David Dault, “Karl Barth, Yves Klein, and Lou Reed’s ‘Metal Machine Music’ “

Yves Klein, Proposition Monochrome, 1957

Yves Klein, Proposition Monochrome, 1957

God’s liberating action might itself be every bit as overwhelming, ineffable, and terrifying as that from which we are liberated.  Arthur A. Cohen’s description of the attempts of contemporary theology to grapple with the horror of the Shoah is symmetrical to this inbreaking of God unto human salvation: “clearly thinking the enormous event is one thing, comprehending and expressing its meaning quite anoter.”  Indeed, as Cohen continues, “The thinker has no choice but to stand precariously within his own limitation when he trie to speak . . . about the nature of God.

Is there hope, then, for a gesture that does not consist in “trying to speak?” – David Dault, “To The Void: Karl Barth, Yves Klein, and Lou Reed’s Metal Machine Music“, in Beaudoin, ed., Secular Music & Sacred Theology, p. 5

When I finished this the first essay in Beaudoin’s collection, I was sorely disappointed.  It is one thing to grapple with Lou Reed’s uncanny, contentious Metal Machine Music.  It is another to come to terms with Yves Klein’s blue canvasses as, in the painter’s words, “realistic”.  My real problem came in using Barth’s Romerbrief as the beginning of our theological wrestling match.  Yet, as I sat down to write this, with Part I of Metal Machine Music ringing in my ears, and considered again the point  Dault is trying to make – which is clear enough in his title – I realized that beginning with Barth’s earliest, and most famous and shortest, contribution fits in well with that with which Dault is trying to say:

It is this problem of naming that infects the twentieth century (especially so, with the Shoah’s dark specter interrupting all delimitations of apprehension, and , following Adorno, even the possibility of poetry  itself).  Moreover, as with all centuries, when speaking of God, we risk both over-familiarity and domestication or run aground upon the limits of language and terror of the divine.  For several of the church fathers, the way forward was apophasis, the path of negative theology, by which we speak only with assurance of what God is not.  God cannot be contained and, therefore, God cannot be contained in language.

The response of the Romantic, however, is not an apophatic response; neither is it a positive one.  Rather, in a tertium quid to the positivism of scientific modernism and the via negativa of the ancients, Romanticism bequeaths us a vocabulary of gestures.  In contrast to both positivism and apophaticism, the gestural vocabulary of Romanticism points to the Abyss, noting it without naming, locating it without logic. . . . . Romanticism apprehends from within the overwhelming immentsity of the Sublime.  This is not a conventional form of logical naming.  Instead, falling down the crest of the wave into the unknown below, one may there sing “Of Truth, of Grandeur, Beauty, Love and Hope/and melancholy Fear subdued by Faith,” not because one knows these things, but because in that moment the one so singing is consumed by them.

From there, Dault moves first to Barth’s early understanding of the Christ-event in the life of the Church:

The “presence” of the void is not a formal presence, and therefore does not offer itself positively.  However, precisely to the degree the cratering can be comprehended as void, it can be “named” as such.  The “absence” within the void is not an apophatic absence; it does not confound our language.  Instead, what Barth seems to be suggesting here is the tertium quid, between positive naming and the refusal to name.  For Barth, the crater in question is not (as commentators often fail to emphasize) simply the crater of a bombshell; rather, it is the crater ripped in our cosmos by the tangential intersection of the Holy Spirit with our reality.  The absence that marks this crater is not merely a void in an earthly sense.  Rather it is the Void: a frontier,” an alien “new world” unto its own , indecipherable in its presence, yet undeniably present in the event of Christ’s Resurrection. (p. 7)

In other words, modernist theology, art, and music attempted throughout the 20th century to tread a fine line between that of which we can speak, and that of which nothing can ever be spoken.  Thus, Klein’s monochromatic canvasses – which even granted him a color to honor the particular shade of blue with which he worked – are not abstract at all.  They are, in fact, an expression of that Light inexpressible, that came in to the world and which never succumbed to the darkness:

Klein unequivocally rejects the conventions of line and form in painting, dismissing them as a “prison window” of psychological limitation.  “Lines concretize our mortality,” Klein writes.  “Color, on the other hand, is the natural and human measure; it bathes in a cosmic sensibility.  The sensibility of a painter is not encumbered by mysterious nooks and crannies.  Contrary to what the line tends to lead us to believe . . . color is sensibility become matter – matter in its first, primal state.”  Klein’s monochromes were not abstract; rather, they were absolutely factual representations of reality.(p.10)

Which is where we come, now, to Lou Reed’s Metal Machine Music.  There is so much controversy over this record, not least whether it was a joke he played on his record company to finish up a contractual obligation.  After all, all he did was place an electric guitar, hooked up to an amplifier, with a speaker placed across from the amplifier, the speaker and amp wired together.  He turned everything up to ten, and recorded it.  That is Metal Machine Music.

Despite his more than occasional coyness about the album, Reed insisted it was legitimate music (although I would never go quite as far as rock critic Lester Bangs who insisted it was rock and roll’s first true artistic masterpiece).  Dault writes on p. 12:

In this assertion that Metal Machine Music represents the “molten essence” of rock we hear an echo of Klein’s assertion that his blue monochromatic paintings simply represent blue.”  Luke Klein’s work, Reed’s album is troubling to those who seek clear boundaries of style and genre; where Klein’s detractors may have demanded he add a line or a dot of contrast to his monochromes to render them “acceptable,” one also hears in the early critical reception of Metal Machine Music the condemnation of Reed for his refusal to offer any semblance of structure.

Dault’s argument is the congruence between the early theology of Barth, the art of Klein, and Reed’s “experiment” in noise-as-music are all Romanticist gestures toward that which cannot be named, yet is experienced, going by various names as the Abyss or the Void.  As such, Barth’s insistence that in fact the Christ-event is like a crater in history, leaving nothing as it was is little different than Klein’s claim for representationalism in his monochrome canvasses and Reed’s insistence that noise could not only be musical, but cut to the core of what a particular type of music is (or at least should be).  It is an approach fully within a modernist approach to the intersection of theology and culture, which is where my real criticisms lie.

That Abyss that cannot or refuses to be named is something post-modernism has come to accept.  Except it does so not as a Divine Event, or as singular color, or even as noise.  Post-modern humanity can leave God behind without a backward glance; post-modern humanity is far more concerned with the plurality of colors, how they fit together, although not as determined from above, but as they fit themselves together each day; finally, post-modern humanity has left Reed’s Metal Machine Music largely as historical artifact.  Some musicians, even the best, say in hip-hop, understand the potential in Reed’s reduction of rock and roll to is most pure essence.  All the same, contemporary music is so fragmented, with perhaps hip-hop being the one style that one could call dominant without being laughed at, Metal Machine Music is no more influential, musically or culturally, than the Moody Blues use of the Mellotron.  What Dault wishes to describe as a possible intersection for comprehension – particularly in the wake of the Holocaust, which calls for silence as much as it does a way of which to speak of it – is far more a relic of an era in which we no longer live.  The most horrible part of that reality is that we have reduced the Holocaust to a word; the unspeakable has become common political currency; the unthinkable act has been repeated over and over across the globe.  Precisely because of modernity’s refusal to name that which is unnameable, we who live in its wake have become far too familiar with the crater Barth describes, a crater that is the all-too-common mass grave.  Klein’s monochrome is no longer blue, except perhaps as the color of a world saddened by our inability to tame the beast within.  And the reduction of modernity’s most popular music to so much noise is much like the screaming of the tormented millions whose lives have been lost because we in the churches would rather stand aghast at what we humans have become than name the Abyss for what it is.

In a sense, then, my real disappointment is this essay is a piece out of time.  Had we been able to articulate these things as clearly and as well as Dault has done a generation and more ago, the Churches might well have been at the forefront of the fight against our ongoing inhumanity.  Instead, we fight battles that are irrelevant, or worse, counterproductive.  The world, in the meantime, spins along, leaving more death as the terminator sneaks around the globe.