Wednesday, September 17, 2008

Old Notes Towards a New Project

Once when Merwan was banging his head on the floor at home, his mother heard a thudding sound coming from his room. . . . Merwan had blood all over his face. Crying she asked, “Merog, have you gone mad? Are you totally mad?” Wiping the blood off with a towel, he said, “I am not mad! I have become something else!”1

The deep and ever-expanding significance of Heavy Metal is one of the great uncharted seas of hermeneutic exploration. But remembering that

To understand the infinite, eternal Reality is not the GOAL of individualized beings in the illusion of Creation, because the Reality can never be understood; it is to be realized by conscious experience2

Heavy Metal Glossing sets sail into that expanse equipped, not with weapons of conquest, but with the tools of phenomenology, with words and images aimed at preserving and perfecting the human experience of Heavy Metal, rather than defining and explaining it. That this experience is in need of perfecting and preserving is obvious. Just as Heavy Metal is one of the arts through which the spirit seeks to transcend the cosmic dualities of light and dark, so is it subject to perpetual Manichean battle between good (or true) and bad (or false) versions of itself. For this art to achieve its purpose, for Metal to remain truly Heavy, this battle must be fought out in the most epic and eloquent manner. Only then is its creative purpose realized, only then does Heavy Metal’s reflection of Cosmic War emerge as an emanation of Eternal Play. An important and underdeveloped discipline within this battle is the imaginative interpretation of Metal’s meaning. Academic analyses of Heavy Metal there are, as well as mountains of non-analytical Metal-themed cultural products. But the category of what speaks creatively and daringly about Heavy Metal, of interpretation that can actually deepen the experience of Metal and make it new, is shamefully slim. Sadly, many artistically and intellectually gifted lovers of Metal are slumbering in nests of professionalized materialist-consumerist complacency. Having interiorized culture’s definition of Metal as fantasy, they brandish their swords at best in ironic and academic gestures, forgetting to follow to its highest glories the soul-hunger that Heavy Metal first awakened in them. Metalhead culture, moreover, which seeks natural freedom and the destruction of false values through a kind of disciplined Dionysian joy, is under daily attack by its own stupidities, by escapist and reactionary practices, drugs both material and psychological, that tragically transmute the freedom it seeks into the faux freedom of unconsciousness. “Man will be dislodged again and again from his illusory shelters by fresh and irresistible waves of life, and will invite upon himself fresh forms of suffering by seeking to protect his separative existence through escape.”3 Heavy Metal is such an irresistible wave. Those who pervert its power for egoistic and escapist ends commit high treason and deserve, at minimum, a symbolic decapitation.

Born out of awe for Heavy Metal’s bottomless significance and the conviction that intellectual understanding, however precise, is only a shadow of the real understanding of direct conscious experience, Heavy Metal Glossing draws form and inspiration from the essentially phenomenological methods of the medieval gloss, construed holistically as comprising both text and image, visual as well as verbal interpretations and marginalia. Whereas much contemporary intellectual discourse says so much that it silences the thing itself and whereas much contemporary artistic representation says so little that it becomes merely and mutely a thing, the medieval gloss both preserves the independence of the thing it speaks about and creates itself as an independently speaking thing. This balance between text and context, subject and object, derives from the essentially relational nature of the gloss. The gloss does not come at you like a monolithic thesis or sword-Logos born from a sperm whale’s forehead. The gloss comes towards you like a human being, hypothetical, curious, speaking your language. Formed of the accumulated impressions of innumerable actions and reactions to the text, the gloss accomplishes nothing and so becomes capable of everything. As waves are to the stones that caused them, the gloss is to what it glosses, spreading out in unending uniqueness from the page’s unmarkable center, giving witness to depths the undisturbed surface cannot.

The gloss thus materializes phenomenological consciousness, as expressed and enacted in Gaston Bachelard’s description of the reverberation of the poetic image:

Through this reverberation, by going immediately beyond all psychology or psychoanalysis, we feel a poetic power rising naïvely within us. After the original reverberation, we are able to experience resonances, sentimental repercussions, reminders of our past. But the image has touched the depths before it stirs the surface. And this is also true of a simple experience of reading. The image offered us by reading the poem now becomes really our own. It takes root in us. It has been given us by another, but we begin to have the impression that we could have created it, that we should have created it. It becomes a new being in our language, expressing us by making us what it expresses; in other words, it is at once a becoming of expression, and a becoming of our being. Here expression creates being.4

That these words also give expression to what every headbanging metalhead experiences, the becoming of their own being through a kind of musical possession that is both a loss or death of self and the self-possession or birth of a greater self, points to continuities between the experience of Heavy Metal, the practice of glossing, and phenomenology that ask for articulation. The opening stanza of Metallica’s “Whiplash” comes to mind:

Late at night all systems go

You have come to see the show

We do our best You're the rest

You make it real you know

There is a feeling deep inside

That drives you fuckin' mad

A feeling of a hammerhead

You need it oh so bad.5

The listener realizes the music as a force rising within their own being, a being within being that demands expression through ritual destruction of one’s own head, the auto-decapitation or self-martyrdom of the self seeking simultaneous release from and deeper entry into the world.6 The glossator similarly makes the text real through an act that both defaces and recreates it. Running towards the text by running away from it, the gloss discovers a text within the text, a deeper word spoken by neither author or reader but something both within and among them, a new authority. The gloss, being only more words, neither contains nor expresses this word. Rather, the deeper word that the gloss reveals exists in the silence between the gloss and its text, a word within the spaces between words. Here we find the real function of the gloss, not to explain the text, but to multiply explanation and signification fractally, to generate more and more verbal and visual enclosures within which the unexplainable is brought into presence. Secretly, the excessive, decentering, unending speech of the gloss multiplies silence, revealing it to be, not the absence of speech, but the real presence of what cannot be explained, a silent word, so to speak. The fruit of interpretation, to employ the medieval metaphor, is not merely understanding, but the direct conscious experience of mysterious things that understanding produces.

Heavy Metal and glossing thus both have the character of a conjuration. At their best, this conjuration becomes an incarnation, evoking the presence of a person, not a being brought from somewhere else, but someone who has been there all along. The importance of this phenomenon to Heavy Metal is inscribed in its very origins, in the mystical “fifth member” of Black Sabbath, who gave Heavy Metal to the world in 1969.7 The silent, invisible presence of the person, which materializes in the space where forgetfulness and intense activity intersect, is the victory of signification, the moment when signification produces direct consciousness of what cannot be signified, when the world ceases to be a thing and becomes a person. We have now arrived at a perspective from which the intersecting deep desires of Heavy Metal, glossing, and phenomenology, their shared teleological needs, are brought into view. All express an irreligious spiritual longing to go beyond images, words, concepts, and values to the reality of things themselves. The problem with all of these things is not that they are false, but that they are signs, vehicles of consciousness that simultaneously express and frustrate it, forever interposing themselves between the self and the world.8 What makes these three arts truly fucking awesome is that they fight against and break this condition of impasse through the whole-hearted acceptance of it, a loving of the enemy of the sign that makes art truly intellectual and intellectual activity truly artistic. Heavy Metal, glossing, and phenomenology all enact deep frustrations with language and representation via excess language and representation: the slippery self-contradictory language of phenomenology that promises clear apprehension of experience of things themselves, the self-multiplying cross-referential signs of the gloss that promise unitary total significance, the unintelligible too-loud too-fast sounds of Heavy Metal that promise . . .

The sentence cannot be completed not only because Heavy Metal is music, the purpose of which is far from clear, but because Heavy Metal is excessively and extremely music, sound breaking beyond music, the apotheosis of expression into pure gesture, the essence of sentences, pure punctuation. But the last thing Heavy Metal Glossing wants to do is write the sentence that explains the essence of Heavy Metal. The only thing it wants to do is write all of them, to follow the bottomless significance of Heavy Metal into bottomlessness itself. Our project is doomed, futile, but how full of the infinite joys of intimate friendship with the futility of all things!

1 Bhau Kalchuri, Meher Prabhu: The Biography of Avatar Meher Baba, 14 vols. (Myrtle Beach, SC: Manifestation, 1980), I.251-2

2 Meher Baba, God Speaks, 2nd ed. (New York: Dodd, Mead & Co., 1973), 202. Cf. “I am the world that hides / The universal secret of all time” (Black Sabbath, “National Acrobat,” Sabbath Bloody Sabbath [1973]).

3 Meher Baba, Discourses, 6th ed., 3 vols. (San Francisco: Sufism Reoriented, 1973), I.21.

4 Gaston Bachelard, The Poetics of Space, tr. Maria Jolas (Boston: Beacon Press, 1969), xix.

5 Metallica, “Whiplash,” Kill’Em All (1983).

6 Metallica’s “Whiplash” thus attempts to make explicit the unspoken instructions of the Heavy Metal song, yet can only do so in the simple language of physical, martial command: “Bang your head against the stage / Like you never did before / Make it ring Make it bleed / Make it really sore.” The significance of headbanging calls for a tome unto itself, delving into the phenomenology of the body, the headbanging of the mad, and the symbolism of decapitation as represented within such diverse areas as Christian iconography, Sufi poetry, folklore, myth, and real violence. Here, a small selection of concentrated morsels must suffice. “When thou seest in the pathway a severed head, / Which is rolling towards our field, / Ask of it, ask of it, the secrets of the heart: / For of it thou wilt learn of our hidden mystery” (Jalal al-Din Rumi, Selected Poems from the Diwani Shams-i-Tabriz, tr. R.A. Nicholson, [Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1898], 9). “On a another level the story [Sir Gawain and the Green Knight] is a version of the ancient principle that the only way man can escape his mortal condition is to cease to be the man he believes he is and to become the man he really is. It is a mythical treatment of the well-known theme suggested by the words, ‘Whosoever would save his psyche shall lose it’ (Matt. 16:25) and ‘If any man come to me, and hate not . . . his own psyche also, . . . he cannot be my disciple’ (Luke 14:26). No creature can rise to a higher level of being, as St. Thomas Aquinas has remarked, without dying – that is, to what he was. Decapitation is the perennial symbol for the slaying of the old self” (Ray Livingston, The Traditional Theory of Literature [Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1962], 69, referring to A.K. Coomaraswamy, "Sir Gawain and the Green Knight: Indra and Namuci" Speculum 21 (1944): 104-25). And so on. The ultimate manifestation of the significance of headbanging belongs to Meher Baba’s banging his head on a stone in the period following his realization, as he later explained, “’This constant hammering of my head was the only thing that gave me some relief during my real suffering of coming down – which I have repeatedly said is indescribable’” (Meher Prabu, I.234, first italics mine).

7 See Steve Rosen, Black Sabbath (London: Sanctuary, 2002), 21, 39-40, 42, 47, 60, 76, 102, 104, 140-6.

8 Cf. “Man has a tendency to cling to catch-words and to allow his action to be determined by them almost mechanically without bringing his action into direct relation with the living perception which these words embody. . . . Spiritual life is a matter of perception and not of conformity to rules, even when these rules are meant to stand for the highest values” (Meher Baba, Discourses, I.100, my italics).


Wednesday, September 10, 2008

Wicked World 2012

Attention Metalheads:

"Wicked World 2012 is a spontaneous rhizomatic festival of Heavy Metal culture in New York City, June 1-9, 2012. The PLAN is to strategically saturate these dates with Heavy Metal events at all possible levels of life in the city: musical, artistic, intellectual, social, commercial, etc. During these days, conveniently located near (and before) the "end of the world" according to the Mayan calendar, New York will become a metalhead's earthly paradise. If you LOVE Heavy Metal, BE here on these days, and DO something about it. Come one, come all!

There is another world and it is the same as this one.--Rilke"

For my part I will organize an academic conference on Heavy Metal (cf. the one on the horizon in Salzburg) and a special issue of Glossator devoted to Black Metal.

Saturday, September 06, 2008

Non Potest Hoc Corpus Decollari: Beheading and the Impossible (a paper proposal)

Caput decollatus amisit, et pretioso nunc lapide coronatus incedit [Beheaded, he let go his head, and now he goes forth crowned with precious stone]—Peter Damian

When thou seest in the pathway a severed head . . .
Ask of it, ask of it the secrets of the heart—Rumi

Beheading holds a special relationship to the impossible. Imagining, witnessing, and no doubt experiencing decapitation exposes one to a limit of human being that is more specific than the general limit, the “impossibility” of death. For decapitation concerns, and more literally touches, not only the question of annihilation, but the more intimate and actual place or space within our being where the self structurally intersects the body. This intersection is itself “impossible,” in the sense that embodied being means both being a body and being other than body. “To be a body,” writes Levinas, “is on the one hand to stand [se tenir], to be master of oneself, and, on the other hand, to stand on the earth, to be in the other, and thus to be encumbered” (Totality and Infinity). Indeed, the head is the part of the body where the “impossibility” of the intersection between self and body is found most conspicuously, where the body is most naturally and mysteriously identical with the self, perhaps above all through the face, through which we seem to look out upon the world and into each other from and towards centers of consciousness that are “in” our heads. Decapitation (or losing one’s head, as the idiom suggests), accordingly has a fundamentally double signifying potential. On the one hand, beheading signifies an impossible loss, a subtraction of oneself from oneself. On the other hand, it signifies an impossible survival, the separation of oneself from one’s body. The special horror and fascination of decapitation has very much to do with this doubleness, such that seeing the severed head is always to witness, ambivalently, both death’s radical finality and the radical possibility its survival, a kind of gruesome transcendence and transcendent gruesomeness.

This paper will explore the relationship between such a phenomenology of decapitation and its representation in medieval hagiographical sources. By doing so, it will explicate both beheading’s rich symbolic dimension and the pervasive element of impossibility in its representation. Rooted in the first Christian martyrdom, the beheading of John the Baptist, which Herod appropriately fears does not work (“John whom I beheaded, is risen from the dead” Mark 6:16), medieval symbolic interpretation of beheading centered on the principle of Christ as “the head of every man” (1 Cor 11:3). So in the earliest Latin commentary on Mark, formerly attributed to Jerome, we read: “He [Herod] cuts off the Law’s head, which is Christ, from the body to which it belongs, the Jewish people. It is given to the gentile girl, that is the Roman church. The girl gives it to her adulterous mother, that is the synagogue, which will finally come to believe. The body of John is buried, while the head is placed on a dish. The human letter is covered, while the spirit is honored upon the altar and is received.” On this model, the loss of one’s head is always tied to the possibility, and in hagiographical narratives the necessity, of union with one’s spiritual, unseverable head; so Augustine speaks of belonging to the body (of the faithful) that cannot be beheaded. And the variety of post-beheading saintly miracles as well as the iconography of the cephalophore more generally put in motion a similar imagination of the impossibility of decapitation, whereby beheading itself, as the vision of the resurrected “animas decollatorum” in Revelation 20:4 may already suggest, carries with it intimations of its own impossibility. Ultimately, this essay reveals how the medieval symbolism of decapitation, which does conform in many ways with A. K. Coomaraswamy’s classic comparative reading of beheading as “the perennial symbol for the slaying of the old self” (Speculum 19), is grounded, not merely in the logic of religious doctrines, but in the experience of having a head and in the poetic space of embodiment where that experience envisions and seizes the possibility of impossible transformation.

Cf. this dream.