Reflections Of Nazism: An Essay On Kitsch & Death – Saul Friedlander

Ultimately only the nothingness remains. – Saul Friedlander, Reflections Of Nazism: An Essay on Kitsch And Death, trans. Thomas Weyr, p.70

The Reichstag an empty shell, Berlin burns as the Red Army seizes the city, 1945

In 1932, at the behest of a Committee of The League Of Nations, Albert Einstein and Sigmund Freud engaged in an exchange on the questions both of the nature of war and its possible solutions.* Of interest here is Freud’s discussion of the so-called “death instinct”, which he related to an inversion of our instinct for self-preservation, which usually involves aggression.. . . .

I would like to dwell a little longer on this destructive instinct which is seldom given the attention that its importance warrants. With the least of speculative efforts we are led to concluded that this instinct functions in every living being, striving to work its ruin and reduce life to its primal state of inert matter. Indeed, it might well be called the “death instinct”; whereas the erotic instincts vouch for the struggle to live on. The death instinct becomes an impulse to destruction when, with the aid of certain organs, it directs its action outward against external objects. . . .But, in one of its activities, the death instinct is operative within the living being and we have sought to trace back a number of normal and pathological phenomena to this introversion of the destructive instinct.

Often thought to be at the very least optimistic regarding the efficacy of psychoanalysis to help individuals heal their hidden pains and those deeper illnesses that often cripple them, in fact Freud was far less sanguine about the possibility of improving either the individual or human society. The pervasiveness of this “death instinct”, for Freud, set limits upon any balance that psychoanalysis could achieve, either in the individual or in society. Even at our best, a part of us pursues our self-destruction with more or less strength and purpose.

I offer this by way of Introduction as one possible explanation for the piece missing from Saul Friedlander’s essay on the state of Nazi historiography in the late-70’s and early-80’s in Europe. While fastening upon the incongruous ideas of “kitsch” and “death” as ways to understand what he calls “the unease” that comes from encountering a new wave of artistic explorations of Nazi Germany. For all these concepts can account not only for that frisson, but also the unease that comes from a vague fear that, by attempting to explain the years from 1933-1945 in Germany, we come perilously close to mimicking (thus the preposition “of” not “on” in the title) the very attraction that resulted in Germany pulling the Western World down around it in its death throes.

Of kitsch, Friedlander quotes Abraham Moles, who wrote that it is

pinnacle of good taste in the absence of taste, of art in ugliness – a branch of mistletoe under the lamp in a railway waiting room, nickeled plate glass in a public place, artificial flowers gone astray in Whitechapel, a lunch box decorated with Vosges fir – everyday Gemutlichkeit, art adapted to life where the function of the adaptation exceeds that of innovation. (p. 25)

Of death, Friedlander means nothing more or less than both the event itself as well as our mixed feelings of horror and fascination regarding it. Mixed together, Friedlander contends, we experience a “frisson” that thrilling chill up the back of encountering the unexpected, something that brings with it both fascination and unease. While Friedlander concedes the need for a new discourse on Nazism, this essay concerns itself with how this discourse, encountered in literature and film, leads terrifyingly close to that which it seeks to illumine – the attraction of the person of Adolf Hitler and the ideology and practice of Nazism. His is an essay less of explanation and more of caution.

The work is short, yet filled with references to films as different as The Night Porter and Hitler, a Flim from Germany; books as different as Steiner’s The Portage to San Cristobal of A.H. and The Ogre. Friedlander sets to one side Gunther Grass’s The Tin Drum as being part of an earlier discourse regarding Nazism, while Styron’s Sophie’s Choice is far too problematic for inclusion. Through it all, Friedlander is exercised to demonstrate the marriage of kitsch and death that is at the heart of the new discourse’s attempt to portray the reality of the times, all the while more-than-flirting with the very same attraction that left much of the world desolate. He writes on p. 26, “Beneath today’s reflection, one catches a glimpse of certain fundamental components of yesterday’s Nazi hold on the imagination.”

Friedlander, however, cannot escape a central reality of the Third Reich: “One couldn’t insist too much on the primordial aspect of the theme of death in Nazism itself”. (p, 41)

Beyond economic or political objectives, what formed the basis of the Nazi world view, what drove Hitler and his acolytes, “was the fascination that destruction and the love of death exercised on them.”

He brushes up against the truth in his chapter on the man Hitler (as well as the persona as portrayed in biography and fiction):

The fact is under Nazism Hitler was indeed the object of desire, not necessarily the actual person , , , but the idealized image of the chief expressing both a universal sentimentality and the attraction to nothingness that sometimes seizes contemporary crowds. (p.76)

It is impossible to overstate the erotic imaginary regarding Adolf Hitler. Usually sentimentalized, these expressions only made all the more clear the real passion Hitler and his movement aroused not just in this or that person but in the whole German nation. Friedlander, however, isn’t willing to take this insight too far as a tool for satisfactory discourse on the Reich or its Fuehrer A dedicated historian, Friedlander sees in this so much irrationality, a jury from which there is no appeal.

Yet he concedes that understanding, even with the aid of the new discourse, the marriage of kitsch and death, the original appeal of Hitler and his movement seems to defy explanation:

The emotional hold Hitler and his movement maintained on many Germans to the bitter end, and well beyond the frontiers of the Reich, the spell it wove for so many people, the actual mutation of behavior it set off, defies all customary interpretation . . .(p, 120)

Because he’s an honest historian, Friedlander understands the centrality of anti-Semitism to Nazism itself as well as to its historical and political practice and policies. At the heart of this movement lies something beyond traditional political or economic historiography. This inability to comprehend the horror is the result, in part, from what Friedlander sees as the mutilations of language used both by the bureaucrats of mass death as well as historians in describing the events of the Final Solution. Both operate not least to protect those for whom linguistic and literary clarity would offer only madness. In the slaughter of the Jews of Europe, we have to do with those extra-dimensional beings of which H. P. Lovecraft wrote that seeing them fully would destroy the human mind. Thus it is our language is sanitized in order to keep us from too close a brush with the unimaginable. Comprehending this confounding reality leaves not only what was then a new discourse, but Friedlander himself, with an unease, precisely because, as Friedlander writes at the end of his essay, “Submission nourishes fury, fury clears is conscience in the submission To the opposing needs, Nazism – in the constant duality of its representations – offers an outlet; in fact, Nazism found itself to be the expression of these opposing needs. Today these aspirations are still there, and their reflections in the imaginary as well.” (p. 135)

As we Americans live through our own precarious moment – a moment during which the end is not yet clearly in sight; shall we recover from the collective madness of a plurality of our fellows or plunge into an abyss that will bring about destruction on a scale not even imaginable? – it is important to keep in mind that the piece missing from Friedlander’s study of a new form of discourse disregarded, on some kind of principle, the very thing the Third Reich demonstrated so clearly: We human beings can, through a variety of historical and social processes, end up not just proposing but actively seeking not just our own destruction but the destruction of all that is. It took six years, much the rest of the world, and tens of millions of dead finally to  bring down these angels of death. We might yet halt our fall, should we only recognize the sometimes erotic desire for our own collective destruction that can lie deep within the human heart. We ignore this not only to our own peril, but that of much of the rest of the world.

*I’ll be referencing the exchange included in Einstein On Peace, although the exchange is also included in Basic Book’s International Psycho-Analysis Library edition, Vol. 5 of Freud’s Collected Papers under the title “Why War?”


Minima Moralia: Reflections On A Damaged Life – Theodor Adorno

The only philosophy which can be responsibly practised in face of despair is the attempt to contemplate all things as they would present themselves from the standpoint of redemption – Thodor Adorno, Minima Moralia: Reflections On A Damaged Life, No. 153, p.247

Theodor Adorno

Writing about Theodor Adorno’s works presents challenges to even the best reviewer. Seeing as I’m hardly one such, I think it best to break things up just a bit, if for no other reason than clarity. And clarity about this little work is necessary, because for all its datedness, its rootedness in the historical moment of its creation, it is still a very important work of a very important person. I wouldn’t go as far as one reviewer from The Observer, quoted on the back cover, that it contains Adorno’s “best thoughts”. For all it is short, it covers an enormous range of the human experience.


Why Minima Moralia? In what way was Adorno’s life “damaged”? Adorno speaks to the first in his dedication to his friend and colleague, Max Horkheimer:

[T]he relation between life and production, which in reality debases the former to an ephemeral appearance of the latter, is totally absurd. Means and end are inverted. A dim awareness of this perverse quid pro quo has still not been quite eradicated from life. Reduced and degraded essence tenaciously resists the magic that transforms it into a facade. The change in the relations of production themselves depends largely on what takes place in the ‘sphere of consumption’, the mere reflection of production and caricature of true life: in the consciousness and unconsciousness of individuals. Only by virtue of opposition to production, as still not wholly encompassed by this order, can men bring about another more worthy of human beings. (p.15)

In other words, the best we can hope for in late capitalist society is a view of the moral life at its bare minimum.

As to the damage, he writes in No. 13, p.33:

Every intellectual in emigration is, without exception, mutilated, and does well to acknowledge it to himself, if he wishes to avoid being cruelly apprised of it behind the tightly-closed doors of his self-esteem. He lives in an environment that must remain incomprehensible to him, however flawless his knowledge of trade-union organsiations or the automobile industry may be; he is always astray. . . . The isolation is made worse by the formation of closed and politically-controlled groups, mistrustful of their members, hostile to those branded different.

On Style And Method

Minima Moralia is described as “aphoristic”. The problem with such a description is that it really isn’t. The masters of the aphoristic reflection rooted in philosophical commitments, Nietzsche and the French/Romanian pessimist E. M. Cioran, wouldn’t recognize Adorno’s work as the same as theirs at all. The latter two gentlemen are “masters” precisely because they are able to reduce their most important insights to the shortest, pithiest of sayings. Many are only a sentence or two in length. At his shortest and clearest, Adorno cannot reduce what he wants to say to such things. His insistence on dialectic as the only method worthy of pushing through the crudity and totalitarian tendencies of late capitalist thought leaves him with the necessity of offering his thoughts less as aphorisms and more as incomplete reflections that nevertheless offer the reader a chance to see a prodigious intellect at work.

Thus it is that, in his attempt to offer short observations, Adorno has little choice but to leave the understanding of “short” to those who know this word can have many meanings.

And yet . . .

No. 144, pp. 224-225, speaks of the political power of art in an age where art  is degraded:

In the magic of what reveals itself in absolute powerlessness, of beauty, at once perfection and nothingness, the illusion of omnipotence is mirrored negatively as hope. It has escaped every trial of strength. Total purposelessness give the lie to the totality of purposefulness in the world of domination, and  by drawing the conclusion from its own principle of reason, has existing society up to now become aware o another that is possible.

Adorno could have simply written: In its transcendence art offers an alternative that is better than the present.  Precisely because he cannot write such a thing due to the demands both of method and style, however, we are left with this far more engaging, and I might add beautiful, paean to the power of art.

Minima Moralia

As I worked my way through Part I, my first thoughts were that Adorno was doing little more than using his platform as a philosopher of some repute to bitch about the conditions in which he found himself in wartime America. I even thought of including the picture below to best capture the tenor and tone of what I was reading:

A somewhat fair description of some of Adorno’s Minima Moralia

For example, here is No. 21, p. 42:

We are forgetting how to give presents. Violation of the exchange principle has something nonsensical and implausible about it: here and there even children eye the giver suspiciously, as if the gift were merely a trick to sell them brushes or soap.

No. 25, pp. 46-47:

The past life of emigres is, as we know, annulled. Earlier it was the warrant of arrest, today it is intellectual experience, that is declared non-transferable and unnaturalizable. Anything that is not reified, cannot be counted and measured, ceases to exist.

No. 28, on p 48, is really quite amusing.

The shortcomings of the American landscape is not so much, as romantic illusion would have it, the absence of historical memories, as that it bears no traces of the human hand. This applies not only to the lack of arable land, the uncultivated woods often no higher than scrub, but above all to the roads. These are always inserted directly in the landscape, and the more impressively smooth and broad they are, the more unrelated and violent their gleaming track appears against its wild, overgrown surroundings.

Some of this has the air of an Old World petty aristocrat arriving in “vulgar” America and seeing and experiencing all that confirms his bias. Adorno merely dresses up his complaints in the dialectic of critical theory, trying to make them sound less bitchy and more authoritative. This reaches a kind of absurd, quaint, and comical peak with No. 75, pp. 116-117:

Probably the decline of the hotel dates back to the dissolution of the ancient unity of inn and brothel, nostalgia for which lives on in every glance directed at the displayed waitress and the the tell-tail gestures of the chamber-maids. But now that the innkeeper’s trade, the most honourable of the professions in the sphere of circulation, has been purged of its last ambiguities, such as still cling to the word ‘intercourse’, things have become very bad.

Were these the only things about which Adorno wrote, I would have set the work aside. There is so much more. Reflections on patriarchy and feminism. Thoughts on how society has distorted sex and the pursuit of love. And always, always the constant refrain that the culture industry dictates both the limits and terms of what is and is not permissible, not because of bourgeois morality so much as it serves as a functionary of the larger forces of production.

On patriarchy and sex, he reaches a kind of stylistic and insightful peak in No. 112, p. 174:

The bourgeois needs the [harlot], not merely for pleasure, which he grudges her, but to feel himself a god. The nearer he gets to the edge of his domain and the more her forgets his dignity, the more blatant becomes the ritual of power. The night has its joy, but the whore is burned notwithstanding.

In No. 124, p. 194, Adorno writes the following on the insidiousness of the culture industry’s distortion of small ‘d’ democracy through the medium of film, in this case 1946’s The Best Years Of Their Lives:

When, in the most successful film of a year, the heroic squadron leader returns to be harassed by petty-bourgeois caricatures as a drug-store jerk, [the elite] not only gives the spectator an occasion for unconscious gloating but in addition strengthens them in their conviction that all men are really brothers. Extreme injustice becomes a deceptive facsimile of justice, disqualification of equality. Sociologists, however, ponder the grimly comic riddle: where is the [American] proletariat?

In the midst of it all, however, comes my favorite, No. 114, pp. 177-178. It is nothing more or less than a quaint, charming recollection of the power of real human encounters upon children. Reading it, I thought more of Adorno’s friend Ernst Bloch. In both tone and style, it sounds far more like the more-than-occasionally whimsical Utopian than the hard-boiled critical theorist:

When a guest comes to stay with his parents, a child’s heart beats with more fervent expectation than it ever did before Christmas. . . .Among all those nearest him, as their friend, appears the figure of all that is different. The soothsaying gypsy, let in by the front door, is absolved in the lady visitor and transfigured into a rescuing angel. From the joy of greatest proximity she removes the curse by wedding it to utmost distance. For this the child’s whole being is waiting, and so too, later, must he be able to wait who does not forget what is best in childhood. Love counts the hours until the one when the guest steps over the threshold and imperceptibly restores life’s washed-out colours.

I was reminded of a Christmas when my older sister’s housemates came up with her. Older, attractive (this was important, I won’t kid you), seemingly exotic as both were from the deep south (my sister attended The University of Southern Mississippi), these women brought with them something more, something that cannot be defined but only described. Adorno captured it precisely in this beautiful reflection on those moments from our lives that imprint upon us something of the “more” that lies outside our usual run of experience.

Adorno’s Minima Moralia offers something for anyone seeking something akin to understanding. It is particularly timely as it deals forthrightly with the horrible reality of Fascism at a moment in our collective lives when we hover on the brink of sinking into its barbaric depths. While I do think there’s at least some justice in Georg Lukacs observation regarding Adorno having taken up residence in “The Grand Hotel Abyss”, it should never be forgotten that what drove Adorno, as it did Lukacs, Bloch, Horkheimer, and the rest of the early-20th century Marxist and critical theorist, was a deep passion for real human justice, a society in which human beings could truly be free human beings, rid once for all of the threat of totalitarianism. In this little work, even at its moments of grousing, we encounter a powerful thinker reflecting on his particular experiences and how they might serve as a guide through the morass.

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.


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,

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.