Isis’ Oceanic: Mystery Revealed?

Almost eight years after Isis pulled back the curtain on what stands as their strongest release to date, Oceanic, debate over its lyrical content lingers like an ebbed wave on the shore.

Lucky for us mortals, the lyrics have been documented, ’cause it’d take some sort of “Close Encounters” translator to understand anything frontman Aaron Turner is barking throughout the album. That said, the meaning behind them hasn’t been definitively proven; the lyrics have a transcendent beauty but also a tendency to provoke head-scratching.

The eight brief passages that appear in the packaging, each preceded and succeeded by ellipses, appear to be part of a larger narrative involving a male experiencing a profound death. In the process of drowning in an unidentified body of water, his terror eventually gives way to submission, and by the end of the album, he has achieved an inner piece and grand realization that “promise” lies ahead.

Of course, the beauty of such abstract lyrics is that the doors to interpretation are open wide. Theories have abounded, and some fans have drawn comparisons between the lyrics and Walt Whitman’s “Leaves of Grass,” citing recurring phrases.

But late last year, I stumbled across what could potentially be the verifiable source material for the contents of Oceanic. Not to sound too Sherlock Holmes-ey, but the parallels were chill-inducing, and the pieces seem to interlock.

The material in question is what the Modern Library considers to be the eighth most important book of the 20th century: Arthur Koestler’s “Darkness at Noon.” The short 1941 novel is about a political dissident – what Russian novel isn’t? – who is jailed by his former allies in the Communist USSR. He is betrayed by his so-called “comrades” and eventually hanged as an example. The government’s goal: to terrorize the public into submission.

Before dying, the main character, Rubashov, considers that he is being sacrificed because he put the interests of himself, the individual, before those of the Communist Party, the collective.

(As a matter of fact, Turner touches on themes of the state vs. the people in Isis’ 2004 follow-up, Panopticon. But since that album also intertwines concepts from philosopher Michel Foucault, we’ll let it rest for now.)

As “Darkness” comes to a close and Rubashov is led to his death, he experiences an “oceanic” state of tranquility that Koestler reiterates a number of times.

I’m going to safely bet that even those of you who’ve heard of “Darkness at Noon” don’t have it committed to memory. So in the interest of proving my point, I’ll lay out some of the key passages that have such a striking similarity to Oceanic‘s lyrics that Isis fans might soon feel their palms slapping their foreheads.

Here goes:

“Sometimes he would respond unexpectedly to a tune … there would be answering vibrations, and once this had started a state would be produced which the mystics called ‘ecstasy’ and saints ‘contemplation’; the greatest and soberest of modern psychologists had recognized this state as a fact and called it the ‘oceanic sense.’ And, indeed, one’s personality dissolved as a grain of salt in the sea; but at the same time the infinite sea seemed to be contained in the grain of salt. The grain could no longer be localized in time and space. It was a state in which thought lost its direction and started to circle, like the compass needle at the magnetic pole; until finally it cut loose from its axis and travelled freely in space, like a bunch of light in the night; and until it seemed that all thoughts and all sensations, even pain and joy itself, were only the spectrum lines of the same ray of light, disintegrating in the prisma of consciousness.”

“Apparently even a patch of blue sky was enough to cause the ‘oceanic state.’ He had read that, according to the latest discoveries of astrophysics, the volume of the world was finite – though space had no boundaries, it was self-contained, like the surface of a sphere. He had never been able to understand that; but now he felt an urgent desire to understand.”

“He had fallen into a queer state of exaltation – the ‘oceanic sense’ had swept him away. Afterwards he had been ashamed of himself. The Party disapproved of such states. It called them petit-bourgeois mysticism, refuge in the ivory tower. It called them ‘escape from the task,’ ‘desertion of the class struggle.’ The ‘oceanic sense’ was counter-revolutionary.

“For in a struggle one must have both legs firmly planted on the earth. The Party taught one how to do it. The infinite was a politically suspect quantity, the ‘I’ a suspect quality. The Party did not recognize its existence. The definition of the individual was: a multitude of one million divided by one million.

“The Party denied the free will of the individual – and at the same time it exacted his willing self-sacrifice.”

Soon after, Rubashov comes to an even more profound realization: that if individuals were to collectively experience the “I” as one, they could form a new, more enlightened society. Perhaps a well-functioning democracy, the yin to Communism’s yang, at least at that time:

” … the joining of a million individuals to form a new entity which, no longer an amorphous mass, will develop a consciousness and an individuality of its own, with an ‘oceanic feeling’ increased a millionfold, in unlimited yet self-contained space.”

And finally, the last “Darkness at Noon” paragraph: “… all became quiet. There was the sea again with its sounds. A wave slowly lifted him up. It came from afar and travelled sedately on, a shrug of eternity.”

Now, for those of you who don’t have the Oceanic lyrics handy, here are the ones highlighted in the album packaging:

“… as he teetered on the edge, with eyes rolled back, jet streams criss-crossing over his head, the sun laid his wavering shadow over the surface of the water, his mind spun with tangled thoughts and his legs shook in his advance towards the watery redemption …”

“… the wind blew in his ears and his face streamed with tears … smoke rose behind his eyes from internal incinerations. He was breaking up …”

“… suddenly everything slowed – his faltering limbs steadied, the tears ceased to flow and seemed to dry quickly in the warm sun. The wind dropped to an imperceptible hum, the boiling blood which choked his insides shrank back into rhythmic circulation, and somewhere deep inside it all collapsed …”

“… light flashed in his minds [sic] eye and a series of quick but distinct images proceeded through him in rapid succession …”

“… the jet streams trailed away into nothingness as his body spun lazily through the warm air. This was his direction as he’d always known it, ever downward, approaching an uncertain void (uncertain but surely more significant than the dull throb of his current existence) …”

“… as the surface of the water drew closer he closed his eyes and felt it all fall away …”

“… with the crack of his body on the surface everything splintered into its final dissolution – nothingness seeped in from all sides and his mind swam in every direction, freeing him of thought, of worry, of horror. His blood drifted into the depths or circled towards the surface and blew off into the breeze.”

“… this is what he’d always known – a promise of something greater just beyond (or below) the water’s final horizon …”

Related:

• “Isis’ Aaron Turner In ’02: Oceanic Is ‘The Best Material We’ve Ever Written’
• Best Albums of the 2000s

More essays:

• “Axl Rose And GW Bush: Doppelgängers
• “Nirvana’s In Utero: Un Vínculo Progresivo Entre Los Mundos Del Rock Mainstream Y Rock Independiente

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2 Responses to “Isis’ Oceanic: Mystery Revealed?”

  1. I don’t want to be a jerk, but I stumbled across this, looking for the one missing line from “From Sinking” that was omitted from the lyrics in the Shades of The Swarm boxset. But anyway, the story of the album is actually about a relationship, and suicide. Aaron actually explained this many years ago, for an interview in Australia. The story, as goes, is about a guy who is depressed, and contemplating suicide by drowning. While he’s on a beach staring at the ocean, he meets a woman, who in turn, completes him, and falls in love with her (she is also a depressed person). She one day decides to tell him (at this point, she is, as well, in love with him) about her depression. As it turns out, she was in an incestuous relationship with her brother, for many years, and she wanted there to be no secrets between them. The guy can’t cope with the revelation, that she has laid on him, and that winds up being the catalyst for him, to actually go through with the suicide, by drowning himself in the ocean. This is fact, but I do like your concept for it as well. I’ve always liked people that take time in albums they like. After Panopticon, Aaron got tired of explaining his lyrics, so he refused, the only thing known about Wavering Radiant, is that he kept a dream journal for 2 years, and that’s where he came up with the story for that one.

  2. Abram Says:

    Turner talked about this on an episode of Combat Radio with Scott Kelly from Neurosis.

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