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Interpretation of “Bells” by Lhasa de Sela

Unlike my previous entries in this series, today I will not translate a Greek song. I have picked Bells by Lhasa.

Here is a link to a video I first watched in the summer of 2013: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=LTJJoDwlLCs. It is how I was introduced to Lhasa’s entrancing art.

Below are the lyrics, followed by my philosophical commentary.


Bells are ringing
all through the drowned town
in the empty streets
and a hundred miles around

Bells are ringing
birds are flying upside down
my heart has been lost for too long

Bells are ringing
ships will be leaving
This was my home
Nothing's moving, nothing is breathing
Bells are ringing
ringing me from sleep
My sleep was not restful
but my dreaming was deep

Bells are ringing
and we both know
there's nothing left to do
but walk out there and go

You could lean your head down
and rest it on my knee
You could tell me a story
that does not end this way

Bells are ringing
and we both know
there's nothing left to do
but walk out there and go

I have listened to this song a hundred or more times over the years. Lhasa communicated with me from the first moment. Before I even paid attention to the lyrics, I knew there was truth to be had in this work of art. This is a case where emotion precedes reason, where feeling comes before thinking. As an emotional agent, I connected with Bells and with Lhasa immediately: we were in sync, despite the fact we could never meet in person to exchange views and jointly discover our intersecting points (Lhasa de Sela died in 2010). In 2013, I still had not ejected rationalism from my life. I was the foolish young adult who, while smart, is actually an idiot. How can you trust your emotions if you have not even listened to the words of the song? How can there possibly be anything reliable in that feeling? Through trial and error, I became a philosopher, which means that I eventually transcended the false divide between reason and emotions: I applied wisdom in the recognition that human is multifaceted. It is reason and emotion, depending on the specifics.

[ Read/watch: (1) Ataraxia, moderation, and mysticism, (2) On selfhood, (3) On learning and being present ]

Anyhow, this is not why we are here. I believe Bells inspires us to think about profound concepts and understand who we are in relation to magnitudes in our life which we do not control.

The ringing bells signify the end of an era. An “era” can be many things. The end of autumn comes with the jingle bells that welcome the new year, as the day starts to grow after the solstice in December. Bells ring to announce an event, such as a gathering at a church, the end of class at school, another ceremony of sorts. The theme always is one of transition. Something ends, something else begins. Circles everlasting. In our quotidian life we experience this continuity. There is no emptiness in-between, no nothingness. We are ever-present, regardless of whether we go from something “good” to something “bad”, or vice versa. The cosmos is ever-present.

[ Read/watch: Cosmos, Logos, and the living universe ]

Lhasa sings about a finality. The ultimate terminus to our life is death. We all know about it. There is no escape from it. Our default disposition is to fear the unknown. We fear death because it is inscrutable with the ordinary means at our disposal. We build elaborate conceptual structures to make ourselves feel better about it. We codify our hopes of a better place post-death in culture and religion as we fear the ringing bell that awakens us from the slumber to remind us of the inevitable. We can always tell stories with an end that does not involve death, though we know we are lying.

Fear of death is fear of the unknown. It is the prejudice, the deep-seated bias, that what we have is better than what we do not know. This is a useful heuristic in life, but if we were to apply it dogmatically, we would never push the boundaries of our knowledge. We would always be confined to whatever comfort zone.

The unknown is to be explored, not feared. What we fear about death consists in the fact that we are biased in favour of our current state. We do not want to lose everything that gives value to our life: animals, other people, the place we live, our faculties of sense and intellect… We are dependent on them and so valorise them greatly. Death takes all that away.

Now one must wonder “what” exactly do we have, which we consider preferable to that which we have not? What is truly ours? Is there something specific that death takes away? And, if so, where is it taken to?

Did we choose to live? No. We make sense of who we are and how we are alive after the fact. Did we pick our parents, the place of our birth, the milieu in which we were immersed in, the people that had an impact on our life, and so on? No. We like to think that we are in control of what happens to us, but this is an elaborate deception. Our free will is, at best, a fraction of what conditions our actuality. Most factors remain outside our control.

We do not even own our life. There is this notion that one can take away their life. Metaphorically, we understand this. Literally though, it leaves something to be desired. Take it where? Who takes it from whom? Take “what” exactly?

Fundamentally, nothing is ours. We have a sense of self, which we develop as a subjective narrative based on our experiences in life and how we see our own in relation—or juxtaposition—to them. This narrative is not ours either. We know it, for example, from conditions like amnesia or dementia. One can be without a fixed sense of who they are.

We know that nothing is ours, yet we pretend otherwise because it makes us feel comfortable. Instead of being honest with our condition as humans, we entertain the falsehood of permanence in our life. But the ringing bells will always remind us of our hubris, of our unwillingness to see what our humanity renders inescapable.

We fear and we suffer due to the false belief that we own “stuff” that some force wants to separate us from. Lies cannot alleviate the pain and will not dispel that sense of dread. They only make matters worse, as it is lies that cause the problem in the first place.

When we are honest about our humanity, when we are honest about the workings of the cosmos, we admit that every presence is subject to transfiguration. An era ends, another begins. This is not the same as saying that some kernel of our self—some true “I”—persists. No. The notion of a permanent self, typically referred to as the soul, is a way of maintaining that illusion of ownership and permanence. Besides, if the soul carries on, why do we still fear death? Maybe we don’t have much confidence in our stories, after all?

The lightness of being present in the moment comes from the realisation that there is nothing to be gained or lost. We simply are in the here-and-now. What happened before and what may happen afterwards is outside our control. What we think we can cling on to is elusive and not ours to keep. We are free from our falsehoods when we simply “walk out there and go”. Let this era have your undivided attention. What happens afterwards is for that presence to deal with, with the means available at its disposal, if any.

As Lhasa sings, “bells are ringing all through the drowned town in the empty streets and a hundred miles around”. Does anyone listen? Did we get the reminder about our condition? Or do we remain in denial; in a state where our suffering masquerades as happiness?