Elliott Smith, Shiva, And Final Fantasy Walk Into A Bar
In the past year I attended an Indian religions class where our professor lectured about some of the various gods in the Hindu pantheon. “How many gods are in the pantheon?” he asked us. A few of his former students called back in unison, “Three-hundred-thirty-three-million!” They were correct — our professor went on to discuss the metaphorical nature of that answer (it really just means innumerable), and talked about a few of the most widely worshipped gods in the pantheon:
There is Brahma, the four-headed god of wisdom, and the creator aspect of the godhead Brahman. He is putatively cursed and noticeably neglected, considering his placement among the Trimurti (trio of superior gods).
There is Vishnu, the maintainer of the universe, who has a thousand names and whose avatars periodically descend to Earth to restore order in the dharma.
Then there is Shiva.
“Class, who is Shiva?”
After a brief unsure silence a student answered, “She is the goddess of destruction.” Murmurs and nods of agreement followed.
“Close. Shiva is the god of destruction — male, one of his symbols is a linga, or phallus. He is the Destroyer of evil, the Lord of Dance, the tiger-minded yogi who resides in Mount Kailash. Out of curiosity, why did you guys think Shiva was a she?”
I leaned forward because, as one of the students who erroneously thought Shiva was a she, I had a theory, but I wanted to hear what the others said first; and someone, one of the male students, confessed, “Final Fantasy VII!” So I was correct.
You see, in the Play Station game Final Fantasy VII (Square, 1997), you collect various “summons” throughout the game to fight alongside you against monsters, soldiers, and other enemies. One of these summons is Shiva, the blue-skinned ice queen who appears scantily clad in tights, boots, and a bra. A jewel adorns her forehead, and her eyes remain closed as if in meditation, like a yogi.
Considering her ubiquity throughout the Final Fantasy series, it is no surprise that Shiva resonates with so many Generation Y kids and adults, not as a male Hindu god, but as a powerful female entity — shrouded in a distinct blue connotation, I can comfortably assume.
It is fascinating how efficiently, even after all these years have probably passed since many of those kids played Final Fantasy VII or other games in the series, this image of Shiva was assimilated into their cultural schemas; how unconsciously it occurred, and how they (we) never even noticed! Of course I leave room for the possibility that a few of said kids did notice and altered their perceptions of the god accordingly, but the fact remains: so many of us, if we did not know anything else about Shiva, thought that he was a she!
The class continued, and I altered my perceptions accordingly. But this essay is not really about Shiva. There is more to consider.
In 2000, singer-songwriter Elliott Smith released an album with DreamWorks Records entitled Figure 8. Perhaps his most critically successful and popular album, it featured a much wider array of instruments than his previous CDs, more poppy tunes, louder rock-n-roll riffs, psychedelic melodies, and alternately dreamlike and emotionally concrete lyrics. The album was, is, and always will be a testament to this late artist’s musical craftsmanship.
The opening track of the album is “Son of Sam,” a song with a percussive guitar riff, an eerie organ whistling in the background, bouncing ragtime piano lines, and a curving, soaring lead that jettisons the listener into the stratosphere before he comes screeching back to a soft landing on the ground, to some weird indefinable place. If that description sounds a little strange, it’s because the song itself is a little strange. The lyrics do not seem to make sense in any rational way, with its many references to Son of Sam (ostensibly serial killer David Berkowitz), couple killers, doctors, nurses, shining paths, and, in the end, Shiva (all of this in a manner of what might be called a series of loose associations).
Smith himself said that if the song is about anything at all, it is probably “just an impressionistic song about destruction and creativity” (I would cite the quoted interview, but the only available link to it is now dead; it was with Adam Walton). Thus this is not the literal Son of Sam or the literal Shiva to which Smith refers, but the connotative Son of Sam and the connotative Shiva; he references the symbols of these people rather than their actual beings. When you take into account Smith’s songwriting catalogue, this theory appears spot on: he has a history of employing such symbolic, subliminal techniques when writing lyrics — this is one of the ways he has been able to resonate with so many listeners despite mainstream neglect.
So if this were true (and for the sake of moving forward, we will assume that it is), why would Smith, like those students from my Indian religions class, refer to Shiva as a she? I quote a line from the song: “Shiva opens her arms now / to make sure I don’t get too far.” This is the only utilization of Shiva in the lyrics, and Smith dubs him as female. There are a number of immediate reactions one might have to this curiosity. Primarily, you could suggest that Shiva is the representation of a female other in Smith’s life given the symbolic form of a destructive power; but this theory seems rather unlikely considering that when Smith wants to talk about someone, he knows how to incorporate that person into a song poetically, and with consistency; in “Son of Sam,” there is no reference to a female other except indirectly through Shiva — the lyrics don’t even suggest that it is a song about a destructive (or creative, for that matter) relationship with a girl. Furthermore, the Shiva reference is so ephemeral, so touch-and-go, that it hardly seems to have any concrete importance (as you would expect if it were about a real girl) so much as symbolic signification. In Smith’s own interpretation, this lyric really does seem to have more to do with destruction/creativity than anything, if anything.
That interpretation is all right, but the question remains: why would Shiva manifest in these lyrics as a female? Smith was born in 1969, making him part of the Generation X crowd, but he would have been about 20-21 years old during the release of Final Fantasy III, the first game of the series to feature the summon Shiva, in 1990; he matured through adolescence concomitantly with the release of the successive four games until Figure 8’s release in 1998. So I wonder: did Elliott Smith play Final Fantasy? It certainly isn’t a stretch of the imagination to assume that he did; after all, he was a twenty-something male during these video games’ heights of fame. To me, it seems very possible, even probable considering the coincidence of the dates, that the image of a female Shiva slipped into his mind and was subsequently folded into his music sometime after he played a Final Fantasy game. At the very least, some germ of the game, some meme, may have been passed to him by a friend or stranger, but this is unlikely compared to Smith himself interjecting the image after playing the game even casually.
It’s a theory worth considering. But this essay isn’t really about Elliott Smith or Final Fantasy, either.
Less to do with Hindu theosophies or the Trimurti, this essay really concerns the Buddhist idea of pratitya-samutpada, or interdependent origination. When we hear Smith’s “Son of Sam” recording for the first time, if we are theoretically isolated from connections to external sources, it is easy to believe that these creepy lyrics, this locomotive song, sprang straight from Smith’s guts without prior cause, like a most magnificent instance of active imagination; we might believe that Smith is ultimate cause of “Son of Sam.” And of course, that seems almost like the proper interpretation, since it gives credit where credit is due: Smith did indeed write the song and he did in fact create the melody to his words.
But when we expand our interpretation to include the whole universe, we see Smith as a link in a chain of events rather than as a starting point. Pratitya-samutpada states that there is no “thing” in the universe that has its own independent and autonomous reality; everything is dependent on everything else, therefore nothing exists on its own, as a thing separate from the universe of other things. “Son of Sam” is absolutely no different from anything else, in this sense. When we take into account Smith’s distinct placement in time, the coincidence of the video games being released during his tenure as professional musician, his own inability to isolate himself as an independent, fixed, autonomous being within the net of reality, we can see quite clearly how his own song, or at least a part thereof, preceded him by at least 2000 years; how it was weathered by the conditions of the Western society into which he was born; how that society itself was weathered by its Eastern counterpart; and most importantly how such a profound lyric of the heart could have its roots in such jejune earth as a role-playing video game.
This essay is about our ideas, our creations, and where they come from. If Elliott Smith knew that his beautiful Shiva imagery came from a video game, would he admit to the fact? If you were in his shoes, would you confess? How often in your daily life do you profess to know something that you only learned by means of scant Google or Wikipedia searches, or via an interesting TED talk, without having personally put in the effort to uncover such interesting details and string them together into cohesive theories? How often do you alter your personality, your likes, and your dislikes based on a celebrity’s or some other powerful figure’s actions and preferences? Who are you honestly? When you look deep down, is there really a You, an atman, to use the Hindu theosophy of the self, or is what you consider to be your soul/personality simply something that has been handed or transferred to you by your culture, society, and past?
This essay concerns the Buddhist idea of anatman, or no-self. Anatmanis the logical next step from pratitya-samutpada. If we are completely dependent upon everything else in the universe for our “existence,” then could there really be anything inside us that we can call the self or soul, which is independent of any and all external influences? Avalokitesvara Bodhisattva says no, that “that which is form is emptiness; and that which is emptiness, form.” The self, because of its interdependent origination, is empty. Elliott Smith’s “Son of Sam” is empty. Elliott Smith is empty.
It is not that pratitya-samutpada is any more real today than it was 2500 years ago, but it is certainly more apparent as we can gather and absorb loads of information at the click of a button, as we can appear learned by quickly consulting a cellphone, as we can readily learn the basic history of Ancient Egypt in a half-hour documentary on the History Channel. It is not that Elliott Smith represents a new, empty man, but that man has always been empty, and it is now that we have so much instantly available to us at our fingertips that we can better see why he is empty.
And perhaps, in considering Elliott Smith and this Final Fantasy theory, whether it is true or not, we can become more honest in our daily lives about who we are, what has made us this way, and what we owe to the society that has fostered us.
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