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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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.

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.

Myles Werntz, “Erase This From The Blackboard: Pearl Jam, John Howard Yoder, And The Overcoming Of Trauma”

I suggest that Ten represent a real struggle with the question of violence’s inevitability, suggesting that (for Pearl Jam) the solution to trauma and violence lies not in repeating it, but in breaking free of its bonds and presuppositions.  For [John Howard] Yoder, this possibility emerges only because of eschatology – that new possibilities emerge within the world as witnesses to the way things truly are.  Whereas Yoder can claim this on the basis of the witness of Jesus, for Pearl Jam, this is a conclusion which must be arrived at not by means of divine fiat or revelation, but through the continual working out of the “release” – or as I have termed it, the apocalyptic solution – through future albums. – Myles Werntz, “Erase This From THe Blackboard: Pearl Jam, John Howard Yoder, And The Overcoming Of Violence,” in Beaudoin, ed. Secular Music & Sacred Theology, p.122

 Even though what would become “grunge” had begun to trickle on to mainstream radio and MTV by mid-1991, with singles from Alice in Chains and Soundgarden, it was autumn and winter of 1991-1992 that what had been a local, tight-knit scene in Seattle suddenly became this enormous musical event, overturning everything that had gone before.  It was even said that one reason Michael Jackson’s album released in the fall of 1991 had been knocked off the number one position in Billboard’s charts were the millions of kids who were returning their copies they received at Christmas and buying Nevermind.

Just as in Pulp Fiction, Quentin Tarrantino posits the existence of only two types of people – you’re either an Elvis person or a Beatles person – I think in those early days of grunge you were either an adoring fan of Nirvana and their quasi-punk, melodic hard rock or Pearl Jam with their blues- and riff-based songs that were less melodic, and less beholden to punk.  I will admit I was a Pearl Jam person, although I qualify that now, noting that the quality of the songs continued to go downhill with each successive album, as if learning to play together, the band forgot that what got them started was not being quite sure how to play together.

To be perfectly honest, I think it was the thematic content of Ten that drew me to the album.  As Werntz points out, this is one of the last records that is truly an album, a collection of songs that, heard together, give even more meaning to the individual songs heard apart from one another.  Themes of trauma, violence, and the open question of whether or not this is a cycle to be repeated a la Nietzsche as we not only embrace trauma and violence as that which forms us, and need to be repeated in order to form us.  Werntz, however, offers an alternative for closure, or perhaps overcoming, through the apocalyptic vision of John Howard Yoder, who rooted his understanding of apocalyptic in Barth’s understanding of the Incarnation.

The final notes of “Release” leave us, then, with two primary options for understanding Ten’s vision of violence: recurrence of the same, or apocalypse.  . . .  [O]ne cannot flee the problem of whether violence and trauma is dealt with; we can “try to erase [trauma] from the blackboard’ as much as we like, but the problem -quite simply – remains. (pp.112-113)

Understanding Yoder’s “apocalyptic” begins with understanding Karl Barth’s complex understanding of the implications of the Incarnation.

As Karl Barth’s writing on the incarnation suggests . . . the materiality of the world is never a matter o  immanence; describing the second person of the Trinity as the “elected human” means in part for Barth that there is no insoluble break between God and the world, but rather that the conditions of immanence are always included within and open to transformation and permutation by the transcendent.(p.115)

Werntz then quotes Paul Daffyd Jones:

Such is the extremity of God’s love.  God does not rest content with the perfections of deity; God intends the radical alterity of a particular creature with whom God can live in fellowship. . . .  For the sake of validating, ensuring and upholding God’s relationship with humankind, God makes this representative human, this “first work” of God, a permanent dimension of God’s being qua Son., thereby securing for all humans the favor of divine companionship. . . .

The human individual, identifiable as the man Jesus, is not overrun by God, even as he is determined by God, even as he is drawn into the divine life. . . . This “enclosure” does not compromise the integrity of Christ’s humanity any more than it compromises the integrity of those who live “in Christ.”(p.115)

Following Barth, this entrance of the Divine in to Creation, or as Werntz puts it in more dramatic language, “[t]his irruption of God into immanence in the person of Jesus” is the true meaning of “apocalyptic”, because it reveals that which was hidden – new possibilities rooted in that very incarnation.  For Yoder, these new possibilities are embodied in the life of the Incarnate Word, and they include not only the option but the necessity for non-violence and the rejection of the cycle of violence and trauma as we, the living Body of Christ continue this work of Son in this world.

While certainly commendable, there is much that is wrong with this view, and Werntz is not blind to it.  Perhaps from the immanent side, the most problematic part is the way violence and trauma, for Yoder are, in the words of “Jeremy”, erased.  In fact, Werntz sides with Pearl Jam, noting that it is necessary to give voice to the violence and trauma in human life as a necessary part of overcoming it.  We cannot pretend it has not gripped us (I think Yoder’s lack of a lived tension, an open dialectic, fails his best intentions here).  Yet Yoder also insists that this apocalyptic action of the incarnation also calls into being a community committed to emulating Christ’s rejection of non-violence.  Even with these caveats in mind, Werntz continues on p.120:

With Yoder’s vision of “apocalyptic” nonviolence in hand, we are in position to see most fully how Ten, for Christian theology, constitutes a kind of “parable of the kingdom of heaven” – not identical to Christian witness, but an analogy made possible by the grace of God.

Werntz says”to hear Ten is to hear the witness of a new social community, in that the album is the performance of a new community and that which produces the community.”

For Yoder, the new community which rejects violence is ordered around the one who inaugurates the community: Jesus – the nonviolent one who bears out the character of God.  For Pearl Jam, however, the rejection of further violence does not immediately yield a new orientation.(p.121)

The reason for this is simple enough: the band left the conclusion open.  Will violence and trauma beget more violence?  Will there be, as the final song on the album says, a “release”?  There is no answer given by the band; as Werntz notes, their subsequent material returned to these same themes again and again, without any actual resolution offered other than naming that which causes us pain (which, as noted above, is very important in the healing process).  Yet Werntz concludes that even with the differences and weaknesses, “speaking of this “newness” is intimately bound up with telling stories about how the old violence has been done away with, . . .”

[F]or it is through these stories that the violence is overcome – the irruption of the apocalyptic “new” within history is not, in other word, knowledge so much as it is a new way of life.  And in this sense, Christian theologians can listen to Ten and say with Jesus that it is “not far from the kingdom,” in that Ten – in its stories and in its structure – gestures in hope toward what Yoder see Jesus displaying in fullness. (pp.124-125)

Yet again, while I believe using particular theological lenses to illuminate theological themes within popular music is important, as I read this conclusion I cannot but think we have encountered yet another Christian theologian who wishes to push the relationship just a bit too far.  Listening to the album as a whole, it is clear the band left thematic matters open and unanswered, to be addressed in later releases in different words.  That a particular theological stance might well offer a way out of the conundrum the band presents in its songs, to say these are parables of the Kingdom is to misunderstand what that Kingdom is.  It is also to do violence to the very freedom of the creature that Yoder, via Barth, insists is part and parcel both of the Incarnation and the Church inaugurated in Jesus passion, death, and resurrection.

Nevertheless, this is an excellent work, providing tools for people to think not only about popular culture, but how many different entry points the Christian faith offers those who seek to see the face and hear the Words of Jesus in our contemporary secular society.

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.

Richard Leppert, Introduction, Leppert, ed., Theodor W. Adorno: Essays On Music

For Christmas, my wife gave me an enormous volume of new translations of Adorno’s essays on music.  In the long Introduction, editor Richard Leppert notes that nearly a third of Adorno’s published works – both technical and popular – concerned music.  Both his mother and his aunt were musicians, and Adorno himself was a gifted musician, even studying composition for a time under Vienna School composer Anton Webern.

I first read the Introduction back in January.  That was a time in my life, however, when absorbing something as complicated, subtle, and occasionally argumentative (on my part) as the complexities of Adorno’s thought was just beyond my ability.  Now, as I read through it again, I’m finding myself not only attracted to much of Adorno’s basic thought; I’m seeing similarities between his larger philosophical project and that of his near contemporary in theology (a person with whom I have no idea if each had contact with the other), Karl Barth.  Now, Adorno did complete his habilitationschrift, on Kierkegaard, under Paul Tillich.  That by no means includes any familiarity on Adorno’s part with contemporaneous trends in theology.

If the difficult and complex basis of Adorno’s thought could be summarized, such a summary would consist of two things: that all of us exist within interlocking institutions of late capitalism that compromise our abilities to see, think, and speak clearly and effectively about its dangers; as limited and compromised, then, as our efforts can ever be, nevertheless, the best weapon thought has against this kind of totalitarianism is the open-ended possibilities of the negative dialectic.  As Adorno himself wrote in the Minima Moralia, “The whole is a lie.”

In much the same way, Barth was opposed to the on-going attempts in Protestant Dogmatic circles to present theology as a “System”.  The whole idea of “Systematic Theology” violated the most basic realities of the faith.  For Barth, that would be the reality of the Christ-event and the pronouncement of the Word of God to the believing community each week.  No system, no matter how well thought-out, can relate this vibrant reality.  It is something to be lived rather than set forth a priori.  In the midst of writing his millions of words on the subject, Barth once said that all theology is prolegomena.  We must remind ourselves that our faith is best summed up in the children’s song, “Jesus love me, this I know/For the Bible tells me so,” and not become so wedded to systems and ideology that we forget this fundamental reality of the Christian faith.

Adorno recognized how compromised his own thought – indeed the thought of anyone attempting to do philosophy under the conditions of late capitalism – had to be.  He and his colleague Max Horkheimer spelled out that compromised position of philosophy at the very beginning of their influential The Dialectics of Enlightenment.

Barth, too insisted that Christian theology is “compromised” in a way.  Limited by the reality of the Word of God, we must ever and always steer clear of the temptation of the system, of the philosophical principle, of the seduction either of popularity or relevance.  Like Adorno, Barth believed Christian theology not to be a whole, but an open-ended human project.  For Adorno, the rejection of the totalizing tendencies of positive dialectics (Hegel being the best example) offered if not a doorway out, at least a window through which one could catch a glimpse of hope for the future; the compromises forced upon all of us by late capitalism allowed us only that hope, as powerful as it is.  For Barth, theology is open precisely because theology, like the faith upon which it reflects, is open because of its primarily eschatological nature.  The Word of God is historical – indeed, it defines real history – and it is present, but most of all the Word of God is a word of faith and hope for the future which we proclaim as God’s future.  For Barth, this is the hope that cuts through the totalizing ideologies of late capitalism.  It is weak, to be sure, just as Adorno’s negative dialectics aren’t much.  All the same, it is what we have, it the hope it offers is, like Adorno’s open-ended dialectic without a synthesis, the hope for a future where the fullness of humanity,  and end to suffering, and justice are regnant.

What does any of this have to do with music?  Well, I’m getting there.  For now, this is enough to make me excited that I’m finally entering the thought-world of an individuals whose concerns mirror many of my own.

 

Karl Barth, Anselm: Fides Quaerens Intellectum

Young Man With A Skull by Paul Cezanne

Young Man With A Skull by Paul Cezanne

Before he begins looking at Anselm’s proof for the existence of God, Barth is at pains to make clear that Anselm is not, as far too many would insist, attempting to prove God’s existence outside the revelation of God.  The popular humanistic portrait of a person contemplating humanity by sitting and looking at a skull is hardly what Anselm was doing.  On the contrary, as Barth makes clear, moving step by step through an analysis and understanding of Anselm’s introductory comments and method, Anselm is insistent that one cannot comprehend that God exists without first acknowledging that God exists.  That Anselm sets his Proslogion within a doxological framework is clear from the start; as Barth notes, it begins with prayer.

As we reach the end of Barth’s analysis of Anselm’s method, there is an extraordinary series of axioms and corollaries that, taken as a whole, buttress Barth’s view that Anselm views the priority of God’s existence to any attempt to understand God’s existence, even qua existence.  Precisely because of the interchangeable nature of the words ratio and necessitas, Barth works through Anselm’s assumption that the object of faith creates its own authority, and thus creates its own ratio through which human intelligere arrives at the conclusion that the object of faith must needs exist, and exist as it does exist, precisely because this self-same object has given itself to human beings to understand.  What Barth calls, in fashionable theo-philosophical jargon, the priority of the ontic to the noetic, can only be if one accepts the authority of the object of faith prior to examining what and whether this object is.  And when doing so, the examiner can only conclude that the object of faith exists, and exists as it does, because of this faithful priority.

While pointing out that this methodological principle can be found throughout Anselm’s mature works, Barth also notes that employing it in, for example, the Cur Deus Homo, Anselm’s Christological work, does not seem to work so well, creating weaknesses within the overall approach Anselm takes in that much later work.  At the same time, Barth criticizes those who link Anselm’s Monologion with St. Thomas and the so-called “Cosmological Proof”.  Of course, I don’t believe Aquinas would have disagreed with Anselm on the necessity of the primacy of faith; it is a weakness, even peculiar blindness of Barth that rather than read Aquinas on the merits, he takes the 19th and early 20th century reappropriation of Aquinas by Roman Catholic scholars who consistently missed St. Thomas’s insistence on the necessity of grace as the proper understanding of the Great Doctor of the Roman Church.

In any case, we have reached the end of a long and important look at the setting within which Anselm does the work which follows in Proslogion 2-4.  While I believe Barth when he says that much of his work in the early sections of Church Dogmatics, Vol II, Part 1 relies upon the work he did in this smaller work, I also believe that the presuppositions he discovers in Anselm’s work are there throughout the history of the faith.  Barth’s own struggle against the attempted appropriation of Christian dogma by fascism was, I believe, a much different thing than he believed it to be.  Still, for Barth this is an important step he is taking, and I look forward to reading and discovering more with him.