Eternal Song

Jonathan L. Friedmann, Ph.D.

An issue of the Animal Man comic book published in 1990 includes a surreal sequence of panels showing a group of second-rate superheroes in an unusual state of self-reflection. On the brink of being discontinued, these now-irrelevant heroes descend into panicThe story’s enigmatic and sometimes-psychedelic writer, Grant Morrison, depicts the anxiety as these characters become aware that their storylines are in peril. One of them shouts forlornly, “If they write me out man, I ain’t gonna be seen again!” A more introspective figure consoles the crowd of hapless crusaders: “We can all still be seen. Our lives are replayed every time someone reads us. We can never die. We outlive our creators.”

The notion of eternality through revisitation resembles the “eternal return,” a theory popularized by religious historian Mircea Eliade. Ritual practices, explained Eliade, return participants to the mythic time in which the events commemorated purportedly took place. A ceremony marking the creation of the world or defeat of an existential enemy, for instance, brings a congregation into that extraordinary moment. In more than just a symbolic sense, each ritual repetition relives the sacred past. Like soon-to-be canceled heroes who achieve immortality on the re-read comic book page, periodic rituals enable myths to outlive the civilizations that produced them. They procure an eternal life transcending the constraints of linear time.

It is debated whether this cyclical idea of time should be viewed literally or as an inflated conception of nostalgia. Bernard Lewis, for one, has warned us of the human tendency to creatively remember, recover and reinvent our cultural heritages. Whatever the case, there is a powerful “as if” in play during ritual repetition, perhaps best articulated in the Passover seder when Jews of every era proclaim, “We were slaves in the land of Egypt.”

This phenomenon occurs as well in (non-improvised) music, especially when replayed on recordings or replicated with reasonable precision in live performances. Songs often transport us to where we first heard them or to a phase of life when they held an important place. Old feelings, old relationships, old situations are resurrected and made present through sound. As long as we continue to hear those songs—and each time we do—that bygone period is restored to vibrant immediacy.

Time-tested music also serves as an intergenerational pathway, promoting a real or imagined sense of continuity between past and present. Songs known (or thought) to be deeply woven into the societal fabric bring us face to face with long-dead ancestors and with a world we did not inhabit but feel viscerally connected to.

This is not the extent of how music connects us to eternal time. Further reflection would yield further indications of this effect. And it bears reiterating that these musical sensations are not experienced simply as emotional memories, but as the past made present once more. On a practical level, this explains the regularity with which recurring repertoires are affixed to communal rituals, both religious and secular. Such music helps tie participants to the activity itself and to the flow of history in which similar activities have already occurred and will occur again. Succinctly put, eternal myths are made eternal in part through eternal tones.

Although this discussion of return implies endlessness, it is not a static process. As we have learned from countless time travel tales of popular fiction, inserting ourselves into events that have already taken place invariably introduces new elements and causes new variations, subtle and not-so-subtle. So it is with time relived on the pages of comic books, retold in rituals and contained in repeated songs. Each of us is a constantly changing accumulation of thoughts, feelings and experiences, and every time we return to the familiar—the eternal—we approach it from a different vantage point.

Far from discrediting the notion of timelessness, the changes precipitated when our current selves encounter the perpetual past can be understood as the dynamic anatomy of eternity. Without this potential for freshness, the eternal return would hardly be longed for.

Visit Jonathan’s website to keep up on his latest endeavors, browse his book and article archives, and listen to sample compositions.

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