How to see the Other
In Plato’s Symposium, Aristophanes tells us the story of humanity, according to which humans originally came as pairs made one: Each had four arms, four legs, and a head with two faces. Like the humans in the story of the Tower of Babel, they “dared to scale heaven” and posed a challenge to the authority of the gods; like Yahweh in the Biblical myth, the gods painted humanity’s desire for autonomy as hubris and tore them apart. Humans now contain a fundamental rift in their being. Plato has it that love “tries to make one out of two and heal the wound of human nature”. The band Silent Planet reimagine this in their lyric, “Reach inside; heal the wound; make us whole.”
This kind of lyrical reimagining runs throughout the music of Silent Planet. The footnotes accompanying Garrett Russell’s lyrics signpost routes through the ideas explored in each song, concepts that trace their lineage through centuries, cultures, and myriad interpretations. The band comes from a Christian tradition but takes a hermeneutical approach to life, literature, and meaning that is far broader than any one religion. Silent Planet invert what makes most “Christian bands” fail: While others use music to project their beliefs into the world, Silent Planet are intent on listening, on receiving the experiences of others.
(Incidentally, there is an endless supply of commentary to be made on the music of Silent Planet, on the structuring of songs, the interplay between instruments, the band’s positioning in musical genre and how that intersects with audience needs, and many other topics – I am only looking at the lyrics today, but Silent Planet are much more than this.)
In Totality and Infinity, philosopher Emmanuel Levinas argues that a concrete confrontation with the Other, a face-to-face meeting, is how we access their conceptual Otherness. Through the physicality of the other person, we see their metaphysical nature and understand their humanity. When we hear their spoken voice, we begin to hear their unspoken story. In essence, Levinas was telling us to get off our smart phones at the dinner table before we even had smart phones to distract us from the people around.
To this end, Silent Planet’s project of lending voice to the voiceless is an introduction to the Other, a doorway to a place of meeting in reality. The first two of their albums can be summarised as examining how we view others; how we see the Other for the good of the Other, and how we watch the Other to control them. Seeing is a form of submission, of giving yourself over to see and hear (to witness) the truth of the Other; watching is a way to rule over them.
This is expressed elegantly in the structures of the two albums: The Night God Slept moves omnisciently through history and into the lives, minds, and hearts of women who reveal their stories, while Everything Was Sound finds Russell at the centre of a metaphysical panopticon, viewing around him the struggles of various characters from the album. These are high-concept albums with basic motivating principles: love, truth, communion. In a world so suspicious of such concepts, especially so sincerely advocated for, what can seem naïve to some is vitally refreshing to the rest of us.
“Awake, awake your eyes, or be forever fallen.”
~ “First Mother (Lilith)”, The Night God Slept
The first album, The Night God Slept, opens with a statement of intent in the first chorus, both a calling of responsibility and a great hope: “May our suffering sing the hymns we couldn’t hear.” The framing device of this narrative is a dreamer invoking seven women whose stories will be told in the interim of sleep. These women are all suffering saints, witnesses to the pain of the unseen and unheard throughout history, women who sing songs of loss and hope, oppression and strength. Russell, in providing a literary voice for these archetypes, is taking on this responsibility to sing those unheard hymns, accepting the call he articulates in “Darkstrand (Hibakusha)” for all people, the “salt of the Earth”, to “preserve their songs”.
One such preserver of songs is Julia Namier, who suffered in Soviet concentration camps and decided to show her captors only love, becoming a voice for millions without voices. In the song “Wasteland (Vechnost)”, she is the “apostate to the state, Witness to the Dead”, communicating across the divide of the iron curtain and bringing the untold stories of suffering under the Soviet Union to the attention of the wider world. The great hope was that if we could only see each other, distance could be divided and unity found, that (as Russell puts it) even the great spans of “the seven seas could cease to be” and humanity could “shake this sudden sundering and subsequently cross the straight and traverse the wastes”. Exposure is the death of tyranny, which is exactly why despots always erect walls behind which to hide truth.
The question inevitably rises of the extent to which we can truly see any other. This has been a preoccupation of the recent efforts to encourage minorities to represent themselves, though it has also led to very misguided admonishments to “stay in your lane”. In “Wasteland (Vechnost)”, Russell writes that “you know only a heap of broken image”, an (almost exact) reference to the line in T S Eliot’s The Waste Land. Eliot’s poem is, like the lyrics of Silent Planet, composited of references to other artists, cultures, and ideas, a unified approximation of wholeness from collected shards. Each of us holds a shattered mirror to ourselves, only ever knowing/seeing fragments and only ever being fragmented. But it is precisely in each other’s brokenness, brought together in honest meetings, that we become more whole than we can alone.
In “The Well”, Russell expresses a desperate hope to “hold us together even as it tears me apart”. This line is inverted in a song on their second album in which he asks, “How can I hold myself together when everything falls apart?” Taken dialectically together, these lines offer a synthesis, both sides of the coin: We sacrifice a part of ourselves to the whole – be it relationship, community, the sacred, etc. – because if the whole “falls apart”, we too are fractured and lost.
“XX (City Grave)” casts the dreamer’s gaze on the problem of sexual slavery, from its most heinous manifestation of human trafficking to its etiology in pornography. The narrator of the song asks God, “Are you a man? Then how do you see me?” She sees the attentional blindness that gender so often causes, leading us to miss the suffering of those not like ourselves. In this we read a criticism of the narrow view of God as male, the father alone, with no reference to God’s femininity, to the infinite that any god worthy of admiration must inhabit. This masculine God fixated on such a narrow view of the world is not one who made us in his image; we make him in ours.
This hints at another substrate at which this internal gaze, this search through the Other’s eye for the log in one’s own, occurs in the music of Silent Planet: Russell is interested in critiquing the belief system of which he is a part, of honestly criticising (in a dialectic effort to find improvement and forgiveness) Christianity itself. Many of the songs directly address the failings of modern, and especially Evangelical, Christianity. There is a sharply brilliant moment that draws attention to the hypocrisy of some Christians and their connivance in the evil of sex trafficking. The sister in this story, forced to become a currency in sexual economics, describes her body as “a graveyard where they buried thirsty souls”; a moment later, she calls out a preacher “with a parched tongue” – he has a dry mouth, he is one of those thirsty souls, much like King Lear’s policeman who “hotly lust’st to use” the prostitute for the same reason he whips her.
These problems cannot be laid solely at the feet of the church, which would be one more way of blaming the Other. Very few of us are “without sin” when it comes to objectification, with apathy being “our anchor to a digital sea where [we] drown in the comfort of our complicity”. In “Dying In Circles” (from the second album), Russell writes of the “planks from our eyes plunged in your side”, referencing the scriptural admonition to focus on the plank in our own eyes before worrying about the mote in the eye of the Other. In “Visible Unseen”, from the recent third album, Russell returns to this image, critiquing the “coerced conformity fixed on the dust in their eye” while “forest fires rage in mine”. In looking for the faults and fractures in our own being, we position ourselves better to see the Other more clearly, with the planks in our own eyes – at least momentarily – pushed aside for a better view of the Other.
Moreover, it is easier to understand and to forgive in others that which we recognise in ourselves. As a French proverb has it (from which two tracks on Silent Planet’s second album take their names), “Tout comprendre c’est tout pardonner” – “To understand all is to forgive all.”
“Too blinded by this hatred to recognise your brother’s face.”
~ “Orphan”, Everything Was Sound
“We can only prohibit that which we can name,” George Steiner once wrote. The story of homosexuality as a concept, for instance, begins with sodomy being a delineated phenomenon, an activity one might undertake and which society may condemn or be ambivalent towards. It wasn’t until the nineteenth century that the linguistic category of “homosexual” was created, taking anal sex as only one aspect of its essential nature. To be a homosexual was to say something about not only your activities in the bedroom but also your preferences in everyday life, your identity, your very soul. As Michel Foucault commented, “The sodomite had been a temporary aberration; the homosexual was now a species”.
Homosexuality, named, was now something that could be diagnosed; diagnosable, it could be treated as illness and condemned. The homosexual was now seen, but not to his advantage. Of course, that same categorical designation would later be used by gay rights advocates to show themselves to the world in their own terms, to say, “See me as I truly am.” This cannot, however, excuse or validate the accuser forcing the accused to be seen in an incomplete – and therefore untruthful – way. Jews were certainly “seen” in Nazi Germany, given visibility by stars pinned to shirts, as were Native Americans, “shown” by colonisers as savages. It is a tool of oppressors to rewrite the Other’s story and maintain their own self-beneficial narrative.
Silent Planet’s sophomore album, Everything Was Sound, examines this phenomenon of watching and not truly seeing. In “Psychescape”, the schizophrenic narrator asks, “Is it madness to retreat from the myopic gaze that holds us captive?” in reference to the omnipresent Big Brother of Orwell’s 1984 and the Panopticon, a theoretical circular prison with a monolithic viewing platform at its centre, from where a guard can observe any inmate at any time. Society is a panopticon in which we live our lives. Aware of the constant stare of social expectations, we perform ourselves, doing impressions of the people we think we ought to be. Even if we escape the gaze of society, we only move to an inner panopticon in which the Socratic demon of our conscience evaluates us, causing us to perform for that internal witness and judge.
But not all watchtowers are created equal. The narrator of “Psychescape” is under a “myopic gaze”; an overly narrow purview is a feature of totalitarianism and restricts those within its control, while the societal gaze, functioning healthily, encourages the best in us and tames our destructive elements. Diagnosed as schizophrenic, our narrator’s reality is defined by his delusions, his identity fixed by an external definition. This song is a microcosm of the tightly constrained universe in which he lives, with room only for what he is told is his “madness”. He has ceased to be a whole human, containing the contradictions and multitudes of a person, and is instead a disease, a victim, a schizophrenic and nothing more. He is watched constantly and yet we, his society, have failed to see him.
“Nervosa” continues this theme of the negative stare and the harm caused by our half-sight. “Nervosa” is narrated by a young woman starving herself in supplication to Ana, the metaphysical personification of anorexia. She opens her story with the lines, “Look straight through me: look at the nightmare ... Look through me and see the advent of our obsessions.” She is addressing all those who are “watching”, the emotional scavengers who “furiously flock to tragedy, observe the hurt, then hasten back” to their own lives. They are spectators who take and do not give.
This “hoarding of the world” by observing greedily, which leads to our losing “any semblance of ourselves”, is a dangerous phenomenon, and the song confronts us with the question of what we lose when we trade our souls for worldly gain. Consumer culture teaches us to be passive, while a life worth living requires effort and sacrifice. In Ethics and Infinity, Levinas rebukes “the notion of sight to describe an authentic relationship with the Other; it is speech, and more precisely, the response or responsibility, that is an authentic relationship”. It is not enough merely to see and hear, Levinas adds, because “I’m not just there to contemplate, I reply” – which is to say that some form of response is our responsibility.
In addition to seeing and not acting, the spectators in “Nervosa” do not even see what’s really there; they see what the young woman represents, a concept, her illness – they see Ana. In “Depths II”, Russell says, “I’m a name without a face.” This can be true of anyone, which is to say that we are mere concepts until the all-important face-to-face meeting when we cease to be reducible to simplistic terms. The narrator of “Nervosa” is one such faceless name. When she sings in the chorus, “I am not my own reflection, I am not myself,” we understand that these spectators no more see her than she, vision distorted by body dysmorphia, sees herself. She is negated by this unseeing vision, looked through and replaced with concepts, with shame and tragedy and cheap spectacle.
“Nervosa” takes place at an intersection between being seen and being hidden, the “visible unseen”. It is the score (borrowing a phrase Russell has used in interviews) to a “dance between wholeness and oblivion”. It is interesting that before the first chorus, we hear the phrase, “This dying dance.” This is the story of her dying, and the dance she is locked in is an expression of her decay, but the lyric can also be read as saying that the dance itself is drawing to an end, meaning that at its conclusion she will end up on one side of its dichotomy – she will find wholeness or oblivion. “Nervosa” warns us that as long as she continues to be watched and unseen, she will end up with the worst. Ana’s twisted version of reality affects us all and, in this way, the young woman is consumed and completely erased.
“Give me eyes to see the visible unseen.”
~ “Visible Unseen”, When The End Began
Russell has described the song “Visible Unseen” (from their recent third album) as an apology to those LGBTQ youth whose stories he had not heard before. The song is an attempt to live out an answer to his own lyrical plea to be given “eyes to see the visible unseen”. In “seeing” those others, he sees his own failure and brokenness, and he can begin to mend those fractures. In this way, and in all the other ways that giving becomes receiving and vice versa, we are all the spiegel im spiegel, the mirror in the mirror.
In “Depths II”, Russell writes that his “looking glass becomes a two-way mirror”. This is, as the footnote attests, a reference to 1 Corinthians 13:12 – “For now we see through a glass, darkly; but then face to face: now I know in part; but then shall I know even as also I am known.” There is a further meta-level to this lyric: The song itself is Russell’s two-way mirror, the lyrics his looking glass with which he peers into himself, and we watch this process as unseen spectators.
As one of those unseen spectators, I have found in the music of Silent Planet a meeting place with a particular Other: the faithful, people whose divine spark they believe to be literally sparked by the Divine. I do not share their religious convictions, heretical unbeliever that I am. The fundamentalist religion in which I was raised showed me the world in a reductive way, controlling what was seen, and inadvertently led me to see Christianity as a narrow and easily rejected thing. I was forced into a conversation to which my response was supposed to be a mere “yes” or “no”, an affirmation of belief or positioning as an enemy of God. It is a thing of beauty to be allowed to listen to a much larger, infinitely unfolding conversation with those who seek questions and question answers. And it is a joy forever to be able, through my writing, to join in that conversation and speak back. In the spirit of that dialogue, Garrett will have the last word in my essay:
“I believe in connecting with people after our shows one on one. Looking someone in the eye and identifying that you exist and they exist – there is something sacred about human connection.”
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• The Night God Slept, Silent Planet (2014)
• Everything Was Sound, Silent Planet (2016)
• When The End Began, Silent Planet (2018)
• Emmanuel Levinas, Totality and Infinity (1961) and Ethics and Infinity (1982)
• George Steiner, After Bahel (1975)
• Michel Foucault, History of Sexuality (1976)
• Interview with Garrett Russell, “Garrett Russell on what inspired Silent Planet’s new album”, Rock Sound (2018)