Saturday, December 16, 2006

To Have Done With The Judgement Of God

You can love some people too much.

There's a series of photos of Ian Curtis that I love more than any other. They were taken on-stage at the Paris Bains Douches in 1979; the one above is the only one I could scan properly. I normally keep it blu-tacked to the door of my room, a reminder of long nights spent listening to Joy Division. In the photos, his eyes bug and limbs flail with an energy that is all the more palpable and cold for its being frozen in time. I imagine him glowering from the stage, arms caught in their arcs of movement like a Futurist painting, his eyes burning with all the obscure lucidity of a prophet's. According to Simon Reynolds, he danced this dance, resembling nothing so much as an epileptic seizure, even before he discovered his own real epilepsy; he even danced that way at his wedding, to no apparent distress from his wife. The sense of the uncanny in Ian Curtis' life - the teenage Dostoevsky addict developing epilepsy; the Iggy Pop fanatic who died listening The Idiot; the writer of 'New Dawn Fades' and 'Decades' dying at his own hand - is so tempting to the teenage mind that you almost take him for a real prophet.
It's often said that Curtis was a 'shamanistic' performer, that his astonishing actions were the result of 'channeling' something. The same is often said of performers like John Lydon and Mark E. Smith - the utter, faultless creation of a stage persona, the prophetic voices, the bug-eyed mystic stare, the occasional lapses into trance-like states - it all matches up with the tales and portraits of mystics (the Ranters, the Brethren of the Free Spirit, that Greil Marcus wrote about in Lipstick Traces and Norman Cohn in In Pursuit Of The Millenium), of shamans undergoing mystic trances, of the Old Testament prophets communing with God.
The problem comes with this: what if you think it's all bullshit?
In case you haven't already guessed, I'm an atheist. I don't believe in God, in whatever shape you take him (sting), don't believe in a 'higher power', in ghosts, the immortal soul, mystic powers, or any of that sort of thing. I'm much stricter on this point than I used to be: I used to declare myself an atheist, but at the same time believe Ian Curtis was in some way acting on 'higher orders'. That's what justifies this post, I suppose, trying to sort this shit out.
For example, despite my enduring hatred for Christianity, I've read, well... a lot of Christian writers. My worldview is heavily influenced by Soren Kierkegaard; one of my favourite poets was a Hungarian Catholic; another was a Welsh priest; I'm a connosieur of crucifixion art, particularly of the 16th Century Flemish variety; one of my favourite filmmakers was Russian Orthodox, and spent most of his films preaching about how unsatisfying the atheist life is and how the 'saving grace' is Christian truth, blah blah blah.
One would think that the problem is easily solved: that you have to look at these pieces from an aesthetic perspective. Regard the surface, regard the content, and appreciate it. But that simply doesn't work with 'spiritual' art, or at least it works in a very limited way. The force of art invested with spirituality rests in its impact, which more often than not lies in precisely those 'spiritual' elements. When I see crucifixion paintings, what takes me in is the aura of suffering, the blood, sorrow and terror, but particularly the way they are transformed into postive values - the very moral sleight-of-hand that Nietzsche denounced, and which I've hated ever since I stopped self-harming. In the photos of Ian Curtis mentioned above, it is the otherworldly nature of the energy, the sheer inhuman drive and the terrible (in the sense of "the terrible wrath of God"), fixating power of that stare, that draws me to him.
I've always found that for art to have real power you have to believe in it, even to just a small extent. If there is no belief, then art and its effects become nothing more than a paper tiger. For example, there is Janos Pilinzsky's poem 'Apocrypha', the very centerpiece of his work. The poem seems to describe an apocalypse as in the Book Of Revelations, a "finished world" in which the horrors of "the night, the cold, the pit" have finally come out and taken over. A man walks, clothed in the "prison garb" of a concentration camp inmate, come "to arrive as he in the Bible arrived." He reaches his home, only to find no-one there. As he collapses in pain at his solitude and broken hope, the land itself begins to melt and trickle away in a last apocalypse from God, who seems to lurk at every corner in this poem. The incredible power of Pilinszky's language comes from the subject matter, and vice versa: in conveying what he wants to convey, Pilinszky creates language so sharp and terrifying it's like a high-powered laser searing through your soul. But no matter how much Pilinszky believed in his God and his apocalypse, if you don't, then how exactly is it that the poem isn't neutered in effect. You are being presented with an alien object, possibly even, in theological terms, something worthy of derision (any religion being worthy of derision), and you cannot engage with it. It falls down, not quite flat, but as if it has been kicked in the stomach and has doubled over.
And this doesn't just apply to 'spiritual art' in the grand, solemn sense. The more abstract and entertaining side of spirituality also causes problems for me. For example, there's the belief in psychotropia as a means of enlightenment: Bill Hicks, Coil, psychedelic music up to and including psychotropic music like Coughs and Magik Markers, William Burroughs and Brion Gysin, the more trippy Beats like Kerouac and Ginsberg, most forms of reggae after 1969 including roots and dub, outsider art with an interest in psychotropia... There's 'ghost art' such as serious horror films, good horror fiction like H.P. Lovecraft and M.R. James, and, again, more outsider art... And that's only scraping the surface.
The way I have picked up of dealing with this crap is to look at it artistically, to semi-ignore the real 'spiritual' elements and simply enjoy the bits I can engage with. I like listening to Magik Markers just for the sounds, the intensity of the sound, carrying the same rush I get from punk, and also because it affects the way I think like a good liquor. Watching and listening to Bill Hicks performances I appreciate the political and cultural jokes ("Man, Debbie Gibson going down on Tiffany; now that is a video of hers I'd watch. At least that way the little cunts won't sing.") and take the "We are all free children of God" bits not-too-seriously, incorporating it into my pathetic "Human beings should be free" bullshit trip.
But then again, what do you care about any of this for? You've got better things to do than read the ramblings of a depressive and a failure. Go out, have fun. Go to a bar, get drunk, meet some more human beings who might like you. I'll be fine without you.


Blogger lewis said...

When I listen to certain things, Joy Division for example, i believe its something beyond what we are, like, everything changes, but the drums at the start of she's lost control will never change. It will always be there for me to listen to whatever i do. Then there's Morrissey who I idolise but he's most probably very normal with a big house and a nice tv, but i don't think about that bit.

well interesting blog,
lewis (tobia)

February 1, 2007 at 2:32 PM  
Blogger Dan Barrow said...

You might well be write there. There's a certain school of musicological thought called 'hauntology' that concentrates on the idea of abscence in recording. The recordings of Joy Division will always remain a certain way, but the central presence, the moment of time in which the recording was made, and, obviously, in this case, Ian Curtis himself, is gone; so, when you hear 'She's Lost Control' or 'Transmission', you're hearing the ghost of music, you're listening to something with an abscence in its very centre.

And I'm sure Morrissey does have a big TV. He doesn't seem to do anything else with his time, except write and preen, and possibly fuck men. (Not that there's anything wrong with that.)

February 9, 2007 at 4:32 PM  
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