What lies beyond the illusion of life

Disguised in recognizable electric guitar riffs, a distinctive organ solo, and catchy rock enthusiasm, Kansas’s hit 1970s rock song “Carry on Wayward Son”, written by band member Kerry Livgren and included in the album Leftoverture, is, at its core, a philosophical exploration of the purpose of life.  

Following the first chorus and instrumental riff, the narrator begins the second stanza by describing their life as full of “noise and confusion”.  They wish to escape this chaos, to “get a glimpse beyond this illusion” — which is to say, they wish to find a higher purpose to a life of pain.  Yet, they fail in their attempts to discover this higher purpose to life, revealed through an allusion to Greek mythology — specifically, the myth of the inventor Daedalus and his son Icarus.  In this myth, Daedalus fashions two pairs of wax wings to allow himself and his son to escape imprisonment; however, Icarus becomes overconfident and ignores the warnings of his father, deciding to fly higher and higher until the sun melts his wings and he falls to his death.  In alluding to this myth, it seems that Livgren implies that finding a higher purpose in life is not a simple act of will — rather, it requires anyone seeking this higher purpose to remain grounded in reality.  But, this allusion does not hint at what Livgren believes to be the higher purpose of life, only how to achieve it.  The former is the job of the chorus:

Carry on, my wayward son
There'll be peace when you are done
Lay your weary head to rest
Don't you cry no more

Spoken to the narrator by “the voices”, the chorus is the key to understanding what Livgren implies is the higher purpose of life.  The first step in understanding the meaning of the chorus is deducing what, exactly, the narrator must be “done” with in order to have peace.  The aforementioned second stanza describes the narrator as attempting and failing to escape a chaotic life of “noise and confusion”, so we can make the relatively safe assumption that “the voices” are telling the narrator that there will be peace when he is “done” with these vain attempts to escape chaos — that is to say, “the voices” promise peace when the search for the meaning in life is abandoned, and the chaos is accepted as a part of life.  Though it seems counterintuitive at first, this philosophy is notably reminiscent of that of Meursault in The Stranger — life is unchangeable and must be accepted for what it is, without any higher purpose at all.

In the following stanza, the narrator describes themself as “Masquerading as a man with a reason” — which is to say, they are portraying themself as someone they are not, implying that after hearing the advice of “the voices”, they have accepted life as not having reason or a higher meaning, but are just not willing to publicly show this.  This hesitancy to reveal their belief is entirely understandable — after all, one of the most important features of The Stranger is the constant societal dismay towards Meursault’s nonemotional and existential mannerisms.  In order to avoid this societal dismay, the narrator goes to long lengths to hide his existentialist beliefs, even setting out in search of “winds of fortune” — that is, material profit and benefit — in order to appear to broader society as holding the belief that there is actually a purpose of life: to profit materially, a widely-shared belief in modern capitalist societies, allowing the narrator to blend in well and avoid the consternation of society.

But in the eighth stanza, we run into an issue with this entire assumption that “the voices” are offering the narrator an existentialist perspective on life.  “The voices” tell the narrator that his life is “no longer empty”, implying that he has found a purpose in life, and the following line tells the narrator that “surely heaven waits for you”, clearly establishing that “the voices” were telling the narrator from the beginning that a higher purpose of life does, in fact, exist: religion and reaching the afterlife.

But how is this reconcilable with all of the evidence that I used to argue that “the voices” were existentialist?

Well, one of the beauties of poetry is that it is open to interpretation. The interpretation that “the voices” were existentialist is entirely valid — it just likely is not the songwriter’s intended interpretation.

Going back to the chorus, in order to explain that “the voices” were existentialist, I assumed that the chorus was telling the narrator that there will be peace when he is “done” with his vain attempts to escape chaos.  But another, equally valid interpretation is that the chorus was telling the narrator that there will be peace when he is “done” living — that after a life of chaos comes an eternal afterlife of peace.  Under this interpretation, the narrator is not hiding his existentialism when he is “Masquerading as a man with a reason” or plotting “a course for winds of fortune”; instead, he seems to be resisting the advice of “the voices” to continue living life with the purpose of reaching an afterlife, and instead is only pretending to live a religious life as he continues to seek profit from material fortune — at least, until “the voices” return and tell the narrator again to trade the material for the spiritual.  And of course, the myth of Icarus teaches us that to ignore the advice of authority would be a dangerous decision.

I’d love to know — what do you all think?  Do you think Livgren intended to teach the audience that religion and reaching afterlife is the ultimate purpose of life, or that there is no ultimate purpose of life at all?  Or do you have a totally different idea of the purpose of life that Livgren and Kansas promote in “Carry On Wayward Son”?

One thought on “What lies beyond the illusion of life

  1. Zoe K.

    Tim, I love this analysis. I have heard this song before but never thought about the meaning behind it, nor the artist who created it. Now that I understand a bit more about what the song is about from a poetic standpoint, it really intrigues me and I want to listen to this song again to see if I can hear it differently now. I also liked how you described the almost existentialist tone of the song.


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