A Tribute to Neil Peart

Drummer, lyricist, philosopher, poet, man of integrity—has passed into Olympus

Posted Jan 14, 2020

Liz Swan
Mount Olympus
Source: Liz Swan

Rush has been giving me a musical orgasm for the past 30 years. The first Rush song I ever heard was "Spirit of Radio" on Exit Stage Left in 1989 on my cousin's boombox. And listening to side one of Hemispheres recently brought tears to my eyes when I thought about Peart’s own passing into Olympus after having written that beautifully insightful story over 40 years ago.

Though Peart was recognized by Rush fans as the best drummer in the world (and by others as one of the best drummers in the world), as a writer, I especially resonate with his lyrics. His creative epics like “The Necromancer” and “By-Tor and The Snow Dog,” and side one of both Hemispheres and 2112 demonstrate a profoundly deep understanding of human nature—the light, the dark, and all the shades of grey in between. Blending philosophy, poetry, and fantasy like a wizard, Peart’s words both guided me into academic philosophy and helped me recover from it and find a truer path. Listening to Rush can be therapeutic, readily reminding us that each one of us is just a small part of “a pattern so grand and complex.”

Peart’s lyrics have even (unintentionally) shed light on some seemingly thorny problems in contemporary philosophy, one of which I explore in my chapter, "The Wisdom of the Single, Perfect Sphere: a heart and mind united," which was published in the 2011 anthology, Rush and Philosophy: Heart and Mind United. In this essay, I draw on Peart's epic tale in Cygnus X-1 Book II: Hemispheres (on the album Hemispheres) of how passion and reason came into balance in humanity.

There is a misguided question in contemporary philosophy called “the hard problem” which was conceived in a philosophical vacuum not unlike the one Descartes was guilty of (explored by Antonio Damasio in his book Descartes’ Error) and the kind Martin Heidegger, in Being and Time, tried to rid Western philosophy of, allowing that such philosophical games were possible but epistemically vacuous—in other words, a fun head-trip but a total waste of time.

The ‘hard question’ essentially asks how, in an apparently physical and mechanistic world, it is that humans experience the world qualitatively—in colors, feelings, smells, textures, and even elusive sensations like nausea, nostalgia, and déjà vu. If our world is just physical, then why do we see colors and not only see colors but feel elated by our favorite color? Why do we feel feelings, like sadness at the news of Peart’s having passed? Why aren’t we just chugging along, atom against atom, action and reaction, process and flow?

My own personal answer to this question is that we wouldn’t have the privilege of being alive in the 21st century to ask these questions if we hadn’t in fact been in touch with our world qualitatively the whole time. Things that smell or taste bad are to be avoided and thus we preserve ourselves by having avoided potentially fatal food poisoning. Dark alleys and caves with scary sounds coming out of them are also be avoided for self-preservation reasons. By contrast, good food tastes good and sex feels good, as does a good night’s sleep when we’re tired and cold water when we’re thirsty. These are all life-enhancing things. Being qualitatively in touch with the world around us has kept us alive, simply put. Smart beings that can do stuff but don’t experience the world around them are robots. And humans aren’t robots. We do feel along with thinking.

Philosophers who ask questions in a vacuum devoid of any insight from science, evolution, and especially the evolution of consciousness, are fooling themselves and ultimately, creating a lot of unnecessary confusion. Peart’s tale describes how people were incomplete in following the lead of Dionysus (god of celebration), having fun and drinking wine, but being caught unprepared for a cold, harsh winter. Likewise, something was missing when Apollo (god of wisdom) was in charge. Excited to build cities and learn philosophy but in the long run, bored or maybe even depressed. The hero in the story is dubbed “Cygnus, the god of balance,” as he is able to incorporate reason and passion, thinking and feeling, into humanity, the concept of which is represented by a single, perfect sphere.

A true thinker, and a deep feeler, Peart was an exemplary human being; himself a single, perfect sphere. He was never willing to compromise on the unique direction Rush began taking in the 1970s, and we fans are so happy he didn’t. I’m inspired to integrate into my own life his insight to be “sensitive, open and strong”.

May Neil Peart have a peaceful journey up "Jacob’s Ladder" and live in ecstasy among his equals on Mount Olympus, "marble white and purest gold."