“Dancing a Waltz” | 1883–86 | Eadweard Muybridge | Glass positive | Metropolitan Museum of Art

“Between Us and Our Ghosts”: Understanding Joanna Newsom’s Waltz of the 101st Lightborne

Continuing in the vein of my exploration of “Sapokanikan,” I hope you’ll go with me on a bit of a descent into the mines. In recent conversation with The FADER, Joanna Newsom skirted the request to explain her album’s meaning, saying, “If I could say it all the way, I wouldn’t have bothered making a record.” Like Borges’s map stretching the extent of the kingdom it traced, the answer to the question “What did you want to say?” is to repeat yourself — to “say” the song itself. So, as we explore the “Waltz of the 101st Lightborne,” I don’t expect to shed light on every question, nor do I have every answer, nor am I the first to ask or respond, but our labyrinthine journey will be no less a tale to tell. Away we go! Let’s begin our waltz.

(And, in case you haven’t read…)

Waltz of the 101st Lightborne

by Joanna Newsom, 2015

I believed they had got what they came for;
I believed our peril was done,
on the eve of the last of the Great Wars,
after three we had narrowly won.
(But the fourth,
it was carelessly done.)
I saw his ship in its whistling ascension,
as they launched from the Capitol seat — 
swear I saw our mistake
when the clouds draped like a flag,
across the backs of the fleet
of the Hundred-First Lightborne Elite.
As the day is long,
so the well runs dry,
and we came to see Time is taller
than Space is wide.
And we bade goodbye
to the Great Divide:
found unlimited simulacreage to colonize!
But there was a time we were lashed to the prow
of a ship you may board, but not steer,
before You and I ceased to mean Now
and began to mean only Right Here
(to mean Inches and Miles, but not Years);
before Space had a taste of its limits,
and a new sort of coordinate awoke,
making Time just another poor tenant:
bearing weight, taking fire, trading smokes,
in the war between us and our ghosts.
(But I saw the Bering Strait and the Golden Gate,
in silent suspension of their golden age! 
And you can barely tell, if I guard it well,
where I have been, and seen,
pristine, unfelled.)
I had a dream that I walked in the garden
of Chabot, and those telescope ruins.
It was there that I called to my true love,
who was pale as millennial moons, 
Honey, where did you come by that wound?
When I woke, he was gone
and the War had begun,
in eternal return and repeat.
Calling, Where in the hell are the rest of your fellow
One Hundred-One Lightborne Elite?

stormed in the New Highland Light Infantry.
Make it stop, my love! 
We were wrong to try.
Never saw what we could unravel,
in traveling light,
nor how the trip debrides — 
like a stack of slides!
All we saw was that Time is taller than Space is wide.
That’s why we are bound to a round desert island,
‘neath the sky where our sailors have gone.
Have they drowned, in those windy highlands?
Highlands away, my John.

Starting from the top

Diagram of 9 waltz movements. Wilson’s Treatise on French and German Waltzing, 1816.

What’s a waltz? Well, for starters, it was the twerking of its day. The Romantic poet Lord Byron was so appalled, he wrote a poem to deride the waltz, which he published under a pseudonym. An accompanying letter to the publisher added this vignette of his pseudonymous wife’s first dance:

But, judge of my surprise, on arriving, to see poor dear Mrs. Hornem with her arms half round the loins of a huge hussar-looking gentleman I never set eyes on before; and his, to say truth, rather more than half round her waist, turning round and round to a d____d see-saw up-and-down sort of tune […]

Such a prudish reaction from a man monikered as “mad, bad, and dangerous to know”! Through his eyes, we see the waltz brought physical contact to the dance floor, closeness rarely seen before. And it did it in circles, turns, and reverses — “round and round.” Byron emphasizes the dance’s Germanic origins, which are underscored today by the (arguably) most famous example, Strauss’s Blue Danube. Its one-two-three beat threads through Newsom’s “Waltz” and many others, giving onlookers the impression of dancers floating across the floor. In clockwise and counter-clockwise movements, the dance and its performers twirl and turn, returning to the place where they started, like dependable clockwork. Stanley Kubrick expands this circular pattern to celestial scale in his adaptation of 2001: A Space Odyssey:

2001: A Space Odyssey

Perhaps Byron’s horror was justified. While on the one hand, with palpitating proximity the waltz makes us feel alive and human, on the other hand its teutonic orderliness leaves us feeling automatic and mechanical. Like automata, the 101st Lightborne appear “lashed” and “bound” to some system greater than themselves: “Theirs not to make reply, / Theirs not to reason why, / Theirs but to do and die.”

Knowing the historical intersection between clockmakers like Jaquet-Droz and the genius hands who invented the machinery powering automata, I find it hard to not to keep returning to the image of the clock. Intricate and at times monumental, clocks represent man’s attempt to arrange nature. Like asking a kid to tidy up their room!

We all know what happens. It doesn’t stay tidy for long. Next thing you know, you’ve got clocks in every town, but every town has set its clock to follow nature. On top of that, you have time-less sailors running around with a new-fangled gizmo called a chronometer, which would help them plot their ship’s position, but only given the correct time.

To help set the chronometers, in 1818 a naval captain introduced the idea of lowering a ball to signal the time to off-shore ships. The first scenario didn’t bother folks. In a time when your world was likely measured in a few square miles, you could easily depend on the local church bells or clocktower chimes to arrange your day — who cares whether the time is slightly different a hundred miles away.

But that changed as the flocks flew west, seeking the unknown “untravell’d world” and crossing the “Great Divide.” Mormons fleeing their great wars, photographers capturing untouched paradise, and prospectors like Anthony Chabot stretched the country apart. And the railroads tied them back up again, with a nice tidy bow. Though, imagine how frustrating it must have been to set up train schedules. Here’s a helpful infographic:

Railroad Time and Distance Indicator, 1862.

I think the illustrator meant to imitate your eye’s movement with the swirling lines between the circles! From Boston to Philadelphia, you’d travel a distance of 323 miles, but when it was noon in one city, it was 12:16pm in the other. Faced with this conundrum, rather than wait for Congress, the railroad companies decreed 4 national time zones in 1883, causing some to decry it as an “attempt to change the immutable laws of God Almighty.” Two decades later, the schoolteacher who first proposed the idea was killed by a train. Fate? The hand of God?

Whatever his role in the demise of Charles Dowd, God’s name was certainly tied up in this business of manifest destiny (though it wasn’t the first time if you ask Edward Said). From St. Paul to Columbus, religion and colonization go hand-in-hand. I suspect most Americans can conjure up an image of the pious Christian landing on virgin territory to claim it for God. It’s probably an image of Columbus. What we might not realize is how deeply engraved that image is on the American psyche — it was commissioned by Congress in 1836, and hangs in the Capitol building. From its place in the Rotunda, it has served as the original for copies on the first two-color stamp and the back of the $5 bill. Just as West’s painting of William Penn and Tamanend’s peace treaty helped solidify power in Pennsylvania, Vanderlyn’s peaceful portrait of Columbus’s amphibious assault on the Arawaks contributed to the national myth.

1875 five-dollar bill, reverse

An entire continent or two — unlimited acreage, indeed.

How to Pack a Portmanteau

Others have been quick to comment on Newsom’s hefty portmanteau, “simulacreage”. A far cry from “traveling light”! How do we unpack this mash-up? The “acreage” makes sense in light of the manifest destiny, but we’re left with the density of Simulacra & Simulation.

I’m struck by the story Jean Baudrillard tells in his book about the mid-1970s scientific restoration of Ramses II’s mummy (where the French also took “him” sightseeing around Paris — mon dieu!):

Ramses does not signify anything for us, only the mummy is of an inestimable worth because it is what guarantees that accumulation has meaning. Our entire linear and accumulative culture collapses if we cannot stockpile the past in plain view. […] We only know how to place our science in service of repairing the mummy, that is to say restoring a visible order, whereas embalming was a mythical effort that strove to immortalize a hidden dimension.

If you haven’t read the book, I’ll forgive you. It primarily revolves around how Western society has moved toward this concept of simulacra, which are essentially copies of things that are portrayed as real, but actually never existed. Like my dressed-up selfie in a Ferrari in Monaco.

Anyway, let’s not leave Ramses the Great alone too long, getting a little moldy… Baudrillard was remarking on the shift from the ancient Egyptians’ embrace of the unknown and the hidden (mummification) to our current society’s impulse to maintain the visible orderliness and purity — “pristine, unfelled” — of its historical objects. In a brilliant portmanteau, he calls the latter act “museumification.” Visible proof.

But how did we arrive at the age of simulacra? It didn’t happen overnight, but rather through technological advances whereby the original came to be challenged by its copies. We’re talking about the Industrial Revolution, counterfeiters, automata, …and we’re talking about the waltz, too.

How to Be a Straight Shooter

In a song so replete with seeing, it’s a wonder we don’t ask our prow-bound seer to prove it. You know, show us some pics. The mention of “a stack of slides” gets tantalizingly close, but visible proof remains hidden.

Early photographer Eadweard Muybridge’s stop-motion photos crop up all around us — dorm rooms, lobbies, coffee table books, essays about mansplaining. You can find another at the top of this article. Arranged in an orderly grid, the static series of discrete slices of time looks surprisingly modern and warholesque, but they’re not meant to just sit there. They’re meant to move. In his work, he transposed what began as motion in real life into static images, which he could then re-animate into moving pictures. Because movies did not exist at that time, people relied on a spinning circle with pictures and slits eerily called a “phantasmascope”.

“Phenakistoscope 3g07690b”. Commons

The phantasmascope was the gif of its day, fascinating beholders in its endless loops and moving figures. Muybridge built upon this wheel and the shadowplay of magic lanterns to create the first movie projector, the zoopraxiscope, allowing images to travel light from one surface to another. Rebecca Solnit describes the birth of cinema poetically:

Cinema can be imagined as a hybrid of railroad and photography, an outgrowth of those two definitive nineteenth-century inventions […] The railroad had in so many ways changed the real landscape and the human experience of it, had changed the perception of time and space and the nature of vision and embodiment. […] Photography had adjusted them to moving freely in time, to a past that was retrievable and a world in which even the things over the horizon were visible […]

The next century would see more horizons crossed, barriers broken, and men on the moon, in science as in art. Like something out of a Jules Verne novel, Einstein would send Newton’s apple falling sideways and everywhichway with his Special Theory of Relativity (1905) and his General one (1915), like a shot heard round the world, though not without struggle, setbacks, competition, and questions of authenticity. By exploring gravity and how bodies fall, Einstein reached the epiphany that objects bend space around them — and time. The implications of his work would have ripple effects in the smallest and largest views of our universe, some of them baffling. In a filmed discourse called the “The Reality of the Virtual,” philosopher and film critic Slavoj Žižek sibilantly explains how this field of study staggers our understanding:

What is quantum physics? Formulas which work — experimentally confirmed and so on and so on — but we cannot translate them into our daily experience of ordinary reality. This is what’s so traumatic about quantum physics — we literally cannot understand it. Not in the sense that “We common people, idiots, cannot understand it, only a couple of scientists can…” Even they cannot. In what sense? In the sense that — it just works. But if you try to build a consistent ontology out of it, again, you get meaningless results — you get time running backwards, you get parallel universes or whatever…

Žižek refers to this notion of infinitely reproduced universes, where given that they are infinite, we can assume that there are replica worlds over and over, like Calvino’s Venice unendingly produced.

I work with computer scientists, some of whom enjoy science fiction, and one of whom has traveled to Antarctica. On the topic of multiverse theory, this engineer in particular asserted that there’d be a world where every last detail was the same as ours (all of history!) except that I’d have worn sweatpants to work that day. I laughed at first, then started to wonder why you’d make a whole world just for that — and then I got an empty feeling in my stomach that there wasn’t a why. There wasn’t a reason to it. As Solomon says in Ecclesiastes: “Meaningless! […] What has been will be again, what has been done will be done again; there is nothing new under the sun.”

This fear of replication has haunted humans for centuries, most notably in the figure of the doppelgänger. The connotations of death that accompany seeing one’s double loomed large in the late 19th-century consciousness, and especially in the mind of a familiar figure: Percy Bysshe Shelley. Accounts of his dreams and experiences in the days leading up to his death contain several appearances of this unwanted phantasm, as does his “Prometheus Unbound”: “my dead child, / Met his own image walking in the garden.” Reckless and intractable, Shelley would die sailing off the coast of Italy in a boat named after his friend Lord Byron’s magnum opus. Fate? We can’t know — the event lives only in print.

Taking it again — from the top

I feel that, in the fray, I’m straying a little far from the song, so I hope you’ll forgive me. Let’s return to our star-sailors, or astronauts, or whatever you call them. The 101st Lightborne. Granted, the wordplay with “lightborne” is deft, but what else is hidden there? On the surface, it immediately evokes a military feeling. We even have the appearance of the “New Highland Light Infantry” rushing in later on. Others have pointed to the American 101st Airborne and the Scottish HLI, but I think the more compelling duo is the Americans and the Highland Light Infantry of Canada. Here’s why (and it’s not because I have a bias toward Canadians). The airborne division has distinguished itself in many battles, but the one that lines up most with the dread of seeing “our mistake when the clouds draped like a flag” was their first day on the job as coca-colonizers: the Normandy invasion. The parachuters missed their jump coordinates due to unexpected fog and fire, falling to earth in scattered disarray, leading to heavy casualties. Afterwards, the HLI of Canada “stormed in” as seaborne reinforcements onto Juno Beach.

This imagery of amphibious approach not only recalls our Columbiad origins, but likewise the start of another waltz:


In terms familiar to Baudrillard, the Guardian described Ari Folman’s use of rotoscoping as “hypperreal” in his Waltz with Bashir. The central character, an Israeli soldier, tries to remember whether he participated in the massacre of Lebanese civilians in a twisted reversal of Nazi-like horror. In one scene, his therapist friend reveals to him,

Your interest in the massacre developed long before you served in the army. you can’t really help but feel close to it. Your interest in the massacre stems from a previous massacre. Were your parents in the camps?
So, the memory of the massacre has been with you for decades, ever since you were six. You lived through the massacre and lived through those camps.

He’s talking about psychological trauma, a “wound.” To understand how I see this tying into the larger picture, we need to return to Žižek, who insightfully draws the connection between dream-traveling Freud and time-bending Einstein:

Freud shifted his position, as we all know, in regard to trauma. He shifted his position in a way which is, strangely enough, parallel to the shift in Einstein’s theory of relativity — the shift from Special to General Theory of Relativity. […]
In the first approach, Freud imagined trauma as some kind of dense, raw presence — presence of some real which brutally intrudes into our symbolic space and curves it, quite literally. Let’s imagine that I have my well-balanced boring space, and something traumatic happens to me — I’m raped, I witness a terrifying event, I’m tortured, whatever — and because of the traumatic impact of this event, my symbolic space gets curved. […] There’s a kind of imbalance, there’s a gap in my symbolic space. This would be the first approach. But then, Freud noticed some strange things. […] So, I think in clear parallel to Einstein, I think here we can see how [in the case of “Wolf Man”] it’s the other way around. The primordial fact is not some brutal intrusion of the Real, of some traumatic real […] The symbolic space is curved, […] and to account for this, you need a reference to some Real.

Aside from shining light on the iterative nature of genius and work, this comparison brings the universal into the realm of the psyche — into the realm of personal experience. The soldier is trapped because he was never really “free.” The song’s speaker can only cry out, “Make it stop, my love!”. What, then, binds us? Something that sailors’ hands would know quite well: a knot. The knot is a powerful reality, and a powerful symbol. Mountaineers use it to save lives, while captors use it to hold prisoners, like Prometheus, against their will. Sailors have all shapes and sorts — sheet bend, bowline, jar sling, diver’s hitch, spider blockade — they even used them to measure speed (distance over time). Symbolically, knots have roots in many cultures, and particularly one type:

Endless knot, found in the Book of Kells

Eternal return, endless knots — they cut across traditions dating back to the times of Solomon and beyond, even to the Egyptians. Like rivers flowing from the continental divide to the sea, “To the place the streams come from, there they return again.” Intricate as an illuminated manuscript or simple as a lemniscate (∞), in the hands of the Dutch master M. C. Escher, they took on tinges of the fantastic and the frightening. In the hands of alchemists, they came to symbolize purity in the ancient symbol of the snake eating its tail: ouroboros. I don’t have space to trace out all the connections to that symbol here, but I invite you to explore those paths. I see a light ahead and will lead us that way.

Once more, a familiar flame comes up to meet us: Shelley. Following the ancient alchemical texts of Cornelius Agrippa and Paracelsus, man sets out to create life:

I had desired it with an ardour that far exceeded moderation; but now that I had finished, the beauty of the dream vanished, and breathless horror and disgust filled my heart.

Confronted by the horror of his doppelgängeresque creation, Frankenstein echoes the singer’s regret: “We were wrong to try. / Never saw what we could unravel / in traveling light.” We’re no longer in the presence of Percy Bysshe’s benevolent Prometheus and man’s “Dædal harmony,” no. Before us rises the fallen creature, the unnatural child of Mary Shelley’s “Modern Prometheus,” who dared flout the laws of nature.

Have they drowned, in those windy highlands?
Highlands away, my John.

Imagine her, silhouetted on the Ligurian coastline of July. Her first three children are dead. Not even a month prior, her expected child came, stillborn. The clouds of a storm drape like flags unfurled. Her husband — a bad swimmer — has gone sailing, and has not returned.

Highlands away, my John.