What Rush’s Song, Cygnus X-1, Can Teach Us About The Current Political Climate in America

While driving home from a baseball game a few nights ago, I had my iPod (yes, I still use an iPod) in my car set to play Rush. I wasn’t even out of the parking lot before Cygnus X-1 Book II: Hemispheres cranked up. I love that song and I know the lyrics well. However, for some reason, this time they painted a picture I had not considered much before. But before we get into that, let me bring any unfamiliar readers up to speed.

The Black Hole known as Cygnus X-1 - Artist's depiction and photograph
The Black Hole known as Cygnus X-1 – Artist’s depiction and photograph

What is Cygnus X-1?

The real Cygnus X-1 is a black hole in the constellation of Cygnus, The Swan. The constellation is also called the Northern Cross and is visible all across the northern hemisphere. In 1971, the black hole was discovered as the first source of X-rays within Cygnus (hence the name X-1). Neil Peart read a newspaper article about it and, using his brilliant imagination, penned a nearly 29-minute progressive rock epic about it.

Cygnus X-1, Book 1: The Voyage is from the 1977 Rush album A Farewell to Kings. It’s about an explorer that sets his space ship, The Rocinante, for the heart of a newly discovered black hole. Our hero knows this is probably a one way trip, but undaunted, plunges on. Book 1 of this prog-rock epic goes on for about 10-minutes, and ends with The Rocinante spiraling into oblivion. Our hero expects his demise and the song ends. It’s in Book 2 from 1979’s Hemispheres that got me thinking about the parallels between the song and politics.

Political commentary is a dangerous minefield these days, but art does imitate life. This song is no different and was a prophecy before its time. I’m going to make some broad-brush generalizations in here about followers of the political left and right, so before you send me responses like I am a so-and-so and that’s not what I believe or My party believes in this platform, not that, just calm down and digest the core basics of what I’ve interpreted here. I’m going to ask you in advance for grace, and ask that you consider what I say with introspect. However, I always invite thoughtful discourse if you want to voice your opinion on it.

Disclaimers in place? Check. Now, let’s launch into it.

So what does a song about Cygnus X-1 have to do with American Politics?

Let’s examine the lyrics of Book 2:

“When our weary world was young, the struggle of the ancients first began. The gods of Love and Reason, sought alone to rule the fate of Man. They battled through the ages, but still neither force would yield. The people were divided, every soul a battlefield…”

This first part just sets the stage, reminding the listener that since the beginning of time, humankind has struggled with how best to govern their affairs between the boundaries of love and reason. The Rocinante emerges through the black hole to find it was a gateway to Mount Olympus, where Apollo and Dionysus are engaged in epic battle over the fate of mankind. Will they be ruled by Apollo’s wisdom and reason, or Dionysus’s love and emotion? Each god makes a plea for their case while our hero observes.

Apollo’s Plea for Reason

Apollo gets to go first:

Apollo, God of Light with Urania, Muse of Astronomy is a painting by Charles Meynier
Apollo, God of Light, with Urania, Muse of Astronomy is a painting by Charles Meynier

I bring truth and understanding, I bring wit and wisdom fair,
precious gifts beyond compare. We can build a world of wonder,
I can make you all aware. I will find you food and shelter, show you fire to keep you warm through the endless winter storm. You can live in grace and comfort in the world that you transform.

I would contend Apollo’s vision falls more to the right side of political ideology. Typically, Republicans see through the lens of numbers and logic, placing a lower value on feelings and emotion. Apollo offers to share knowledge, the basics of food and shelter, and to show you how to make fire, but it is up the individual to take those tools transform their world for their own grace and comfort. Again, it’s a broad brush approach, but one of the party platforms of the right is deeply rooted in the idea of each person being the captain of their own destiny. Apollo’s offer was accepted, and here’s what happened:

The people were delighted, coming forth to claim their prize. They ran to build their cities and converse among the wise. But one day the streets fell silent, yet they knew not what was wrong. The urge to build these fine things seemed not to be so strong. The wise men were consulted
and the Bridge of Death was crossed, in quest of Dionysus to find out what they had lost…

My interpretation of this is knowledge, numbers, and logic is only going to get you so far before you run out of creativity. In a simpler term, this world feels like a minimalist black and white painting; probably beautiful in it simplicity, but devoid of color and personality. It’s cold and hard there. In my observations, Republicans can get caught within their own versions of reason and take a narrow-minded world view; very much like a horse with blinders. The mind needs expansion or it will die.

I think the key statement in here is crossing the Bridge of Death. Curious wording, don’t you think? I would liken this to the idea that you sometimes hear out of right-wingers warning you don’t go over there by those lefties… it’s dangerous! You’ll be in peril unless you walk this fine line! Don’t cross that bridge of death! It’s a group-think idea that once you try a forbidden fruit, you are a lost cause.

Dionysus’s Plea for Love

When humankind crossed their Bridge of Death seeking out Dionysus to see what he could offer, here’s what he said:

Dionysus, God of Wine by Caravaggio
Dionysus, God of Wine by Caravaggio

I bring love to give you solace, in the darkness of the night; in the heart’s eternal light. You need only trust your feelings, only Love can steer you right. I bring laughter, I bring music, I bring joy and I bring tears, I will soothe your primal fears. Throw off those chains of reason and your prison disappears

It’s not a stretch to see Dionysus is taking the political left approach. He’s playing on your heart strings and telling you that only love can make things right with the world. He’s ready to give humankind everything they need to fuel a creative fire – joy, laughter, music, solace. He promises a spiritual freedom of they will abandon reason and pursue their heart’s desire. Where the kicker comes is the line that he will soothe their primal fears. That line begs a question: What are your primal fears?

The answer will be different for everyone. For some, it’s eliminating loneliness and finding their soul mate. For others, it’s financial stability. Others might argue for spiritual or physical well-being. The bounds are endless on what people fear. Dionysus is telling them he’ll take all that away for them. The Democratic platform sometimes claims to have government provide everything people would fear to lose. I contend, however, that no god or government can possibly provide for everything a person needs. No one. The people, in this song’s case, decide to take him up on the offer. Here’s how it went:

The cities were abandoned and the forests echoed song. They danced and lived as brothers. They knew love could not be wrong. Food and wine they had aplenty and they slept beneath the stars. The people were contented and the Gods watched from afar. But the winter fell upon them and it caught them unprepared, bringing wolves and cold starvation, and the hearts of men despaired…

The romantic notion of throwing all logical caution to the wind and living your best Bohemian life—Y.O.L.O., if you will—is popular among younger generations today. But there are consequences to an ideology that only lives and loves in the moment without logical planning for the future. There’s even greater consequence for depending on someone else to provide everything for you. A day will come where the well dries up. In our song, the winter falls upon the people who lived only for the summery moment with Dionysus, thinking all they needed was love to sustain them. The wolves and weather had a different idea.

The Great Battle for the Heart and Mind of Humankind

The heart and mind, the greatest assets of a human being.
The heart and mind, the greatest assets of a human being.

In modern politics, this same metaphoric battle rages today as I type this and as you read it. There is a deadly competition for your vote without your voice, and each side knows exactly what string to pluck to get it. One side preys on fear of losing all reason, while the other preys on your fear of losing all hope. Many good people are entrenched in one side or the other and will not accept any olive branches offered by the opposition. In the song, their battle goes like this:

The universe divided as the heart and mind collided, with the people left unguided for so many troubled years; in a cloud of doubts and fears. Their world was torn asunder into hollow hemispheres. Some fought themselves, some fought each other. Most just followed one another, lost and aimless like their brothers. For their hearts were so unclear and the truth could not appear. Their spirits were divided into blinded hemispheres.

There has never been a more poignant description of today’s Left vs. Right political ideology than that stanza right there. The whole of the United States lives in a cloud of doubt and fear because many have buried themselves so far into their beliefs that no one will budge. People fear each other. They don’t trust each other. They prey on each other. And many who are not clear on their own thoughts blindly follow others to fit in to one of these camps just for the sense of belonging. More importantly, no one wants to admit their side is wrong. Not on one single thing. The faithful are so blinded without sound judgement that they can’t see a bitter truth in front of their face: That the opposition is truly not their enemy. In the song, a select few were blessed with discernment:

Some who did not fight brought tales of old to light. My Rocinante sailed by night on her final flight. To the heart of Cygnus’ fearsome force, we set our course. Spiraled through that timeless space to this immortal place.

Our hero is not yet sullied with the ideological dilemmas of Apollo and Dionysus, and encounters people I would call the Neutrals. These are people who haven’t fully decided their fate yet and observe the battle before them between the heart and mind. They tell the sordid tales from both sides, taking on traits of each. Some may call that not choosing a side. Sometimes it’s necessary to choose, but in this case, I think the Neutrals have created a third option to consider.

Cygnus, the Bringer of Balance

A depiction of Balance
A depiction of Balance

Enter the hero of our story, which in my mind is you. Yes, you, who sit here and have read to this point. Here’s your grand entrance:

I have memory and awareness, but I have no shape or form. As a disembodied spirit, I am dead and yet unborn. I have passed into Olympus, as was told in tales of old, to the City of Immortals; marble white and purest gold. I see the gods in battle rage on high, thunderbolts across the sky. I cannot move, I cannot hide, I feel a silent scream begin inside.

This stanza is chock full of metaphor. The U.S. Capitol is loaded to the gills with white marble buildings and monuments gilded in gold leaf. For an every-day citizen or political outsider, the halls of government might feel like an Olympus. A place where the gods of elected government rule from on high. You could even stretch to think of it as a City of Immortals.

United States Capitol Building east facade - Washington DC United States
United States Capitol Building east facade – Washington DC United States

You enter the halls of Congress to see and hear the “thunderbolts” being hurled from the right and left sides of the aisle; the nonstop bickering over how you will live your life. It’s messy, complicated, drowned in a legalese few laymen can understand. Who would enter that fray, and upon seeing the ridiculousness of it, would not want to scream? What if you actually did it? Here’s what the song says happened:

Then all at once the chaos ceased. A stillness fell, a sudden peace. The warriors felt my silent cry and stayed their struggle, mystified. Apollo was astonished. Dionysus thought me mad. But they heard my story further and they wondered, and were sad. Looking down from Olympus on a world of doubt and fear; its surface splintered into sorry hemispheres.

In reality, if you walked into a Senate or House session, or the Oval Office, or the Supreme Court chambers and screamed in bloody frustration at them, they are going to have you escorted out. Probably with prejudice. But imagine what would happen if you did and they actually stopped and listened to you? I know what you’re thinking: Lyle, seriously, government stopped listening to the people a long time ago. You’re right. But that’s not my point in all this. Now this next part, this is the true science fiction of the tale:

They sat a while in silence, then they turned at last to me. ‘We will call you Cygnus, the God of Balance you shall be.’

Just think, for one moment, if you had the chance to be the arbiter between the left and right ideology, and they had to abide by your final judgement on their argument. Who would you side with? Always the Left? Always the Right? Some might, but the majority of us would not. We would invoke the third option of the Neutrals, and that brings me to the conclusion of this extremely long political rant.

The Hemispheres United

If you’ve stuck with me this long, I have to think you’ve got at least a foot in the camp of the Neutrals. In my mind, we the Neutrals are the centrists. I would argue the centrists live with the mantra that if you can’t do what is right, then you do what is fair. We are the ones in the middle that see merit and fault on both political fronts… the ones who political parties have abandoned for the warm and fuzzy fringes of their followers. We in the middle are left in the political cold and both sides are making a fire to warm us. We are the ones those governing gods fight over. We are the ones they hope are afraid of being alone so we can get pulled in to their fold.

It is us who pilot the Rocinante into the black hole of politics and scream in frustration at Apollo and Dionysus for their limited vision and schoolyard pettiness. It is us who seek the peace in an arena that only knows war. But not war in the traditional sense. Oh no. They don’t want to kill you. It’s the war for your heart and mind. They are the most precious bastions you can ever protect. The day we once again realize we are not enemies is the first day of our freedom. There is a way to reconcile our trespasses against each other, and Rush sums it up nicely in the final stanza:

We can walk our road together, if our goals are all the same. We can run alone and free, if we pursue a different aim. Let the truth of love be lighted. Let the love of truth shine clear. Sensibility, armed with sense and liberty, with the heart and mind united in a single, perfect sphere.

While I am not naive enough to think those who govern will stop and hear us when we scream, I am hopeful that, outside of their influence, we will hear each other when we scream. Maybe then we can once again come together—those with love and those with logic—and make our country a better example for the world.

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