The animals are scattered in the wake of the Circus Train’s crash in Montana. Mother Elephant has been hung in a mock trial. Rabbit is nursing his broken heart on the road back home. Tiger and Peacock have accepted their fate… But Fox seems to be preoccupied by late 18th century French post-structuralist philosophy, despite her dire situation.
We join Fox and Bear wandering the countryside, deep in a philosophical debate. Fox seems to be in the middle of expounding some point about her own ideology. Let’s take this slowly and see what we can turn up. First she describes herself using the pronoun “I” and calls herself “provisional”, which something existing for the present but subject to a later change. For now we will keep that in mind. Fox also describes herself as almost, but not quite, fully alive. A ham-fisted layman’s translation might make the first line something like, “The person I was for that moment was barely alive compared to what I am now” [Provisionally, ‘I’, practically alive], although that implies some things we’ve yet to unpack.
Fox continues, saying that she “mistook signs for signified” in her former mindset. Here is where the French philosophers of centuries past rear their lofty heads. Mistaking a signifier for something signified is an element of post-structuralist philosophy. In short, this philosophy deals with how much one reads into a text. For example, the perceived meaning of a text by a reader is as important and relevant as the author’s intentions. Perceptions of meaning often very wildly because meaning itself is said to be constructed by the signifiers of the reader. In other words, what the reader brings to the text drastically effects the perceived meaning of the text. These signifiers can be anything, such as race, gender, religion, class status, sexual orientation, or past events. The problem arises for seekers of ultimate Truth, as all of our animal characters seem to be in one fashion or another, when the the meaning of an idea gets swallowed up by the signifiers the reader has brought to the table. Mistaking signs for signified then, is a surprisingly astute self-observation by Fox. She is saying that she has too often let her own pre-conceptions muddle the meaning of the truth she has been seeking. Whether or not that observation sticks remains to be seen.
Fox’s response to this realization is an attempt to banish the signifiers themselves from her life entirely [and so since have often tried to run them off the cliff like Gadarene swine]. The comparison she makes here to cliffs and swine is a reference to an account from the Synoptic Gospels in which Jesus casts a multitude of demons out of a man and into a heard of pigs in the Palestinian city of Gadara. The newly possessed pigs then stampede into the sea, drowning themselves.
But the comparison is seemingly a more direct allusion to yet another philosophical idea, that of the Gadarene Swine Fallacy. The fallacy deals with observations of groups in formation, and the supposition that because a group is in a correct formation, they are on the right course. From another angle, it is also a fallacy to suppose that because an individual has strayed from the group, that he is off course. To the perception of the group’s mind, this individual may seem off course, but to the ideal observer, he may seem right on track. The following is an excerpt from The Politics of Experience by R.D. Laing, that explains the dangers of the Gadarene Swine Fallacy:
From an ideal vantage point on the ground, a formation of planes may be observed in the air. One plane may be out of formation. But the whole formation may be off course. The plane that is ‘out of formation’ may be abnormal, bad or 'mad,’ from the point of view of the formation. But the formation itself may be bad or mad from the point of view of the ideal observer. The plane that is out of formation may also be more or less off course than the formation itself is.
The 'out of formation’ criterion is the clinical positivist criterion.
The 'off course’ criterion is the ontological. One needs to make two judgements along these different parameters. In particular, it is of fundamental importance not to confuse the person who may be 'out of formation’ by telling him he is 'off course’ if he is not. It is of fundamental importance not to make the positivist mistake of assuming that, because a group are 'in formation,’ this means they are necessarily 'on course.’ This is the Gadarene swine fallacy.
This is a weighty idea when put into the context of the rest of the song and the overall theme of Ten Stories. I have already referenced numerous times the idea that the Circus Train represented institutionalized life according to Aaron Weiss. We’ve seen that one of the metaphorical details surrounding the concept of the institutionalized train could be it’s stoic progression toward a perceived goal along a pre-determined track, and we’ve compared that to Mother Elephant’s admonition to the animals, urging them to wander the wilderness and discover the Truth. While Fox initially seems to have set her thinking in line with such ideals, we will soon see that she is beginning to let history repeat itself in her own mindset. She is coming around to the Circus Train’s view of things, and this will cause her to see her companion as “out of formation”. Let us explore how the Gadarene Swine Fallacy plays out as Fox and Bear continue their lonely conversation.
Fox has, in her mind, banished all of the signifiers that she has brought to the table, and is beginning to uncover what she believes is truth. Depending on whether you go by the liner notes or what Weiss actually sings on the album, Fox says that she has tied either her thoughts or her words firmly in anchor bend knots to a new realization [and tied my thought ropes in anchor bends]. This profound understanding, perhaps brought on by the fact that they are now wandering in the wilderness and beginning to starve, is that maybe they were better off on the Circus Train [wondering whether we were someone better then], or perhaps at least more easily persuaded to idealize a life outside of the Circus institution [or maybe just better able to pretend]. In either case, Fox has come to the conclusion that perhaps they would have had a safer path to an easier end on the train [and what better means to our inevitable end]. If they were going to die anyway, they might as well have done it in a place where they were fed regularly, rather than alone in the wilderness. It is interesting to note that immediately after her proclamation that she has abandoned bringing signifiers to her idea of the truth, she lets the signifier that she is starving and lost completely turn her opinion of their quest around.
In effect, she is also acting out the Gadarene Swine Fallacy by trying to convince Bear, who appears to her now as one wandering away from an ideal formation, that his faith in Mother Elephant’s parting words to them is wrong. Bear’s response comes from a far more humble place.
“I don’t know much, but I know that some say with utter certainty that no one can be certain of anything.” [No, I don’t know if I know, though some with certainty insist ‘no certainty exists’] Bear is willing to admit that he knows very little. This isn’t how Fox deals with things. She is ever fluctuating in her allegiance to one “truth” or another based entirely, it seems, on circumstance and her latest thoughts on the matter. He also highlights an irony in Fox’s arguments, as he claims that arguing unknowable certainties, especially when involving matters or faith and belief, is a pretty pointless exercise that goes nowhere, like someone saying they beyond a shadow of a doubt know that no one can know anything.
Instead of banishing the signifier that has defined his entire view of the world to this point, Bear embraces it. It is here that he tells a story of his lost love from before the Circus years. “I only know one thing for sure: I’ve only ever kissed one girl these past fourteen years. [Well, I’m certain enough of this: In the past 14 years there’s only one girl I’ve kissed.] On a hot day on the pier in Asbury, New Jersey, my girlfriend and I sat quietly on a Ferris wheel, watching the spinning fairground ride and looking at the Atlantic [in the blistering heat of the Asbury pier we sat, quiet as monks on the Ferris wheel, until looking down at the waltzer and out at the sea]. I broke the silence with a joke, asking her if she ever had that recurring fantasy of pushing children off of the rides [I asked her ‘do you ever have that recurring fantasy where you push little kids from the tops of the rides?’]. She just shook her head in awkward silence, so I told her I was only kidding [She shook her head no, I said ‘Oh, neither do I.’]. It was then that I decided to propose to her. I took out my grandmother’s ring and got down on one knee [And with my grandmother’s ring, I went down on one knee], and the disaster that happened next has haunted my memories ever since that day [and the subsequent catastrophe has since haunted me like a fiberglass ghost in the attic of my inconveniently selective memory].
Bear’s story completed, he now responds directly to Fox’s assertions about truth and belief as it relates to their situation. He repeats Fox’s description of herself as provisional [as provisionally ‘You’]. This is perhaps to highlight that, despite Fox determining that she only used to be characterized by provision as we defined it earlier (her mind seems made up about an idea in the moment, but is subject to drastic change), Bear recognizes this as her present state. As Fox observes Bear according to the Gadarene Swine Fallacy as the one wandering off course, he observes her as a member of an entire formation that is off course while his is the correct path. Still, perhaps because he is smitten by Fox and seems to have a low opinion of himself due to his past experiences, he tends to allow himself doubt at her recommendation. What he thought he knew, she is now convincing him may have been wrong. He feels rather lost as a result [mercifully withdrew all the bearing points we thought we knew].
Days pass and their discussion continues. They have indeed become hopelessly lost, both literally and metaphorically. Fox’s certainty that they have probably made the wrong choice by escaping the Circus Train has removed their sense of purpose in the wandering quest for truth [Day’s run, day’s set plot; our compass shot]. Bear likens them now to a drifting sailboat [we sailed waywardly on], and the philosophical discussions that they have had every night until the dawn to arrows shot back and forth from broken bows on passing boats in the dark [singing out midnight archer songs, until well past dawn. It’s still dark on the deck of our boats, haphazardly blown, broken bows]. It might be of interest to note the allusion to wind here, which cropped up before in reference to Fox and Bear, and will again. While they were told to set sail to the wind and let it take them where it may, this current confusion in Bear’s mind as to what is true seems to have him looking rather dubiously at the wind. No longer seeing any truth or guidance in the wind he once followed, Bear now feels his little boat of understanding has been haphazardly blown off course by it. Where once he saw himself as on a path to Truth, with Fox and the Circus on a path to certain destruction, he now has allowed the idea, at Fox’s behest, that he is off course while the others maintain the true path to poison his mind. He has allowed his relationship with Fox to become a signifier that has overwhelmed what he considered the truth. Bear has begun to mistake sign for signified.
Still, he seems to have enough sense to maintain his opinion that this sort debate about truth they are having is ultimately going nowhere, as the idea-arrows they sling in the darkness have no certain aim, and are thus ultimately meaningless. They are simply going around in circles and ending where they began over and over again [our aimless arrow-words don’t mean a thing]. The conclusion Bear is coming to is a confused one. Fox has nearly convinced him that there is no God, but something inside Bear knows that there definitely is a God [so by now I think it’s pretty obvious that there’s no God and there’s definitely a God].
One morning, Fox awakens Bear to tell him that she has had a strange dream. There seems to be two levels to what the dream is all about (as far as we know for now), so let’s read the dream in it’s entirely as it is told, and then examine it more closely. In it, Fox saw the rocks of the beach in Asbury, New Jersey, where Bear took his girlfriend on an ill-conceived date [I dreamt of the rocks on the Asbury dunes]. Then she looked up and saw Bear leap from the top of one of the rides, a water ride known as the Log Flume, just like the children in his joke [and that you jumped from the top of the Log Flume]. When Bear lands on the sharp rocks below, a crowd soon gathers with an unanswerable question on their lips [And they gather like wolves on the boardwalk below and they’re howling for answers no wolf can know]. Fox charges into the surf holding a glass, but the waves toss her small body back onto the beach [I charged at the waves with a glass in my hand, and was tossed like a ball at the bottle stand]. She washes up next to Bear’s broken body, and his cold fingers grab her leg [And I landed beside your remains on the stones where your cold fingers wrapped around my ankle bone]. Meanwhile, about ten feet away, a gigantic star bigger than any sun has been exploding [While maybe ten feet away was a star, thousands of times the size of our sun exploding like tiny balloons that you throw darts at].
Thus ends Fox’s dream about Bear’s Log Flume suicide. Alright, let’s look at a surface level explanation for Fox’s dream first. Bear jumps from the top of the ride, a crowd gathers, and Fox tries to save him, but fails. This interpretation of the dream doesn’t really even touch an esoteric nature until the description of the gigantic exploding star that has been presiding over this event, presumably the entire time. What this version lacks in an underlying message, it makes up for with a slight narrative and character advancement for Fox and Bear. Where we get the sense that once this romance seemed to be entirely one sided (if the strange segment of “Grist for the Malady Mill” is indeed concerning Fox and Bear’s relationship), with Bear’s infatuations quietly rebuffed (much like the girl in Bear’s past), now we see that Fox genuinely cares for him. She rushes to his aide as soon as she sees him fall. Their time spent wandering the wilderness together seems to have softened her heart slightly, even if it is a sentiment that only emerges in her dreams.
Taking a second look at Fox’s dream, we begin to uncover her own inner turmoil over her certainty that they have chosen the wrong path. The Gadarene Swine Fallacy becomes a mirror for Fox to see herself in, however sub-textually it may be. The gathering crowd of “wolves” howls for an answer that they can never know, much like she and Bear have been doing in their recent debates. Fox’s certainty about her own knowledge of the truth is made literal as she attacks the mighty Atlantic ocean with nothing but a glass to contain it and keep it off of Bear. No amount of analyzing will allow someone to take on the complexity that is an assurance of the existence of a truth (like God). It’s simply too enormous and powerful of an idea, with implications far too vast, to ever actually know for certain. Ironically, as they debate the existence and definition of such a thing, it hovers nearby bigger and brighter than the sun itself, exploding to get their attention. It is, ultimately, ignored as sign obscures the signified once again.
Bear then tells Fox of his own dream, a dream of socks made from yarn he and Fox had created out of Dorset and Shetland sheep’s wool that they’d sheared [I slept until our chest was full of yarn we spun from Shetland wool. Socks from where the Dorset grows, sheared and scoured hours before the rooster crows]. It is a dream of cozy innocence that betrays his essentially simple nature. Bear may not be truly lost yet. He isn’t the one dreaming complex and emotionally devastating dreams, after all.
Fox’s next lines seem to indicate that she may never be convinced of her penchant for allowing her doubts be a signifier and completely devaluing something she previously believed so strongly in. Her dream has taught her nothing as of yet. She has heard that the price of silver German thaler coins has dropped (something that, interestingly enough, actually happened in 1878-79, resulting in German thalers dwindling). Her response is much like her newly acquired view of the Circus as a more positive place to end up than the wandering path set before them by Mother Elephant. Instead of riding out the drop in price and using what little they had left if they ever needed it, she throws all of their money into a wishing well [The price of German silver fell, threw disused thalers down the superstition well].