Saturday, December 23, 2006

To Have Done With The Judgement Of God, Pt 2

Sorry, a momentary lapse of reason there. How's about we carry on, 'cos I had some more to say. Now, where was I...


Even if you don't believe in God, you have to face him down. In Aphorism 125 of The Gay Science, Nietzsche describes a "madman who lit a lantern in the bright morning hours, ran to the market placx and cried incessantly: 'I seek God! I seek God!'" He is mocked by the idiot villagers, "who did not believe in God" and left it at that. He rebukes by repeatedly shouting that "We have killed him - you and I! All of us are his murderers!" They back away in the face of the barrage he launches against them, in the face of the terrible implications of the death of God: "Who gave us the sponge to wipe away the entire horizon? What were we doing when we unchained this earth from the sun?... Are we not straying as through an infinite nothing? Do we not feel the breath of empty space? Has it not become colder?" If man has killed God, then who must he answer to, who must account for the crime? "What festivals of atonement, what sacred games shall we have to invent? Is not the greatness of this deed too great for us?" If man no longer believes in God - the creature who for the length of civilisation, in one form or another, has been the lynchpin of existence - then he still must reckon with Him, and His funeral director. He formulates it even more clearly in Aphorism 108: "God is dead: but given the way men are, there may still be caves for thousands of years in which his shadow will be shown." It establishes the supreme imperative of the modern intellectual revolution: "we still have to vanquish his shadow, too."

Now, I'm a ridiculously tolerant and good-hearted man (he says, trying not to sound too sincere) but I do feel that organised religion should be wiped from the face of the sweet mother earth. Admittedly, I have a number of friends who are 'believers'; and, let's be honest, the metaphysical state of things is a mystery, so they're fucking guess is as good as mine. But it is still necessary to rid the world of the lingering traces, the spectre of God. If we're ever going to be liberated (and it's unlikely) we must be rid of God. To finally be able to live lives in which real happiness is possible, we must spit out the remnants of God. For mankind to take control of his destiny, he must deal with God.

But it isn't even as simple as that. I may not believe in God, but I've battled with him all my life. When I asked my parents when I was young what happened when people died, they gave me the old 'heaven' bullshit. Heaven leads to God, and I accepted that. Around the time I was 8, I began thinking about it. I wondered what evidence there was for God's existence. If they might be wrong. If they were wrong, and there was no God, what the implications were. I knew it. The most harrowing night of my life was when I realised that it was possible that when I died I would simply cease to exist. I thought of how it would feel, then realised it wouldn't. That feeling in the pit of my stomach, the feeling of a void turning me inside out, is something I'll never forget. It's taken me years to halt the terror from pursuing me day-to-day. At first I began by assuring myself that God did exist, talking to my friend John (a Catholic, no less) and my parents. Despite their and my fevered assurances, I had the doubt lurking at the back of my mind. During my secondary school days, regularly having the shit kicked out of me, I began to believe more strongly, to the point in Year 9 where I had a 'revelation' of God's existence and grace. As soon as I began to realise how shitty my situation was, I quickly lost faith. Reading Nietzsche and the Russian Nihilists over the next two years, the extermination of God became my imperative. I shouted down Christians, insulted my religious friends, spat on and grafittied churches, placed massive and vitriolic attacks on religion and God in my writings. Reading back over my diaries and writings of that period, the profusion of Christian imagery, of Christ-like feats of suffering endured by my surrogate characters, the pall of heaviness and misery hanging over my life, it's apparent that I hadn't yet gotten rid of God.

The question, then, of what atheists should do with 'spiritual' art becomes even more convoluted and difficult. If believing in spirits or God is necessary to make art work, then how are we meant to do this? How are we meant to do the exact opposite of what we should do, how can we cling to the things that are holding us back?

The best example of this dilemma in art is the late work of Antonin Artaud, particularly his radio poem To Have Done With The Judgement Of God. He wrote it whilst in the Rodez lunatic asylum, and just emerging out of the insanity that had plagued him the last seven years. Despite its being commissioned by the most important radio station in France, it was banned shortly before broadcast for its relentless obscenity and anti-Catholic and anti-American sentiment. It calls on the spiritual ideas that informed the entirety of his work: his love of primitive mythology and forgotten religions, his belief in spirit energies that, in his manifesto The Theater And Its Double he called on performers to utilise, to call on in a ritualistic and mystic manner - in a strange mirror to Ian Curtis's performances. A masterpiece of scatological and ritual invective, To Have Done... is capped by the ending, in which Artaud himself, in a shrieky falsetto, he denounces the human belief in God, "this monkey", because "if nobody believes anymore in God everybody believes more and more in man." He demands that man be surgically disembowelled to remove God, the spiritual appendix of man, "this animalcule that makes him itch to death".

But, bizarrely enough, Artaud also seems to provide an exit-point from this conundrum. His essential project seems bizarrely to coincide with that of Nietzsche: the annihilation of the idol of God, the idol masking the death of God from Christian and non-believer alike. Nietzsche predicted that the loss of belief in God would cause a sweeping wave of nihilism to spread from the West; he understood that what caused nihilism is the retention of the shadow of God, the Christian belief that the world "is ugly and bad". Artaud calls for the destruction of the idol of God, marshalling the forces of an older, more pure and elemental spirituality, something bound up with the "the Red Earth" of Mexico, where he underwent a peyote ritual in 1936. Nietzsche called for a revolution to overthrow the false ideal of God and heaven in favour of real life as human beings live it, on earth. Artaud demanded that man return to the reality "of my corporal/pain,/the menacing,/never tiring/presence/of my/body." All real artists seek to give reality, as they have it, as they possess it, and all real art is understood in those terms. I was wrong when I said real art needed belief. It needs recognition, the feeling that an art's reality corresponds with your own. That is what I find discordant in Christian art: the note of sentimental kitsch, of unreality. And that reality-recognition is, to say the least, uncanny. It's uncanny that, of two people in the entirety of the human race, two realities would align. The fact that it occurs every second is even more uncanny.

That sense of the uncanny runs not only through Artaud and Nietzsche's work (his philosophy relying on a number of concepts that are, to say the least, mystical, such as the 'eternal return'), but through the rest of human life. Whether we believe in other powers or not, people can't dismiss things like the way rhythm affects us. When I listen to 'Transmission' by Joy Division, the bass pulsing like the main circuit of a post-industrial machine, Ian Curtis' vocals alternately deadpan and manic over the top, I can't help but feel something I can't explain that moves me, both physically and emotionally. The fact that I'm shouting the lyrics alongside a man who hanged himself over 25 years ago, and we're both moving to the same rhythm - that can't be explained. And I don't see why I should explain it. It's real.


Blogger Oliver said...

I had a similar period leading up to my renouncement of God, although it was more protracted. Rather than the piercing, harrowing realisation you had in ‘that moment’, it was a more gradual progression, which made it easier to accept, I guess. But despite -for me now- being an evident truth, it is not necessarily any more comforting. That was the point where Roquentin's dillema raised its ugly head.

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