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English musician Steven Wilson’s Hand. Cannot. Erase is extraordinary by the standards of any genre. His subject matter is the uniqueness of each human person, and he focuses on the life of one lost soul…

An Incarnational Whole

hand cannot eraseOne of the greatest things in this whirligig of a world—however fraught with a string of perilous and gut-wrenching disasters—is the mystery of the human person. And, until God so decides to end this existence, every person is a new reflection of the Infinite. From the Catholic Humanist perspective, every human is an unrepeatable center of dignity and freedom. Each person, born in a particular place and time, comes only once, a life to burn as brightly or not, for one’s self or for another, in the time allotted to each of us. “Dark and inscrutable are the ways in which we come into the world,” the grand Anglo-Irish statesman and philosopher, Edmund Burke, understood. Fewer truths have ever been spoken in such perfect formation of the English language.

Yet, speaking of the mystery of the person and personhood, Pope John Paul II put it even more beautifully in the penultimate month of 1996.

The mystery of the Incarnation has given a tremendous impetus to man’s thought and artistic genius. Precisely by reflecting on the union of the two natures, human and divine, in the person of the Incarnate Word, Christian thinkers have come to explain the concept of person as the unique and unrepeatable centre of freedom and responsibility, whose inalienable dignity must be recognized. This concept of the person has proved to be the cornerstone of any genuinely human civilization.

As someone who has had the privilege of teaching history and writing biography the entirety of his professional career, I hope and pray that John Paul II’s words and ideas each across everything I teach, think, and write. As such, I am always looking at and for new ways to understand the dignity of each individual person, however tragically flawed.

Not too long ago, a statement and manifestation of such dignity arrived in the most unusual of ways: in the form of a rock concept album by the rather devoutly atheistic, seemingly always grumpy, and unbelievably talented English musician, Steven Wilson. His album, a sixty-seven-minute story about a lost soul, came out on February 27, 2015. In terms of lyrics and music, Mr. Wilson’s work is extraordinary by the standards of any genre. What should intrigue us most, however, is the subject matter and how Mr. Wilson fills it out. The subject matter is the uniqueness of each human person, and he focuses on the life of one lost soul.

Inspiration

Joyce Carol Vincent

In 2011, a number of British companies joined forces to release a documentary about the tragic, true-life death of a rather normal person, Joyce Carol Vincent. Entitled Dreams of a Life, the film explored the events—many of them speculative and sometimes verging on gossipy—leading up to the discovery of Vincent’s body, decomposed over three years on the couch in her apartment. Presumed to have died around the end of 2003, her TV was still playing, and unopened Christmas presents surrounded her when three people legally broke into her apartment to check on her in 2006.

The story itself captivated the British imagination. Born in 1965, Vincent had been professional, vivacious, and the youngest of five daughters. How she had gone three years dead with no one checking on her—including her landlord, her siblings, and the utility companies—is one of the most intriguing aspects of the story.

Frankly, the film as film is rather weak, even if the story and the subject matter are stunning and terrifying. So many talking heads appear throughout Dreams of a Life—most of whom are unidentified and given no context but allowed to speak whatever theory they want—that the tragedy of the loss of Vincent becomes merely a catalyst for lots of people to speculate about what actually happened. Unfortunately, Dreams of a Life becomes something of a bad and very long news report, all told by the “man on the street” who, in reality, knows nothing but believes everything.

Ultimately, though, beyond the superficial aspect of the interviews, the film asks how any person could be so utterly lost in our modern, urban society that she goes missing for three years with almost no attention from any family member, neighbor, or even business in the larger society.

Hand.Cannot.Erase.

When musician Steven Wilson saw the film, he, too, became intrigued by the very loss of a human soul, the loss of a life, and the loss of a unique person. In an interview with American journalist, Stephen Humphries, Mr. Wilson explained the role of the film: “There was something very symbolic about the story of Joyce Carol Vincent. This was a young woman living in the heart of the city who chose to erase herself, to disappear. If you really want to disappear, you wouldn’t go to live in a small village in the country, you would go live in the heart of the city. You would go and live in the midst of millions of other people. If you do that, you will disappear.”

To be fair, many of Mr. Wilson’s albums over the past two decades have dealt with such alienation from society, but they have usually done so by looking at how certain behaviors lead one to become alienated. The story of Joyce Carol Vincent is not so clear-cut. In many ways, it is not just about a person exiling herself from society, but also about a society—by its sins of omission—exiling her as well.

In creating his own sixty-seven-minute concept album, Mr. Wilson chose to give his character a happier ending than the real-life analog. Still, the events of the fictional life created by Mr. Wilson are horrific, as anyone who has lost a child knows all too deeply and all too permanently.

In the most powerful track of the album, “Routine,” our protagonist deals with the loss of her entire family. Though the words are mundane when taken piece by piece, when taken as a whole, they are sublime.

What do I do with all the children’s clothes?
Such tiny things that still smell of them
And the footprints in the hallway
On to my knees, scrub them away
—“Routine”

The life and lost love of her deceased family haunt every aspect of her being. How to cope, but to keep moving, how to become almost heart-and-soul-dead… questions whose answers seem the only sure way to survive the debilitations of loss and the survivor’s guilt.

Hand. Cannot. Erase. considers a number of moods and emotions tied to loss and the desire of the depressed self to disappear from all around her. At around fifty-five minutes into the album, however, memories of love reawaken the protagonist. In particular, it is the love of her ancestors that enlivens her again, filling her with some kind of calling and purpose.

Come child
Come back if you want to
Come back if you want to
Come back
A bicycle
A garden wall
A mother’s call
A love is born
And after all the sleep that falls on me
—”Ancestral”

“Ancestral” flows immediately into “Happy Returns,” the title revealing the protagonist’s happy if somewhat reluctant and reticent return to real life. “Hey brother, I feel like I’m living in parentheses.” Whatever regrets, however, the listener knows the lead character has made it back from her depression and her own exile. Unlike the real-life story of Joyce Carol Vincent, Mr. Wilson’s heroine re-emerges from the shadows, broken but ready to find some healing, however slight it might be, yet preferable to eternal darkness and the annihilation of the self in the abyss.

Art, But Then Some

Taking his own excellent and expertly-treated art to the next level, Mr. Wilson also released a book accompany the album. Roughly the same dimensions as a vinyl LP, but as thick as a coffee table book, the book, Hand. Cannot. Erase. details the life of his protagonist in ways his music simply cannot. Beautifully illustrated throughout, the book gives the reader something unique: various media that allow us to fall into the world of the heroine. Not only do we experience her world through photography, but we also get to look at her birth certificate; her diary; the sleeve notes of a mixed-tape; a postcard; newspaper clippings; sketchings; and, most importantly, a note to her brother, declaring her re-emergence in the world. These are not simply parts of the book, but removable and tangible media.

When I was a child, I used to spend hours looking at the gatefold sleeves of Yes’s live triple album, Yessongs. Not only did I love the music, but I cherished and obsessed over the fantasy paintings by Roger Dean. Floating islands, organic starships, and alien fish came together in a rather forceful and fantastic way.

With the release of Hand.Cannot.Erase.—the title strongly hinting at the ultimate optimism of the story—Mr. Wilson has taken the release of an album to an entirely new level. Not only can we enjoy the music, aurally, but Mr. Wilson has given us a life to study with our ears, our eyes, and our hands. Even more importantly, we can connect to the life of his fictional character at the level of the mind, the heart, and the soul.

Whatever else it did, good or bad, the Protestant Reformation separated the image from the word at a most fundamental and almost irredeemable level. Over the last 500 years, Western culture has striven mightily to bring the two back together in an incarnational fashion. When image and word become one, as John Paul II said in 1996, we can rediscover the refashioning of the human person, broken but destined for sanctity.

Perhaps one of the greatest and most telling ironies of the modern world is that a self-professed English atheist has re-discovered one of the most beautiful manifestations of human dignity yet conceived. Through music, image, and word, we find a lost person, a person alienated from society by her own actions as well as by those taken by other members of society. Unlike the real and tragic Joyce Carol Vincent, Steven Wilson’s heroine experiences love and loss, but, as she drowns in her own wallowing depression, she comes up for air and finds meaning again—slowly—through her relations, ancestral and current.

If this isn’t the essence of a Christian Humanism, nothing is.

Here in Mr. Wilson’s high art, we find the absolute best of humanism. Now, we just need to remind those who love humanism that it is only properly understood and completed when it is modified by that all-important word: Christian.

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3 replies to this post
  1. I like your essays Dr. Birzer because I often find myself thinking about a word or an idea that is central to the essay. The words, dignity and humanism, sent me to my big, old dictionary since these two words are very, very seldom a part of my every day life or communication. My discoveries are a source of great excitement.

    Dignity, being a noun, does pertain to the individual person because it is defined as: conduct or speech indicative of self-respect, and secondly: of nobility, elevation of character; worthiness. This, for me, informs the nature of Adam and Eve before the fall, they being one in harmony with God’s law, being without sin. After the fall, human beings are now in disharmony with God; we are called in His word “unworthy”, not worthless, but unworthy, sinful.

    This kind of study, for me, brings further clarity to faith and life in Christ. This dignity, before it can be bestowed to us again,by God, had to be reconciled first, by God Himself in His Son, the person of Jesus Christ. This was and is the promise given to Adam and Eve in the garden after the fall. God, in Jesus Christ, being fully man and fully God in one person, assumed the perfect flesh and blood that He first created in His very image: full of grace, truth and life, a man of dignity. He restored dignity by defeating Satan, our sinful flesh, and the world; God defeated death and restored eternal life for us through the forgiveness of our sins, earned by His assuming all the sins of the whole world into Himself, sacrificing His own flesh and blood on the cross. This restoration is given to all who believe by the Holy Spirit who brings us Christ and His gifts of Faith and life, to us, individually, in His Holy Baptism, His Holy Communion, His Absolution, all in His word that continues to be preached to all nations.

    I disliked Christmas for many, many years until this teaching of Christmas was brought to my understanding; that we remember and honor His birth so that, our Faith, while waiting for His return, is strengthened and does not grow weary. That even at His conception and birth, God’s salvation was already at work. I now say with expected joy, Merry Christmas!

  2. Thank you for this reflection on one of my favorite recent albums. Steven Wilson’s music deserves more attention.

  3. Having enjoyed Steven Wilson’s music for years, especially Porcupine Tree, I found this very interesting. Regarding the effects of the Protestant Reformation on the sundering of Word and Image, there is a new book from Mark Mattes: Luther’s Theology of Beauty, which addresses this issue, where it is noted that for Luther, there was no distinction between Word and Image – language and the imagination are intertwined.

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