We’re in the home stretch now! Let’s get right to it. If you missed something, here’s part one and here’s part two of our tarot reading. We’re doing Scenes from a Memory by Dream Theater!
Scene Seven: The Dance of Eternity
Another instrumental track. If eternity is a dance, this is the music. And if eternity is a dance, who is dancing? The living and the dead, we presume. There’s nobody else, right? This track shifts tempo a few times, following the dance itself as it plays out organically. Previously we dealt with some strange new ideas, as another voice tried to wheedle its way into the speaker’s discourse.
Perhaps there’s not a lot to say here. The Chariot is all about forward motion. But it isn’t about reckless running. A chariot takes a long time to fit together, and the charioteer is well-trained. He may be impulsive sometimes, but his skill carries him into the future anyway. This musical track keeps throwing us forward. It’s been a consistent theme in this album: we are constantly moved forward in terms of pacing and speed, even while the story itself is about coming to terms with the past. Weird, huh? Traveling backwards can be the same as forwards — it can be just as dangerous, just as fast, and perhaps even loaded with its own dangers that traveling forward doesn’t offer.
Scene Seven pt. 2: One Last Time
The speaker has realized something is wrong in the story. He goes to the home of the man who loved Victoria, and hears her screaming, sees the house through her vision. He can’t hear the man, only that he’s arguing. The song blends these realizations into more abstract lyrics about lying down, not to give up, but to re-enter things. The album balances passivity and aggression. The speaker has moments when he has to quest around the city and moments when he has to lie down and listen. The fact that he’s capable of doing that, of not relying only on one side of the coin, means he can make it out of this story alive.
As a reminder, I write the first section for each song before I draw a card. This is very appropriate, then. The Magician knows how to be receptive and how to act, and, ideally, which situation calls for which skill. The speaker is learning this magic, this ability to do what the situation demands, rather than what he demands.
That reminds me of something. A lot of people are uncomfortable with the idea of hypnosis because it seems so passive. In America, it’s particularly men who feel like it’s a violation to be hypnotized. But it’s also true that you can’t be hypnotized unless you’re a willing participant. It’s a personal headspace, not something imposed from outside. Think, instead of shamanic trances. Shamans incude hypnotic states in others but also in themselves. They actively make themselves passive, so the spirits and guides can come to them. Now, this is usually after they quest in the otherworld, but they still “switch it on.” That’s what hypnosis is, really — a hypnagogic state we enter. The speaker is entering that state, on purpose now. He can do it without the professional, because he knows how to receive the impressions of the world around him. And if you think that’s easy, try it sometime. Go somewhere and just passively receive it. Affect it as little as possible. You’ll find, without practice, it’s very difficult indeed. That’s why people like hiking or camping (one reason): you’re out there long enough that you finally reach this state.
Scene Eight: The Spirit Carries On
“Where do we go when we die?” The album is reaching its conclusion now. The speaker, the magician, has returned from their quest with wisdom for all of us. The practical point of the song is that the speaker is finally convinced that Victoria is real. She’s no hallucination. And that knowledge has given the speaker peace, because it proves something metaphysical about the afterlife. He also learns to accept ambiguity, because it’s his actions, not his knowledge, that matter the most.
5 of Swords
This is typically viewed as a pretty negative card. This combination actually shows us one way it’s not. The fives are still about conflict, and swords are still about mental activity. But here, the speaker discourses with himself, solving his problem in his own mind. He doesn’t need external validation of his idea to be satisfied with it. That’s the struggle — finding the validation, feeling “right” about things. He has reached that point by himself. The skull and gravestone imagery certainly fit in, right? It’s a song about the afterlife, after all. The speaker has a “questioning mind,” which the card indicates. He has pierced the veil surrounding the mystery, and found a satisfaction that will, in turn, allow him to understand what he finds on the other side.
Scene Nine: Finally Free
The hypnotist appears again. The speaker has either come back for another session or this one long session has actually contained all the drama until now. The hypnotist is bringing the speaker up out of the trance now.
The song finally reveals the last parts of the narrative: Victoria’s lover didn’t kill her — sorta. Victoria was in love with a man who fucked up his life. She had an affair with another man, but puts a stop to it to reconcile with the first man again. So the second man killed them both.
The strangeness of the album actually peaks here. The speaker, who we learn is named Nicholas, feels good after everything, only to finally learn the last parts of the story. And then the ending. I had actually forgotten about the ending until just now!
Here’s where I just had to go to Wikipedia. I never picked up on this. According to the band, after the album’s release, the hypnotherapist is the reincarnation of Edward the murderer. The album’s ending is the hypnotherapist killing Nicholas, the speaker, to “complete the cycle” again. It’s, uh, not really clear why that would be necessary. All I can come up with is that the city runs on this story, and it’s pushing things around until it gets it every so often.
The Star is about guidance in the darkness. The woman stands in water, safely, and carries pitchers to share the water. The Star can symbolize a connection to the divine, and unfortunately, the speaker gets exactly that. He said he would be content if he died. Hopefully that’s true, though we know he has a wife and kid, so this story isn’t as neat as it seems. Nicholas found evidence of life after death. He became a “magician,” trafficking with spirits. But the story closed around him like a bear trap, and now he’s a spirit, probably ready to guide another person in the future.
I’m not sure I find the ending satisfying, now that I remember it all, actually. Interestingly, the static at the end of this album is replicated at the beginning of Dream Theater’s next album, Six Degrees of Inner Turbulence. I suppose that implies a connection between them. I have listened to that album as well, so maybe sometime in the future we’ll talk about it. It’ll probably take even longer to get through it! It was a double disk album!
What, in the end, do we have here? Looking through the cards, we see that there are still no cups. The only emotion here is grief, the weight of mourning on a city and a man stuck in a story that leads to his death. It’s a story of personal growth, beginning at Judgement and ending with magic and starlight. That looks positively cheerful, doesn’t it? It’s not, though. I suppose it reminds us that not everything is as it seems, and maybe there’s good in this ending after all. I have difficulty seeing it, though. I really wonder about the strange radio story that gets cut off by Nicholas’s murder. Did the hypnotherapist kill someone else as well, the person who would have been Victoria’s long-time lover in this life?
In the end, the title of the last song is a grim reminder: Nicholas is “finally free.” Death comes to all of us. The guidance here may simply be to escape the bad stories if we’re able, and if we can’t, use them to grow before it’s too late. Nicholas makes it out of the story, at least in this iteration, because he rose up out of it spiritually and that gave him the direction he needed. Of course, we don’t know what brought him to the therapist to begin with, exactly. We know he was unhappy. His decision that Victoria must be real indicates something — he might have feared that he was losing his mind.
The album is, on one level, very simple. The story is a little complex until you look around, then it mostly makes sense. But on a different level the themes fight one another, leaving us unsure what to do. And that is probably the point.
On the spur of the moment I drew one last card. I said “what to get out of the album” and lifted this card up:
Pages are excited about their newfound knowledge and abilities. They may not be as powerful as the knights or as self-possessed as the queen and king, but their excitement is infectious. And, finally, we get a cup. The emotions are all on our side! We are washed clean by the tragedy, which is, after all, the point of tragedy. Instead of denying the sadness we’re feeling, we can try to make friends with it. Remember it when others are suffering, and remember that you can help with that. Know yourself, know your past, and prepare yourself for the future. Then you’ll be as light and free as the page of cups. Maybe.