Tales of Despair: The Light at the End of the World

I have spoken of My Dying Bride before in this series, but their canon of despair is vast, and bears revisiting. Here is a tale of utter wretchedness, loneliness, bitterness and despair.

Imagine, for a moment, the abyss of complete isolation. Alone, upon an isle, lost at the end of the world. The sole companion – a light, that burns for no man.

Now consider the wretchedness of the memories of her, of the love that completed you, that made your heart whole, and the bitter knowledge that she is forever gone. Gone, to the winds, dust to the ground, and your fate is to live forever alone, never to be redeemed. Such have the gods done to you.

And the dreams, and the thoughts of madness. Sometimes, the sight of home behind closed eyes, the green trees and the laughter; sometimes, the waking to madness, the knowledge that such a past is forever gone. And sometimes, the bird visits; taunts, tells of life, and raises hope – only to dash it, like the water upon the rocks.

And then, just as the torment becomes the day and the night, to be expected forevermore – the gods bring mercy, and hope beyond hope! They make an offer: to spend one, single night with the woman, the long lost love. But oh, there is a price; this one night would seal the fate of eternity alone, until the ending of life.

Would you take it? Would you throw your hopes to the rocks, for one night with her?

The agony, the soul-crushing blackness, to wake the morning, and to find – after that one, oh-so-brief night – that she is gone. And gone, now and then, for ever, and ever. The doom, the screams, the despair.

Such is the terrible fate of the man who tends the light at the end of the world.

An isle, a bright shining isle

stands forever, alone in the sea.

Of rock and of sand and grass

and shade, the isle bereft of trees.

Small.  A speck in the wide blue sea.  ’Tis the last of all the land.  A dweller upon our lonesome isle, the last, lonely man?

By the Gods he is there to never leave, to remain all his life.  His punishment for evermore, to attend the eternal light.

The lighthouse, tall and brilliant white, which stands at the end of the world.  Protecting ships and sailors too, from rocks they could be hurled.

Yet nothing comes and nothing

goes ’cept the bright blue sea.

Which stretches near and far

away, ’tis all our man can see.

Though, one day, up high on

rock, a bird did perch and cry.

An albatross, he shot a glance.

and wondered deeply, why?

Could it be a watcher sent?

A curse sent from the gods.

who sits and cries and stares at him,

the life that they have robbed.

Each year it comes to watch

over him, the creature from above.

Not a curse but a reminder of

the woman that he loved.

On weary nights, under stars,

he’d often lay and gaze.

Up toward the moon and stars.

The sun’s dying haze.

Time and again, Orion’s light

filled our man with joy.

Within the belt, he’d see his love,

remembering her voice.

The twinkle from the stars above,

bled peace into his heart.

As long as she looks down on him,

he knows they’ll never part.

One day good, one day bad.

The madness, the heat, the sun.

Out to sea, he spies upon land.

His beloved Albion.

Cliffs of white and trees of green.

Children run and play.

“My home land,” he cries and weeps,

“why so far away?”

Eyes sore and red.  Filled with tears,

he runs toward the sea.

To risk his life, a worthy cause,

for home he would be.

Into the sea, deep and blue,

the waters wash him clean.

Awake.  He screams.  Cold with sweat.

And Albion a dream.

Such is life upon the isle,

of torment and woe.

One day good.  One day bad.

And some days even hope.

The light at the end of the world

burns bright for mile and mile and mile.

Yet tends the man, its golden glow,

in misery all the while?

For fifty years he stands and waits,

atop the light, alone.

Looking down upon his isle

the Gods have made his home.

The watcher at the end of the world

through misery does defile.

Remembers back to that single night

and allows a tiny smile.

(His sacrifice was not so great,

he insists upon the world.

Again he would crime,

Again he would pay

for one moment with the girl.)

Her hair, long and black it shone.

The dark, beauty of her eyes.

Olive skin and warm embrace,

her memory never dies.

’Twas years ago, he remembers clear

the life they once did live.

Endless love and lust for life,

they promised each would give.

Alas, such love and laughter too,

was short as panting breath.

For one dark night, her soul was kissed,

by the shade of death.

(Agony, like none before,

was suffered by our man)

who tends the light now burning bright

on the very last of land.

(Anger raged and misery too

like nothing ever before.)

He cursed the Gods and man and life,

and at his heart he tore.

A deity felt sympathy

and threw our man a light.

“Your woman you may see again

for a single night.

But think hard and well young man,

there is a price to pay:

to tend the light at the end of the world

is where you must stay.

Away from man and life and love.

Alone you will be.

On a tiny isle.  A bright shining isle

in the middle of the sea.”

“I’ll tend the light, for one more night

with the woman whom I love,”

screamed the man, with tearful eyes,

to the deity above.

And so it was that very night,

his lover did return.

To his arms and to their bed,

together they did turn.

In deepest love and lust and passion,

entwined they did fall.

Lost within each other’s arms,

they danced (in lover’s hall.)

Long was the night and filled with love.

For them the world was done.

Awoke he did to brightest light,

his woman and life had gone.

To his feet he leapt.  To the sea he looked.

To the lighthouse on the stone.

The price is paid and from now on

he lives forever alone.

Fifty years have passed since then

and not a soul has he seen.

But his woman lives with him still

in every single dream.

’Tis sad to hear how young love has died,

to know that, alone, someone has cried.

But memories are ours to keep.

To live them again, in our sleep.

My Dying Bride – The Light at the End of the World

Tales of Despair: The Tragedy of the Symphony “Pathétique”


This is the first post of what I hope will become an ongoing series on the nature of despair. What I envisage is to introduce a work of art – be it imagery, poetry, music, film or novel – that was created from the darkest places of the soul. Darkness and despair have been a part of my life since my early teens, and as I have grown accustomed to it, and rediscovered joy in the midst of it, I have become inextricably marked by depression, and to this day there is nothing in the world so comforting as a warm, dark corner where no one can see me, My Dying Bride playing in the background, and a glass of wine reflecting the candlelight.

Being a musician and composer by training, many of these tales are likely to revolve around songs, symphonies and albums. However, I hope to reach out to further art forms, and discover among the canon of literature, film and imagery endless tales of despair.

The Tragedy of the Symphony Pathétique

There is in my mind no more fitting work of art more wrought with despair than Pyotr Illyich Tchaikovsky’s sixth symphony, popularly known as the Pathétique (in Russian, Patetičeskaja). This is a piece of music that passes through a sea of emotions of an intensity beyond anything I have heard or seen in my life. From the moodiness of the opening to the fury of the first movement’s climax, the calm sadness of the lilted waltz to the dizzying madness of the third movement, and ultimately the chilling, profoundly bleak finale, in fifty minutes this symphony takes the listener through a world of thought and a lifetime of tragedy.

The symphony’s name derives from the Russian word for passion, not pity, and it is a just name. The deep and overwhelming sadness of this music, however, is how closely it ties to Tchaikovsky’s turbulent personal life. Six days after its world première, Tchaikovsky died. He claimed to his brother that the symphony was steeped in meaning, but he would not reveal the music’s subject to anyone. Some have since said that it was his final death letter.

Tchaikovsky’s own life was a mirror for this tragedy. His sorrows began with the death of his mother at the age of fourteen, and from that day onwards he succumbed to a cloud of depression that even the recognition he eventually garnered could not completely break him free of. His life was a tale of abandonment, despair and frustration; Though homosexual, the social convictions of Victorian Russia prevented him not only from being open about this, but even from acknowledging it in his own mind. He suffered two affairs, both of which ended with the woman he cared for leaving him. He did eventually marry, but they lived together for less than two months, and she eventually bore children from another man.

Even the one light of hope – his patron, Nadezhda, with whom he corresponded for thirteen years in over a thousand letters – ceased communication with him in 1890, and he remained hurt, bitter and bewildered over this for the remaining three years of his life.

Tchaikovsky died in 1983 by his own hand. Perhaps he had become overwhelmed by the depth of despair into which his life had sunk; perhaps he could no longer bear the terrible conflict of his sexuality, which culminated in an attempted affair with his own nephew. On the night of the première of the sixth symphony, Tchaikovsky drank a glass of unboiled water, contracted cholera, and died six days later.

The terrible pain, sadness and despair is overwhelmingly prevalent in this symphony. Before his death, Tchaikovsky confided to his brother that the symphony was full of a deeper meaning, but would not say what it was. After he died, his brother realized he had been speaking of his own death – his final symphony, a monument to tragedy, was his suicide note. A parallel for his own life – childhood sadness, angst and fear at odds with the fervor and passion of creativity. Tchaikovsky destroyed more manuscripts than he completed – the artist’s madness refusing to allow him to ever be content with his own music.

This symphony, even out of context, is a tragic and moving musical journey; always a master of emotion, the composer filled his final work with every skill he possessed, and left us thus with his greatest work being his last. When considered as the final cry of a doomed man, a testament to despair, the final, terrible notes of the finale take on the reek of death, and speak of the utter finality of the grave. Tchaikovsky knew as he wrote that this symphony would be his last, and killed himself upon its completion.

For Seven Days, I Turned Off the Internet…And the World Didn’t End

Last week I got to do something very cool, and it was something I’ve never done before. I turned off the internet.

I suppose I can’t really claim that the entirety of the internet went down entirely, although if it had I wouldn’t have noticed, because I experienced a week of digital abstinence. The worst part is, I meant to.

Wow. What an admission that is. Imagine choosing not to receive emails, or text messages, or RSS feeds, or (horror!) WordPress hits. Imagine that, if you wanted to write something down, you had to use an archaic instrument known as a pen. Imagine not knowing whether you had new Facebook friends!

Such a world I lived in for an entire week. To give a bit of context, for most of the time between 12:00 PM one Saturday and 2:00 PM the following Saturday, I was in the middle of the ocean somewhere between Port Canaveral and Nassau in the Bahamas. I didn’t get wet, though, because I was on a boat. The boat was big, and in the end we had to share it with a few other people as well, but the captain was from Sweden and so I didn’t really mind.

I suppose I can’t actually claim to have shunned all technology entirely; I did bring a digital camera with me, as well as my iPhone (just for recording video, I swear). Between them, I captured 1,200 photos and two hours of video. I don’t want to look at them, because if I do I won’t ever stop. These pixellated memories are so numerous because my plethora of iDevices weren’t dinging and pinging and swishing every few minutes with something I decided was really important to know about. I didn’t receive an email. I didn’t get a text. I didn’t read a tweet, or update a feed. In fact, I ended up with such an awful lot of time on my hands that I had to look at the ocean sometimes, which was nice because there were quite a few sunsets to be had.

Another thing I had time for was thinking. After all, when you don’t have Wikipedia, you have to come up with your own answers to things. An astronaut told us that the body’s immune system doesn’t work in space, and gosh – we had to dig deep into our own poor wisdom to try to figure out why. My wife and I felt like scientists, trying to answer a question no one knows the answer to.

Above all, I was inevitably forced to spend time with my family. Man alive, the distraction of the internet is certainly a blessing for those who want nothing to do with their loved ones! I’ve been trying to keep a few chapters ahead of where my son and I are in the Redemption of Erâth, just in case one week I don’t write something, but I used them all up because he really, really wanted to know what happened next. At the end of chapter 12, I had to tell him that there actually wasn’t any more yet, and he nearly beat me. As for my wife, I had to share a jacuzzi with her, be sympathetic when she got seasick, eat a dozen chocolate-covered strawberries with her, sing karaoke with her, kiss her, and simply just be with her for seven days straight. Can you imagine?

At first, I was very worried. What was happening at home? What if someone at work really need to get in touch with me, even though I’m not really in charge of anything at all? What if my mom called? What if someone read my blog? What if a groundhog made a nest under the house? What if something really, really unimportant happened somewhere in the world? I wouldn’t be able to answer calls, say thank you to blog likes, take goofy pictures or read all about it on my iPad. I felt lost. But then, an odd thing began to happen. I slowly came to the following realization:

None of it matters.

Nope. Not one bit. Not one single thing in the imaginable universe was more important than spending seven entirely uninterrupted days with my wife and son in the Caribbean. Because you know what? I could always find out when I got back. And if I missed something in the meantime? Well, if it was something so ephemeral it only lasted a week, it probably wasn’t important enough to know about in the first place. If my schedule changed, I’d find out when I got back. If scientists discovered life on Mars, I’d find out when I got back. Hell, if my mother died, I’d find out when I got back.

In the end, of course, I got back. I came back to 101 emails, 91 tweets, 8 Facebook notifications, 66 RSS updates, 3 voice mails and 30 app updates. And you know what?

None of it really mattered.

I feel really happy right now. I don’t think I can live without connection in my working, every day life, but never again will I go on a holiday without turning off, leaving behind or utterly disabling my many devices. It is beyond worth it.