The ceiling is moving
Moving in time
Like a conveyor belt
Above my eyes.
Can’t stop listening to P J Harvey’s White Chalk, and to this song, ‘When Under Ether’, especially. Keep waking up at night and lying there, listening to it quietly repeating itself in the layers between sleep and full consciousness.
The reviews of the song I’ve read so far make much of the fact that it is about a woman having an abortion, and of course the spare, close, near-beauty of the song makes that all the more powerful:
Something’s inside me
Unborn and unblessed
Disappears in the ether
This world to the next.
At the moment, however, what draws me most about the song is its evocation of being between forms of consciousness, and of being between forms of being itself. It makes me think of the Victorian spiritualists who believed in the imbrication of the spirit-world with our own, in the possibility of communicating one world to the next. They sometimes spoke of spirits taking on an ethereal substance in order to appear to those who loved them. Some even believed that this ethereal matter could be caught on film; hence the sombre charge generated by spirit-photography, in which dead relatives were made to appear in hazy daguerrotypes (much like the image of P J Harvey herself on the cover of the album). And others since have described the kind of mysteriously benign inter-place this song inhabits, visited in the course of a near-death experience or dream.
Another part of the song’s pathos for me is its intimation of the hopes that surgical ether inspired in the mid-Victorian era, in line with the numen people invested in electricity, in telegraphy, in mesmerism, in photography, and the rest. As one German enthusiast declared: ‘The wonderful dream that pain has been taken away from us has become reality. Pain, the highest consciousness of our earthly existence, the most distinct sensation of the imperfection of our body, must now bow before the power of … ether vapor’. Viewed from the vantage of retrospect, such enthusiasm now seems mournfully naive. And listening to this song, all those precarious beliefs in dreams coming to pass are evoked and then themselves made to pass, disappears in the ether / One world to the next.