Pink Floyd, The Wall, and Camus

So ya thought ya might like to go to the show. To feel the warm thrill of confusion that space cadet glow. Tell me is something eluding you, sunshine? Is this not what you expected to see?

The Wall

Pink Floyd

During the thirty years I taught economics and computer science at Duke University, it is safe to say that I rarely found myself on the cutting edge of popular culture. For example, I discovered the Beatles on a flight to London in the late 70s, ten years after they had broken up. I subsequently became a big fan.

Thanks to a recent Sixty Minutes interview with Roger Waters about his live worldwide tour of the The Wall, I was introduced to the 60s rock bank Pink Floyd at the age of 76. Since that chance encounter I have immersed myself in the subtle, sophisticated, pulsating sounds of the band’s music and the haunting lyrics of several of its albums which almost perfectly embody the philosophy of French writer Albert Camus, namely that, “Life is absurd, rebél, live, and try to die happy.”

Camus’ philosophy rests on three interconnected theories: a theory of the absurd, a theory of rebellion, and a theory of death.

What we are all up against is the human condition, God’s gift to us in the Garden of Eden from which there is no escape – separation, meaninglessness, powerlessness, and death. Not a pretty sight. To Camus it was absurd that we are all separated, our lives are meaningless, we are powerless to influence our fate, and we are all going to die and face nothingness.

In response to the absurd Camus admonishes us to confront the human condition and peacefully rebél against it. Rebellion provides us with the faith to claw meaning out of meaninglessness, the energy to connect with those from whom we are separate, the power to surmount powerlessness, and the strength to face death rather than deny it.

Beginning with his first novel A Happy Death, which was not published until after his death in 1960, Camus returned over and over again to the theme that the purpose of life is not to be happy, as man would have us believe, but rather to die happy. In Camus’ novel The Stranger, as well as in his four plays, Caligula, The Misunderstanding, State of Siege, and The Just Assassins, the theme was always the same – die happy.

But if one expects to die happy, one must first rebél. Above all, according to Camus, there must be “a will to live without rejecting anything of life, which is the virtue I most honor in this world.”

To die happy one must first assume personal responsibility for the meaning of one’s life. Living means coming to terms with, rather than avoiding, spiritual, intellectual, emotional, and physical pain and suffering. To have a happy death we must confront the human condition through rebellion. The very existence of Pink Floyd was the personification of rebellion.

Founded in London in 1965, Pink Floyd included Syd Barrett (guitar), Roger Waters (bass guitar), Richard Wright (keyboards), and Nick Mason (percussion). As the mental health of Barrett deteriorated, a second guitar player, David Gilmour, joined the band in 1967. When Barrett left the group in 1968, Roger Waters became the band’s lyricist, principal songwriter, and conceptual leader.

Under the leadership of Waters Pink Floyd produced four albums which would define its place in history – The Dark Side of the Moon (1973), Wish You Were Here (1975), Animals (1977), and The Wall (1979). It was in these albums where the existentialist themes of Camus were most pronounced, but particularly so in The Wall.

Born in 1943, Roger Waters was still in high school when Camus won the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1957 and died in an automobile accident in France on January 4, 1960. That a well-educated war-generation lad such as Waters would be drawn to Camus should have come as a surprise to no one. Camus’ The Stranger, The Myth of Sisyphus, and The Rebel were immensely popular among young European intellectuals.

Waters and Camus shared a number of things in common, not the least of which was the loss of their fathers to war and mothers who were unavailable to them. Camus’ father was killed in World War I and Waters’ in Italy during World War II. Catherine Hélène Sintès-Camus could neither read nor write and behaved as though she were practically mute. Waters’ mom was a controlling, manipulative ideologue about whom he wrote in The Wall, “Mother’s gonna make all of your nightmares come true. Mother’s gonna put all her fears into you.” Waters must have resonated to Camus’ most famous quote, the opening paragraph of The Stranger:

Mother died today. Or, maybe, yesterday; I can’t be sure. The telegram from the Home says: YOUR MOTHER PASSED AWAY. FUNERAL TOMORROW. DEEP SYMPATHY. Which leaves the matter doubtful; it could have been yesterday.

Before his father’s death Roger’s father had been a coal miner and a Labor Party activist, a devout Christian, and a member of the Communist Party. Prior to becoming editor of the French Resistance underground newspaper Combat in Paris during World War II, Camus had been a member of the Communist Party also. Although Camus was an agnostic, he struggled with Christianity throughout his life. But he had an uncanny grasp of the human condition and an unwavering predisposition towards rebellion against it. There is considerable evidence to suggest that Roger Waters got the message.

And finally, Camus and Waters shared a strong affinity for the sun. For Camus it was all about the Algerian sun, but for Waters it seemed to be at least partially related to a certain sense of awe concerning the sun’s position in the cosmos. Among Pink Floyd’s many songs about the sun were “Set the Controls for the Heart of the Sun,” “Fat Old Sun,” “Eclipse,” “Two Suns in the Sunset,” “Time,” and “Shine on You Crazy Diamond.”

In 1969, no doubt as a precursor of what was soon to come, Pink Floyd produced a three part instrumental piece “Sisyphus.” The Myth of Sisyphus, of course, epitomized Camus’ concept of the absurd.

But it was in the legendary 1973 album Dark Side of the Moon in which Pink Floyd first confronted the human condition, alienation, Camus’ absurd, rebellion, and death. And to make sure listeners got it, the opening piece of the album began with the sound of a heartbeat symbolizing the human condition.

Right up front in “Breathe” we have the Pink Floyd equivalent of Sisyphus:

Run rabbit run
Dig the hole forget the sun
And when at last the work is done
Don’t sit down its time to dig another one

Also included in the Dark Side of the Moon album is the classic song “Money” which is about affluenza and selling out for a life based on having – owning and possessing more and more stuff. “I’m in the hi-fidelity first class traveling set and I need a Lear jet.”

About death Camus said, “We know it ends everything,” and results in eternal nothingness. “Eternal nothingness is made up precisely of the sum of lives to come which will not be ours.” In “Time” Pink Floyd sang “The time has gone the song is over thought I’d something more to say.” And what else could the dark side of the moon be than “eternal nothingness.” This is pretty heavy stuff for an album which sold over 30 million copies worldwide and which until recently still sold over 250,000 copies a year in the United States nearly forty years after its initial release.

The second album in the series of four, Wish You Were Here, trades heavily on themes of separation, alienation, and meaninglessness. “We’re just two lost souls swimming in a fish bowl year after year running over the same old ground,” proclaims the album’s title piece. Another piece from the same album, “Welcome to the Machine,” welcomes an aspiring young rock musician to the competitive rat race which characterizes the rock music world. Much of what Pink Floyd was rebelling against was the highly competitive, commercially oriented, self-serving, back-stabbing rock music culture.

The album Animals is much more about the two-legged variety rather than the four-legged species. The song “Dogs” rebels against the dog-eat-dog frenzy of the marketplace. “You have to be trusted by the people that you lie to, so that when they turn their backs on you, You’ll get the chance to put the knife in.” That’s real alienation, and it reflects the cultural mores of the early 70s long before affluenza and technomania had become as rampant as they are today, when cybermania was still unknown.

Next Waters turns from corruption in the market to corruption by the state as illustrated by “Pigs (Three Different Ones)” who are into money, power, and greed. The pigs followed by “Sheep“ who are separated, powerless, and so fearful of being killed by dogs that they behave just as stereotypical sheep are expected to behave, “Meek and obedient…follow the leader down well-trodden corridors.” The behavior of Pink Floyd’s sheep strongly resembles that of their sheep like human counterparts in today’s world who all think the same, vote the same, watch the same TV programs, visit the same web sites, subscribe to the same religious dogmas, and buy the same consumer goods. And what did Pink Floyd do about all of this, rebél.

And last, but most importantly of all, there is The Wall. New England poet Robert Frost may not have gotten it right in his famous poem “Mending Wall” when he said “Good fences make good neighbors.” Neither walls nor fences make very good neighbors, rather they engender feelings of separation, alienation, meaninglessness, and powerlessness as evidenced by Jeremy Bentham’s octagonally designed panopticon prison or more recently the six million people under “correctional supervision” in the United States (more than were in Stalin’s Gulag Archipelago), including more black men than were in slavery in 1860 and 50,000 men in solitary confinement in “supermax” prisons; not to mention the Berlin Wall, the insidious Israeli Wall in Palestine, and gated communities throughout the United States.

But not all walls are physical. Take for example the wall separating the 99 percent from the 1 percent about which Occupy Wall Street speaks so often. This wall is part economic, part political, part social, and part psychological.

Pink Floyd’s wall is nothing short of a brilliant metaphor for the human condition, the absurd. “All in all you’re just another brick in the wall.”

The first song of The Wall begins with the album’s protagonist, Pink, confronting a crowd of inebriated rock music fans at a large stadium in which he says. “Is something eluding you sunshine? Is this not what you expected to see?” Throughout the album Pink rails against rock music, education, government, thought control, war, television, consumerism, his girlfriend, and his mother in particular, who helped build the wall, and to whom he says, “Mother, did it need to be so high?”

In a surprising turn of events Pink is arrested, jailed, and convicted of “showing feelings of an almost human nature,” in reality a complete lack of such feelings for his controlling mother. In Camus’ The Stranger the prosecutor focused not on the murder Meursault was accused of committing, but rather on the fact that he did not cry at his mother’s funeral. “Tear down the wall!” was the judge’s order thus stripping Pink of his alienation, his meaning, and his soul, sentencing him to eternal nothingness. “I didn’t mean to let them take my soul,” said Pink.

On July 21, 1990 The Wall was staged and performed in Berlin to commemorate the fall of the Berlin Wall in front of a live audience of a half a million and viewed on television by an estimated half a billion in thirty-five countries. Throughout 2010-2012 Roger Waters took The Wall on tour to some of the largest and most important venues in the world. The supreme irony of this cannot be ignored, because it was Waters’ utter contempt for Pink Floyd’s fans back in the late 70s which motivated him to write The Wall.

Throughout this piece we have focused primarily on the philosophical message of Pink Floyd’s lyrics. But without the intense, wailing guitar sounds produced by David Gilmour, none of this would have been possible. He often created the mood which enabled one to process Pink Floyd’s sophisticated lyrics.

Will 69 year-old Roger Waters die happy? Maybe, maybe not. But if he does not, it will not be due to a lack of very hard work for over four decades. And he is still at it. A truly remarkable quest. As Camus once said, “Being aware of one’s life, one’s revolt, one’s freedom is living,” but “the point is to live.”

Thomas H. Naylor
October 3, 2012

Founder of the Second Vermont Republic and Professor Emeritus of Economics at Duke University; co-author of Affluenza, Downsizing the USA, and The Search for Meaning.