Salvation at the End of the Wall?

7 01 2011

Driving to Melbourne recently, I took the glorious liberty (again) of subjecting myself to a sustained hearing of Pink Floyd’s “The Wall”. With a full tank of petrol and 180km of highway that connects Eden to Orbost, I had nothing but the darkening trees and the flight of moths to distract me from the nightmarish genius that is Pink Floyd’s eleventh album. And at the conclusion of all things, I was struck by a thought. The final song, “Outside the Wall”, concludes with three words. As documented (amongst other places) here, those three words connect back to the first three words of the album, and produce the question: “Isn’t this where we came in?” In other words, the beginning of the album is contained within its conclusion, and its conclusion is implicit within its beginning.

A neat little trick, and one exploited melodically by Radiohead in more than one of their albums, but it opens something of a pandora’s box. While the final song might constitute (what appears to be) a sanguine perspective on the love of the protagonist’s friends, the final line in the penultimate song would belie so optimistic a conclusion. In a voice both strained and stentorian, a ghoulish judge declares that “since, my friend, you have exposed your deepest fear, / I sentence you to be exposed before your peers”. His verdict: “Tear down the wall!” And with that, we then hear the muted tones of the final track, which are nought but the whimperings of a broken soul subjected to the harsh realities of an outside world.

Can such a conclusion tie back to the beginning? Indeed it can, but only by insisting on a certain psychological recidivism. While the judge had ordained his forced return to society, the shock and the trauma of the experience have forced him to regress again, and so to relive his own psychological trauma ad infinitum – or until I need to fill up on petrol and stretch my legs. This is possible, but it is an unsatisfactory “conclusion” to an artwork of nightmarish complexity. Allow me then to propose an alternative hypothesis.

Let us reparse the judge’s pronouncement:
“Since, my friend, you have exposed your deepest fear,
I sentence you to be exposed, before your peers tear down the wall.”

In this instance, the adverbial preposition (“before”) is functioning temporally, rather than spatially. Instead of insisting on the protagonists psychological or physical exposure in the presence of his peers, the judge is seeming to suggest a certain inevitability to the eradication of this wall, and an insistence upon the necessity of “exposing” the victim of trauma before the arrival of this moment. What we as the listeners are experiencing is the continued repetition of the subject’s psychosis. This eternal rephrasing of his dementia on every listening stretches deeper and deeper into his and our subconscious. Like the irritatingly recursive ditty that is the weapon of adolescent automobile passengers everywhere, the ending segués into the beginning and demands a return to the album’s source.

And yet, unlike the straightforward interpretation, this is a reading that lacks despair of any kind. Rather than suggest a continued and infinitely recursive psychological regression, we know from the final line of the penultimate song that a certain salvation has been issued. Were this a David Lynch film, we would now know that all of the protagonists are psychological projections in the mind of the main character, that we cannot take their identities any more literally than we would their manifestation in a dream, that the events of the entire album are transpiring over the course of only a few moments introspection, and that the trauma only appears to be an everlasting trauma, brought about through feelings of abandonment and despair. For it must be the case that, despite the apparant possibility of this being an infinite loop, there is also the realisation that it is only being repeated in the time that it takes the subject to receive some form of treatment. The wall is going to be torn down, and the loop is going to end.

The notion of exposure, while presumably a positive resolution to an ever-developing sense of isolation and despair, is presented as a negative phenomenon by the protagonist’s projection of a judge. The relationship that this exposure has to the breaking-down of the wall is contingent upon our parsing of the judge’s verdict. While it is clear that the wall represents the physical barrier between the protagonist and his world, functioning as an impediment to his familial and personal relationships, it is also clear from various tracks on the album that it functions as a source of security at the same time. Were we to suggest that the judge was demanding exposure and then ordering the tearing down of the wall, we would assume that it is the wall’s eradication that the subject fears. On the other hand, if we propose that the judge is suggesting exposure before the tearing down of the wall, then the eradication of the wall becomes a positive phenomenon.

What we have here is effectively an isomorphism for the dichotomy between immanent and eschatological salvation, as manifested throughout the Deuteronomic History. On the one hand, there is the pronouncement that the wall is going to be torn down and that the subject will, ipso facto, be exposed before his peers. While this appears to denote immanent salvation, the result is of a continued regression that operates without cessation and delays inevitably the realisation of redemption. In so doing, the redemption itself becomes something to be feared. Alternatively, if one were to suggest the second hypothesis, that the judge is mandating an exposure prior to the tearing down of the wall, what we find is the opposite scenario. This pronouncement appears to delay the onset of salvation, but produces only the appearance of an infinite regression. We know from the contextualisation of this exposure as an event occurring, not as the result of the wall’s eradication, but temporally before it, that the “infinite regression” is being played out over a delimited time and that what seems to be an eternity away is actually extremely imminent.

So too with the books of Deuteronomy, Joshua, Judges, Samuel and Kings. On the one hand, we have the promise of eschatological salvation. Moses informs the Israelites that, wherever they may be scattered, God will gather them together and return them to the land. This is the conclusion to the famous sin-exile-return motif, the final part of which denotes both the penitence of the sinful Israelites and their subsequent return to God’s favour (and to the land). On the other hand, we have the promise of imminent salvation. The people crave and receive a monarchy, the organisation of which ensures their continued survival in a hostile world. And yet, the logic is skewed. As the Deuteronomic History plays out, the imminent salvation becomes one of infinite delay and continued regression. As certain second-temple theologies play out, the eschatological salvation becomes one of tremendous immanence, perhaps by virtue of the fact that it delimits the historical drama by providing an awareness of something that occurs beyond its conclusion, rather than something that operates within it.

Is it possible that Pink Floyd were alluding to such a dialectic? Indeed! Take the numeric value of the Hebrew word for “pink” and add that to the value of the English “wall”, divide it by the Greek lambda sigma delta, let it sit for ten minutes and serve. Voila! You get something about Derrida, but it’s in French.

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