The Conspiracy Against The Human Race: A Contrivance Of Horror by Thomas Ligotti

Human suffering will remain insoluble as long as human beings exist. The only truly effective solution for suffering is that spoken of in [Peter] Zapffe’s “Last Messiah.” It may not be a welcome solution for a stopgap world, but it would forever put an end to suffering, should we ever care to do so. The pessimist’s credo, or one of them, is that nonexistence never hurt anyone and exsitence hurts everyone. Although our selves may be illusory creations of consciousness, our pain is nonetheless real. – Thomas Ligotti, The Conspiracy Against The Human Race: A Contrivance of Horror, 2010, p.75

Author Thomas Ligotti

I think it no accident that two of the most influential western thinkers arrived at similar conclusions regarding the status of existence, even though they began with very different assumptions. I also think it no accident that these conclusions were first articulated in the aftermath of World War I. The Second World War may have surpassed it in terms of global destruction and body count, but the horror of trench warfare, both in Belgium/France and Russia, and the destruction of European Imperial dynasties was a cataclysm from which millions never recovered.

In Marburg, Germany, a young Martin Heidegger insisted that at the heart of existence is “The Not”. This “Not” is not just the negation of all affirmations. It is the negation of all negations as well. Human existence, Heidegger understood years before Freud proposed something similar, is “a being toward death.” Dasein, that untranslatable word that refers to each and every being that finds itself cast into the world unprepared and even unawares, finds itself an actor in a play already in progress, doing the best it can with the tools it is given. What drives Dasein, however is not some metaphysical force, or the appeal of virtue, or God or Satan or angels. At the heart of all existence is this “Not” that creates for all being a “being toward” death, the pursuit of our own negation that is, paradoxically, negated by this very same “Not”. In short, there is no wizard behind the curtain because there is no curtain, no behind. There is “Not”.

In the same decade, young Swiss pastor Karl Barth insisted that the triumphalism of much western Christian theology rested on a false sense of our relationship to God. Having returned to study the Christian Scriptures closely, Barth understood that at the heart of the Gospel message was a Divine “No” that brooked no argument, that lay waste to any and all human claims to righteousness, goodness, and the eventual progress toward the Kingdom on Earth. While Barth also said there is a Divine “Yes” that follows that “No”, he was at great pains through millions of words to strip Christian theology of any notion that everything we humans have built, up to and including the Christian Church and its theology, stands under the final, cataclysmic verdict, Nein. Left to our devices apart from the divine activity of the Triune God in the passion of Jesus Christ, human beings are and will always be bound for destruction.

In the 9 decades since these thoughts were first offered, thinkers great and small have wrestled with them. To no avail. Stripped of the pretenses with which we console ourselves – even our biological name, Homo Sapiens sapiens, is a joke we play on ourselves – we human beings are little more than pigs rooting in our own shit and muck, devouring whatever enters our mouths, our genetic programming pushing us to rut with anyone available in order to keep the species going, then living out our days watching our bodies decay from the inside out, the pain of our long dying never matched by any real pleasure or joy by which we convince ourselves that, contrary to these naked realities, “we” really “are”. Consciousness, in whatever way we understand this particular word – and there’s not even a guarantee that it refers to anything at all, particularly something that separates us from other species on Earth – is the result of blind accident, a mutation like our opposable thumbs and upright posture that may, at one time, have offered a marginal survival advantage but now, after millennia of misuse has long outstayed its welcome. Through consciousness, most people assume, we “are” human. Except, alas, all “consciousness” has done is left us aware that we have not been, and will not be again, and that what happens in between those twin darknesses has no meaning whatsoever.

In a nutshell, the above paragraph summarized much of the description of human existence offered by Ligotti in his interesting, thought-provoking work. Rooted in the work of little-known Norwegian thinker Peter Wessel Zapffe, embracing the pessimism of Schopenhauer, and offering as our only hope for relief from suffering the extinction of the human race, Ligotti’s is not so much a “pessimistic” philosophy as it is one of horror and despair. Which is no surprise, considering Ligotti’s main claim to fame is as a horror novelist. How better to present the horrible truth at the heart of existence than through the symbols and conventions of weird fiction?

Reading Ligotti, you realize fairly early on there will be no life-line thrown to escape the bleak, frightening presentation of existence as, in his own words including capitalizations, MALIGNANTLY USELESS. We are offered no solace in love, no comfort in courage, no respite in family or community. We human beings are not what we believe ourselves to be. Indeed, the very notion of a “self” is just one of the many ways through which we attempt to console ourselves that being alive is a moral good. Our sense of ourselves as a “self”, a unique, contained, integrated individual is nothing more than the creation of a neurotic mind desperate to shield the harsh reality from breaking in and destroying our minds completely (Freud understood as much, yet counseled that in this case the illness was preferable to the cure). Heidegger’s “Not”, Barth’s Nein, these extend even to our very selves. We are uncanny to ourselves, little more than animated puppets with nothing pulling our strings yet never fully free to “be” as we would wish to be. This book is much as the reality Ligotti describes – barren of reason, hope, and any soft, mitigating consolation to make it more palatable.

I found myself intrigued as I read, finding much to commend in Ligotti despite the atmosphere of despair that hangs over the book. In stripping existence of any illusion, we come face to face with the real horror we have all too often converted into smaller, manageable horrors. Ligotti does so without apology. This horror, that we as creatures have become, through the paradoxical working of natural selection, the negation of creation, is the kind of thing H. P. Lovecraft considered in his stories of beings with unpronounceable names and terrible designs upon us and our world: enough to drive us mad should we see it or hear it in its terrible reality. As a “contrivance of horror”, the kind of cosmic nihilism at the heart of Ligotti’s presentation surely is the most frightening of all: That our existence is nothing at all.

For all I would commend this book as an important corrective to the flood of bullshit too often presented to us in the guise of “motivational speaking” and “Christian literature”, it is important to note that, even though they may very well be the consoling lies of those desperate to shield us from the terrible truth of our existence, the fact is there are things that make life not at all MALIGNANTLY USELESS. Among these perhaps comforting lies is courage: that virtue that pushes human beings to live through all sorts of horrors and pain, big and small. Whether it’s the courage of the soldier who steps in front of a bullet or jumps on a grenade meant for others; the parents of a child born with incredible deficits who nevertheless strive to give that child a life of relative ease; those who work to make our collective lives more humane; these things are as real as the horrors from which they might shield us.

Along with courage is the sense, an intuition that may well be rooted in biological imperatives, that human life, in and for itself, is valuable. Not just our own lives, for which we may or may not care much at all, but the lives of others. Human beings are valuable simply because they exist. They are that rare thing, indeed: another like us deserving of our care, our assistance, conspirators in our desire to keep the darkness at bay. The preciousness of human life may well come from our understanding that nothing lies behind what is, including ourselves as conscious beings. In our desire for the care of others, we are not only protecting ourselves from the horrors of our consciousness of our own nonexistence; positively, we are affirming that human beings are and ought to be creatures subject to care and concern.

Finally, there is love, a word absent from Ligotti’s work. For Karl Barth, at least, it is Divine Love that negates the negation at the heart of creation. Indeed, the first negation is not at all part of the Divine plan but rather the result of human being believing it possible to stare into an abyss from which God sought to protect us. Pushed to consider life in all its variety, most people conclude that, in whatever shape it makes itself known, love sits even more deeply in existence than the terrible “Not” that is so horrible it is its own negation. In the faces of those who often crowd our lives with their presence, in the feeling of a child’s arms around the neck, in that most precious encounter between human beings, an encounter that brings with it a kind of mindless pleasure, we understand we are in the presence of a mystery far more deep than the simple realities of a world stripped of pretense.

Ligotti muses at one point on the fleeting nature of beauty and pleasure. Whether it’s the horrible pleasure that comes from the use of some narcotics, or the transcendent pleasure of sex, Ligotti and I agree on this: At its most supreme, pleasure is a fleeting moment that all too often pushes us to an eternal pursuit for it to happen again and again. For Ligotti, the reality of pleasure is given the lie as something valuable in and of itself precisely because it is so fleeting. For me, however, those moments of sublime pleasure, however they’re experienced, are testimony to the fact that the truly transcendent pleasures in this life – the sounds of a musical piece that bring goosebumps; a vista of sun and land that overwhelms our senses; that moment of human union that we shroud with mystery yet sometimes disparage as little more than the result of biological imperative – must needs be fleeting. Despite Ligotti’s claims, the horrible truth that may very well be the totality of our existence, can indeed be seen without madness ensuing. A moment or two longer of some fleeting pleasure that pushes outside the experience of that pleasure, however, we are quite sure will destroy us. A marvelous ending, to be sure, but an ending nevertheless.

In other words, we can live – perhaps not happily, certainly never easily – with the idea that we are not at all what we believe ourselves to be and that the nothingness that sits at the heart of Creation is the final truth. I’ve known many, including myself, who have stared long into that particular abyss and come away more or less psychically intact. That with which we cannot live, however, is the truth revealed in moments of rapture that there is a blinding, all-enveloping promise of love, an affirmation of existence as, far from MALIGNANTLY USELESS, but rather something sublime to be defended at all cost precisely because the negation of the “Not” at Creation’s core is a pleasure beyond our mortal abilities either to comprehend or sustain. These are no more “illusions” than are our intuitions that we hear a transcendent Nein to all our pretenses and neuroses that would deny that very same No. To claim otherwise isn’t so much pessimism or nihilism as it is a denial of the reality of all our experiences and intuitions, including those that lie at the heart of Ligotti’s desperate view of existence.

 

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Pariahs And Extremes: Two Books On Heavy Metal Subgenres

Surely the line-blurring and inspired musical richness that has happened to metal, partly thanks to progressive rock’s influence, is occurring in reverse with prog rock. The two black sheep genres have shared commonalities for a long time – it’s only natural that they should be strange and very compatible bedfellows at this stage. – Jeff Wagner, Mean Deviations: Four Decades Of Progressive Heavy Metal (2010), p. 333

Death metal traditionally has been about pushing boundaries and being heavy and dark-sounding with its very own style of usually low pitched vocals. As long as all of the aforementioned are present in the music, it can sagely be categorized as death metal, and remaining true to the style’s origins. – Necrophagist guitarist Muhammed Suicmez, quoted in Albert Mudrian, Choosing Death: The Improbably History of Death Metal & Grind Core, 2d edition, (2016), p. 322

British Death Metal pioneers Carcass in concert

Every once in a while, mostly out of some sense of duty, I’ll try to sit and listen to opera. I suppose just listening to opera isn’t the same as seeing opera. All the same, I’ll give it a go. I always end up in the same place. This is unlistenable. I have nothing against people who enjoy opera. Much like those people for whom Elvis Costello is some master of music, an opinion I don’t share, I accept that there are people who find beauty in opera.

I don’t.

And it’s not because I don’t like orchestral music. Opera doesn’t move me. The sounds aren’t agreeable. The vocal style is ridiculously overwrought. The whole and the parts that make up that whole just aren’t my cup of tea. I don’t consider this a moral failing any more that I believe those who do find much to love in opera are bad or wrong for doing so.

For some reason, people who enjoy styles of music that, for whatever reason, are labeled as pariahs or extreme, get labeled as bad people. There isn’t a single fan, say, of Fates Warning or Cannibal Corpse who would believe for one moment their music has, or at least should have, mass appeal. Those like me who hear in these very different kinds of music something beautiful, something sublime, something energizing aren’t bad people. Nor do we suffer from some kind of egregious lack of taste; on the contrary, fans understand precisely what the music is and what it does for them. Check out any web forum or Facebook page for any band labeled either prog metal or death metal and you’ll probably find lengthy discussions of the music qua music. They get it.

Heavy metal as a musical style has been around since the late-1960’s/early-1970’s. Very early, bands so labeled differed from one another in sound pallet, style, instrumentation, and songs. I cannot imagine two bands more different than Led Zeppelin and Black Sabbath. Although both are firmly rooted in American blues, there is little that unites them musically. Yet both are called “heavy metal”, although (funny enough) both refuse the label. Adding in bands as varied as Deep Purple, Rainbow, Uriah Heep, and later Motorhead, it became clear very early on that, as a style, heavy metal meant pretty much whatever the person using it wanted it to mean. From the start, then, the basic form – loud, heavily distorted guitars; heavy drumming (Tony Iommi of Black Sabbath points out the only thing “heavy” about Led Zeppelin was John Bomham’s unsubtle drumming); non-traditional subject matter (most heavy metal songs aren’t about the usual boy-meets-girl) – could be used as a launching pad to create a variety of sounds. As malleable as the blues, heavy metal offered both musicians and fans exciting opportunities to experiment, push the envelope, be louder and faster and write songs about anything under the sun, from rage against political folly (Napalm Death) through the horrors of the Holocaust (Slayer’s “Angel of Death”) to a variety of spiritual quests (Morbid Angel’s early flirtations with Satanism; Pain of Salvation’s Be album). Through in a heavy dose of gore and violence (Cannibal Corpse, Carcass) and an overweaning sense of dread and even horror (use of augmented 4th chords, diminished 9ths, and other dissonant chordal structures), combined with impressive musical skill, and Metal and its various sprigs and sprouts offer something for everyone.

As long as you’re willing to pay the entry fee.

The fee includes setting to one side one’s expectations of what the word music means, or should mean. In particular, one needs to set to one side the notion we are dealing with some aberrant form of “pop” music. While rooted in the blues and owing much to rock’s 60’s experimentalisms, heavy metal is as distinct from rock as house music is from rhythm and blues. Another part of the fee is allowing oneself to feel as well as think about what you’re hearing. Prog metal, death metal, black metal – these are musics first and foremost about the feelings they arouse both in musicians and listeners. Whether rage or sublimity, power or serenity, you need to let the music open you up to feeling. At the same time, these various styles of music insist you think about what you’re hearing. While you’re hearing it. There is something that, should you let it, pulls you in and insists that you listen, really listen, to what you’re hearing. Active listening involves considering both the parts and the larger whole they produce.

Finally, probably the biggest hurdle most people who aren’t into these styles of music find impossible to overcome is the vocal style. While many progressive metal bands, from “The Big Three” Queensryche, Fates Warning and Dream Theater, to Sieges Even and Nightwish still use what’s called “clean” singing, part of death metal’s trademark is screamed or deep guttural vocals, epitomized in the impossible-to-understand George “Corpsegrinder” Fisher of Cannibal Corpse. Corpsegrinder’s vocals are more over-the-top than standard issue death metal vocalists. Death’s Chuck Schuldiner, Carcass’s Jeff Walker, Arch Enemy’s Angela Gassow and Alissa White-Gluz, and Opeth’s Michael Akerfeldt, while either screaming or grunting, are still understandable once you accept this is the way the music sounds. Sitting and feeling and listening and thinking pretty quickly makes it clear the vocal style fits the rest of the music exactly. Just as the quasi-operatic singing of Geoff Tate and James LaBrie fits with Prog Metal’s style.

Mean Deviation and Choosing Death are both histories of very different – yet still occasionally overlapping – style of music. Both consider the musics under consideration to have deep histories Mean Deviation takes the roots of Prog Metal back to Black Sabbath’s Sabbath Bloody Sabbath album; Choosing Death, a more narratively-structured work, begins with the proto-grindcore of the pre-Napalm Death band Discharge, with their rejection of punk’s boring sameness in the mid- to late-1980’s. Thorough, encyclopedic without ever losing the reader’s attention, the books offer a journey across rarely-trod musical landscapes. While die-hard fans might quibble about this or that particular band being included while one of their favorites is excluded (one of the oddities of the fandoms of both progressive metal and death metal is the extreme boundary policing they perform, excluding all sorts of bands and music due to arbitrary, often nonsensical, rules). While he receives mention in both books, I have to say I was disappointed avant-garde jazz musician John Zorn and his band Naked City aren’t discussed at all. I also thought the distinction between prog metal as an approach to music and Prog Metal as descriptive of the far-too-many Dream Theater clones (Shadow Gallery and Symphony X are the two most well-known) was important, but took up just a little too much space. Honoring the weirdness of Canada’s Voivod, Texas’s Watchtower, Florida’s Atheist, and Germany’s Sieges Even, however, was more than welcome. Richmond Virginia’s Lamb of God, self-described “pure American Death Metal” isn’t mentioned at all, despite both their popularity and inventiveness.

These are minor quibbles. Both books offer both the die-hard fan, the regular fan, and even someone not at all familiar with either musical style or scenes, comprehensiveness, an openness to the varieties that exist under each heading, while still critical of musical shortcomings. Choosing Death in particular drags along discussions of the labels and the politics of the music industry in its discussion, something that fleshes out the context of Death Metal’s various rises and falls. Both books are written by men who are fans of the music as well as real writers – Jeff Wagner is a rock historian; Albert Mudrian is a rock journalist – so the books are free of the kind of bad writing that might plague others who would attempt something as monumental as chronicling these musical genres. Neither book attempts to defend the music in question (much as I did above). The existence and continued popularity of both prog and death metal speak for themselves; the styles need no defense. This lack of any apologetics might seem to bar the door to the non-fan who might be interested in learning more about these two strange sets of sounds. Or, it might offer a non-fan a chance to learn something without any time wasted trying either to explain or defend the musical choices these bands have made.

As I write this closing paragraph, the song “Vertical” by the Polish progressive death metal band Votum plays on Spotify. Clear vocals and keyboards mix with downtuned guitars over odd rhythms, yet all firmly rooted in the dissonance of odd and minor chord progressions. We’ve reached the point where musics cross-pollinate, offering new and interesting opportunities both for musicians and listeners. It will never be popular; these are musical styles that aren’t supposed to be popular. They are what they are, and these two works offer for the reader willing to set aside prejudice the opportunity to learn not only where they came from, but where they might be headed in years ahead.

Sexing The Groove: Popular Music And Gender, edited by Sheila Whiteley

I think I did this same thing several times while reading this essay collection . . .

I really enjoyed this book. The essays range from close readings of music videos to an examination of record collector psychology. The level of discourse is very high, but I also didn’t feel like any of it was too opaque for someone who was less familiar with the subject. This book really offered me something different in the genre of gender/music theory by having such varied subject matter. – Jane Vincent,5 Star Review for Sexing the Groove: Popular Music and Gender, Amazon.com

When a reader buys a dated academic book, usually that reader understands that at least some of the issues raised will not have worn well, while others that have since come to the fore lie beyond the horizon of that work. Billed as an important, even foundational, work introducing not only feminist musicology, but larger issues of feminist cultural criticism, the creation of gendered identity and sexualities, centering on popular music, I found Sexing the Groove to be . . . ahem . . . uneven. One essay, on the construction of maleness and femaleness in the work of Bruce Springsteen reads like the kind of undergraduate essay written by someone who has just discovered the notion of the social construction of gender and sexual identity and sees something profound in deconstructing the characters in the lyrics of mid-period Springsteen. I would have returned the paper, asking for a bit more research (there are only one or two endnotes to this particular essay). Another, a kind of Kantian reading of k. d. lang’s image before and after her coming out in 1992, would be far more interesting if there were even more focus on lang’s changing musical sensibilities from contentious Country Western singer to pop chanteuse. Finally, perhaps the worst of the lot, is a very short essay, “Female Identity And The Woman Songwriter”, end abruptly just at the point where I thought the author was going to keep digging deeper. Again, this essay had a single endnote. I would have sent it back as incomplete.

There are bright spots, here, however: An essay on the Pet Shop Boys – an essay that includes a focus on the musical text itself! – and their playfulness with sexual imagery; an essay on Sinead O’Connor’s evolving presentation of herself; the second of two essays on the 1990’s riot grrrl scene; an analysis of the construction of a variety of masculinities in the videos of 1990’s British boy band Take That. These essays offer real insight, not least including some textual analysis of The Pet Shop Boys that’s important for understanding their larger project, musically as well as musically.

That essay, however – except for a very brief inclusion of the musical text of Madonna’s “Justify My Love” – is like an oasis in a desert. For a book that is supposed to be focusing on Popular Music and Gender, there is a paucity of musical analysis, with much of the matter on the construction of gender highlighting (corporately constructed) images (in the case of Madonna, Take That), lyric conventions (Springsteen), or even completely non-musical arenas such as ‘zines and the popular press (essays on riot grrl). These last, two essays on riot grrrl, seem to understand the music itself as a surd, an irrelevance in the construction of a scene. While the first essay certainly tries to trace a genealogy of riot grrrl through punk back to the Womyn’s Music scene of the early to mid-1970’s, both the method and purpose of the examination is ideological without any grounding in the sounds themselves. If you, as an author are going to say to that Bikini Kill turns punk conventions on their ears but don’t have the ability to talk about that other than discussing how the women dress or the fact they say “fuck” a lot, then perhaps you should be very careful how you make your arguments. Neither essay addresses what, it seems to me, is an important question: Why is it music, in particular this style or genre of music that was attractive to girls and young women in the early and mid-1990’s, getting them to move through the music to social and political activism? One gets the sense, reading these essays, that the music isn’t nearly as important as the larger scene that emerged around the bands that formed riot grrrl consciousness.

The last essay, “Digital Erotics and the Culture of Narcissism”, was already dated when it was included in this volume. With only cursory looks at music videos from ZZ Top, The Talking Heads, and Seal, the author waxes far more about a video art project from the early 1990’s that, while certainly interesting, has nothing at all to do wither with music or gender. Trying desperately to be all Frankfurt School/Marxist-Freudian (Adorno is cited without criticism in this essay), the whole thing ends up a muddle, leaving this reader wondering why the hell it took so long to say nothing at all.

And yet . . .

The really good essays almost – almost – make the book worth purchasing.

And yet . . .

Other than an overview of the Womyn’s Music movement as part of a larger genealogy of riot grrrl, there is no separate treatment on what is surely an important part of the role of popular music and our understanding of gender. Robert Walser is noted several times but there are no essays, say, on the ambiguous hyper-masculinity of heavy metal. Culture Club is mentioned without any discussion of Boy George’s early androgyny and identity as a gay man as opening up popular culture to amorphous polysexualities. The Indigo Girls aren’t mentioned at all. Nor are Ann and Nancy Wilson of Heart, Barbara Streisand, Aretha Franklin, Rob Halford. These are all important touchstones in any real in-depth analysis of popular music and gender/sexuality. Their absence is deeply felt.

I was disappointed in what could have been. I was offended by some of the worst. I was brightened by the occasionally really good essays. I came away, however, with the feeling of finally being done with a chore.

Melting The Venusberg: A Feminist Theology Of Music by Heidi Epstein

Tannhauser In The Venusberg by August von Heckel. As presented by Wagner, the Venusberg is a garden of carnal delights, whose forbidden fruits tantalize.

Music’s theological significance now resides, not in its incarnation of harmony and order, but in its promiscuity and disintegration, that is, in its disorderly conveyance of power, pleasure, and intimacy among willing bodies. – Heidi Klein, Melting The Venusberg: A Feminist Theology Of Music, p.186

Few Christian doctrines are grasped as superficially as the Incarnation. Oh, we say the words of the Creed, that Jesus is both fully human and fully divine. All the same, ever since St. Paul, most likely unconsciously, expressed his culture’s ambivalence regarding embodiment, we Christians have sought to minimize the full import of the declaration that in the man Jesus is the fullness of the divine Son of God. Jesus is a man. He got tired and hungry. He fell ill with all its uncomfortable bodily side-effects. He broke wind after a good meal. He enjoyed wine and festivities. And, yes, he understood sexual arousal at an embodied level. It is this last that we so often refuse even to imagine. How is it possible to claim dogmatically that Jesus of Nazareth was both fully human and fully divine if we cannot accept that this same Jesus understood the power of human sexuality? I suppose imagining Jesus farting is funny enough; there’s just something bordering on blasphemous, however, imagining Jesus having sexual feelings and thoughts.

Of the many gifts feminist and womanist theological re-readings have offered, it is this reclamation of the blessedness of our embodied selves in all their fullness that are most to be celebrated. By turning the tables on millennia of what author Heidi Epstein calls, in the title of one of her chapters, “A Phallic Rage For Order”, we are reintroduced to ourselves as whole beings, body-and-soul indivisible with the possibility that precisely in our enfleshed, embodied existence lies both the reality of salvation as well as a rich source of theological reflection. Overthrowing the dualities of traditional dialectics of body/soul, immanence/transcendence, sacred/ profane, in feminist theologies we are offered the possibility of an integrated understanding of salvation-as-reintegration of that which sin has rent asunder.

Heidi Epstein’s Melting The Venusberg* is an important, I daresay necessary, corrective to much of the tradition of theologizing about music we in the west have continued even to our day. Beginning her deconstructing of the western Christian tradition of theologizing regarding music with the great pre-Socratic philosopher Pythagoras, whose discovery of the way certain harmonic ratios are reflected in numerical ratios and relations, then through Plato’s preference for a restrained, perfectly harmonized music that reflects the image of the Form both of number and music, most of those who have commented on music, from John Chrysostom, St. Augustine, St. Thomas up through the reformers to the 20th century with Karl Barth’s effusive theologizing regarding Mozart and Jaroslav Pelikan’s similarly enraptured commentary on Bach, have insisted that it is this harmonic resonance alone that both demonstrates and embodies the perfection of what Hildegard of Bingen called Jesus as God-made-music.

The western tradition has always maintained that music has an ethical and pedagogical core; in learning of harmony’s numerical perfection, people (men) would be educated into recognizing the goodness, truth, and beauty of Creation (an idea St. Augustine stole from Plato; an idea that continues to influence musicology and theology today). We learn about God through music. As her survey of the history of western theological reflection upon music demonstrates, however, Epstein emphasizes it is not just “music” as some abstract conception, but particular modes, with an emphasis upon harmony rather than either melody or rhythm. Indeed, it was precisely contemporaneous popular musics through the history of the west, with their emphases upon just those other elements, sidelining the numerical perfection of harmony as servant to other masters, that drew Christian commentator’s disdain. Like the Venusberg, music that impacts us bodily is a danger precisely because it is a pleasure and should thus be shunned, even damned.

In our fractured, post-modern, post-Christian context, however, this pursuit of harmonic perfection at the expense of the embodied pleasures of music is no longer even desirable, let alone theoretically defensible. Both theoretically and practically, Epstein offers an understanding of music that is wholly incarnational without ever losing sight that, as such, both sides must exist together. Theoretically, she defines music as a set of embodied practices, keeping it whole rather than, as she says, “dissecting” music’s body by breaking it down to its constituent parts in order to understand its whole. Practically she retrieves Hildegard of Bingen’s apologia for her own and her convent’s music-making against official clerical censure. She tells the story of Renaissance nuns in Bologna who defied clerical bans to create music in a contemporary idiom that was appreciated both for its aesthetic and contemplative powers. She reclaims woman-as-performer – something the west has always denigrated as little more than sexually promiscuous teasing (consider for a moment much of the criticism leveled at Nikki Minaj) – by retelling the stories of Sister Rosetta Tharpe and performance artist Diamanda Galas, we are confronted with the embodied practices of woman as conveyor of (musical) theological truths in subversive, transgressive ways precisely because of the sexual and ethical power they live in and through their musical performances. When we revision ourselves in light of Epstein’s ideas, passion and contemplation are no longer opposites, but inseparably linked through the disharmonies and even dissonances of Music-as-Woman. Rather than emasculating men (something men either covertly or overtly feared, at least according to much musicological theory since the 18th century in particular), a feminist theology of music makes us all, woman and man, whole again as we celebrate not the dialectic of Incarnation but its ever-present duality: always together in the single body of the God-man Jesus of Nazareth.

I’m not sure Epstein’s work is a “great” work, if only because I think the era of “great” theological works is long behind us. I do, however, recommend this book to anyone interested in thinking in new, productive, seductive ways about the revelatory power inherent in music.

*As envisioned by Wagner, the Venusberg is a cave/castle ruled by the eternal temptress, a place both of danger and pleasure. Epstein’s title, therefore, is equivocal in its notion of the “melting” of such a center of female empowerment. I accept, however, that precisely because it’s an obvious metaphor for women’s sexual power over men – a cave filled with both pleasure (sexual intercourse) and danger (dissipation in sexual wantonness; fathering an unwanted child) – the idea of “melting” also has an obvious double entendre I’ll let the reader consider for him- or herself.

Mortality And Music: Popular Music And The Awareness Of Death by Christopher Partridge

A memorial plaque at the site where T-Rex frontman Marc Bolan was killed in an automobile accident

“[A]ffective space . . . refers to music’s prosthetic ability to manipulate emotion and, thereby, to create internal worlds within which meaning is constructed. . . . In other words, music often contextualizes and gives meaning to situations because of what might be thought of as its “intertexutal” relationship to compositional compositions.” – Christopher Partridge, Mortality And Music: Popular Music And The Awareness Of Death, p.65

In 2015, singer-songwriter Steven Wilson released his fourth studio album, Hand. Cannot. EraseA song-cycle revolving around issues of death and mourning, the album was inspired in part by the story of Joyce Carol Vincent.

Joyce Carol Vincent was only 38 years old when she apparently passed away, and 41 years old when her remains were finally found laying on her living room sofa.  Her body was so badly decomposed that the reason of death could not be determined. She was identified from dental records.

And yet no one checked on her for three whole years.

As the author of the above-linked article asks: “How does a person die without anybody noticing for three years?”

Wilson had already composed albums with his band Porcupine Tree that dealt with death – Deadwing and The Incident – and another dealing with teenage angst, Fear Of A Blank Planet, that concludes with a song about suicide, “Let’s Sleep Together”. This was familiar territory for Wilson, and Hand. Cannot. Erase. is powerful and emotionally moving, the issues central to the album’s concept treated with care and a depth of feeling that isn’t always present in popular music.*

While many might consider the idea of creating music around death, especially one such as Ms. Vincent’s, not just morbid but downright depressing, the truth is popular music has always dealt with matters of death and dying, with suicide and murder, even with decay and decompositiion. While the peculiar circumstances of our emerging post-modern sensibilities offer opportunities to understand such music in new and interesting ways, we should always be careful when we judge the often youthful creators of such music, whether it’s Jimi Hendrix performing the murder ballad, “Hey Joe” or Carcass’s “Exhume To Consume“. We aren’t living in some particularly odd time where (some) musicians find ruminations on death fascinating. ‘Twas ever thus.

If Christopher Partridge’s previous major work, The Lyre of Orpheus: Popular Music, The Sacred, and The Profane, set forth a large theoretical framework within which popular music can be understood, as he says many times, as creating affective spaces within which meaning can be created. then Mortality And Music: Popular Music And The Awareness Of Death is the application of this theory to a particular set of musical and lyrical conventions in contemporary popular music concerning themselves with matters of the uncanny, the Gothic (generalized rather than specifically the Goth scene, although including those), suicide, decay and decomposition. I was glad I reread his previous work before reading this newly released volume, offering me the opportunity to revisit the major themes of liminal communities and communitas, the impure sacred, and other concepts that are at the heart of any study of the treatment of death in popular music.

Partridge uses a combination of a sociology of knowledge and cultural criticism to offer the reader opportunities to understand not just the music that inhabits this set of borderline themes but those who find within such music meaning, the book highlights the many layers of meaning within such disparate genres as early post-punk (Joy Division, PIL), folk (Nick Cave), Industrial, Death and Black Metal (Carcass, Cannibal Corpse), and hip-hop (Tupac Shakur, 50 Cent). Never shying away from the equivocal nature of even the best such musics, he nevertheless treats his subject and those involved with respect and understanding. In many ways, his treatment of the subject matter specifically regarding Death Metal is an improvement upon Michelle Phillipov’s Death Metal And Music Criticism: Analysis At The Limits, which is far more an apologia for some of the lyrical excesses of bands like Cannibal Corpse and Carcass. Limiting understanding to such extremes to an aesthetic of playfulness not only offers more meaning to such excesses than they probably deserve, using Partridge’s theoretical framework situates such extremes within the reality of the intertextuality within which all culture should be understood (although I do wish Partridge had included the fact that some of Carcass’s early lyrical excessiveness was rooted in the band’s militant vegetarianism; their wading knee deep in gore did have a socio-political raison d’ete, although it was certainly aided and abetted by youthful willingness to revel in bad taste).

While the book is insightful and will leave the reader both a greater understanding of the “how” and “why” of such musics and the communities who find meaning and communitas within these extremes, there are two issues that I wish to address. First is an editorial matter. Partridge is a lover both of beginning sentences either with adverbs or long adverbial phrases as well as the passive voice. The repeated appearance of “as has been shown”, sentences beginning with “Hence” or “Indeed” (and yes, I’m guilty of this myself; I, however, only have myself as an editor) started to yank me out of the flow of reading. I suppose this is a minor quibble, in the end, as much a matter of a particular reader’s preferences as anything else.

Second, and far more distracting, was his treatment of hip-hop. Treating it solely within a subsection of the chapter, “Morbidity, Violence, and Suicide”, I found “Living on Death Row” to be surprisingly conventional in both its view of such topics within hip-hop and his agreement with many critics who see the political potential of the genre wasting away with the influx of money and increased commercialization. All musics, as Theodor Adorno reminds us, exist under the shadow of capitalist exploitation; even the most boundary-pushing musical style is available to the general public precisely because it makes money. To criticize hip-hop for being commercially successful makes little sense. While Partridge does speak somewhat of the murders of Tupac Shakur and the Notorious B.I.G., he doesn’t spend overtime considering the mythologization of both within hip-hop (his last chapter deals with the deification of dead musical performers and only mentions Shakur’s name; in fact, Shakur is the subject of much mythologization, including, like Jim Morrison, the myth that Shakur faked his own death. Finally, his treatment of hip-hop is far too generalized, making generalizations and sweeping statements about the genre that seem not to recognize the varieties of subgenres and subcultures within hip-hop.

And while I’m writing this, it occurs to me that the fascist and anti-Semitic politics of some of Black Metal, both musicians and fans, should be discussed in any consideration of matters of death and popular music. While Partridge does talk about one of the murders, that of Euronymous by his friend and bandmate Varg Vikernes, and the epidemic of church-burnings in Norway when Black Metal first emerged in that country, he doesn’t speak at all of the murders committed by members of other bands (Emperor’s drummer murdered a man who was trying to solicit sex; one serial killer in Germany and the United States found his identity within both Black Metal and German neo-Nazism) as well as the anti-Semitism of Vikernes (who has spoken and written at length of Norway’s WWII-era occupation leader Vidkun Quisling), Gaahl of Gorgoroth, and others. If the misogyny expressed in hip-hop and some death metal is to be taken seriously as being socially and culturally problematic, then the overt associations with violent, reactionary political movements and the many corpses that lay at the feet of Black Metal should be treated with far more seriousness than I found them to be in this volume.

Having said all that, I still found this book an excellent treatment of a subject too often parodied or ignored or treated with a kind of superficial contempt it doesn’t warrant. Like it’s predecessor (which I would strongly advise reading before reading this volume), Mortality and Music is an important contribution to the exploding discussion of popular music and contemporary society and culture. It has much to say that needs to be said, and it says it well. Whether you’re interested in the religious, cultural, social, or even political meaning of the vast catalog of contemporary popular music’s songs of death, this book will speak to readers in a fresh and interesting light, and within a theoretical framework that demands the subject matter be treated with all the seriousness it deserves.

*I think that’s in part because at the time he wrote and recorded the album, Wilson was 48 years old. Age does offer the opportunity for thoughtfulness.

Dialectic Of Enlightenment by Theodor Adorno & Max Horkheimer, “The Concept Of Enlightenment”

[E]nlightenment is totalitarian as only a system can be. Its untruth does not lie in the analytical method, the reduction to elements, the decomposition through which reflection, as its Romantic enemies had maintained from the first, but in its assumption that the trial is prejudged. When in mathematics the unknown becomes the unknown quantity in an equation, it is mad into something long familiar before any value has been assigned. Nature, before and after quantum theory, is what can be registered mathematically: even what cannot be assimilated, the insoluble and irrational, is fenced in the mathematical theorems. In the preemptive identification of he thoroughly mathematized world with truth, enlightenment believes itself safe from the return of the mythical. It equates thought with mathematics. The latter is thereby cut loose, as it were, turned into an absolute authority. – Adorno & Horkheimer, “The Concept Of Enlightenment”, Dialectic of Enlightenment, p.18

Max Horkheimer is on the left, Theodor Adorno on the right.

In 1922, Karl Barth published the (massively) revised Second Edition of his Epistle To The Romans. Even more clear and to the point than the original, 1919 first edition, Barth took aim at those targets he believed had been part and parcel of Protestant Europe’s complicity in the destruction of the First World War. In this book, often cited without actually being read, Barth did the very thing his Seminary teachers had insisted was impossible – he presented St. Paul’s letter to the Roman Church as a contemporaneous document, the audience being European Protestants struggling to understand what has happened to a civilization both sacred and secular thought had declared above the barbarisms of the past. He didn’t engage in the kind of historical criticism that had been the norm for nearly a century in German-influenced Scripture study. He did not treat the epistle with the proper respect due an historical document; rather, by doing, he through down a gauntlet to the liberal theological establishment in the German-speaking and -influenced world, declaring both their too-clever-by-half assumption of supremacy and their much-vaunted intellectualism as having utterly failed to control Europe’s decent into mass death.

The explosion this book set off, making of Barth – at the time a parish minister in Switzerland, known mostly as a supporter both of Christian Socialism as well as active in his support for local unions – something of both a theological celebrity and pariah. His great teacher, the single most learned church historian ever, Adolf von Harnack, was scathing in his dismissal of his former student’s work. In response, Barth noted that von Harnack had written the infamous “apologia” speech Kaiser Wilhelm II had given, defending Germany’s declaration of war, and thus was a main target of Barth’s polemics.

Love him or hate him, Karl Barth was among the first to understand that, as a cultural force in western life, the Enlightenment had created its very own end precisely by its inability to protect the west from its own worst inclinations. Barth knew well, while never articulating very clearly, that the Enlightenment was like Goya’s painting of Saturn devouring his own children. Rather than something liberating, it was a horror that led to its own inevitable destruction.

A generation later, living in exile in the United States, Max Horkheimer and Theodor Adorno surveyed the barbarism that, at the moment they began working (1943) held the continent of Europe in its grip, and understood the Enlightenment, the cultural reflection of the age of bourgeois dominance in the economy, as having become precisely what its forerunners (they focus on Francis Bacon) had declared it was a liberation from: an age of myth and repression. To the rising bourgeoisie, Enlightenment thought was the cultural reflection of the emerging capitalist economy – an opportunity to free oneself from the shackles of slavery to nature and its cultural reflections in the magical thinking of religion. Now, in the middle of the 20th century, it was clear that the Enlightenment cultural project had come full circle, creating both the final expression of capitalist domination (fascism) with the tools of Enlightenment thought brought in as bulwarks against the new barbarians who would both destroy the west as well as the possibility of thought as an escape from the terror.

In the years since it was first published in 1943, Dialectic of Enlightenment has become one of those touchstones of 20th century thought. Like many such works, it is often mentioned without having been read. Because it is neither easy nor light reading (contemporaries made fun of Martin Heidegger’s odd, often impenetrable, writing style without noting that Adorno and Horkheimer had produced a book almost as unreadable), it is often misrepresented as both more and less than it was. I don’t believe the authors envisioned it as much more than a timely bit of philosophical reflection; the subtitle of the whole work is Philosophical Fragments, after all. Trying to make the essays within as something programmatic, I think, misses the simple point that the authors were answering for themselves the fairly simple question many had been asking since the rise of the Nazi’s: How did this happen? How did the most intellectually and culturally gifted people in western Europe sink into a kind of demonic barbarism from which there would be no escape except utter destruction?

Adorno and Horkheimer are associated with the so-called “Frankfurt School”, but I think even as a name with meaning anything more than the physical location of radical post-World War II thought it really doesn’t hold much weight. Both Adorno and Horkheimer were Marxists, although as Georg Lukacs noted, they were very strange Marxists. Far more interested in culture and its products than class conflict, Adorno in particular took aim less as capitalist society and more at the culture it produced, a culture as violent and barbaric as was the society it reflected.

For Horkheimer and Adorno, it was Bacon’s equation of knowledge as the power of domination and control over nature that is key to understanding how the end result of the Enlightenment project, much like the capitalist society of which it was both a product and defender, had resulted in the kinds of violence and a descent into barbaric primitivism it promised to rescue us. As the authors note several times through the essay, for Bacon the kind of deductive thought Bacon envisaged was a liberation from the control over knowledge that resided at the time as the purview of kings and priests. Because he naively expressed the hope that such knowledge would be available to all, there certainly seemed to be a liberating quality to Bacon’s project.

It was the introduction of power, however, as part of the larger project that subsumed the Enlightenment under the control of the rising capitalist class. Precisely because the bourgeoisie sought to control the growing proletariat, the kind of power Bacon presented as freeing became just another instrument in a long age of increasing instrumental control, both of humanity over nature as well as human control over other human beings. In so doing, they argue, the Enlightenment project had replaced the alleged arbitrariness of ancient power and control through the reification of nature with a priestly class who alone possessed the means for its control and propitiation with the very non-arbitrary power of the machine, of instrumental reason, with the bourgeoisie the possessors of the secrets of control and propitiation. Except what the bourgeoisie sought to control, the industrial workers. Such control was complete and absolute, rendering even thought subservient to the instrumentality of the factory.

Like Plato, contemporary rulers were distrustful of poets and artists, those who sought to express knowledge outside the limits imposed by capitalist means of production. As long as art laid no claim to knowledge, but only isolated aesthetic enjoyment, it was acceptable. Nevertheless, art in all its forms, with poetry at the top of the list precisely because of the danger inherent in poetry undermining the totalitarian logic of the factory and marketplace, were always suspect.

As was true in much of Adorno’s work, the dialectic presented creates a barrier both to clarity of expression as well as precision of understanding. Until one understands that this dialectic, which Adorno was always pushing to the extremes in order to demonstrate the extremity of culture under industrial capitalism, is part and parcel of the larger cultural critique underway, much of the work can seem nearly impossible to understand.

Humans believe themselves free of fear when there is no longer anything unknown. This has determined the path of demythologization, of enlightenment, which equates the living with the nonliving as myth had equated the nonliving with the living. Enlightenment is mythical fear radicalized. The pure immanence of positivism, its ultimate product, is nothing other than a form of universal taboo. Nothing is allowed to remain outside, since the mere idea of the “outside” is the real source of fear. (p.11)

Or again:

Power confers increased cohesion and strength  on the social whole in which it is established. The division of labor, through which power manifests itself socially, serves the self-preservation of the dominated whole. But this necessarily turns the whole, as a whole, and the operation of its immanent reason, into a means of enforcing the particular interest. Power confronts the individual as the universal, as the reason which informs reality. The power of all the members of society, to whom as individuals no other way is open, is constantly summated, through the division of labor imposed on them, in the realization of the whole, whose rationality is thereby multiplied over again. What is done to all by the few always takes the form of the subduing of individuals by the many: the oppression of society always bears the features of oppression by a collective. It is this unity of collectivity and power, and not the immediate social universal, solidarity, which is precipitated in intellectual forms. (p.17)

Precisely because Horkheimer and Adorno understood the processes of history as dialectical rather than linear, it was necessary to present that reality in all its confounding complexity. Once grasped, this method opens up their work, qua literary productboth as a substantive instantiation of the very reality under criticism as well as a kind of poetic protest to the blandness (and falseness) of capitalist Enlightenment and its emphasis upon logic and its rules, a logic that (the authors note in the first quote above) allows nothing outside itself any claim to truth or reality.

A major criticism of much the work of the Frankfurt School has beyond positing a totalitarian intellectual structure that accompanies the totalitarian industrial capitalist structure of which it is both reflection and defender. By refusing to exempt even their own work from the limitations late industrialism imposes upon both culture and thought, some argue, isn’t the very critique offered self-negating? Adorno in particular was prone to argue it wasn’t self-negating so much as limited in scope and of little use programmatically (thus did Lukacs deride their work as a kind of armchair Marxism, a faux-radicalism that sits in its comfortable chair overlooking the abyss around them and commenting with neither experience nor an offer for release upon the chaos around them). Theirs was descriptive rather than proscriptive in part because capitalism and the Enlightenment project offered little in the way of substantive alternatives to their increasingly violent and anti-intellectual demands for rigid conformity.

It has always fascinated me that European Protestant radicals understood the moral vacuum that the Enlightenment had become a generation before secular radicals presented it as the source of its own destruction. In part it was the very division of labor, expressed in the University in the division of the pursuit of knowledge that led to this gap. Barth took a look at the reality of European society destroying itself in the trenches on the one hand, and the grandiose promises of liberal Protestantism as a source of universal brotherhood and peace and knew that one or the other had to be wrong. Barth was, however, focused (at least at that time) on the ways the Enlightenment project in Protestantism had failed in the practice of the actual churches who had, like the socialists in the warring nations, foregone their solidarity for a fervent and suicidal nationalism.

Adorno and Horkheimer, exiles in the United States from the horrors of Nazi Germany, saw the triumph of German arms across Europe as the final expression both of industrial capitalism and Enlightenment. Because they were Marxists (unlike Barth who, while sympathetic to socialism was hardly a secular political radical), they missed the dissolution of the Enlightenment in the horrors of the First World War because they understood that war as capitalism by other means rather some self-destructive impulse embedded within capitalism itself. It took the nightmares of fascism and totalitarianism to make clear that capitalism was nothing more than a degenerate shadow of its former self, the Enlightenment nothing more than an apologia for mass death.

Because of the division of labor, and the disdain with which theology was held (and is still held) by the secular University, the self-destructiveness of the Enlightenment either was missed or dismissed (as it was by von Harnack and others) as a return to an anti-intellectualism that reveled in myth and mystery. Thus is post-modernism still derided by those last, desperate believers in the Enlightenment project as a going concern in western society. Even as industrial capitalism is replaced by the service economy (which includes as its highest embodiment a group once understood as leeches upon the body politic, the investment banker), there are those who insist the Enlightenment is our only hope of escape, with post-modernism being little more than the old myth and religion gussied up in fancy words and phrases.

We live in an age in which the critiques of capitalism, its religious expression in western Europe in liberal Protestantism and cultural expression in the Enlightenment, have borne themselves out. We continue to scramble in the dust, understanding that ours should not be the creation of any edifice that upholds a society continuing its bent toward self-destruction. I believe that, while a creation and creature of its historical moment, “The Concept of Enlightenment” can at the very least offer us the possibility of escaping the traps that still exist in a capitalist society gone senile.

Hannah Arendt, “Walter Benjamin”, Men In Dark Times

To put it bluntly, it would be as misleading today to recommend Walter Benjamin as a literary critic and essayist as it would have been misleading to recommend Kafka of 1924 as a short-story writer and novelist. The describe adequately his work and him as an author within our usual framework of reference, one would have to make a great many negative statements, such as: his erudition was great, but he was no scholar; his subject matter comprised texts and their interpretation, but he was no philologist; he was greatly attracted not by religion but, “Walter Benjamin by theology and the theological type of interpretation for which the text itself is sacred, but he was no theologian and he was not particularly interested in the Bible; he was a born writer, but his greatest ambition was to produce a work consisting entirely of quotiations; he was the was the first Germ to translate Proust (together with Franz Hess) and St.-John Perse, and before that he had translated Baudelaire’s Tablueax Parisiens, but he was no translator; he reviewed books and wrote a number of essays on living and dead writers, but he was no literary critic; he wrote a book about the German baroque and left behind a huge unfinished study of the French nineteenth century, but he as no historian, literary or otherwise; I shall try to show that he thought poetically, but he was neither a poet nor a philosopher. – Hannah Arendt, “Walter Benjamin”, Men In Dark Times, pp.155-156


The themes which monastic discipline assigned to friars for meditation were designed to turn them away from the world and its affairs.  The thoughts which we are developing here originate from similar considerations.  At a moment when the politicians in whom the opponents of Fascism had placed their hopes are prostrate and confirm their defeat by betraying their own cause, these observations are intended to disentangle the political worldlings from the snares in which the traitors have entrapped them.  Our consideration proceeds from the insight the the politicians’ stubborn faith in progress, their confidence in their “mass basis,” and, finally, their servile integration in an uncontrollable apparatus have been three aspects of the same thing.   It seeks to convey an idea of the high price our accustomed thinking will have to pay for a conception of history that avoids any complicity with the thinking to which these politicians continue to adhere. – Walter Benjamin, “Theses On The Philosophy Of History”, in Illuminations, ed. by Hannah Arendt, trans. by Harry Zohn, p. 258

Walter Benjamin at work

Walter Benjamin at work

Georg Lukacs wrote of some members of the Frankfurt School, Adorno in particular:

A considerable part of the leading German intelligentsia, including Adorno, have taken up residence in the “Grand Hotel Abyss” which I described […] as “a beautiful hotel, equipped with every comfort, on the edge of an abyss, of nothingness, of absurdity. And the daily contemplation of the abyss between excellent meals or artistic entertainments, can only heighten the enjoyment of the subtle comforts offered.

In much the same way, Adorno was critical of his mentor and friend Walter Benjamin’s “Art in the Age of Mechanical Production”, “I am all too aware of the weakness of the work. And this consists, to put it crudely, in the tendency to engage in Jeremiads and polemics” (Quoted in Richard Leppert, ed., Theodor Adorno: Selected With Introduction, Commentary, and Notes, p.249n78), a charge I find all the more fascinating and lacking in ironic self-awareness considering Adorno’s tendency toward the exaggerated statement for elucidating a far more mundane point (something Lepper, the editor of the above volume of Adorno’s writings on music, notes early and often as part of Adorno’s “style”). Indeed, “Art In The Age Of Mechanical Production” may well be one of the most positive statements regarding the revolutionary potential of popular art (film in this case) from a leftist perspective written in the 20th century.

Just as Lukacs became contemptuous of the kind of too-comfortable armchair dialectics of Adorno and his circle, Adorno’s rejection of Benjamin precisely because he was “undialectic” (quoted in Arendt, p.162) and spoke scathingly of Benjamin’s “attempt to capture the portrait of history in the most insignificant representations of reality, its scraps, as it were.” (Arendt, p.163), sprung both from a fairly meritorious critical eye which nevertheless missed the deeper heart of the one being criticized. While it may well have been the case that Adorno’s life was just a tad too comfortable for one claiming a mantle as a revolutionary, so, too, were Benjamin’s works, in Arendt’s words, the strangest kind of Marxism. For Benjamin, however, his dedication to the revolutionary cause, while certainly a vital part of the intellectual toolkit he brought to every task – he came very close to joining the party in the mid-1920’s – was nevertheless uncomfortable enough with Marxist dialectics and a materialism stripped of its spiritual dimension that even to call him a Marxist (Lukacs mentions Benjamin as among his circle of “comrades” for which he grew contemptuous) is a fundamental misunderstanding of the man and his work.

Born in 1892, coming of age just prior to World War I, seeing little in Weimar Germany to recommend itself either to himself as critic or to others as a writer, finally trapped within the maelstrom of history in western Europe in the 1930’s, Benjamin took his own life after, having already made an arduous trek through southwestern France, precious papers in hand to allow him passage, he arrived at the Spanish border the day Spain closed its doors (albeit temporarily; no one, of course, could have known this at the time) to refugees from unoccupied France. His decision to end his own life, while certainly tragic (Berthold Brecht wrote that Benjamin’s death was the first real victory for the Nazi’s against German literature), was, given the circumstances, easily understandable. Not well known in his own time, his closest friends and supporters long since gone to the United States, and his physical, emotional, financial, and probably psychological resources spent, how is one person suppose to stand against the juggernaut of that moment in European history?

All the same, I think Arendt’s inclusion of Benjamin in a volume dedicated to extraordinary people living through extraordinary times (essay subjects include Lessing, Pope John XXIII, Brecht, and Karl Jaspers along with Benjamin and a couple others) is more than a little misleading. Benjamin was, alas, no more a product and commentator upon his times than he was a “simple” literary critic or historian or theologian. Indeed, paying attention to Arendt’s descriptions of Benjamin’s work, the themes she emphasizes, and the examples she cites, it becomes clear that Walter Benjamin was far more a man of the 19th century, particularly 19th century Paris with its rich bohemian subculture, than of the 20th. He was well educated yet could not bear the thought of academe. Like many children of that first generation of German Jews to succeed at assimilation, Benjamin neither considered himself “Jewish” nor did he wish so to be perceived, yet he ran up against official and cultural and social anti-Semitism throughout his life, policies that restricted what he as an unbaptized yet also unpracticing Jew could achieve. Despite this, throughout his adult life, he flirted (at the very least) with Zionism, having made friends with Gerhard Scholem before the First World War broke out. He was constantly writing Scholem that he was considering emigration to Jerusalem, yet he could never quite make the leap precisely because it involved labeling both his person and his work indelibly as “Jewish”, something he didn’t care to do.

Like the description Arendt gives in the epigrammatic quote concerning Benjamin’s literary interests and output, Benjamin was also jealous of his own prerogative concerning the kind of man, the individual, he wished to be. Arendt uses a the French word flâneur as what best suits Benjamin. It is no surprise that part of his never-completed Arcades project saw light under the title “Die flâneur”. The flâneur were a type, not quite a class and certainly not a “community” as we would understand it, who had a certain presence in 19th century Paris. Often derided as bums, they were children of wealthy bourgeois homes who, having no responsibilities to themselves or others, would wander through the streets and arcades and boulevards of Paris, taking in what there was to see and hear, experiencing what there was to experience, without any particular rhyme or reason. Obviously there is something more than a little decadent (both in literal and political uses of the word) about such living. At the same time, there’s an attractiveness to the kind of freedom – freedom from financial worry; freedom from interpersonal responsibility; freedom from the any sense of a purpose or end to such activities – that still appeals. They were, in a word, bohemians, although perhaps without the aesthetic self-consciousness of some such.

Benjamin was comfortable in academic work (his Habilitationschrift was a study of German Baroque Tragedy), with the popular essay (“Unpacking My Library”), critical appreciation (essays on Brecht and Kafka), and even venturing a typically Marxist style and subject matter (“Theses On History”). He both desired the approval of academics, yet because of the demand that he be baptized before he could serve on a University faculty (that would have required him acknowledging his Jewishness as definitive, something he never wanted to do), was never really desirous of such a position. He could play with a variety of vocabularies – Marxist, theological, aesthetic, poetic – without either losing his distinctive voice; he could use these styles without ever becoming so immersed in them he lost his particularity. That particularly after the First World War Benjamin always kept his options open both with Zionism and Communism (two ideologies that vocally detested one another), he never concerned himself even with having to make a choice. He faced the criticisms of friends (Adorno) and mentors (Scholem) with a kind of equanimity borne, I think, from a kind of self-awareness that allowed him to know they just didn’t get him.

What to many might seem the inconsequential, perhaps even dilettante, concerns – his bibliomania, for one; an incident, highlighted by Arendt, of Benjamin becoming enthralled by two grains of wheat upon which a prayerful soul had inscribed the entire Shema Israel – and see in them an importance that others, far more concerned with the scope and sweep of History, not only wouldn’t see, but couldn’t see. This, too, is a kind of aestheticism, a very 19th century attitude toward life and the world that was very much out of place in a world riven first by tragedy in Benjamin’s early adulthood, soon to be destroyed completely. Most intellectuals considered the First World War, with its destruction of a species of European cosmopolitanism, a “turning point” in the most literal way: historical reality had invalidated the best hopes of the previous century and there was, thus, no going back. Yet it was Benjamin who wrote in his “Theses on History” that history was an Angel, her eyes turned toward the wreckage of the past, always being pulled backwards with the present moment. For Benjamin, that wreckage was both very real yet also still held the truth of what had constituted it in the very piles of dust and brick and bone and blood. Far happier in Paris than he ever had been in his native Berlin, far more attracted to the minutiae of life than to the grand sweep of History, quite happy to write quasi-Marxist cultural criticism or an appreciation of Brecht’s early works, Benjamin was far more a creature of an irretrievable past than he was the historical moments through which he lived.

We usually consider people to be products primarily of the social, political, economic, and cultural conditions within which they live. Benjamin, however, while never rejecting his own times, was nevertheless a half-conscious throwback. His “No” to his times – exemplified in his adoption of a Marxist vocabulary while never fully embracing either Marxism or the Communist Party – was as much a desire to reclaim a better past as it was a hope in a future no longer touched by the desolation of his own particular times.

There is something tragically heroic in such a stance, one which understands one’s own time only as a negation both of what has been and what will be. As long as life promises possibilities, it is easy enough to face adversity and continue to struggle on. Facing the full wrath of Historical forces beyond anyone’s ability either to withstand or even comprehend, however, that ghostly past and evanescent future can be crushed along with everything else. Thus was Benjamin’s end, death by his own hand, comprehensible. The gigantic machinery of mass death was pushing hard upon him, resisted by the equally strong forces of those who, acting out of fear, became its unwitting agents, would leave few of us the wherewithal to carry on. If the First World War had destroyed the 19th century, it is not hard to imagine one such as Walter Benjamin, believing the Gestapo was close on his heels and his only escape route now closed, to understand this new war, waged by demonic forces of anti-culture and anti-humanity, might well destroy not only the 20th, but perhaps the 21st as well.

It has been the work of many to resurrect Benjamin’s life and work, reconstitute his correspondence, and try  best to explain this one individual, lost in his own time, to those who have come after who, perhaps, feel more than a little affinity for one who just wasn’t completely at home in his own times. His subject matter might seem to be inconsequential. His style might seem eclectic, even precious on occasion. His scope of interests  are not quite as clear if we consider only what was published in his lifetime. All the same, this incomplete life (Benjamin was three years younger than I am now when he died) and his incomplete work together demonstrate that even fragments can be meaningful.

After all, someone once wrote the Shema Israel on two grains of wheat. In the scraps of life we might yet find the whole of history, if we are willing to look with enough care.