In my Discover Weekly playlist, a piece by an artist called Me Not You was introduced to me. And Plotinus’ On Beauty has been on my mind because I was part of a private group discussion about it recently. So, my mind was primed when I started listening to this, Muses help me.
My laundry is spinning in a laundromat dryer, I have a warm bowl of rice noodles beside me, and we’re doing round two of Platonic lit crit this rainy Friday evening (round one).
Plotinus’ 1.6 “On Beauty” is one of the very few examples in Plotinus where he provides explicit instruction on how to actually do the intuitive gasps at our higher causes that the Platonists emphasize everywhere, primarily in 1.6.8-9. Treatise 1.6 builds from its beginning like a Rachmaninov concerto, a beautiful composition on beauty, layered with rich Phaedrus vibes and a heavy Platonic take on the growth mindset. If you want to read it in its entirety, I recommend picking up a copy. If you need some assistance focusing or processing the text, try watching this Pierre Grimes recording of a discussion group read-through, Mindy Mandell’s treatment of it, or listen to the LibriVox recording. Treatise 6.9 also has a lot in it that syncs up with this, but let’s keep it simple so I’m done with this post by the time my laundry is no longer wet.
At the end of 1.6.8, Plotinus urges us very powerfully, as if he has shaken us or struck a bell — “stop looking; just shut your eyes, and change your way of looking, and wake up” (emphasis mine, translation Gerson et al.’s).
Platonic exegesis, especially when it goes into the mythic interpretation register, wraps that central point in the most lush and beautiful metaphors, many of them pulled from Plato’s myths or from the Homeric cycles. Each of our souls descends and ascends according to its own unique pattern, and the descent does not always have to be badly-executed; the goal is to be in alignment here, and to be in alignment there, and to have that contact.
So, now we’re ready to kill the noise, aren’t we? 😉
Here is the official audio.
“Kill the Noise” begins with the following lyrics, which are sung twice:
Blissed out now
Midnight by the sea
Cicadas join the old men singing
More going on than anybody sees
Waves of love, hey ma
Show me what it means
The first line evokes the madness discussed in the Phaedrus, the divine connection that stirs the soul awake through a startling encounter with divinity. The mention of cicadas enriches this symbolism, as in the myth about cicadas, they are people who become so enamored of the Muses that they forget to eat and drink until their bodies waste away, and all that remains is consecrated to the Goddesses.
Everyone who loves the Muses should have heard of this. The story goes that the cicadas used to be human beings who lived before the birth of the Muses. When the Muses were born and song was created for the first time, some of the people of that time were so overwhelmed with the pleasure of singing that they forgot to eat or drink; so they died without even realizing it. It is from them that the race of the cicadas came into being; and, as a gift from the Muses, they have no need of nourishment once they are born. Instead, they immediately burst into song, without food or drink, until it is time for them to die. After they die, they go to the Muses and tell each one of them which mortals have honored her. To Terpsichore they report those who have honored her by their devotion to the dance and thus make them dearer to her. To Erato, they report those who honored her by dedicating themselves to the affairs of love, and so too with the other Muses, according to the activity that honors each. And to Calliope, the oldest among them, and Urania, the next after her, who preside over the heavens and all discourse, human and divine, and sing with the sweetest voice, they report those who honor their special kind of music by leading a philosophical life.Phaedrus, 258e-259d, trans. Nehamas & Woodruff
The cicadas are joining the old men singing, and the old men could represent (1) the ancients, or prior generations, especially those that were mythologized to have a keen connection to Kronos; or perhaps (2) the triad Kronos-Rhea-Zeus, following on what Proclus says (they’re the three paternal intellective Gods). Poseidon, Hades, and Hephaistos can also be active here, and perhaps that would be very fitting in conjunction with Zeus given the symbolism of the singer, who is on the shore.
Platonism symbolizes generation as a sea, where we have our embodied experiences. The patterns of our lives unfold and stretch out into spacetime here. By the sea — on the shore, just beyond the waves — is the soul finding the edge of its stable place. Hey ma could be read as a plea to the Goddess of the Crossroads, Hekate, who presides over that space between the transient and the permanent, over the material daimons and how we are bound and released from engagement with them, especially since hey ma could be interpreted as a plea for her to act providentially to us and open the gate to higher realms. This is an echo of Proclus’ hymn to Janus, Hekate, the Mother of the Gods, and Zeus; the invocation is structured in such a way that Zeus-Janus (as Zeus is the last point in the triad Kronos-Rhea-Zeus and the first point in the following triad, where he exercises his demiurgic activity) and Hekate guide the soul that has properly prepared herself for that prayer to progress through the “bottleneck” of Zeus-who-consumes-and-gives-birth-to-all and to the viewing-place of the Forms and Beauty Itself. This goes back to that demiurgic symbolism and old men again.
More going on than anybody sees and show me what it means directly speak to what Plotinus is arguing in 1.6.8, where he tells us to close our eyes and come to wakefulness — the physical world around us is only a small part of what reality is. Waves of love is the experience of Platonic erōs, the highest level of madness that connects us directly to our causes, related to both the God Eros and to Ouranic Aphrodite.
To kill the noise
That’s in my head
All the thousand voices go quiet
Fade them out
Until they’re gone
Just the sound of the waves and the cicadas
What it means
Anyone who has done any kind of meditation has had the experience described in this passage because our minds are loud. They are filled with verbal, emotional, and sensory narratives, all sloshing about chaotically, and our prohairetic soul-self is this tiny little boat upon that inner ocean hoping to the Gods that we can make our way through it without capsizing. The intensity and characteristics of this depend on many factors, including one’s specific neural wiring in this particular life, but still. Common experience. The quieting of voices, fading them, describes our ability to come back — with gentle attention — into a central point, to let the chaotic, current-filled ocean be the ocean and allow ourselves to turn inward. To, as Plotinus might say, wake up. This ambient noise unfocuses from an urgent stream-of-consciousness into the sound of waves lapping on the beach, or clouds passing over the sky, or whatever other imagery one would prefer to use. The drone of cicadas is the drone of our embodiment and its experiences from life to life and the ways in which the Muses condition those lives into specific symbolic registers that we can use to engage with the Gods and ultimately come to a place of utter union. In addition, it is the feedback we give to them, a sacred circle, a dance. The soul has come into a still place where reality itself is intuitively visible to her.
Here beside the sea
Old men singing patterns into me
Seabirds on the wind
Kill the noise and it’s quiet again
Old men singing patterns into me is a reference to the activity of the Kronos-Rhea-Zeus triad, where Kronos cuts the sire (Ouranos) and Zeus and Rhea do a further cutting of Kronos. Zeus, of course, is the primary demiurge in the predominant Hellenic mode of looking; he is accompanied by others, as mentioned above. In other modes, this could be other Gods. He sees the paradigm up above, Animal Itself, and he brings what is most beautiful into extension, spreading out the place in which all of the Gods can express their fullness (as symbolized by how Zeus grants timai/honors to specific Gods in his regime). The singing of patterns temporarily makes the soul aware of her embodiment — she is undone, the waves crash, and there is a reference to birds and flight above the water. The soul must kill the noise to come back into focus, which is the project of each of us in every life we have, no matter where, what, and who we are. We are like pilots who have lost control of an aircraft and who depend for our own safety on our self-discipline and focus to stop the craft from spinning to make a safe landing in embodiment. And this happens every single time we come down.
Some of these verses repeat in the background while others come into the foreground, and the simultaneity of the composition (with some moments where the rounds resolve into a single sung train) is also related to that noise imagery. All of these things are happening simultaneously, from a certain point of view. The singer is collapsing back from extension into unity. The song ultimately ends with a resolution into a single point:
More going on than anybody sees
Waves of love, hey ma
Show me what it means
The unfolded part of us is in time, symbolized in what Iamblichus says (the total descent of the soul); the unified part of us is always there, as stressed in Plotinus’ treatment of an “undescended soul” — we are always there and never there, always falling and always rising, because viewing time as a whole and viewing eternity are a bit of a mindf–k, as anyone who has ever contemplated this is probably keenly aware of.
So, in other words, this song is neat and a good reminder of beautiful things. I don’t know anything about the artist (I guess it’s a dyad/two people?), but I’m grateful for this song. It added so much richness to my walk into work this morning. Obviously, this interpretation is probably not what the creators were even getting at, but still. It’s what happened.
And now, dry laundry to fold.