Why I adore “Up the Wolves” by the Mountain Goats

It is wisdom literature

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Photo by Raul Popadineți on Unsplash

Full disclosure: this song speaks so powerfully to me because of my ongoing focus on training people to do some of the Jesus stuff that Jesus tells us is of foundational importance. These things are: 1) living in joyful solidarity with the poor and suffering, 2) loving our enemies as a replacement behavior for violence, and 3) learning to reconcile our way into truth together. I feel an obligation to get that out of the way, so nobody feels tricked into learning to joyfully love people more than they thought possible. You’ve been warned, that is my secret plot.

So why would someone like me love a song like this so much? Because it is so wise about this reconciliation and love and solidarity with the suffering stuff, and about the opposites of those things.

First, a bit of context on the song. If you hop over to Genius Lyrics, you’ll see some very helpful context from John Darnielle, the lead (and usually only) member of the Mountain Goats:

I’m always trying to figure out what to say about this god damn song. Part of me wants to say look it’s about revenge, but as soon as I say that… no, that’s not quite it. Part of me wants to say it’s about the satisfaction of not needing revenge… and I say no, that some new age stuff. I think it’s a song about the moment in your quest for revenge when you learn to embrace the futility of it. The moment when you know that the thing you want is ridiculous and pompous and a terrible thing to want anyway. The direction in which you’re headed is not the direction in which you want to go, yet you’re going to head that way a while longer anyway cause that’s just the kind of person you are.

John Darnielle, Bowery Ballroom, New York, October 1, 2007

And it’s worth adding that this song is part of a full album which is all about his memories of his abusive step-father. This particular song is about learning the futility of revenge, from the standpoint of the abused child who Darnielle was. And it is about how hard and strange a lesson this is to learn.

The only thing I really have to add to this is an appreciation of how powerfully and deeply I think the song speaks to those themes. And I’d add that it resonates deeply for me, as someone who endured persistent non-sexual, physical and psychological abuse from my older brother growing up. It was in my own experience of abuse there that I became familiar with the same relational dynamics that John Darnielle writes and sings about so powerfully here:

There’s bound to be a ghost at the back of your closet
No matter where you live
There’ll all ways be a few things, maybe several things
That you’re gonna find really difficult to forgive

There’s gonna come a day when you’ll feel better
You’ll rise up free and easy on that day
And float from branch to branch lighter than the air
Just when that day is coming, who can say? Who can say?

I love that he frames his own experience of abuse, the difficulty of forgiveness, and the freeing hope of forgiveness, as a widespread phenomenon: “There’s bound to be a ghost at the back of your closet…”

And I absolutely adore the way Darnielle depicts the freedom that forgiveness brings with the image of a bird, perhaps concealed as an image of a spirit. While it might sound like the hard work of becoming freed up through the hard work of forgiveness involves a de-physicalizing escape from our bodies, that isn’t the kind of “floating from branch to branch” that is in view here.

No: it is the freedom of birds, which you can, perhaps, still look outside of your window and see. They behave as if they are “lighter than the air.” And it is precisely in the physicality of these light and free and breathlike birds that we exorcise the ghosts from our closets.

I’d just add that I view this song as a sort of psalm, which frequently involves a movement from despair into hope. Here, the movement into hope is clear from the start, but is left implicit at the end. I consider this a perfect touch in our context, because it invites and challenges us to be the ones who complete the story by going back to the start, to remember what the song was all about. This is a psalm primed to pour out into our lives today, because its bottom is sliced off.

As in real life, we’re invited to complete the story ourselves, rather than have a feeling of completeness within the work itself … so this psalm with a cracked-open ending is a defiant challenge and invitation to us to walk into a forgiveness (and then, perhaps even the accountable transformation and reconciliation that forgiveness can empower) that we have hardly learned to walk in as a people.

And so, the promise in the betrayal:

Our mother has been absent
Ever since we founded Rome
But there’s gonna be a party when the wolf comes home

This verse frames the rest of the song, and speaks powerfully to abuse at a personal family scale, within the framework of abusive Empire at a global scale.

It apparently refers to the ancient legend of Romulus and Remus, boys suckled by a wolf, the founders of Rome, the Empire that killed Jesus. How did they come to be cared for by a wolf, instead of their mother?

You can find a nice review of the associated legends here, and they are very much worth a read. Here’s my version of the story, as far as we need to go:

So now King Amulius wanted to strangle off the line of not-King Numitor, and so he looked with fear at the fertility of Numitor’s daughter, Rhea Silvia. Poor Rhea Silvia. Her name still whispers of forests and the flow of rivers to us today, because our words are marked so deeply by Rome’s.

And so Rhea Silvia was made a Vestal Virgin, dedicated to Vesta, the goddess of the hearth. She was forbidden to have children, on pain of burial in the jealous earth hidden in the hearth of her goddess.

And yet she did have children, conceived by who knows who. Hercules, perhaps. Or more likely Mars: god of war, the father of Empires. These sons of Mars were named Romulus and Remus. As brothers tend to do, they would fight, and one would kill the other in time. You can guess the winner already by the name that endures in Rome. But now, gentle heart, they are just pink and tender babies, whose birth condemns their virgin mother to death.

But King Amelius was merciful, as far as kings go, for he feared the wrath of other gods. And so instead of burying Rhea in the suffocating earth, he buried her in a prison. And instead of killing the boys outright, he decided to let the gods do it: they would be exposed to nature, whose cruel hand would take their lives. In this way, King Amelius sought to keep his filthy hands clean, at least when it came to family.

But a servant took mercy on the babies, a placed them in a basket in the River Tiber. And it was on this journey that they would suckle from Wolf, be fed by Bird, and rescued by shepherds. A tale of wolves and sheep, and of wolfish men who we would do well to imagine wearing the shepherds’ wool.

Here we find the heart of Empire: in intergenerational abuse and neglect, and in the violence of wolfish men, wearing the skins of sheep.

Up the Wolves plays on a fascinating ambiguity: is Wolf, their adoptive mother, their true mother? And whatever happened to poor Rhea Silvia, virgin mother of Empire?

With this framing, we’re ready to hear the heart of the song, which begins with a desperate dream of telling the neighbors about the abuse.

We’re gonna commandeer the local airwaves
To tell the neighbors what’s been going on
And they will shake their heads and wag their bony fingers
In all the wrong directions and by daybreak we’ll be gone

As happens so often in abusive situations, even in this fantasy the abused child fears that the community will compound the abuse by wagging their fingers at the victims instead of the abusers. This is one of the things we teach abused children, whenever we compound abuse by blaming the abused.

The scapegoating of victims, this kind of hypocritical accusation as a shoddy replacement for reconciliation, lies at the very heart of Empire as well.

So this revenge fantasy is ‘wise’ in the sense that it understands, all too well, that to speak truth in a brutal system is to invite rage and resistance.

Where does the fantasy go, then, for John Darnielle? Where does it go for this child raised by a violent wolf of a step-father, this grown boy who calls himself goats (as one would, if one wants to avoid being a wolf-sheep at all costs)?

I’m gonna get myself in fighting trim
Scope out every angle of unfair advantage
I’m gonna bribe the officials; I’m gonna kill all the judges
It’s gonna take you people years to recover from all of the damage

This is the futile revenge fantasy, and from it comes a hard-earned wisdom that is still short of forgiveness, although it sits at the edge of the promised land.

Indeed:

Our mother has been absent
Ever since we founded Rome
But there’s gonna be a party when the wolf comes home

Community Organizer. Enemy Lover. Pastor. Practices honest, serious, loving and fun discourse. (Yes, still just practicing.) Author of According to Folly, etc.

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