September 27, 2016 § Leave a comment
The Kindly Ones is a French novel from 2006, written by American-French writer Jonathan Littell. The English translation has been done by Charlotte Mandell. Of all the places in the world, I chanced upon mention of this book in a Slavoj Žižek text, but Žižek, past the layers of willful obfuscation, is always good for wily asides and references, and I’m particularly grateful to him for introducing me to this work.
The Kindly Ones is set in the very middle of World War II. Over the course of this magisterial work of historical fiction, Littell takes us on a virtual tour of Hitler’s empire, beginning with the ill-fated decision to strike ever farther into the East; the events are related from the perspective of one Maximillian Aue, an officer in the Nazi Sicherheitsdienst, the intelligence arm of the Schutzstaffel. By way of his rise through the bureaucratic apparatus, we become privy to Germany’s ever-intensifying struggle to finish what they started, a task as good as lost once the United States entered the war with her superior manpower and resources.
Right off the bat, Aue announces that despite the endless atrocities that he, his party, and the whole of Germany stand accused and guilty of, he isn’t very different from the reader. In fact, he’s just like us all. The banality of evil was a phrase popularized by Hannah Arendt, suggesting that evil does not necessarily have to reside in the mind of a psychotic monster, but can be found in the most common and unremarkable of men. Littell’s achievement in this tome of a book (994 pages) is to make the reader identify with Maximillian Aue on some remote, psychosomatic level. No mean feat considering Aue, contrary to his pleas to normalcy, is not an everyday protagonist at all; he is homosexual, he has an incestuous relationship with his twin sister, and he probably commits matricide somewhere along the way, too. And yet, Littell fleshes out his character, warts and all, to such an extreme that he compels the reader to look within himself before he turns away in repulsion and moral sanctimony.
There are far too many individual incidences worthy of note in a book as big in length and rich with ideas as The Kindly Ones, but a few still manage to stick out in memory. Aue pontificates on Immanuel Kant’s categorical imperative, which, to say crudely, is nothing but a universal moral obligation to do the right thing, regardless of personal desires. In a conversation between Aue and Adolf Eichmann (the subject of Hannah Arendt’s book, and a chief organizer of the extermination drives), the suspension of Kant’s categorical imperative during wartime is brought up. Eichmann says that in war, we do exactly that which we wouldn’t want the enemy to do to us, a break-down of the biblical “Do unto others as you would have them do unto you”. Aue works around Eichmann’s doubts by invoking National Socialism’s total debt to the volk, or the nation and its people. National Socialism, moving past the primitive idea of God, instead substitutes it with the nation, and its ultimate representative, its Fuhrer. As such, anything and everything done with the explicit or implicit approval of the Fuhrer warrants no dissent on the subject of the categorical imperative; works done in the service of the volk, and only those works, become the categorical imperative.
Many other discussions of a similarly philosophical bent exist in The Kindly Ones, raising fascinating questions about the mechanisms of indoctrination, and the schism between individual responsibility, and unimaginable things committed in the name of a greater good. At a later point in the war, when the writing was on the wall, Heinrich Himmler summons the SS bigwigs, and in no uncertain terms, makes the realities of the Endlosung, or The Final Solution, clear to those assembled, going to the extent of recording them, in the process irrefutably incriminating the party hierarchy (see: Posen speeches). Aue registers the uncomfortable shock registered among those present; upto that point, most of Germany had continued to naively, perhaps conveniently, believe that Jews and undesirables were being moved to the East for resettlement, but Himmler almost sadistically dispelled the country of its naivete, making The Holocaust – yes, women and children, too – a reality to come into their homes uninvited, leaving no conscience unnettled after the sun went down.
Alongside The Kindly Ones, I also read Hungry Bengal, by Janam Mukherjee, a documentation of the Bengal Famine of 1943 orchestrated by the British in India. Bengal is a state to the east of the country, its primary crops being rice and jute, cultivated along its extensive coastline which opens into the Bay Of Bengal. As Japan started registering its successes in South Asia – Singapore, Burma, Malaya fell in quick succession, much to British chagrin- the British feared for the price jewel of their colonial empire. To deprive the Japanese of making use of local agriculture in case they landed on the extensive coastline of the Bengal countryside, British state policy mandated moving all ricestock out from the coast, hoarding it, and driving inflation through the ceiling. Boats, which formed the primary means of transport along the complex, river network for coastal villagers, indispensable to their supplementary fishing trade, were destroyed en masse, so that the Japanese couldn’t avail of them.
The result was a famine that killed three million people over the next two years, destroying the social, economic, and political fabric of the state, leading in many ways to the brutality of the riots that ushered in Partition. As skeletally emaciated victims of hunger from the coast and interiors started filtering into Calcutta, dying on the streets of the British Empire’s Second City on a daily basis, the sight became as much a source of sorrow as acute embarrassment, to both the British and vested Indian business and political interests. The victims barely looked human, alive or in corpse form; what chance then did they have of figuring into calculations of war and the profits to be derived from it?
The reason I bring up this event is because it shares certain parallels with The Holocaust and how Littell transcribes it through Aue’s eyes. Dehumanization of the other is a premise much beloved of critical theory, but that doesn’t detract legitimacy from it being a prerequisite and a precursor to all events of such ghastly nature; whether it be the genocide of 800 million Hindus by Muslim invaders over five centuries of religious persecution, the plight of gypsies, Jews, and social undesirables in Nazi Germany, the unfed, unwashed poor in Bengal subordinated before the throne of Mars, the Hutus calling the Tutsis cockroaches in Rwanda, or the Bosnian crisis of the 90s, setting up the target of ire as somehow different and worthy of revulsion, is the signature of this unfortunate chain of accidents. The real causes, however, almost always hint at either a need for material resources, or a collective psychological injury that aims to redress itself by destroying that other.
Jonathan Littell thinks as much. Aue describes a group of Bergjuden, or Mountain Jews of the Caucasus, who have been shortlisted for extermination by the powers-that-be. The Bergjuden, however, have been living there for hundreds of years, and have come to linguistically resemble the Turkic peoples with whom they share the mountains. Aue looks on as a special group from Berlin, designated for solving the Bergjuden question, is sent to the East. The Bergjuden invite their would-be executioners to their dwellings, organize food and entertainment to show them how similar they are to the other genteel tribes, to prove their non-Jewishness, as it were. It is a desperately pitiable sight, but also a sad one to see these simple folk, so distanced from political wranglings, stripped of all pride, scrounging and bargaining for their very lives.
That feeling of sadness and futility resonates through The Kindly Ones, not because Littell overtly manipulates his readers’ emotions, but rather trusts them to their instincts by providing an eloquent meta-commentary on his characters’ experiences. The common theme is that extraordinary circumstances elicit extraordinary responses, even from the most insignificant among us. We should only consider ourselves fortunate in the extreme if we’re not confronted with them with regularity, but reality isn’t so lenient, is it? The line between empathy and expediency is exceedingly thin, and who would want to adjudicate where that lies?
September 14, 2016 § Leave a comment
The reptile part of my brain insinuates prejudice against certain groups of people, especially under specific, extenuating circumstances, but I like to think that I’m not a racist – and I use the subject of race interchangeably with genetics for the purposes of this post – when I’m interacting with other human beings on a case-by-case basis. Discriminating against individuals based on race seems particularly pointless to me; not because I think everybody’s the same or because I overestimate blank-slate theory, but because of simple pragmatism: we’re here, we are who we are, now what do we do? There’s no choice or effort involved in belonging to a particular gene pool; it is a lottery, an accident of birth, so to take pride in phenotypic traits or in whatever percentage of intelligence is predicated by one’s genes seems a bit like missing the forest for the trees to me.
On the other hand, there is definite collective will and enterprise involved in forging a civilization under a common religion and family of languages, and the culture that flows from them. As such, this endeavour of the ages lies a few rungs higher on the ladder of cosmic chance on which institutional racism as a practice is based. Liberal platitudes, under their motto of individualism, would take away any remaining vestiges of pride in the accomplishments of one’s people, but people of all groups should rally under the one true spiritual banner that unites them.
Some might argue that the form which a civilization takes itself hinges significantly on the mean genetic constitution of its people, in association with environmental factors, and as such civilizations as a whole can be treated on a racial level, too. This may be so, but it is also an unconducive strain of thought, seeing how it confuses race, and, by inevitable conjunction, racism, with a legitimate pride in one’s heritage i.e. nationalism. It also contains no small dose of irony, in that both liberals and those subscribing to race hierarchy end up creating this equivalence between racism and nationalism, albeit for entirely conflicting reasons. Liberals tend to set up a boogeyman, imagined or otherwise, and then inflate the umbrella under which the boogeyman resides so that it comes to include various other -isms that liberal philosophy disagrees with. So, according to a liberal, racism is the same as fascism is the same as nationalism, and who’s to know, the same as sexism, too. Conservatives, though they resist falling prey to this illusion, unthinkingly, perhaps unavoidably, play into the liberal whitewashing agenda by equating race – and in liberal opinion, racism, too – with civilization and nationalism.
The difference between racism and nationalism is simple enough to understand: racism implicitly involves an inferior other, or a subaltern. Nationalism, however, is an insular, close-looped idea; it is a concept which is often conflated with coarse jingoism, but real nationalism does not concern an other. Rather, it is an awakening to the call of your people’s past, an introspection of who you are and where you come from. Nationalism is self-acting; meaning that unlike racism, which is an instrument of leverage for material gain involving more than one actor, nationalism is solitary, and strives to create a sense of identity and pride in its subjects, and what they have to offer to the world.
September 10, 2016 § Leave a comment
I wrote about a young and promising hardcore band earlier today, but ever since then have drowned myself in the sounds of bands like Funebre, Necrony, and Soulside Journey-time Darkthrone. And the one thing that comes over like the warm embrace of revelation is the great intellectual divide that separates populist forms of music from metal, but good extreme metal in particular. And that is an aspect which is not stressed and defended enough by fans of extreme metal when confronted by the smug, caricaturesque chorus of “metchul” orchestrated by those who would have this music mean less than the revolution in thought and ambition that it really is.
This is no slight towards punk, hardcore, rock, or pop; they are what they are, and play to the best of their abilities according to the rules of the board. But, as touched on in the previous post, these are fundamentally egoistical forms of expression. Their chief concern is the individual and his immediate sphere of relations, thus they regularly serve as his mouth organ and report his experiences in the manner of a gonzo, first-person poetry from the field of action. In keeping with a prosaic memo like this, the music that such “bands of the people” create has to be suitably accessible and streamlined in order to communicate its earthly agenda to the masses with clarity. The idealisms remain embedded in the message, whereas the music itself becomes a clinical demonstration in virtuosity and appeasement.
But extreme metal – and this should not bear stressing by this point in time, but by extreme metal I almost exclusively refer to that of the classic vintage – reverses this relationship between message and music. Great extreme metal trusts and respects the intelligence of its audiences enough to allow them to draw their own inferences. Though fine lyrics and peripheral agendas no doubt exist here, the proof, as they say, is in the pudding; extreme metal purposefully distorts its delivery, and embraces, in spirit. the ethos of progressive rock and by association the classical canons, striving to create a music in bloom, morbid though its external demeanour may be.
Make no mistake; the keystone always is, and has to be, aggressive and extreme. Death is extreme, it is the last stop before negation, and what better negativizing feeling to express this than violence and aggression? But like the famous Metallica song says, ‘To Live Is To Die‘; every instant lived entails a simultaneous death, for that instant lived recedes into the past, never to be lived again. One life, and a multitude of deaths to be endured. The revolutionarily obsessive mandate of death metal and black metal, however, so different from all music that has gone before, is to not think of death – either as successive increments, or ultimate punctuation – as a phenomena to be suffered, but rather to be reveled in.
I’m hearing Necrony‘s Pathological Performances as I write this, a band whose drummer would go on to form the highly influential, but to-the-point Nasum. And yet, Necrony were anything but to-the-point. The reaction of the hipster when he sees the song titles of a band such as this and others would be to roll his eyes and say “here we go again!“. But Necrony‘s music was a rich, continuously undulating tapestry of strategically implanted phrases, one that, to err on the far side of hyperbole, would perhaps make an interesting case study for musical linguistics if such a field existed. The casual listener might remark surprisedly at the jazz-tinged guitar solos if they make it in so far, but even before those scene-stealers make an appearance, the band has made its point. And it makes one wonder: what could possibly impel a group of drink-sodden teenagers to make music so complex, layered, and abstract in tenor?
Ambition. I hear Minor Threat, then I hear Soulside Journey, and I can’t help but be struck by the sheer expansion of musical scope so obvious in the latter, and it certainly doesn’t need an Ian Mackaye haranguing at my back to register. Extreme metal, in direct opposition to popular music, is a spreading outwards. Everything it does is on a grander scale. Times are considered in the span of ages, space is dealt with as the endless cosmic expanse that it truly is. Extreme metal encapsulates that stirring of the young spirit as it realizes that the limits it once perceived against itself can and should be trespassed, by degrees, for something a little more transcendent.
Which also leads me to question bands who have once known such transcendent space, but who are now content to pay simple homage to their influences. At what stage does man decide that he is content with his lot in life, at least as pertains the things he says he loves? At what point does he stop trying to better himself, in thought or deed, and if he does indeed do so, does he even fit the label of man anymore? At least that has never been the extreme metal spirit apparent to me, which is why the actions of a latter day Darkthrone seem so inexplicable; how does a band that has known just such a transcendent space suddenly become content with offering watered down tributes to an era which they themselves asserted an ideological superiority over? To respect one’s elder foundations is admirable, don’t get me wrong; but those influences should be encapsulated as an abstraction in how you conduct yourself and your art, not be pandered to in pale imitation.
Maybe – sardonically, to wax ironic – in this too, extreme metal emulates life. Elders reaching dotage seemingly slip back into infantility; an extreme metal band like Darkthrone, perhaps, once it has reached the end of its tether, longs, too, for the safe cushion of the womb from which it once drew sustenance. But this wrestling with nostalgia does not warrant respect from a mindset that is truly extreme metal. Forever upwards, forever onwards; that, if anything, should be the motto for this music.
It really is a philosophy for life if you invest enough thought and energy into it. To know it, don’t look at what has become of this scene today. commercialized and beset by identity politics as it is. The old bands, though, conceal immense treasures of sublimely iconoclastic thought and aspiration, as relevant now as they ever were. What makes such a space of mind accessible? Whether one believes that this music warrants such overwrought mastication. There are only two answers to that question, and they lie at incompatible extremes.
September 10, 2016 § Leave a comment
In Dearth Of can be heard here
I’m clueless about how hardcore has evolved over the last twenty years, so I will only share an impressionistic opinion of the brand played by Death By Fungi. Trace elements from forebears like Black Flag and Minor Threat anchor these four songs in the past simultaneously as they are pervaded with the genre-bending spirit of Refused‘s The Shape Of Punk To Come. Fleeting nods in the direction of Siege and Hatebreed amplify intensity when the band so chooses, but, if all these influences weren’t a heady enough concoction already, Death By Fungi also incorporate a healthy dose of Iron Maiden-style major key melodies done in the right manner, and what I can only surmise as being a hangover from emo.
What ties this glorious mess together is the band’s undeniable ear for crafting melodies and harmonics without appearing insincere or trite. Yes, In Dearth Of proudly boasts of the self-referential and self-righteous tone common to all hardcore; this is music about the individual, centered in the moment, and so is prey to the usual bouts of ‘I, Me, Myself‘. But for all that, I can’t fault the band’s intensity and skill at conveying a consistent platter of emotions over these short, explosive bursts of energy. Few Indian bands to my knowledge – metal, punk, or otherwise – have come close to capturing this visceral, urgent appeal, and I look forward to what Death By Fungi have to offer in the future.
September 8, 2016 § Leave a comment
Words get thrown around without due consideration. Flippantly do people say that metal is powerful, that metal is self-empowering, but do they understand what the word power signifies? Power, by definition, implies a superiority and a triumph, either over a past version of yourself, or indeed over another individual. When it is the first, we euphemistically call it self-improvement, when it is the second, we call it competition, or, worse, subjugation. A third expression of power would be when it is handed over to a group of people as a result of changes in the consciousness of society. Affirmative action would be an example of this type of power, an ordinance which tries to raise previously disenfranchised people to the level of the mean, whatever that may be.
But, as should be obvious, this third form of empowerment is unlike the first two, and has an element of realpolitik and charity about it; the catalyst for this kind of empowerment has to come from outside of the individuals that are its subject, chiefly because those subjects themselves are far too malnourished intellectually, owing to history or nature, to effect the changes they wish for themselves. Indeed, there is an argument to be made that this wish to bestow empowerment on the underprivileged comes more from a neurotic blend of guilt and a messiah complex on the part of those acting as benefactors of society, than any real spiritual unrest in the ones under the yoke.
Which might not be such a bad thing after all; great good can come from dubious motives, and who among us that comes from a land with a sustained history of a thousand years or more would not want for the rest of our countrymen to be brought up to par? Affirmative action might be an opportunistic and myopic device that deludes itself into believing that it is visionary, but, in any case, the responsibility to the nation – if one believes in such a thing as a nation – ought to be to teach the people to learn to respect themselves, and to earn their standing in society and as members of a civilization with a storied history.
Power, then, in all events, is a break from parity, and an assumption of mastery, earned or not. But, to the best of my knowledge, metal has never advocated the third kind of empowerment. The sound of metal, in all its incarnations, conveys self-realization, liberation, and, ultimately, domination, aspects belonging to the first two categories of power. What metal has emphatically not been is a beggar’s yelp for hand-outs and reparations and corrective measures. Metal is proud, above all else, and expects its audience to display some of that pride, too. Metal demands an awakening to be fired from the individual’s core, and shuns all compulsorily foisted solicitude.