Old Testament, New Testament, and the Archive of Dickinson’s Lyrics

MENE, MENE, TEKEL, PARSIN

The Bible, NIV, Daniel, 5

In case these four words puzzle you, you are in good company. The same happened to king Belshazzar. These four words are nothing but the original “writing on the wall.” The song “The Writing on the Wall” (Senjustu, 2021) is no less complex than the eponymous inscription on the wall. It actually combines the Old with the New Testament of the Bible as well as takes a long stroll down memory lane through other lyrics written by Dickinson. I have already had a closer look at the video, but this time I want to focus on the lyrics and ignore the video as far as possible. So what’s on the menu today? A deep dive into the Bible and reappearing themes in the songs of Dickinson.

The song combines two Biblical texts, one of the Old Testament, The Writing on the Wall (Daniel, 5) and “Revelation” of the New Testament, which is better known under the name of the apocalypse. You may have learned in the podcast by Dr Dutton and Bruce Dickinson, Psycho Schizo Espresso (see my twopence on the podcast), when they had invited Biblical scholar Prof Dr Steven J. Friesen, that the imagery of Daniel influenced how contemporary readers interpreted “Revelation.” Unfortunatly he did not go into detail, but I assume that this means that “Daniel” is the key to decode “Revelation.” This reading suggests that “Revelation” describes the ongoing threat posed by the Roman Empire. (cf. Psycho Schizo Espresso, episode 1 and episode 2). So, this connection is by no means new, but this is not exactly what happened in the song, TWOTW.

The Biblical Sources: “Daniel” and “Revelation”

The first Biblical source tells the story of Belshazzar’s Feast, a warning that partying too hard can lead to a bad ending. King Belshazzar is celebrating a feast and forfeights his life by ordering to have golden chalices brought his father had once stolen. His father, Nebuchadnezzar, had stolen them nowhere else than the temple. Belshazzar makes his wifes and concubines use the chalices, hereby desecrating the holy objects. Suddenly, a human hand appears and writes a prophecy on the wall. Belshazzar is terrified as he cannot make heads or tails of it. He is advised by one of his wives to call for Daniel, who was anointed chief magician by his father because he was able to interpret a dream Nebuchadnezzar, in turn, could not make heads or tails of (Daniel 2). This is of course in a way ironic, because Daniel is not a magician, but a prophet of the Lord. All he hears, he hears directly from the Lord instead of inquirying his ouija board. Daniel suceeds in interpreting the prophecy, the writing on the wall, and it promises destruction for Belshazzar. It says that Belshazzar was judged and found guilty; consequently his kingdom will be given to another king. This comes about in the very same night. (cf. The Writing on the Wall (Daniel, 5))

“Revelation” is a prophecy foretelling the end of the world. Although I must say that this connection might be difficult to spot without the videoclip. The apocalypse describes among others the four horsemen of the apocalyspe (Revelation 6). However, their descriptions do not comply with the popular “Pestilence,” “War,” and “Famine.” They are either vage, such as

Then another horse came out, a fiery red one. Its rider was given power to take peace from the earth and to make people kill each other. To him was given a large sword.

Revelation, NIV, 6:4

Only “Death” is recognisable as such:

I looked, and there before me was a pale horse! Its rider was named Death, and Hades was following close behind him. They were given power over a fourth of the earth to kill by sword, famine and plague, and by the wild beasts of the earth.

Revelation, NIV, 6:8

The four horsemen are riding personnel, in a way, but I am not sure if I would have spotted that if I only had the chorus at my disposal The more poignant reference is the earthquake, as earthquakes are forerunners of the apocalypse. Once the earthquake is coming, the “you” refuses to see that the apocalypse is fast approaching.

The Song: Dickinson’s Vision(s) of the End of the World

The most striking feature of TWOTW (for me, at least) is the constant back and forth between “we” and “you.” The stanzas mostly refer to “we,” whereas the chorus addresses someone, a “you.” The question whether you can see the writing on the wall points to the story of Belshazzar, a (world) ruler who refuses to see that his or her wrongdoing will have consequences. Whereas the use of “we” implies that we are all in the same boat observing the end of the world, sharing in the same suffering, and facing the same guilt, the narrator suddenly points an accusing finger at a “you.” The narrator steps out of the group of “we” to become someone with authority – maybe a prophet? Is our narrator someone like Daniel who warns about sin, consequences, and destruction?

The second feature that strikes me is the use of almost Shakepsearian oxymorons. Oymorons are contradictions in itself, like “bright darkness.” (cf. Merriam Webster) We have here slaves who have been succesful, we have a glorious country that has to bury its heroes. The lyrics are full with this kind of construction. The probably weirdest description is that we were given our lifespans by the diseased. This is open to two readings. It can either refer to past glories of battles won in a distant past and time that has run out. This reading is backed by all of the first stanza, but broken by the two following lines, as they say that they have won a battle on this very day. Is this reference to a victory irony?

This second possible reading may be backed with the following, saying that the people have enslaved themselves. They are slaves and (their own) slave owners at the same time. This constellation is not explained any further, but it pretty much applies to everything that is considered the “modern” world: technology, science etc. The more we become dependant on the technologies we have created, the more we enslave ourselves to our own creations. The fact that it all begins in a desert, which hints at global warming, closes the circle what a dependency on technology leads to. Aside, I think it very charming that this desert has been depicted by an artist as this is indeed the first thing we see in the video: an animated desert. Is this a shoutout to the video or is there deeper meaning that this desert is not even real? All that is left for us is a desert that is not even real? So we are only one burning giraffe and some melting clocks away from a painting by Spanish surrealist painter Salvador Dali? Is all that is left for us: a deadly surreal dream?

But this song is not (solely) about technology, as the following stanzas clearly speak of war. What puzzles me here, is the reference to a battle that is divine. And that battle is directed against the kingdom that comes after the apocalypse. The apocalyspe is followed by a new kingdom, the kingdom of God. (Revelation 21) But this ostensibly divine battle is directed against the coming of God’s kingdom, so how can it be divine? Is this irony again? Maybe “divine” refers to what is “divine” to us? This battle may be divine to us because we resist the apocalypse and the kingdom of God. This reading would be very much in line with the aforementioned Biblical story of Belshazzar’s feast. Belshazzar desecrated the holy chalices, waging war against the Holy. He mocked God and whilst enjoying a party he is unaware that he has brought inevetible doom on his head.

However, the song changes this narrative, because, here, the “you” must be made aware that there is a writing on the wall. The Biblical Belshazzar can see the writing, but is unable to read it. The person the narrator talks to apparantly cannot even see the writing on the wall. The description of being unable to see is of course a direct repeption of the lyrics of “Can I Play with Madness” (Seventh Son of a Seventh Son, 1988), also written by Dickinson. This scenario is even similar. In “Can I…”, our narrator seeks an older man, a prophet (!) (such as Daniel), to tell him whether his soul will go to heaven or to hell. He too is told that he cannot perceive the truth. And he too is told that he is damned and will face divine punishment by being sent to a part of hell. Once the apocalypse is done, there will not only be a new kingdom, there will also be a fiery lake. (Revelation, NIV, 20:10) Not only are both songs connected, but both songs also refer to parts of the apocalypse, “Revelation” (and I am not mentioning that there is a song of almost the same name, “Revelations” (Piece of Mind, 1983)…–> read more about it here)

The lyrics also hark back to another song penned by Dickinson: “Omega” (Accident of Birth, 1997). Here, the sun implodes and kills all life on earth. The chorus vividly describes a sky that is on fire and the song begins with a reference to ashes. We see the same in this song, but now I cannot help but also associate what we see in the videoclip and what is also described in “Two Minutes to Midnight” (Powerslave, 1984): the explosion of an atomic bomb. “Two Minutes to Midnight” describes the Damocles’s sword of the atomic bomb hanging over our heads. In TWOTW, this scenario of doom becomes a reality and functions as the embodiment of the apocalypse. Or, I should rather say that it becomes a reality in the video, as the song does not make this clear. In the song it could also be the imploding sun which kills mankind, harking back to “Omega.” Have your pick, but whichever way you go, you end up with another song by Dickinson.

In sum, this is definitely about a very desperate Daniel talking to a very unseeing and stubborn Belshazzar. As mentioned in the beginning, “we” suddenly gives way to an accusing “you.” Who is “you?” It is too simple to say Belshazzar. I start to believe that “you” is all of us, the listeners. Are we too stubborn to recognise that the end of the world has come? Are we unaware, just like Belshazzar was, that the apocalypse has started already and that the writing on the wall says nothing else than that the horsemen of the apocalyspe are already in the wind?

In that way, the apocalyspe which is a prophecy of future events suddenly becomes the reality we live in. The Biblical writing on the wall says that the Damocles sword is hanging over your head and it will strike tonight – and so will the horsemen. They are already on their way. The song combines both Biblical texts by turning the New Testament apocalypse into the message inscribed on a wall for Belshazzar – something surly to happen. The apocalypse has become real, and it has become recent. Question being, when I have a look at the newspapers, how much truth there is in this.

Sources

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