Like Clockwork, Rush Set to Revisit ‘Prime Mover’

One of Rush’s lesser known songs is “Prime Mover” from Hold Your Fire in 1987, but it might attract new interest once the band releases its Clockwork Angels album later this year or early next year.

“Prime Mover” alludes to the demiurge, a god-like figure in platonic philosophy who’s sometimes likened to a watchmaker or other type of artisan. The world is in motion—the universe is expanding, planets orbit the stars, the earth spins around—and something had to set all this in motion. But what?

Plato and Aristotle debate who set the wheels in motion

Plato posited the demiurge, this artisan who created all the gears and wheels that spin around in interlocking sequence like we see in a watch. The term “prime mover” is usually associated with Aristotle, Plato’s student, and he agreed to the idea that something had to set all the wheels in motion. But his god-like prime mover was a little different than Plato’s. He thought it couldn’t be anything like a watchmaker, because god is immaterial, and something immaterial can’t physically interact with the material world. In Aristotle’s view, rather than cause movement, god attracts movement. The saucer of milk attracts the cat, so the cat gets up from her bed and heads to the kitchen.

It’s probably safe to say that, while Aristotle’s views of the physical universe fared far better than Plato’s views over the centuries (we still use Aristotle’s taxonomy of plants and animals today), on this one issue of the prime mover Plato’s view has held up better, and in some ways has received a new lease on life in the intelligent design argument of fundamentalist Christians.

In any case, it’s this platonic artisan, or watchmaker, who’s talking in the third verse of “Prime Mover.” The idea is that the watchmaker has set events in motion, but now things will simply unwind as they will. And the only thing you can do is hang on and try to manage your life as best you can. In other words, life is absurd to a certain degree.

“I  set the wheels in motion / Turn up all the machines / Activate the programs / And run behind the scene / I set the clouds in motion / Turn up light and sound / Activate the window / And watch the world go ’round.”

Musically, right after Geddy sings the line about watching the world go ’round, you hear something like a top spinning, almost drunkenly, and in one of the band’s live performances during the 1988 Show of Hands tour, Alex holds up his index finger and twirls it around with an absurd look on his face.

So, life is absurd, but that doesn’t mean there’s nothing for us to do but let the top spin where it will. We still have to toggle intelligently between our passions, which provide the life force (gets us out of bed and into the kitchen, looking for that saucer of milk) and our reason, which helps us step outside our passions to ensure we avoid disaster (we’ve already had six saucers of milk; do we really need another one?). As Geddy sings in the first verse, “Rational resistance to an unwise urge,” and then in the second, “Ratonal responses force a change of plans.” We live in an absurd world, but we’re still thinking beings.

Geddy in his 2000 solo album My Favorite Headache alludes to something close to this idea in “The Angels’ Share,” in which he says to the angels, “If you can solve the problem / Come and tell me to my face,” rather than play your inscrutable games. The subtext is, the angels can’t solve our problems. “There is no prayer / To the thieves of celestial history.”

Rush took up this theme again when it resumed writing and recording after their hiatus in the mid-1990s.  “The Stars Look  Down” and “How It Is” on Vapor Trails, among other pieces from that album, paint a notably bleak picture of the existential randomness of our existence. As Geddy sings in “The Stars Look Down,” “Are you under the illusion / That you’re part of this scheme?”

We’re like the rat who is busy with so much activity, spinning on the wheel, but just because we’re kicking up a lot of dust, that doesn’t mean we’re accomplishing anything or having any impact on the course of events. Our wheel could be taken away from us tomorrow, and in any case, the wheel doesn’t lead to anywhere.

Based on the first two releases from the forthcoming Clockwork Angels, this theme appears to figure big in the album. in “Brought Up to Believe,” Geddy sings, ” I was broght up to believe / The universe has a plan . . . Believe in what we’re told / Until our final breath / While our loving Watchmaker / Loves us all to death.”

The reference to loving watchmaker is illuminating, because the watchmaker is little more than an observer now. The world is unwinding, and while we might believe there’s a god looking out for us, you’re not going to find that benevolent overseer in the watchmaker. He’s the one who’s set events in motion, but now it’s up to us to make of our life what we will, and take whatever meaning out of that that we can. In other words, we don’t have a prayer. But we do have our dignity as thinking beings who manage how well we ride out the spinning wheel.

And that seems to be the point. As the band says in “Prime Mover,” the point of the journey isn’t laid out in some celestial scheme, it’s simply to make the ride a good one.—Rob Freedman, Rush Vault

~ by rvkeeper on June 21, 2011.

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