Tuesday, July 17, 2012

Witch Hunts & Sacraments: Delta Rae's Bottom Of the River

I posted Delta Rae's Bottom Of the River as a pop quiz for readers to share their own ideas and interpretations and two readers posted their very insightful impressions which I will be using as we explore this thought-provoking song/video (lyrics are listed at the bottom of this post):
Even though we don't see a drop of it in the video, the song is very much about water and a river. It’s not that the song presents us with two conflicting ideas of what water symbolizes, rather, the way water—like most symbols—can be used in a positive and negative way. For example, in the Old Testament story of Noah and the Flood, water was destructive because it brought about the ruin of the earth by means of the Flood; in the New Testament water takes on a virtuous symbolism by becoming the sacrament which cleanses our souls of the stains of Original Sin through the waters of Baptism. In Bottom Of the River, it seems that both the destructive and virtuous characteristics of water are being invoked but ultimately for destructive ends. (As ALWAYS, there are many ambiguous aspects to the song/video and these are just my ideas that are neither right nor wrong, but here to help you with your own engagement with the art!).
Gustave Dore, The Deluge, Dore's English Bible 1865.
But Bottom Of the River is not invoking Noah's Flood, so what is it doing? The question is, why did God send a flood to destroy the earth? It's not that God is following symbolisms, rather, that symbols develop from our understanding of how God and nature work, symbols contain hidden wisdom. The primary cause of God destroying the world was man's sinfulness, and specifically, sexual sinfulness. Sigmund Freud always associated water with the sexual act, not just because of the bodily fluids released during intercourse, but because of the ecstatic release of the act, akin to washing and bathing the body and a type of psychological cleansing (so he diagnosed) from neurosis from abstaining from sex (sex being the exact opposite, so to speak, of Baptism). 
Like the three men in Oh, Brother, Where Art Thou? the "witch" in Bottom Of the River is chained, and that not only reveals to us her "criminal tendencies," but reveals a symbolic fact about her: she's chained to her sins. Why is she able to so easily "get out of them" towards the end of the video? It's not that she's "empowered" by being chained to her sins, rather, like Queen Ravenna in Snow White and the Huntsman, the witch has power over the earthly chains around her wrists because she has chained her soul to damnation. The "mob," on the other hand, is neither as bad as she is, nor strong enough in saintly virtue to overcome her, so being a little worse than mediocre, they fall to her spell.
Can we link up "the witch" with this kind of duality in the symbolism of water? One of the brave souls posting their thoughts on the video mentioned that it reminded them of the Coen Brothers' 2000 comedy Oh Brother, Where Art Thou? and it reminded me of that as well. Like Bottom Of the River, Oh, Brother, Where Art Thou? employs the same duality of water's symbolism, first in the Baptism scene, then in the scene with the Sirens (the later again when they are going to be hauled off and the flood waters are let loose, both destroying the area, but saving the boys):
What's so well done about this scene is Delmar's (basically) ignorant view of salvation; he does have faith but he does not have the spiritual endurance to "fight the good fight" and will give in at the first presented temptation because he isn't inwardly strong enough in his faith in God (and none of us are, we all fall and require God's Grace, but I am leading up to a similarity with the film). Here, then, is the Sirens in the water and definitely presenting the exact opposite of salvation:
Now we can talk about the “witch.”
Is there a specific reason to call her that, or is it just a leery feeling about the visualization of the video? As the second Anonymous commenter pointed out, the woman in white has blood red lipstick, a detail drawing us to her mouth, symbolic of the appetites, usually those of the flesh, re-enforcing the idea of the life of sin. She’s wearing only undergarments, a kind of old-fashioned slip that is white. White, like water, has a positive and negative symbolism: white usually denotes  “faith,” “purity”/”innocence,” but white can also symbolize death because a corpse turns white as it decays, that is, the life is drained of it. This the genius of the symbol, because faith, purity and innocence symbolizes inner life and being “alive” to God’s Grace, but white can also symbolize the absence of faith, purity and innocence, hence, being “dead” to God’s Grace. The leather belt she wears insures we know which way to interpret the “white” slip she wears.
Symphony In White, No. 1: The White Girl by James Abbot McNeill Whistler, 1861-2. Why bring this in? To illustrate, literally, the difference between Delta Rae's "witch" and how white can symbolize the positive values of purity, innocence and faith. In Whistler's work, we can definitely say this is "white in the positive virtue" example because the picture is practically "flooded" with light, i.e., truth (truth is the light by which virtues grow like plants in the garden). Secondly, she stands upon an animal rug, meaning, symbolically, that she has put her animal passions "beneath her," she has subdued them, they have not subdued her. And lastly, she holds a flower in her hand, symbolic of virtue (there is far, far more to discuss about this painting, but this is for a comparative analysis only). 
The leather belt around the “witch’s” waist is very telling; in the history of wardrobe and fashion, one would expect a possibility of three things: one, nothing, that a corset or other such “body shaping” device would be applied over the woman’s slip so no belt would be required/used or even a “built-in” waist-thinning mechanism; secondly, a chastity belt to protect the woman’s hymen from being ruptured by her initial sexual intercourse or, thirdly, nothing at all because the slip will cover it anyway. The leather belt, then, is unusual and probably is meant as the opposite of the chastity belt: the leather, animal skin, invokes the animal passions just as her shocking red lipstick and that is probably the primary reason she is being taken by the "mob." 
What Bottom Of the River probably refers to (as a phrase of reference) is the Ordeal by Water pictured above: if a person accused of witchcraft was tossed into water, the one who sank (to the bottom of the river) was innocent (like the feet and hands sticking up in the lower right corner of the image above), but the one who floated atop the water was guilty of witchcraft (s/he would be anxious to save their life and so would use their powers to save their self from death and thereby reveal themselves to be in league with the devil, rather like the very end of the video when the wind comes and kills the mob, more on that below). The phrase "bottom of the river" probably refers to the "bound woman/witch" claiming she's innocent of being a witch and that she will sink to the bottom but probably also die in trying to prove her innocence (no, that's not what historically happened; they were always fished out before they would drown if they sank to the bottom, the judges didn't let them drown).
Besides being bound with chains at her wrist and everyone suddenly being dead at the end after she mysteriously unbinds herself, what else tells us of her “super natural” being? Her reflection. “Reflection” is both a symbol of individuation and wisdom. Please expand the video screen below and stop the video at 0:19 and 0:21; please look carefully at the mirror in which she brushes her hair. In the first spot, her reflection in the mirror is not “mirroring” her actions (we still see her face in the mirror instead of the back of her head as she's being taken away) and in the second, she has left the chair yet her reflection calmly “stays” in the mirror just above the lantern being reflected, and she has a bit of a ghoulish face:
Why is this important?
Two reasons, first, it “mirrors” the greater current cultural trend of reflections and mirrors in films such as Julia Roberts’ Mirror, Mirror and Charlize Theron’s Snow White and the Huntsman, both queens having mirrors and “unnatural” reflections in them. In both Snow White adaptations, the evil queens use the mirrors to advance their own worldly positions the exact opposite of the fair Snow White who uses her powers of meditation and self-reflection to advance her virtue and inner spiritual life so she can become a better person capable of overcoming the evil in the queen. In the case of Bottom Of the River, the witch’s divided reflection is just even more sinister because she’s not just bringing herself down into evil, but anyone she can drag down with her. Like the Snow White queens, the "witch" in Bottom Of the River is seeking worldly power and pleasure which begs the question: did the witch "trap" the mob in coming to get her so she could do them all in and be rid of them?
Probably.

Besides the "witch," there are three other groups of people in this video: the two farmers cutting wood, the three primary leaders of the mob (two men and one woman) and the "demon" faced extras. The members of the mob symbolize the professional/business class (the man in the vest and tie), the other man symbolizes the working class because he wears labor clothes and the woman signifies women (and I am glad they did it this way because that's a more traditional view on femininity). In these three we see the entirety of society and yet no one in society is virtuously strong enough to overcome the witch in their midst they have identified, that is, because of their own sins, individually and collectively, they are nearly as bad as she is and so don't have the moral authority and superiority to overcome her (if they had abstained from sin, they would have strength to cast her out, instead, because they are bound by their own sins, they haven't any strength; an example is, in a society where more people cohabitate then are married, how can marriage be defended when heterosexual couples don't even live up to it?).
On the witch's right side is the man with the vest and tie, symbolic of the business/professional class; just behind her is the woman in black and then next to her (on her left) is a man in work clothes, symbolizing the labor class. The obviously "fake" light coming from the lanterns (the artificial light) also indicates the "spiritual state" of the "mob" coming after her. An artificial light reveals an "artificial truth" and the people are seeing the situation the way they want to, maybe that they are bad, but the witch is worst; not having the "true light of faith," they are unable to overcome the darkness and succumb to it, unlike The White Girl above.
For these reasons, the demon faced extras don't seem to be actual demons to me, they would be "on the side of the witch" if they were because the witch engages in evil and they would be with her as the "dead farmers" are with her. The demons, since they die/disappear at the end like the mob, appear to me (and this is ambiguous, so there are lots of possible readings, none of them right or wrong) to be a visualization of the state of the mobs' soul and their intent of what they want to do with the witch. The fist Anonymous who left their comments described the farmers as "dead" and I think that's an excellent insight because farmers are associated with life, not only because of the life they give to seed in raising their crops, but the food they raise sustains us. These farmers, with their black eyes when the witch passes them, are dead and we might say they are an example of those who the lyrics discuss so let's finally turn our attention to that (complete lyrics are at the bottom of this post).
What is the "wind" and strange light at the end which appears to kill everyone? Wind is usually associated with the Breath Of God, the Holy Spirit, and (like the waters of the Flood) a cleansing agent because it sweeps away the foul air but also has destructive powers as during a storm, like a tornado. Looking at it in these terms, we get that which we court: if we court God, and live according to His Commands, we receive the Breath of God; if we court death (like the woman wearing black, she's dead just as the witch is and might be the cause of the sin of the two men she is with) we get Death. Like the "artificial light" in the lanterns of the business man and laborer in the mob, this light, too, is artificial. For more on truth and its relationship with artificial light, please see False Light: Interview With the Vampire. But moonlight is also considered a "false light," because it only reflects from the sun, it doesn't cast its own light, so its deceptive, like the very first image of the moon we see in the video and then again in the lyrics when the "wolves will chase you by the pale moonlight," suggesting that the demons will chase you by the very "watered down truths" you have lived your life by.
As noted above, the lines Hold my hand, it's a long way down to the bottom of the river, probably denotes the medieval trial by ordeal when witches were subjected to drowning to see if they were guilty or innocence of witchcraft. However, the stanza is repeated three times throughout the song, and in each repeating, the witch is in a different "position" regarding her captors/captives the mob, so it's probably a use of the same line to demonstrate to us how the meaning isn't stable but is changing with the witch's display of power.
Another example of ordeal by water of two suspected witches.
The next set of lyrics read: If you get sleep or if you get none/The cock’s gonna call in the morning, baby/Check the cupboard for your daddy’s gun/Red sun rises like an early warning/The Lord’s gonna come for your first born son/His hair’s on fire and his heart is burning."  "If you get sleep or if you get none," might refer to our state of conscience about the state of our soul (will we be worried about our final judgment or is our conscience at ease and we don't have anything to worry about so we can sleep?). The "cock call," to me, invokes St. Peter thrice denying Christ during the Passion before the cock's crow, and in that way, it summons the idea of judgment and whether we have denied Christ or not. Checking the cupboard for your daddy's gun is what many might do because it's a falling back on worldly protection (the gun, which is kept where worldly food is kept, the cupboard, contrasted to the spiritual food of the Body and Blood of the Lord which is kept in Church) instead of spiritual protection (prayers, alms-giving, penance and fasting).
Christ Enthroned from the Book Of Kells.
The lyrics, Red sun rises like an early warning/The Lord’s gonna come for your first born son/His hair’s on fire and his heart is burning/Go to the river where the water runs/Wash him deep where the tides are turning/And if you fall" are apocalyptic in nature because of the warning of judgment. The "red sun rises like an early warning" actually symbolizes the "Son" (the sun") who is coming for the first born son just as He did during the plague of the death of the firstborns to prophesy how Christ, the First Born, would save all those who called upon His Name. If our first-borns haven't been dedicated to God (the First Born) then they will die because "His hair's on first and his heart is burning" but the irony is, while this is a "scary illustration," this is exactly what we should be!
Lavina from Black Death starring Sean Bean. There are many similarities to this witch and the witch of Bottom Of the River, which you can choose to read about here: Two Spiritual Pathways: Black Death.
Because hair symbolizes thoughts, our own thoughts should have been on fire with love of the Lord (fire being an extreme symbol of love not usually used but in spiritual contexts) and that's why his heart is burning because of the love we should have for the Lord because of the Love He has for us; because we don't look like this (that is, we don't look like our creator, who burns with Love for us) we are supposed to go to the river where the tide is turning, that is, go to the Sacrament of Baptism and change our lives, repent and be what God demanded of us. The problem is, we don't, we don't do that at all, or, like Delmar and Pete in the Oh Brother Where Art Thou videos above, we willingly go, but then also willingly go to our destruction and that's why the next line is "And if you fall," because it's so certain that we will fall, back into sin again. This time, when we go into the refrain, "Hold my hand, etc." it's because, unlike comforting her the first time during her trial by ordeal, now we have to join her because, like her, we are guilty.
Another image from Black Death of a procession through a river.
The next set of lyrics: The wolves will chase you by the pale moonlight/Drunk and driven by a devil’s hunger/Drive your son like a railroad spike/Into the water, let it pull him under/Don’t you lift him, let him drown alive/The good Lord speaks like a rolling thunder/Let that fever make the water rise/And let the river run dry. The "wolves," as predators and wild animals, would symbolize demons here (a similar scene if of Dante in the first Canto of Inferno being chased by dogs and coming to Mount Purgatory where he encounters a wolf) and that they are "drunk and driven by the devil's hunger" validates that (it also validates that the "demon faced" extras we see in the video probably aren't "real demons" like those being discussed in this stanza).
But this is the real heart of the song: "Let that fever make the water rise" and that "fever" is probably sexual "fever." The "advice" the witch is giving--and she can afford to because she knows that we won't heed it--is to "drive your son like a railroad spike" meaning, that we should drive ourselves and our children hard in the spiritual life, but that can often backfire, creating a "craving" for the pleasures of the world and the flesh (which probably identifies the two dead farmers with her, those who were driven to her by being driven too hard towards God) and the water rising symbolizes how that which is supposed to save the soul--the waters of Baptism and Grace--are now "rising" like Noah's Flood to consume the soul in worldly pleasure and that's why the water "runs dry," because Grace then ends when that life is pursued (well, no, not really, but it does in the song) and then you have to "run" from the wolves because the river has "run" dry.
Another film the video reminds me of is the mob scene from To Kill A Mockingbird (not pictured here, but the closest I could find). Atticus is at the jail and a mob comes to "exact justice" and Atticus talks them out of it, a perfect example of a group of vigilantes "breaking the law" to "keep the law." A similar incident is in The Ox-Bow Incident.
And now, the final refrain about holding her hand because it's a long way down to the bottom of the river reveals that she has led us astray to death, and like the foolish mob which came for her, we, too, have been led into a trap of death by her because we were looking at the immorality of others instead of tending our own souls and advancing in holiness. The "death blow" that comes in the wind and the false light at the end demonstrates for us our own fate in hopes that we will save ourselves from our inevitable judgment awaiting us and not make unnecessary judgments upon others. Eat Your Art Out, The Fine Art Diner Bottom of the River Hold my hand Ooh, baby, it’s a long way down to the bottom of the river Hold my hand, Ooh, baby, it’s a long way down, a long way down If you get sleep or if you get none The cock’s gonna call in the morning, baby Check the cupboard for your daddy’s gun Red sun rises like an early warning The Lord’s gonna come for your first born son His hair’s on fire and his heart is burning Go to the river where the water runs Wash him deep where the tides are turning And if you fall Hold my hand Ooh, baby, it’s a long way down to the bottom of the river Hold my hand, Ooh, baby, it’s a long way down, a long way down The wolves will chase you by the pale moonlight Drunk and driven by a devil’s hunger Drive your son like a railroad spike Into the water, let it pull him under Don’t you lift him, let him drown alive The good Lord speaks like a rolling thunder Let that fever make the water rise And let the river run dry And I said Hold my hand Ooh, baby, it’s a long way down to the bottom of the river Hold my hand, Ooh, baby, it’s a long way down, a long way down.