Soul as a Weapon

Why Siddhartha and The Waterboys matter

In Lost In Translation, Sofia Coppola's aching elegy to happenstance and human connection, Bill Murray plays a washed-up actor who meets a recently graduated philosophy student (Scarlett Johansson) in a Tokyo hotel. The two never do the predictable older man/younger woman flop, but instead share some even more intimate moments, including a karaoke scene in which Murray remakes Roxy Music's "More Than This" and Elvis Costello's "What's So Funny ('bout Peace, Love and Understanding?)" into mid-life cries, and Johansson turns the Pretenders' "Brass In Pocket" into a come-hither coming-out.

Another happens when the two briefly bond over a self-help book on CD called The Soul's Search: Finding Your True Calling. The first we see of it is when Johansson is alone and listening to it--intently but slightly disdainfully; she knows she's being sold something that can't be bought--on her bedroom floor with her headphones on and her new husband away on business. To underscore the shallowness of what could be perceived as ready-whip spirituality, the next scene finds Johannson wandering past a press conference in which a Hollywood starlet holds forth on reincarnation, yoga, and Buddhism the way a new management trainee might extol the virtues of PowerPoint.

When Murray comes to Johannson's hotel room to pick her up for their first "date," he sees the Soul's Search CD laying on an end table.

"Whose is this?" he says.

"I don't know," she says, flustered by her lie and unexpectedly rendered vulnerable by her path's crutch.

"I have that," he says.

"Did it work out for you, then?" she laughs.

"Obviously," he deadpans. Then they hit the town, where thousands of people who know exactly where they're going every step of the way busy themselves with the chase of money, sex, toys, entertainment, intellectualism. The Americans wander through Toyko as two outsiders, joined at the awkward hip that only the fellowship of cynics can foster. But their platonic love isn't founded on empty pessimism. Rather, it's born of the mutual experience of moving through life with eyes wide open and not always liking what they see. They refuse to give in to the undertow of cultural currency or complacency, and their separate but similar searches have brought them to this: I'm looking for something that this world isn't giving me. You, too? Then let's hang out for a while.

At the beginning of Herman Hesse's Siddhartha--which is dismissed, along with the likes of Hesse's Steppenwolf and other supposedly dated works of magic and metaphysics, only by those who aren't reading it at the time--Hesse writes, "Many verses of the holy books, above all the Upanishads of Sama-Veda, spoke of the innermost thing. It is written: 'Your soul is the whole world.'" At the start of his quest, young Siddhartha intuitively knows as much, but still he sets out on a lifelong search for himself, before finally coming to know that the inner life--not the distractions or limitations that the outward imposes on it--is the whole world.

But to go it alone is a lonely road, so we look for soul mates to compare notes with, a few kindred spirits to "hold our hand along the way," as Julianna Raye sings, even when we suspect that the only true companion of our soul is--everything out there. "From the point of view of soul, identity is not a solitary achievement but a communal experience, always implying a relationship to others," writes psychologist/theologian/mythologist Thomas Moore in Soul Mates: Honoring the Mysteries of Love and Relationship. "Soulful identity is not so singular when we define it in egoistic terms, nor does it suggest a polarizing of individual and community. When I see that my very identity is always shaped in part by those I am with, then I can glimpse my soul as fluid and multiple. At the practical level this theory of soulful identity means that I can be most myself when I am engaged with other people. I sense myself as an individual in context, in relationship to another."

That is, the soul is complicated--literal meaning: "woven together"--and it doesn't just need silence or solitude for its nurturing. It needs meditation, prayer, but also noise, bustle, music. Over drinks the other night, my friend Stephen told me that he thinks of the soul as bagpipes: You need to do whatever it takes to billow it up so that you can go out and play your tune.

We could use a few tunesmiths for the band, in fact, for a finely tuned soul is hardly a luxury item these days; it's more like a necessary weapon against the sort of encroaching reality that would have us believe that the only things worth our time and energy are war, government, kidnappings, football, murder, pedophilia, and all the constant reminders of exactly how disposable the culture is, how stupid we've become, how soulless we are. Which brings us to the Waterboys, a stripped-down version of which performs at the Pantages Theatre Friday.

Karl Jung writes about the "little people" that care for the soul--gnomes, dactyls, elves, Tom Thumbs--the ones who enter us through various pathways and fill us up, inflate our bagpipes. To that end, over the past few years, main Waterboy Mike Scott has been one of my favorite faeries. The last two Waterboys shows in Minneapolis were among the most hedonistic, soul-enriching events to ever spill from the First Avenue stage. Both were highlighted by the likes of "The Whole of the Moon," Scott's classic about two lovers' respective soul searches, and "This Is the Sea," a crashing anthem about the future opening up as something grand and irreducibly mysterious. But the most lasting image remains the one of Scott standing at the lip of the First Avenue stage during "Bring 'Em All In."

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