We Have Become “Comfortably Numb”

Prior to a concert in 1977 in Philadelphia, Pink Floyd’s bassist and lyricist Roger Waters was experiencing stomach cramps so severe that he was injected with tranquilizers so that he might be able to perform. Waters reported that the effort of playing the concert was excruciatingly difficult under the influence of the medication. “That was the longest two hours of my life,” Waters said, “trying to do a show when you can hardly lift your arms.” Out of that experience, Waters and gifted lead guitarist David Gilmour co-wrote the rock classic “Comfortably Numb” (1979). It is one of the premier songs of its era, performed by an incomparable band, and featuring a guitar solo non pareil. The introduction is simple but effective—two measures of a B minor chord that immediately places the listener on alert. Unlike many other lead guitarists, and favoring a Fender Stratocaster guitar, Gilmour does not dress, play, or act flamboyantly. His playing is technically proficient and melodious, often capturing the sense of a song as well or better than the lyrics do.

“Comfortably Numb” is a prophetic diagnosis of our time: it takes its departure from the Waters’ episode, but that experience becomes a metaphor that deepens in meaning as the haunting song proceeds:

Hello? (Hello? Hello? Hello?)

Is there anybody in there?
Just nod if you can hear me
Is there anyone home?

Then, a promise is offered to relieve the individual’s discomfort:

Come on now
I hear you’re feeling down
Well I can ease your pain
Get you on your feet again

The point-of-view shifts to the one in distress, as he notes how difficult it may be for others to recognize the consequences of his palliative treatment:

I can’t explain, you would not understand

This is not how I am
I have become comfortably numb

The chorus turns metaphorical as the anesthetic renders the sufferer ephemeral:

There is no pain you are receding

A distant ship smoke on the horizon

You are only coming through in waves

Your lips move but I can’t hear what you’re saying

By the second verse, the lyrics suggest something more universal, as the singer rues the loss of childhood dreams, lost not because of a dream denied, nor a dream shattered, but a dream forgotten in an anesthetized state.

When I was a child

I caught a fleeting glimpse

Out of the corner of my eye

I turned to look but it was gone

I cannot put my finger on it now

The child is grown

The dream is gone

I have become comfortably numb

The song is arguably the best track on the band’s concept album, “The Wall,” and one of the most beautiful songs of the 70s. Perhaps the greatest live recording available of “Comfortably Numb” appears on the “Delicate Sound of Thunder Tour” (1988) performance after Roger Waters had left the group. Gilmour’s remarkable solo is extended and, supported by stunning visual effects, the song turns downright mystical.

Pink Floyd’s name was a spur-of-the-moment choice: the combination of the given names of two blues artists, Pink Anderson and Floyd Council. While many other bands were singing about sex and drugs, Pink Floyd’s music embraced momentous themes such as senseless conformity (“Another Brick in the Wall” 1979), poverty (“On the Turning Away” 1987), loss (“Wish You Were Here” 1975), division and war (“Us and Them” 1973); insanity and struggle (“Brain Damage” / “Eclipse” 1973); the loss of Paradise (“Sorrow,” 1987); and, shallow materialism “Money.”

Pink Floyd recorded over 160 songs, but “Comfortably Numb” has been de rigeur at virtually every Floyd concert. Waters left the band in 1985, but the band continued to enjoy success until their final reunion concert in 2005.

Ours may be an age of unanticipated consequences. The longevity offered by medical progress proceeds apace with a falling interest in those things that make for a meaningful life. The constant connectivity of social media is shredding the nation’s shared fabric; and, convenience and the alleviation of pain may have produced an untroubled insensitivity to things that matter.

How then, might the prophetic Waters/Gilmour composition have anticipated the present day? The “prophet” in this sense is not a fortune-teller; rather he sees further in the distance than others, and has the capacity to articulate what others cannot. In this case, “Comfortably Numb” suggests that the individual life is dissolving into an insubstantial existence—the “smoke” of “a distant ship” visible “on the horizon.”

Pink Floyd’s acclaimed album “Animals” (1977) repurposes George Orwell’s Animal Farm so that the oppressors include the commercial class as well as the political. But the band’s insight into the human condition has appeal across the political spectrum. Their diagnosis of our present state is remarkable, and when that acumen is expressed through their art, it is arresting.

Several other Floyd songs are helpful in dissecting this troubling condition. One element of the diagnosis is the loss of yearning. David Gilmour’s composition, “Learning to Fly,” (1987) employs the metaphor of flying to describe a longing for something more than the everyday:

A soul in tension that’s learning to fly
Condition grounded but determined to try
Can’t keep my eyes from the circling skies
Tongue-tied and twisted, just an earth-bound misfit, I

Though the dream seems out of reach, hope, fueled by an “attraction” with an “irresistible grasp,” is not extinguished:

Across the clouds I see my shadow fly
Out of the corner of my watering eye
A dream unthreatened by the morning light
Could blow this soul right through the roof of the night

Yet again, in the closing song to Pink Floyd’s fourteenth album, the wistful “High Hopes” (1994), admits to being “encumbered forever by desire and ambition / There’s a hunger still unsatisfied.”

Another element of the numbed state is a kind of thoughtlessness that means the shallow soul ignores his mortality. Too many, in public and private life, seem to live as if they had no soul. “Time” (1973), addresses the tragedy of a life unlived, precisely because its end was never contemplated. Think of it as a “memento mori” with a beat.

At a late juncture in life, the individual realizes the decades have passed, but he has lacked the ambition necessary for a meaningful life.”

And then one day you find ten years have got behind you
No one told you when to run, you missed the starting gun

But at that point, it seems too late as “every year is getting shorter” until “the time is gone, the song is over” even though the individual “thought I’d something more to say.” The imagery is striking:

And you run, and you run to catch up with the sun but it’s sinking
Racing around to come up behind you again
The sun is the same in a relative way but you’re older
Shorter of breath and one day closer to death

The collective politics of the band were decidedly left-of-center, especially those of Roger Waters, who could be arrogant and obnoxious, especially to his bandmates. Pink Floyd’s acclaimed album “Animals” (1977) repurposes George Orwell’s Animal Farm so that the oppressors include the commercial class as well as the political. But the band’s insight into the human condition has appeal across the political spectrum. Their diagnosis of our present state is remarkable, and when that acumen is expressed through their art, it is arresting.

Aristotle, in his Ethics, develops the idea of the cardinal virtues. In Aristotle’s scheme, for every virtue, there are two vices: one vice is too much of the virtue; the other two little. One of those virtues is temperance or moderation. It is flanked by two vices, indulgence on the excessive side and insensibility on the defective side (Nicomachean Ethics, III, 11).While self-indulgence may be easy to recognize, insensibility may not, and that vice may offer a clue to the state of comfortable numbness. Whereas lust and desire may run amok in the vice of excess; in the defective vice of insensibility, the passions that support virtue, including honor, ambition, love, pride and fear, are scarce. Consequently, the insensible life is bland and driftless: comfortably numb. Aristotle warns such a state is barely “human.” Curbing the vice of excess seems relatively straightforward, at least compared with awakening someone from the insensible state, precisely because the motivating passions are enervated. Perhaps ruminative artists like Pink Floyd can be of assistance in the quest for a cure.