the Song.

“Did not thy thought and mine meet also, so that we took wing together like great birds that soar above the clouds?”