Sunday, October 21, 2012

Mi Ritrovai In Una Selva Oscura

Hell, if Dante and Slayer are to be believed, is a fairly shit place.  At least that's the vibe I get.

I spend a lot of time thinking about metal in it's socio-historical context.  Why it emerged when it did, how it did, and what it all kinda means.  I've always followed the fairly traditional method of acknowledging metal as having emerged when Black Sabbath awoke the youth of working class Birmingham in the late sixties.  I'll nod my head toward theories that point to the band Blue Cheer as having developed the proto-metal sound, and maybe even give the time of day to people who want to claim Helter Skelter by the Beatles was the first song to showcase that indescribable 'feel'.

But maybe we should be looking further back.  The notion of something being 'metal' is bandied around a fair bit, without any real thought as to what the fuck it means.  Does it just mean all grim and shit?  Is it all just throaty vocals and inverted crucifixes?  Is it all pomp and posture?  Or is it maybe just the modern manifestation of something we as, you know, 'people', have always been obsessed with?  Namely, that of that darkened world.  The word where hope and Goodness is extinguished.  Is it, in other words, a fairly traditional exploration of Good v. Evil?

It's here where we look at Dante.  As form of kind-of-half-hearted-backstory, Dante is essentially Italy's Shakespeare.  He lived in fourteenth century Florence, was a poet/writer/mad dog, got caught up in some serious political shit storms, (which Florence was fairly famous for at around that time)/was exiled, then died.  During his life he managed to bang out a book called La Divina Comedia, or The Divine Comedy.  It follows Dante, and his mate Virgil (he took some liberties with time....Virgil was a famous Ancient Roman poet) as they go through Hell, Purgatory, and Heaven.  It's pretty epic.

As a small backstory, when I lived in Italy, I had to memorise the first four verses of the Divine Comedy and recite it in front of the class.  I had only been at school for about two months, couldn't speak the language, and was so shit scared that I can, to this day, still reel off those verses without a hitch.  

The first verse of the first book, Hell, goes thus:

Nell' mezzo del camin di nostra vita
Mi ritrovai in una selva oscura
Che la diritta via era smarrita.

Which roughly translates as:

In the middle of our walk through life
I found myself in a dark forest
Where the right path had disappeared.

Basically Dante has a bit of a mid life crisis, goes for a wander, ends up in all three other worlds, and comes back a better man.  But the first book, where he goes through the nine circles of hell, is fucking grim.  It's a classic Christian depiction of Hell, where all the sinners, depending on the severity of the sin, spend the rest of eternity undergoing constant torture in one of the rings.  Lucifer himself is to be found in the bottom ring, with all the most evil/hated men and women.  Sure, it's kind of odious, given we have to account for all the people ever who came before Christianity find themselves in Limbo, the first ring, just purely out of bad timing, not to mention those who committed suicide, who find themselves in the seventh circle along with the sodomites, etc, etc.

But the point is is that it is a fucking terrifying depiction.  I remember going through a huge illustrated copy of of my Mum's when I was a kid (full disclosure: I scribbled all over it, it was worth like 400 dollars) and being utterly transfixed by the images of, well, Hell.  It was, I now realise with the benefit of hindsight, having the same effect on me Slayer had ten years later.  It was a depiction of the Dark, of the Dying, and of the Lost.  It was despair without hope.  It was terror with no chance for redemption.  These images tapped into the darkest recesses of my mind.

Keep in mind I didn't believe any of these places existed, I was just utterly consumed by their depiction of dark eternity.  And, you know, you look at these images, these depictions of tales of epic journeys through fantastical realms, masking what in reality are meant to be real human existential concerns and horrors, and you are face to face with what metal does today.  Death metal's obsession with ancient Sumerian gods, twisted worlds, murder, torture are merely artistic representations, and subsequent (admittedly often ham fisted) explorations of what are really pragmatic, every-day concerns: why are we alive, why are we scared of dying, and why do people do horrible things to each other all the time?  Black metal's obsession with pagan worlds, Nature and misanthropy achieves a similar thing, asking kind of vague questions about the nature of the World, our place in it, and the sadness that seems to pervade many of our lives on this world.

All of which brings us back to Dante being pretty fucking metal.  And we can dismiss the idea of Dante being metal as absurd.  Firstly because Dante didn't live in a time where 'being metal' was possible, making after-the-fact socio/pop-cultural remarks about him kind of absurd.  Secondly, we still haven't defined what 'being metal' entails, other than pointing to some vague ideas about good and evil, and other such bullshit.  But if we treat metal as but a sub-set of one of many artistic urges to try and describe/explore/make sense of the world and us and everything else, then we don't really need a proper definition, in the same way that romantic literature doesn't, or post-war post-modern lit doesn't either.  If we can accept, even tentatively, that metal is part of a great obsession with the Dark, in a kind of deeper, existential sense, then we can begin to see why Dante and Burzum had a lot more in common than first appears.

In the middle ages, the inverted fifth, the musical root note that all metal is based around, was banned.  It was believed to 'bring out the devil' in people.  It was said to cause a shiver down the spine.  That was supposed to be Lucifer entering your body.  Ideas around Lucifer, the Devil and the blackness beyond the gate were obviously prevalent in the Middle Ages and Renaissance period.  The Divine Comedy is a perfect snap shot and example of how scared we were, and still are, of that tingle down the spine.  The one you get where it occurs to you that, perhaps, all is not as it seems.

It may be that metal did in fact emerge out of Birmingham in the latter half of the twentieth century, and that anything that came beforehand that seems artistically similar, is unrelated.  It seems to me, however, that metal deals with something we have always, and I suspect always will, deal with.  Metal is really anger and grief.  Power and despair.  Bleakness and misanthropy.

I can't see much difference between when Dante stepped down into the ninth circle of hell, to face Lucifer himself, and when Morbid Angel wrote Fall from Grace.

From the first circle I descended thus
Down to the second, which, a lesser space
Embracing, so much more of grief contains,
Provoking bitter moans. There Minos stands,
Grinning with ghastly feature: he, of all
Who enter, strict examining the crimes,
Gives sentence, and dismisses them beneath,
According as he foldeth him around:
For when before him comes the ill - fated soul,
It all confesses; and that judge severe
Of sins, considering what place in Hell
Suits the transgression, with his tail so oft
Himself encircles, as degrees beneath
He dooms it to descend. Before him stand
Always a numerous throng; and in his turn
Each one to judgment passing, speaks, and hears
His fate, thence downward to his dwelling hurl'd

Hot wind burns me
Burning as I fall
Cast away
Speechless in the holy way
I survive
The scourge and banishing
To scorching land
I am lord, I take command

(Fall from grace)

Forgive me not
This knowledge makes me strong
To resurrect
The cities of the damned
All the treasure of sodom
Now belong to me - celebrate
Fallen angels take my hand

(Fall from grace)

Whores long for my flesh
And my desire
Lust annointing me now
Consume my soul

(I ride the flesh and the sinners of hell)
(I am belial)
(I bend knee not before my selfish desire

Saturday, October 6, 2012

Faultless,Battled He.

When I was a kid, maybe around three to four, I spent a lot of time hanging around my parent's bookshelves.  I guess this is kind of par for the course for young kids growing up with academics for parents.  None of the books were in any way accessible (I was pretty late to reading anyway) to a young boy, being mostly a collection, at least in the case of the bookshelves outside my parents respective studies, of classic fiction, autobiography and letters/diaries.  I remember running my finger along the spine of my mum's battered copy of Lord Of The Rings (a book she claims she never liked), attracted to the picture of what I now realise must have been Gollum.  I would take this book out of the shelf, leaf through the pages, examine closely the nine figures walking toward a mountain in the distance.  None of it made any sense to me of course at the time.  But I was already turning into a bit of a fan of the magical and fantastical, and I was pretty sure I wanted in on the book.  This led me to dragging the volume out from those it sat next to, quite regularly I seem to remember, and demanding to know from my Mum, when exactly I would be able to read this damn novel.  I can't remember what she said, but I am fairly certain the answer was not exactly pacifying to a small boy who can barely imagine the next week, let alone himself in, say, eight years time.

In light of the need to finish this sub-story, I did indeed read LOTR when I was eleven, and loved it so much, that I read it once a year, every year, for four years straight.  It was a good time.

I spent some time at mum's today, some of it helping her re-arrange some of dad's stuff.  Mum needed some correspondence of dad's, for some other academic person somewhere in the world, a general task she understandably finds depressing and boring, an unfortunate combination.  Here we were, sorting through these boxes and boxes of things, that used to be dad's.  Years of correspondence, all pre-dating email of course, often written under Monash, or Harvard, or Oxford letterhead.  All written to people I'd sometimes met, others I might have heard of, others I never knew existed.  It was strange, seeing my dad's scrawled notes to friends, and formal letters to colleagues, often written ten or more years before I was born.  There's this kind of universal style to academic's personal notes, often warm and inviting, yet stuffily choreographed, betraying the obvious popularity of writers like George Orwell (his letters, not just his novels) to the left wing scholars of the latter part of the twentieth century in the English speaking world.

It was as I thought about this that I came across the three volumes of Proust's In Search Of Lost Time.  I  have this sick obsession with long, difficult books.  Their length impresses me, intimidates me and their difficulty makes me want to conquer them.  With this in mind, I had had vague plans to tackle Proust at some unspecified time in the future, probably after War and Peace, and perhaps before Ulysses.  I picked up the battered copy, noticing the cover had come away entirely from the spine.  That distinctive name in the front, Carolyn James, written seemingly identically every time, told me they had been mum's copies.  Looking at the spine, each book with a little picture at the top, perhaps depicting a different character, I had a flash of recognition.  Just like an aroma you remember from when you were a kid, or a song you haven't heard for years, the spine's of these three volumes of Proust, had me instantly back in front of the bookshelf, lying on my belly, slightly dusty carpet tickling my nose, running my finger along the spines of these books, containing words I couldn't read, about people I didn't know existed.  I remember thinking that one average household bookshelf probably contains hundreds of different stories, the subjects of which might be so magnificently varied so as to make one really quite overwhelmed by the world.  I didn't know who Proust was then, obviously, and I don't really know who he is now.

As I sit here, looking at these three volumes though, just as clueless as to what this book is about as I was twenty years ago, I have this rush of memory and nostalgia.  I feel like, in starting to read this book, I would be continuing a story, rather than beginning one.  I spent ages wondering what all these mysterious tomes on all the bookshelves at home were about back when I was a kid.

The first book from the adult shelves I tackled was when I was ten.  It was called 'Out of the Shelter' by David Lodge.  From what I understand, David Lodge was a very popular writer in the sixties/seventies/eighties amongst left wingish leaning academic types.  He tended to write a lot about left wingish academic types so I suppose I can see the appeal.  Dad used to always explain his enjoyment of Lodge due to their same age, and his writing about places he had studied at (London, etc.).  Mum used to scoff, call Lodge a filthy sexist, and claim that all his stories were about old white academics wanting to get laid.  The point is, from a ten year olds perspective, 'Out Of the Shelter' was really fun.  It was about a young kid, growing up in post war Britain, going on holiday to West Germany.  It also had the most (for my age) vivid sex scene I could possibly imagine.  When I read it, Dad bought me 'Tomorrow When the War Began', and wrote in the front cover

"To James, for reading his first 'real' book.  Love, Bill"

I was pretty proud of myself for taking the step into 'real' literature, sure, but most of all I was excited that I had, finally, begun to unlock the secrets to the thousands of stories I had grown up with for the past ten years, surrounded by, but inaccessible.  Over the next few years I made my way through some more titles.  I read some Turgenev, some Orwell, bits and pieces of other writers. I found I had a strong attraction to the now dead genre of what I like to call 'A British man wanders through Europe'.  These books basically entail lavish descriptions of rich British gentleman walking through Italy with a cane, talking about Tuscan spring, churches and (occasionally) what a good job the fascists had done to clean up the country.  It was all pretty pleasant.

It all stalled a bit when I got into metal, and I was too busy scouring the internet for information on obscure British death metal bands, trying to understand the real tangible differences between Florida and California proto-death metal, or grappling with the world black metal was opening up to me.  So the reading didn't stop, by any means, but it definitely slowed.

Now, fired with this urgent desire to do something, I'm suddenly turning to these books again.  To the same bookshelves, some books now read and remembered, others as mysterious as ever.  I think back to that sweaty excitement I felt when I finished that David Lodge book, knowing I had entered a world that had not been made for me, but that I had stolen in anyway, taken a peek at what was inside, and snuck out just as quietly, wanting more.  Now I pick up 'In Search of Lost Time'.  That same feeling of childish eagerness to know more about the picture on the front, like that I felt when looking at Gollum, stirs in me.

Maybe, when I read Proust, I'll inscribe a little note in the front.

James, for finishing your first 'real' book.

I hope mum doesn't mind.

Friday, October 5, 2012

I Could Be The Queen Bee.

There's that feeling one gets when looking at a sentence with an errant comma.  You know it belongs in the sentence, somewhere, you're just not entirely sure where.  You move it around, read the sentence out loud, playing with the words, seeing where the movement of the comma takes you in regards to what the sentence conveys.  Yet, and here's the catch, it doesn't seem to belong anywhere.  It doesn't seem quite right in any of the various positions you place it in, but to remove it would, surely, be obscene, unthinkable w/r/t the sentences core.

It's these little discomforts with language that I grapple with every day.  I'm fairly comfortable with the written word and, I suppose, you could list it under the column labelled 'Shit James is ok at' rather than the opposite.  Writing talent is, actually, a bit like cycling.  To a degree, if you work hard, you get better at it.  But, at the end of the proverbial day, there's also those who have the natural spark, the limitless potential, the seemingly effortless ability to make the thing that you wish you were better at appear easy and, heaven forbid, beautiful.  I didn't think people like Stuart O'Grady and Cormac McArthy, Sean Kelly and Kafka had much in common.  They don't really.  What they do possess is that spark.  That element that makes us the rest of us hang our heads in despair, looking up only to stare at the sky and wonder what it was that these people had/have that we don't, that allow them to, without a wish to ramble, sparkle.

But there it is.  I'm as uncomfortable as I am familiar with the written word and, frankly, I don't know how to change that.  I definitely feel as if my writing has become stagnant as far as its quality is concerned.  There's this vague desire to, I don't know, write.  But write what?  When?  In what manner?  About whom?  To whom?

Of course those who know what the deal is will of course dismiss these concerns, citing the importance of simply writing, as being of the utmost importance.  It doesn't matter what you write.  So long as you do.  Eventually, slowly, agonisingly, something will happen.  Usually when you lease expect it.  Or at least so goes the advice.

Maybe one of the real train wrecks to come out of po-mo-ish writing is that sense of self awareness that surrounds a lot of writing these days.  The topic of the writing sits alongside the the very act of writing itself, that act in itself as much a part of the art.  That's not to say this is a bad literary style, simply that it makes it harder to start writing.  Not only does one have the awareness that one is writing to grapple with, one also has the awareness that, in writing, we are also aware of our awareness of writing.

Or, alternatively, it's always been this hard and we just started getting a bit more theoretical about the shit that goes through the standard human's brain when you sit in front of a computer, or a blank piece of paper and think, 'right, this is it', only to find yourself trolling the internet (the modern day procrastination equivalent of endlessly sharpening your pencil and making cups of tea) with the overwhelming sensation of 'oh shit, what now?' enveloping your soul.

That sense of doubt, that feeling that you haven't quite got what it takes, is embodied by that feeling you get, when you look at an errant comma, and can't quite find a place for it.  It's almost as if the comma itself is fine, it's the rest of the sentence that's the problem.