In the Court of Arthur Schopenhauer: an observation by King Crimson

The British progressive rock band King Crimson, undoubtedly one of the most successful and cutting-edge realities that animated the musical environment in the 70s, released their first album, In The Court of the Crimson King, on the 13th of October, 1969, a five stars worth work of art, valorised, estimated and loved by the aroused-haired critics, thanks to the composing genie of Robert Fripp, leader and guitarist of the band, Greg Lake’s (singer and bassist) stunningly great vocal skills and, above all, the disturbingly sharp and brilliantly amusing lyrics written by the English poet Peter Sinfield.

Sinfield, initially active component of the band as a keyboards and synthesizer player, could superbly mix a classical background with the contemporary social and political environment, fusing past and present under one single sign, as well as exploring a critical analysis concerning the human ethical system, by picturing evocative metaphorical images and intelligently deconstructive statements.

The actually true core of Sinfield’s whole complex thought is a very negative and pessimistic view over the human existence and the human condition, a view that takes him (together with the listener, obviously) to act a critical and nihilistic, but, at the same time, accurately constructive, analysis on the articulated hive holding the fake illusions and the negatively fragile knowledge that permeate the modern culture.

The whole album, that can easily be considered an actual concept album, describes the development of fear for the future as well as the deconstruction and the crumbling of the human valors, focusing on the hopeless condition of mankind at the sunrise of the 21st century (the first track is the famous screaming 21st Century Schizoid Man), but the third track, called Epitaph, perfectly pictures how the destruction of our human identity starts with the lack of knowledge and the appeal to untrue ideals.

In 1969, King Crimson produced one of the best pieces of music ever and delighted the listeners with these verses:

The wall on which the prophets wrote

Is cracking at the seams

Upon the instruments of death

The sunlight brightly gleams.

When every man is torn apart

With nightmares and with dreams

Will no one lay the laurel wreath

When silence drowns the screams.

Between the iron gates of fate

The seeds of time were sown

And watered by the deeds of those

Who know and who are known.

Knowledge is a deadly friend

When no one sets the rules

The fate of all mankind I see

Is in the hands of fools.

Confusion will be my Epitaph

As I crawl a cracked and broken path

If we make it we can all sit back and laugh

But I fear tomorrow I’ll be crying

Yes, I fear tomorrow I’ll be crying

Epitaph can be considered the triumph of King Crimson’s nihilism, since it expresses some of the most negative and remarkable topics held by their musical poetry: the pre-constituted certainties crisis, their fugacity and illusory character, the modern culture’s vacuity, tomorrow’s doubts and the raging corruption of mankind.

Style wise, the lyrics show a huge amount of negative words: Nightmares, Silence, Screams, Fate, Fools, Confusion, Epitaph, Cracked, Broken, Crying and, rhetorical wise, it is full of enjambments, that give the recitation a very solemn imprinting, making, actually, the song nothing more than a sadly and paradigmatically biblical funeral march, as meant by Fripp and fiends.

The core of the whole text is the hypothetic collapse of human culture, the sudden destruction of the illusions that define the traits of contemporary culture (When every man is torn apart with nightmares and with dreams).

Peter Sinfield’s verses clearly describe the end of the human utopia that illusorily made men modern. He is hopelessly aware we got to a point where evolution has become regression. What might then happen when silence drowns the screams? What would happen to mankind after a sudden collapse of the culture?

The Crimson King provides a quick and definitely not painless answer to this question: men would get in touch with the Truth (the philosophical idea of Truth obviously, not the religious one, since religion is also described as one of the factors that might drown men into the abyss): a new ethical system would be born and men would start building a new individual and collective identity up again.

Sinfield is even more nihilist, though: the final verses, but I fear, tomorrow, I’ll be crying, give the song the worst and the most negative ending possible. Will we be finally achieving the Truth, become part of it, or will we build again a great consolatory illusion up, in order to hide our weakness and our condition of suffering beings?

In order to provide a correct and accurate analysis concerning the cultural and, especially, philosophical topics that characterize Epitaph, it is necessary to start with the most beautiful and profound verses of the song: Knowledge is a deadly friend when no one sets the rules, which represent both the cause and the goal of this deconstruction/construction process.

This paradigmatic statement does actually recall, in a nihilistic and somehow brutal way, the famous Socratic say Aipee oaooui (Nosce te ipsum, know yourself). It represents a warning not to transcend the limits set by the human condition itself and, before proceeding to investigate into the reality in its wholeness, it is necessary to bend on yourself, examining all the aspects, even the innermost ones, of your own being, catching the most secret elements, exploring the darkest corners.

In Epitaph, this warning represents the main principle of Sinfield’s negativity, as well as the main cause of men’s unhappiness. People, because of this mad and rule-less curiositas, can’t achieve any contact with the Truth, preferring, in accordance with their own nature, to be lulled by an ethereal illusions and self-hoax world. This increases the already profound meaning of the word Fools in the following verses, a word that holds the whole mankind, underlining its historical natural inclination towards some sort of self-mystification.

It seems clear what’s the true background of the song: The World as Will and Representation by Arthur Schopenhauer. The Maya’s veil, which is described by the philosopher as a grotesque mist that embraces the whole Earth, forbidding any connection with the Truth, finds its counterpart in Epitaph’s cracking wall, synthesizing Schopenhauer’s Truth achievement process, the gash of the veil and representing the limit-idea of his philosophy, the Thing itself, by means of the image of the light filtering through the cracks of the wall.

The philosopher reckons that the Thing itself is an absolute reality, hidden behind the veil of the phenomenon (reality as representation) and it is even possible to achieve this reality: since men are made of body and mind, we are able to perceive, apart from the reality surrounding us, even our own being and, therefore, we are not limited to an external view of the phenomenon, but live ourselves from the inside, by experiencing feelings and emotions. This experience represents the basis of our living and it allows us to discover the true access way to the Thing itself, ripping the veil and discovering that, according to Schopenhauer, the Thing itself is nothing more than will to live (Wille zum leben).

By applying the well known distinction between phenomenon (the representation of an ideal concept) and noumenon (the ideal concept itself), we are taken to claim that the Will represents the ideal aspect of the reality, since it is set on an higher level than our consciousness and, therefore, it is not a conscious form, but it’s pure and simple instinct, energy, that characterizes every element in our reality.

Schopenhauer’s Will has some very negative traits, since it expresses a will which is fated to be eternally unfulfilled and this takes the philosopher to state that life is nothing more than universal pain, according to the famous formula being = pain.

The impossibility to achieve the Thing itself creates, in living beings, a sense of frustration and pain and, especially in men, where the acknowledgment of the impossibility is sudden and unavoidable, the pain is infinite.

This triggers a strong hiatus between the tension towards the Thing itself and the acknowledgment of the world as mere representation of an unachievable ideal and this is the interpretative key for Sinfield’s lyrics. The light which is filtering through the wall can only brush us and it can’t ever hold us, fating mankind to be victim of its own illusions and deconstructing culture.