Like weather patterns or ocean currents, artistic inspiration is a nearly infinite non linear system in which influence flows in every direction. And just as the flapping wings of a butterfly might in some small way contribute to the creation of a hurricane on the other side of the globe, so too can art unleash mysterious energies with unpredictable, perhaps unknowable effects. Would Mark David Chapman have murdered John Lennon if J.D. Salinger had never written Catcher in the Rye? If Chapman had murdered Lennon before The Beatles recorded The White Album would Charles Manson have orchestrated the Tate-LaBianca Murders? These are but two of the most famous examples. More recently, a pair of twelve-year-old girls stabbed their friend nineteen times to curry favor with an Internet meme called Slender Man that some guy invented for a Photoshop contest. Would the former have happened without the latter? This is but a parlor game, of course. Nobody can say for sure; that’s the nature of time. To paraphrase Stephen Hawking, the arrow only points in one direction. But let’s play the game anyway, shall we? While self-righteous fundamentalists often do try to ascribe absolute responsibility for certain transgressive acts to certain transgressive artists, the more reasonable response is to say an artist has no legal guilt for the crimes of those they influence, and while that is most certainly true, it would be false to say that art has no ideological agency in the shaping of history.
By this point, faithful readers might begin to wonder where this longer-than-usual entry is going. Let me reward your patience with a doozy of a proposition. Let’s play this game to its logical conclusion, shall we? Might it be possible to isolate a single artistic catalyst for an entire century’s worth of bloodshed? No, I’m not talking about the Bible or the Koran. I’m talking about something more on the order of a butterfly’s wing flap. I’m taking about a single seven-minute cantata by Sergei Sergeyevich Prokofiev called “Seven, They are Seven.”
Prokofiev was a famous Russian pianist and composer of numerous masterpieces, most well-known perhaps for the perennial kids’ favorite Peter and the Wolf. But Prokofiev wasn’t always so traditional or benign. In the early, iconoclastic part of his career, he dabbled in darker, more provocative material. The darkest of all, composed in 1917, in the throes of World War I and the Russian Revolution, took as its text a modern translation of a 4,500-year-old Chaldean invocation inscribed in cuneiform on the roof of an Akkadian temple. Ostensibly an exorcism, the words in fact give name and power to the seven demonic gods of Mesopotamia (present day Iraq). Prokofiev was later quoted as saying he wanted to write “something dimensional and cosmic.” Did he succeed? What exactly did he invite through that portal, and what effect did it have on the century that followed? Listen in, read along, and decide for yourself.
Seven, They are Seven
Telal, telal, telal!
They are Seven! Seven!
In the depths of the ocean — seven of them!
High up in the heavens — seven of them! Seven!
In the mountains of Sunset seven are born, seven.
In the mountains of the East seven grow up, seven!
They sit astride thrones in the depths of the earth, the earth they sit.
Forcing their voice to thunder at the very summit peaks of the earth, the earth they do!
As one they engulf the limitless space
Of heaven and earth, they do!
Seven they are!
Seven, seven, seven, seven they are seven, seven they are!
Seven they are! Seven!
Telal, Telal! Telal! Telal!
They are Seven,
They are neither men nor women;
They have no wives; they do not give birth to sons.
Like the vagrant wind they are.
Like a net, they spread out, spreading, spreading, sweeping, sweeping.
Evil they are! Evil they are!
Goodness and welldoing are alien to them. They know no shame.
Prayers they hear not:
They are deaf to prayer.
They cause the Heavens and earth to shrink in size.
They shut the door on and lock away whole countries.
They grind whole peoples, like these peoples grind grain.
Seven there are! Seven there are! Seven there are! Seven there are!
Twice seven there are!
Spirit of the Heavens, spirit of the heavens, spirit of the heavens, exorcise them!
Exorcise them! Exorcise! Exorcise!
Spirit of the earth! Spirit of the earth! Spirit of the earth, exorcise them!
Exorcise, exorcise, exorcise!
Evil winds! Wicked tempests!
Parching vortex! Flaming whirlwind!
They are the day of sorrow! They are the day of revenge!
They are the heralds of horrific plague!
Seven gods of the immeasurable Heaven!
Seven gods of the immeasurable earth!
Seven omnipotent gods!
Seven wicked gods!
Seven devils screaming with laughter!
Seven geniuses of horror!
Seven are they, seven are they,
Seven of them!
Evil Telal! Evil Telal Alal!
Evil Gigim! Evil Maskim!
Evil God! Evil spirit! Evil demon!
Seven they are! Seven they are! Seven, seven!
Exorcise them, Spirit of the Heavens!
Seven, Seven of them!
Exorcise them, spirit of the earth!
Seven they are, seven they are!
Telal! Exorcise them, exorcise them! Exorcise!
You, spirit of the Heavens, exorcise them, exorcise them, exorcise them, exorcise them!