Panis et Circensus and Nietzsche – Philosophical Music

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What does it mean when I draw a connection between one of my most favorite songs and one of my least favorite philosophers? Have I misjudged the philosopher, or the song?

I’ve been obsessed with Panis et Circensus ever since overhearing it playing on the stereo one day at Used Kids’ Records some fifteen years ago. It was so odd and different from anything I had ever heard before, I didn’t know quite what to make of it (an experience I later fictionalized in my short story What is Real?).

The song literally stayed in my head for over a year, until I finally identified it as the signature song by Os Mutantes, a teenaged psychedelic Brazilian rock band from the sixties (who were, at that that time, undergoing a miniature career renaissance due to the efforts of superstar superfan David Byrne). Their music was so far ahead of their times that it continues to sound far fresher than the latest hits, even forty-some years later.

As written by Caetano Veloso and Gilberto Gil (two singer-songwriters so righteous, they were literally banned from their own country for rocking too hard) the song is a first person narrative by an artist-provocateur who tries and fails to shock the bourgeoisie out of their self-absorbed complacency.

I love the lyric of this song so much, it actually made me want to learn Portuguese solely so I could appreciate it without translation. It wasn’t until I started this series on philosophical music, however, that I began to glimpse a dark shadow lurking behind the song’s sentiments –Apollonian, Dionysian… Nietzschean.

German existentialist Friedrich Nietzsche continues to be one of world’s most popular philosophers, but I’ve always viewed him with a sense of disgust. A embittered intellectual, his philosophy –in my view –is founded on an unearned sense of superiority laced with racism and sexism. Furthermore, I’ve always preached judging a philosopher by the success and impact of his or her philosophy. From that perspective, just as one of the biggest strikes against Ayn Rand is that all her followers tend to be jerks, Nietzsche’s admirers include not only thrill-killers Leopold and Loeb, but to those much worse thrill-killers the Nazis.

All that withstanding, it seems that all one has to do is set Nietzschean sentiments to a melody, and here I am singing in the choir:

I sang my sunlit song
I raised the sails to the wind
I freed the tigers and the lions
Into the backyard gardens

But the people in the dining room
Are preoccupied with being born, and dying

I called for a dagger of pure and stainless steel
So that I could murder my lover
and I did it at 5 o’clock
and I did it in the middle of Main Street

But the people in the dining room
Are preoccupied with being born, and dying

I planted a dream of vines
The leaves know how to seek the sun
The roots know how to seek, to seek

But the people in the dining room
Those people in the dining room
They are the people in the dining room
And the people in the dining room
Are preoccupied with being born, and dying

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