I shiver with rapture; I soar on the wings of sudden joy! O Pan, O Pan, appear to us, sea-rover, from the stony ridge of snow-beaten Cyllene. King, dancemaker for the gods, come, so that joining with us you may set on the Nysian and the Cnosian steps, your self-taught dances. Now I want to dance. Certain qualities of light at a particular time cast a suggestion of Pan.
So sings the chorus in Sir Richard Jebb’s translation of Sophocles’ Ajax. A play no stranger to madness and possession. Joy immediately calls out for soaring on wings, especially in a tragedy as the chorus circles an altar and works out together fear and humility and panic. Pan as the leader of the dance, of the inspiration itself to dance which connects to our arms, hips and legs jerking and twisting and turning. πανικός means the experience of fear attributed to Pan such as dread, apprehension, funk, jitters, and the all-out stampede.
Look at the trees above. Without their leaves, it’s clear how trunk and branches contort and spin, curl and splay in a dance with gravity and wind, rain and heat and cold. These trees intertwine with themselves and dance with themselves as life. Like Billy Idol. Yes, like Billy Idol.
I’ve always loved the punch and swagger of this song, the under and over current of self-delight, and of course, the raw joy of just enjoying pleasure with fellow humans in a dystopian world. Sometimes being hurled off the top of a building. Yeah, and there’s the reference to Frankenstein and his creature with hands on electrodes shooting electricity through one’s body out into the night. Something about Pan with this song. Something about the excitement and terror of life. And, of course, Pan loves to dance. Pan is there with Martha and the Vandellas.
This celebration of being called out into the world, out of your own skin and into a swirl of many is ageless. A song of and for our ages. And where is Martha Reeves leading us? Because Martha Reeves is Pan.
Oh, it doesn’t matter what you wear
Just as long as you are there
So come on, every guy, grab a girl
Everywhere around the world
Into the whirl of the unknown. In Algernon Swinburne’s poem A Nympholept, Pan becomes the very danger and excitement of life that shapes a poetry on the edge of dancing itself. A dance that moves distinct being into indistinct beings.
I dare not sleep for delight of the perfect hour, / Lest God be wroth that his gift should be scorned of man. / The face of the warm bright world is the face of a flower, / The word of the wind and the leaves that the light winds fan / As the word that quickened at first into flame, and ran, / Creative and subtle and fierce with invasive power, / Through darkness and cloud, from the breath of the one God, Pan.
Appropriate for a god who is often described as not possessing one form; a god much like Proteus who blurs all distinctions, which is very much our breathing and dancing air, the very dance of life, which has not distinct form to itself but inhabits all. And with this formlessness, with that which cannot be seen like a breath, a joy and fear occur.
Is it rapture or terror that circles me round, and invades / Each vein of my life with hope—if it be not fear? / Each pulse that awakens my blood into rapture fades, / Each pulse that subsides into dread of a strange thing near / Requickens with sense of a terror less dread than dear. / Is peace not one with light in the deep green glades / Where summer at noonday slumbers? Is peace not here?
And as Machen writes in The Great God Pan, “a presence, that was neither man nor beast, neither living nor the dead, but all things mingled, the form of all things but devoid of all form.” Dance as the bringing together of the dead and the living, drugs and pain and pain-killing in Tom Petty and the Heartbreaker’s Mary Jane’s Last Dance.
The dead and living dancing together. One of the best renderings of this dance is Robert Aickman’s Ringing in the Changes. Aickman has a wonderful skill in slowly introducing the strange or weird into the language that what before reading his words might have seemed beyond the pale, becomes well within the pale once on has gone along for the ride. Here presented in a BBC Radio version.
And a tree in its dance can hold death and life together. A tree can dance in its non-being as well. A tree marks its life and growth and its death, being hollowed out by decay, lightning, fire, other lives burrowing into it. A tree’s shattered husk bears witness to unseen happenings, to forces not apparent in the moment.
Very much as Xenophanes writes from the fifth century BCE,
There is no man who has seen, nor any who will ever know, the exact truth concerning the gods and all the other subjects of which I speak. Even if a man should chance to speak the most complete truth, yet he himself does not know it; all things are wrapped in appearances. (Fr. 34)
And dance, especially Pan’s dance always offers appearances and something other and emotional and physical, moving and stirring all the appearances–the very steps from life to death as in “The Sacrificial Dance” from Igor Stravinsky’s The Rite Of Spring. Truth then is not what one looks for nor sees, but what one dances. Being in the steps. Being the dance. As Carl Jung writes in The Red Book:
Becoming belongs to the heights and is full of torment. How can you become if you never are? Therefore you need your bottommost, since there you are. But therefore you also need your heights, since there you become.