“Karn Evil 9” by Emerson, Lake & Palmer: Come And See Our Selves
May 14, 2011 at 1:57 pm, by Jonah Rank
It’s a little bit of a silly song, but when you’re in 6th grade and are looking for some mad keyboard skills, “Karn Evil 9” by Emerson, Lake & Palmer ain’t too shabby. The song is epic (literally—it’s over 29 minutes long; that’s why this is a long blogpost). Broken up into three “Impressions,” the complexity of the song is pretty jaw-dropping.
Keith Emerson’s fluid, fast fingers flow from key to key and from keyboard to keyboard, taking the listener on a whirlwind of adventure. Some dark metallic tones welcome us into a wasteland on a “cold and misty morning,” when a civilization subjected to abusive governance leaves its land, looking for a little liberation. With some percussive magic from Carl Palmer—slow, suffering steps trudging along to the beat of a hopeful cowbell—and Greg Lake’s bass guitar playing in circles—scales and patterns descending and ascending yet never going anywhere—we finally begin to feel those repressive chains come loose around 2:19, when the instruments surrender that feeling of straight eighth notes for the lilting of triplet eighth notes. But such bliss is only temporary: in fact, less than half-a-minute.
When the rhythm has returned to even eighths, the music is back to where we were just a moment ago. Greg Lake yells, “I’ll be there / I’ll be there / I’ll be there,” and we’ve already forgotten those triplets of liberation. At 5:21, we’re officially welcomed into “the show” but—despite that cheery carnival organ—the music is built up from the timbres of an intolerable past, and these sounds can only hint at an ominous future.
What we view is “the most amazing show” with “thrills and shocks” like “rows of bishops’ heads in jars / and a bomb inside a car” and “some tears for you to see.” The emcee declares it “the greatest show in Heaven, Hell or Earth,” and perhaps this is because of all of the vice (“a stripper in a till”) and violence (“a real blade of grass”); the show takes us out of Hell, into Heaven through Earth, only to bring us back to Hell (“Right before your eyes / We pull laughter from the skies / And he laughs until he cries / Then he dies”). The show isn’t only mind-blowing; it’s “guaranteed to blow your head apart!”
Anyway, the music is brilliant, and the song is—if you’ve never heard it—probably worth at least one listen. It becomes apparent that the first and second impression of “Karn Evil 9” are all about humanity’s quest for happiness and freedom through entertainment, but the circus we find turns out to be a mess in the end; in fact, it’s just as cruel as the reality we’ve left behind.
I recently had the pleasure of reading an excerpt of Loren Spielman’s doctoral dissertation, “Sitting With Scorners,” a history of rabbinic attitudes towards Roman “spectacle entertainment” (as in circuses, theater, etc.). (As you might have already guessed, the rabbis had negative attitudes.)
Let me summarize part of Spielman’s argument in explaining rabbinic disgust towards Roman spectacle entertainment. (Hey, do you like initials? I do! I’m gonna shorten “Roman spectacle entertainment” to RSE.) The rabbis found different things in RSE to be immoral—for example, killing people (in fact, in Mishnah Avodah Zarah 1:7, the rabbis ban selling Romans any animals that could be used in stadiums to harm people in public). But in addition to moral discomfort, the rabbis also disliked RSE because it was soooooo Roman.
The Jews didn’t have anything like RSE, and the rabbis wanted to keep things that way. RSE wasn’t a Jewish thing, just as Torah wasn’t a Roman thing. The rabbis shunned RSE to keep it away from the Jews, and to maintain the distinction between the Jewish self and the gentile other.
“Wait, Jonah,” you might ask. “Why did you read a large amount of somebody’s doctoral dissertation?” It was for a class I took with Dr. Beth Berkowitz called “The Ways of the Gentiles,” a course about how religious Jews have historically responded to non-Jews. Occasionally when the rabbis we examined described a non-Jewish practice, the rabbis used the word “nivvul,” which means something like “grossness” or “desecration.”
Here’s something cool about “nivvul” though. In the Babylonian Talmud, the word “nivvul” is almost always used in connection with something that comes up in a liminal moment: an instance when someone encounters life and death, the clean and the unclean, the pure and the impure—the Jewish self and the gentile other.
Anywho, the third (and final) impression of “Karn Evil 9” is a bit of a different story. Humanity dukes it out with a computer. Human reality fights against human creativity. Human history fights against human dreaming. When the hoping human meets the computer, it seems that the computer thinks that it now controls humanity.
Just as the human here is shocked and angered upon realizing that humans can no longer control the inventions that emerge from them, the refugees in the first and second impression of “Karn Evil 9” were also shocked and angered, for the circus turned out to be as hostile as the land from which they emerged. When humanity sought control, humanity became enslaved by a computer. When humanity escaped its tormented existence, humanity found itself in a spectacle of lewd oppression.
When our hero approaches his battle against the computer, the computer shouts out, “Stranger!” Nonetheless, the computer proceeds to introduce itself to the man: “I am yourself.”
In truth, each impression of “Karn Evil 9” is about fear in encountering the other, fear in encountering the self, and our inability to escape. Only part of it is truly about the fear of that which makes the carnival “evil.”
That’s how it was with rabbis shunning RSE: part of it is actually evil, but part of it is that rabbinic fear of the other. The rabbis sometimes went so far as to argue over whether or not their own practices were borrowed from, or similar to the practices of, non-Jews (see Sanhedrin 52b of the Babylonian Talmud for just one such argument). For a Jew to be living and acting like a non-Jew would be nivvul: the liminal moment when Jewish life becomes non-Jewish life: effectively, a Jewish death.
At war with humanity, the “Karn Evil 9” computer says, “I let you live.” “But, I gave you life,” argues the man. Having created the computer, humanity sees its self in the computer, but humanity also stands in fear of the other in the computer—for the computer has outsmarted humanity. The refugees at the carnival stand in fear because the carnival is composed entirely of other oppressed persons. Rabbis stood in fear of RSE because it only takes one instant for one to begin to act like a Roman; the Jewish people are always in the position to choose to become a nivvul.
But why is it that there is so much fear of the self, and of the other? Are we overwhelmed by ourselves? Are we never satisfied with ourselves? Are we always trying to change? Are we trying to go somewhere we’ve never been? Does our fear help us become better people?
In the final words of “Karn Evil 9,” the computer answers back, “I’m perfect. Are you?”
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