Dead Can Dance lyrics have an underestimated use case. Whenever someone asks you a mundane question about your everyday life – out of curiosity or out of some ambition to commit small talk – it is very worthwhile to replace whatever answer you might have with a line from a Dead Can Dance song. Whatever the topic of idle inquiry your interlocutor might have attempted, the conversation will from then on be brutally reframed into a very different topic indeed. For instance, the question “how was your day?” is favorably answered with the lines:
For time has imprisoned us
In the order of our years
In the discipline of our ways
And in the passing of momentary stillness
These words express, semantically speaking, the same meaning as the word “nothing much”. Nothing in particular happened, same old same old, things set in motion long ago are still predictably in motion. However, the act of circumscribing the status quo with more words than is strictly speaking necessary alters the social situation you are in. No longer are you in a ritualistic and predictable situation of talking small – you have elevated the situation to a full blown rhetorical situation.
A rhetorical situation is a situation where the outcome is not defined beforehand. Most situations in life are for all intents and purposes predetermined. There are rules and rituals that can be followed and performed in order to move things along. When ordering food at a restaurant, paying for groceries at the store or performing routine errands of everyday nature, you do not really have to put very much of yourself into it. The question of whether or not you want fries with that is at once both empty words and sacred ritual – the fact that it has been asked means that everything is proceeding along predicable lines. The situation is resolved, no further discourse is required. Everyone knows what to do.
You do not have to think of something to say.
Of course, throwing a random Dead Can Dance stanza into a situation makes everything uncertain. It defies all expectations, and thus interpretation must be brought to bear. Who is this fool who speaks with too many words and too little straightforward clarity? How to respond to them? What even is going on?
As a rhetorical strategy, this has the distinct disadvantage of a high likelihood of backfiring. Being thrown into uncertainty is not a pleasant experience, and might provoke anger from whomever is at the receiving end. Caution and discretion is to be advised – there is a time and a place for all things, and fortunate are those who know where these might be.
But as a discursive anomaly, it tells us something about the limitations of interpersonal communication. One can only stray too far from the expected before things start to break down into uncertainty. There are rules, genres and traditions which must be respected, above and beyond any purely utilitarian aspects of a situation. The range of useful things to say is far narrower than that of things possible to say, and the response to straying outside of discursive usefulness often comes in the form of punishment.
Like Prometheus we are bound
Chained to this rock
Of a brave new world
Our god forsaken lot
A common these among those I have spoken to about Dead Can Dance is an appreciation of being reminded of an older world. A world that used to be around, but whose remnants are hard to come by. The frequent allusions to various names – Prometheus, for one – harkens back to a time where you were expected to simply know these things. You were supposed to know of the gods, the mysteries and the possibilities of eventually encountering them. It was a different time, of prophets, alchemists, seers, secret societies, inspired poets and broken souls. Ancient names, ancient sins, ancient memories – it is rare to be reminded of such things.
Things didn’t always use to be the way they are. Things could be different.
To be sure, most of the things alluded to are myths, and most likely weren’t around in the past thus mythologized. But that is beside the point. Being reminded of Xavier’s sins is not a matter of recalling the facts of something that happened in historical time, but a reminder of the possibility of acting in a world with a sense of purpose far beyond the ambition of scoring an extra percentage point on the quarterly report. The madman thought he could cure humanity, and was struck down for his sins. Oh, to be moved by such ambitions!
In a world where language is ever more seen as a purely utilitarian tool – few are those who suffer poets – there is ever a need for reminders that the gap between useful and possible things to say is larger than it ought to be. Not every utterance needs to be useful. And, ironically, sometimes the most useful statement is also the least utilitarian. Stating something that ever so indirectly reminds those present that the present is not all that can be – now there is a useful statement indeed. Even if it is about the sagacious Solomon.
The question of whether or not you want fries with that may be the prevailing sacred chant of the day, but there used to be others. Better ones. We can remember them, if encouraged. Better yet – with sufficient audacity, we can write new ones.
Now there is an ambition to be moved by.