Whether you have heard their music or not, the trio known as Rush has been around for 40 years this year.
I have seen the band live twice, and will agree with many others in saying they are the best concerts I have ever seen. I could write an entire piece about the band’s brilliance, collectively and individually, but I will refrain; if you really care, there is an amazing documentary out there about Rush. I want to bring to light one of their most remarkable works: a two-part song, released on separate albums, that could be collectively referred to as Cygnus.
Cygnus illustrates not only a gripping story, but the dual nature of humanity and society in a way that uses science-fiction, mythology, and poetic prose. Penned by drummer and primary lyricist Neil Peart, the epic tale began on the 1977 album A Farewell To Kings with the song “Cygnus X-1 Book I: The Voyage” and was continued on the 1988 album Hemispheres in the form of “Cygnus X-1 Book II: Hemispheres“.
Here is the gist of the story that runs between the two songs (my interpretation):
Cygnus X-1, a black hole that is part of the constellation Cygnus, captivates a starship pilot with its mystery and power. The pilot sets the course of his ship, the “Rocinante”, for Cygnus, hoping to enter the black hole. He wonders if he is “to be destroyed” in the void or if he will find “something more” and enter a sort of “Astral Door.” As the ship draws nearer to the black hole, it is drawn into the pull of Cygnus X-1 and begins spinning out of control. Book I closes with the pilot being overwhelmed by “sound and fury” and his nerves are “torn apart.”
Book II opens in ancient Earth, with a clashing of the Gods on Mount Olympus. The people of Earth were torn between siding with Apollo: “Bringer of Wisdom”, or Dionysus: “Bringer of Love”. As the people have an internal struggle with which side to choose, the Gods engage in a battle that ends with a greatly divided universe, creating two “hollow hemispheres”. In the midst of the battle, the starship pilot from Book I finds himself in Mount Olympus as a “disembodied spirit”. He indeed passed through the “Astral Door” of Cygnus X-1 and sees the great battle of the Gods occurring; the sight frightens the pilot, and he lets out a “silent scream inside.”
The “silent scream” is heard by the Gods, who stop fighting each other and listen to the tale of the pilot, who describes his final flight aboard “Rocinante” and the passage into Olympus from the future. Inspired, Apollo and Dionysus agree to settle their differences and appoint the pilot as Cygnus: “The God of Balance.” The divided world is then reunited into a “single perfect sphere,” or the world that we know today (presumably).
Hard to believe a rock song could be so in-depth, especially in today’s musical landscape of such intellectual hits as “Turn Down For What,” among others, but I digress.
What I want to highlight is not the story, but the lessons and truths revealed in Book II of the story, chiefly the duality of human nature.
Apollo and Dionysus are used to illustrate the two sides to humanity: logic and emotion. Book II is aptly titled “Hemispheres” and symbolizes the two sides, or hemispheres, of the human brain. With our left-brain, we engage in critical thinking, logic, and reason. People with left-brain dominance are said to be intellectual and of science and reason. In contrast, the right brain powers our creative thought. Right-brain dominant are the artists, musicians, and poets of society; this brain hemisphere is known to regulate emotions and inspire open-minded thinking. Though these representations of human personality may be only representations and not actually linked to connections within the brain, they do serve to help us understand ourselves and our tendencies. Everyone is capable of critical thinking just as everyone can be creative, some are just more extreme in one than others. What Cygnus X-1 does well is highlight each extreme, then reveal the balance.
Starting with Apollo, he tells the people of Earth:
“I bring truth and understanding
I bring wit and wisdom fair
Precious gifts beyond compare
We can build a world of wonder
I can make you all aware
I will find you food and shelter
Show you fire to keep you warm
Through the endless winter storm
You can live in grace and comfort
In the world that you transform”
Apollo provides the tools for basic survival, and appeals to the people through truth and understanding of the world. With his guidance, the people are able to construct cities and conquer nature. However, the people soon grow discontented with the civilization they have erected:
The people were delighted
Coming forth to claim their prize
They ran to build their cities
And converse among the wise
But one day the streets fell silent
Yet they knew not what was wrong
The urge to build these fine things
Seemed not to be so strong
I think this illustrates a great point, one that I have recently taken to heart: if you get to wrapped-up in technology and progress, you tend to forget about the simple things in life like love, creative expression, and even nature. Having a career in the digital space, I found myself spending a lot of time chained to my computer. I communicated, learned, and produced work through the machine, and even though I love technology and get genuine happiness from interacting with it, I had to reconnect with nature and primitive skills. It is for this reason I have undertaken more outdoor hobbies, such as hiking, biking, and kayaking, whenever I can. I also have spent more time fostering personal relationships with family and friends in offline settings; unplugging more often and training my feelings.
However, Dionysus highlights the contrast of all this advancement and wisdom when the people “cross the Bridge of Death” to seek his guidance. He speaks to the people:
“I bring love to give you solace
In the darkness of the night
In the Heart’s eternal light
You need only trust your feelings
Only love can steer you right
I bring laughter, I bring music
I bring joy and I bring tears
I will soothe your primal fears
Throw off those chains of reason
And your prison disappears”
That last line I find very powerful: “Throw off those chains of reason, and your prison disappears.” Sometimes I find myself in a prison of my own mind, mentally constructing walls that keep me from experiencing life to the fullest. I think we are all guilty of over-thinking and self-defeat from time to time. Dionysus offers us free expression and happiness through love; eternal light from our hearts. With this knowledge, the people change their society:
The cities were abandoned
And the forests echoed song
They danced and lived as brothers
They knew love could not be wrong
Food and wine they had aplenty
And they slept beneath the stars
The people were contented
And the gods watched from afar
But the winter fell upon them
And it caught them unprepared
Bringing wolves and cold starvation
And the hearts of men despaired
Having spiritual enlightenment, the people take to the forest to enjoy each others’ company and disconnect from the complexities of the city they had created. By abandoning their cities, the people were susceptible to nature; they neglected to plan for the winter, as they were too busy enjoying love, music, and happiness. It seems the people cannot win by choosing a side; they feel a longing for something more by prescribing to Apollo’s way, but they are overtaken by the dangers of the world when indulging as Dionysus suggests. Turmoil plagues the divided world:
The universe divided
As the heart and mind collided
With the people left unguided
For so many troubled years
In a cloud of doubts and fears
Their world was torn asunder into hollow
Some fought themselves, some fought each other
Most just followed one another
Lost and aimless like their brothers
For their hearts were so unclear
And the truth could not appear
Their spirits were divided into blinded
Up to this point in the story, the people had tried one way of living without success and found that the seemingly opposite way of living was just as unsuccessful. This is a great parable to balance in life, hence Cygnus becoming the “God of Balance.” Too much attention cannot be given to one element of life, for the very process of life is a delicate balance of relationships, reactions, timing, and tasks. I have experienced this battle of heart and mind firsthand, and it does drive one to fight one’s self, to fight one’s friends, and to feel aimless at times, attempting to reconcile any difference between thought and action.
Comprise must happen to thrive, to achieve harmony and balance. While the world was seen in strictly black or white at first, Cygnus brings us the realization that things can be grey. It is almost as if the story is a parable for the creation of our minds, our “grey matter”. The hemispheres become united in the end, through the power of balance and the insight of Cygnus:
We can walk our road together
If our goals are all the same
We can run alone and free
If we pursue a different aim
Let the truth of love be lighted
Let the love of truth shine clear
Armed with sense and liberty
With the heart and mind united in a single
The closing of the story is the most resounding to me. It says we are all not forced down a single correct path; if you have shared goals, go at it together, if your aim is different you can go at it alone with your own freedom. But we are all united by love and our human nature, our hearts and minds working together instead of at odds. It is a lesson that can be applied to any social setting: the classroom, group projects, a team at work, families…you name it. There will always be those on the side of the heart, who must learn sensibility, just as there will always be those on the side of the mind, who must learn to give into feelings and freedom from logical constraints. We are not beings of absolutes, we are a combination of parts that form our perfect sphere of existence–the great duality of humankind.
I truly discovered the brilliance of this story today, and I listened to the each song about 50 times over while writing this piece. It is certainly not the only Rush song to provide enlightening truths about the human condition, but Cygnus X-1 serves as one of their best (and last) epic, multi-part songs.
Rush is and forever will be one of the greatest and most thought-provoking musical acts the Earth has known. Feel free to share your thoughts on Cygnus, or other Rush songs below.