For the past few weeks I have seriously wanted to do a quick post on the new Sara Bareilles album – specifically the song “Chasing the Sun.” First order of business: I think you need to listen to the song as you read this post. So. Go ahead.
You are listening , right?
I may be over reading this song, but I don’t think so. In the tradition of Homer’s Iliad, Sara Bareilles joyfully reminds us that both that human excellence and human community are based on the knowledge that we will die.
I actually started talking to someone about… well not exactly this song, but bear with me. He said something to the effect of “Western tradition of literature is built on the shoulders of Achilles.” As UD English major, I was thrilled to agree (provided that we also acknowledge that we need an Odysseus… and possibly an Aeneas) and will now probably start saying this to my students ad nauseam. Nonetheless, because agreeing immediately is rarely entertainment enough for either literature teachers or UD grads, we then embarked on a long debate about what exactly Achilles does that grounds a Western Tradition concerned with excellence, free will, philosophy, poetry, and eventually Christianity.
He held that Achilles is crucial because of his mēnis – his god-like wrath – that takes him to a plane of thought, even philosophy, previously unknown. (My father, the UD classics and literature professor, interjects that we could just have easily be founded for this principle on Odysseus’ “mind like Zeus”.) Achilles, not only in his physical and martial excellence but in his god-like thought – thanks to the Shield made for him by Hephaestos – is able to see the on a plane unhampered by death and its sorrows. My counterpart in the conversation emphasized not the wrath, but the godliness of it. His claim (so far as I understood it) was that in order to really have a tradition concerned with universals (ala Plato), we needed a hero who ascended to a god-like state, seeing the cyclical nature of mortal reality. Yes, men die; but they are replaced by much the same sort of men. Which is to say, that when Achilles looks at the shield of Book XVIII, he is founding Western Thought. (Apologies if I am oversimplifying a very long debate. I am trying to be as accurate to his argument as possible, but any abridgment will have its bias. Mine is that I think I am right.)
I could and can acknowledge the necessity of moving beyond grief and the limitations of a human life in order to achieve excellence of thought. Those who are focused on the day to day of life to the exclusion of the larger patterns in which they participate are probably much less likely to think philosophical thoughts. (By the way, I’m pretty sure that this is not a bad thing. It is just a thing.)
Our argument arose from my conviction that the real foundation for Western thought is not located ONLY in Achilles eccentric movement into mēnis, but also in his return to his mortality, when he is finally able to eat, sleep, and mourn for Patroklos alongside Priam who mourns for Hektor in Book XXIV. I think that the uniquely western emphasis not only on free will and excellence, but also a community not withstanding those virtues requires a hero who is excellent because of his mortality.
A god’s eye view that sees primarily the cyclical nature of life and death does allow for philosophical thoughts concerning the universals that are true and beautiful and important all humans; yet, we are also a tradition that revels in individual achievement (be it artistic, athletic, philosophical etc.) and a god-like vision, I would argue, does not result in the pressure to be excellent, but the pressure to be at one with everything else. That is not particularly western.
If death and life don’t really mean anything, either through in their suffering or their grandeur, then a real community and communion of excellent individuals becomes at least irrelevant and and possibly non-existent.
To achieve excellence and participate in the community of the excellent dead that have gone before, we must first embrace the fact that we die. Then the achievements of the past become more than history, but rather a call that lends urgency and weight to our individual actions. Homer, in Achilles but also in every single foot soldier we see die in the Iliad, founds our notion that the manner of our death (and really, we could describe our entire life as as slow death) gives us identity, memory, and meaning. Even athletic achievement in Homer’s universe is located in the funeral games. The message becomes: because we die, you must strive to excel.
All of which brings me back to this song. I’m not saying that Sara Bareilles is talking about the Iliad, but I think that her bouncy song about “a Cemetary in the center of Queens” perfectly falls into a Western Tradition of striving for excellence (Chasing the Sun, if you will) because of death.
Those of you who have heard me talk about poems, my Junior poet, or my Senior Novel know that I am a little pronoun obsessed. Bear with me.
I love what Bareilles does with pronouns in this song! The refrain – “We should always be chasing the sun” – has the communal “we.” She emphasizes the common bonds of the 3 million dead in the cemetery; yet, she also emphasizes from the first verse the singularity of each – a different story, a different name, different dates, etc. Further more, the introduction of the refrain – “You said, remember that life is not meant to be wasted.” Each of these individuals enters into an “I-Thou” relationship with Bareilles, and by extension with us, the listeners. Because we (the dead and the living) die, each individual you can relate to, chastise, and encourage.
I would say that Bareilles particularly understands this community of the dead and its call to excellence by the two artistic forms she discusses: the city of Manhattan itself and her own song.
Manhattan: Basically, my favorite line in the whole song sums it up: “the Skyscrapers’ little tombstone brothers.” The Skyscrapers exist because of the eventuality of the tombstones, and the tombstones are little skyscrapers in and of themselves: little imperative reminders that life is finite and not meant to be wasted.
Music: This awareness of her community of mortality demands a participation. Bareilles’ needs to do it through her music and must figure out how to rise to the challenge. We see this in her series of questions? How do we really participate in mortality?
So how do you do it?
With just words and just music, capture the feeling
That my earth is somebody’s ceiling?
Can I deliver in sound, the weight of the ground
Of a cemetery in the center of Queens?
We strive to be excellent.