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Death, Cancer And Lou Reed’s The Power and The Glory

The Power and The Glory is a song from Reed’s magisterial 1992 album Magic and Loss. It describes watching a friend undergo radiation therapy for cancer, but in a stunning poetic and psychological turn takes flight into a vision at the foot of the hospital bed which describes a religious, even mystical awe, without actually being either religious or mystical. The song is masterpiece of postmodern Stoicism, preaching a defiant acceptance of life as a whole.

There are dangers, of course, in a philosophical interpretation of an artist like Reed. Reed’s body of work is not philosophy, but art. Nevertheless, Reed was a man who not only felt deeply but also thought deeply, and the album from which the song I want to look at comes is an album dedicated almost entirely to coming to a philosophical view of death.

The Magic and Loss album was written about the deaths of Reed’s friends Doc Pomus, who had given him his start in the music business twenty-five years earlier, and a mysterious woman named Rita who is believed to be a friend of Reed’s from the Andy Warhol days. The song, whose full name is The Power and The Glory (The Situation) ends with Reed’s affirmation that he and his dying friend accept the whole of life despite it’s pain and horror. The Power and The Glory is key to the perspective of the album as a whole and appears twice on it with the same lyrics but with different musical structures.

Let’s look at it verse by verse.

The song opens:

I was visited by The Power and The Glory

I was visited by a majestic hymn

Great bolts of lightning

Lightning up the sky

Electricity flowing through my veins

Reed manages to deadpan these words in a way which both acknowledges he had a powerful experience while retaining a hint of irony. Reed was a Jewish atheist who in his final years turned to the study of Buddhism and Qigong, so we should not take any Christian imagery at face value. It might be more accurate to see Graeco-Roman imagery in this verse as well. The emphasis on electricity, lightning, and awe-inspiring power throughout the song can’t help but remind one of Zeus, which Reed might have had in mind, as we’ll see.

Reed continues:

I was captured by a larger moment

I was seized by divinity’s hot breath

Gorged like a lion on experience

Powerful from life

I wanted all of it, not some of it

The phrase “I wanted all of it, not some of it” is the key to the song.

I saw a man turn into a bird

I saw a bird turn into a tiger

I saw a man hang from a cliff by the tips of his toes

In the jungles of the Amazon

I saw a man put a red hot needle through his eye

Turn into a crow and fly through the trees

Swallows hot coals and breathe out flames

And I wanted this to happen to me

Awe-struck by the power, creativity and magic of the cosmos, Reed transcends his concern with his own ego, body, and life and embraces the intense, almost maddening transformations of life in its pure chameleonic vitality. He is reminiscent here of Marcus Aurelius, who a number of times throughout the Meditations reflects on the continuous transformations of things and struggles to accept that he himself is part of these endless transformations, both during his life and after his death when he himself will likely be transformed into something else.

The paradoxical transcendence of The Power and The Glory arises directly out of Reed’s contradictory experience of awesome cosmic power being revealed in a situation of intense human vulnerability, one that actually encompasses the destruction of the human.

In the next verse Reed reflects on humanity’s attempt to grapple with this awesome, ambiguous power:

We saw the moon vanish into his pocket

We saw the stars disappear from sight

We saw him walk across water into the sun

While bathed in eternal light

We spewed out questions waiting for answers

Creating legends, religions and myths

Books, stories, movies and plays

All trying to explain this

Now, though, the song moves to its climax and the heart of its message:

I saw a great man turn into a little child

The cancer reduced him to dust

His voice growing weak as he fought for his life

With a bravery few men know

I saw isotopes introduced into his lungs

Trying to stop the cancerous spread

And it made me think of Leda and The Swan

And gold being made from lead

The same power that burned Hiroshima

Causing three legged babies and death

Shrunk to the size of a nickel

To help him regain his breath

Here we have a direct reference to Zeus (for those who thought I was stretching!). Reed is awed by the injection of cosmic power into a mortal man, and it reminds him of the rape of Leda by Zeus after he approached her in the diminutive guide of a swan. It also reminds Reed of alchemy and expresses awe at magic human and divine, even though that power does not come with salvation in its wings. Reed closes with the stunning and disturbing evocation of Hiroshima, driving home his message more than any other line in the song.

Reed then recounts the opening verse before focusing its subject matter and affirming that his friend shares his vision:

And I was struck by The Power and The Glory

I was visited by a majestic Hymn

Great bolts of lightning lighting up the sky

As the radiation flowed through him

He wanted all of it

Not some of it

All of it, not some of it. Reed’s heroic posture, which he claims was shared by his friend, is in a sense paradoxical. It is one of defiant acceptance, of heroic surrender.

Those familiar with Stoicism will note one glaring difference between Reed’s attitude in the song and one that say Epictetus might have taken. Nowhere does Reed suggest that what’s happening is for the best, or that the deaths of his friends suggests the guiding hand of a benevolent deity or fits into an over-arching telos whose individual details are justified by the harmonic whole. Quite the opposite, actually.

Both Epictetus and Reed are advising surrender to the whole, but where one sees harmony the other is moved to awe and surrender without finding any harmony.

“What good is cancer in April?” asks Reed in another song on the album. “No good,” he answers. “No good at all.”

In the same song, called What’s Good (The Thesis) Reed compares the illness of his friends to “seeing eye chocolate”, “bacon and ice cream”, “a mayonnaise soda”, “Sanskrit read to a pony” and other absurdities which are “no good at all.” Reed clearly sees the destruction of his friend as an evil and an absurdity, though some room should be left for the fact that the song is a work of art and is meant to be a song of mourning. Tellingly Reed concludes the song: “What’s good? Life’s good. Life’s good, but not fair at all.”

What is missing from Reed’s Stoic acceptance is exactly the faith in divine providence or the harmony of the whole that one finds in Epictetus or Marcus Aurelius (on one of his better days). Reed affirms life despite its absurdity, not because he has found that the absurdity disappears when viewed through a higher lens.

In that sense, the Stoicism in The Power and The Glory is more akin to the view advocated by philosopher Lawrence C. Becker in his book “A New Stoicism”, where he argues that the modern Stoic should transcend the belief in divine providence or a teleological cosmos because modern science has not found evidence of either. As someone who would like to believe in providence but utterly fails to do so based on what my experience and reason tell me, I find the Stoicism of Becker more compelling than Epictetus’ appeals to Zeus’s wisdom, regardless of the high respect I otherwise have for the great Roman freedman.

The only harmony Reed finds is one that offers a less comforting kind of acceptance. On the last song on the album, titled Magic and Loss (The Summation), Reed sums up the view he’s come to: “There’s a bit of magic in everything, and some loss to even things out.”

Reed sings that line after a long reflection on how to pass through suffering, or as he puts it, how to “pass through fire to the light”:

Pass through the fire to the light

As you pass through the fire

Your right-hand waving

There are things you have to throw out

That caustic dread inside your head

Will never help you out

You have to be very strong

’Cause you’ll start from zero

Over and over again

And as the smoke clears

There’s an all-consuming fire

Lying straight ahead

Reed is clearly not interested in offering easy answers or pablum.

Nevertheless, for those of us who don’t find the vision of a benevolent cosmic harmony credible, Reed’s view may offer a different route to Stoic acceptance:

I want all of it, not just some of it.

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