Harley Filben darkens his mood with Cold World by Dominic Fox (Zero Books)
Recently, I posted up an article on here about peculiar developments in the, in any case peculiar, heavy metal scene. I mentioned in passing this book – Cold World by Dominic Fox – which is a short collection of essays on, as its wordy subtitle would have it, “the aesthetics of dejection and the politics of militant dysphoria”. “Sadness does something to the way we see the world,” he begins (p1). What he has in mind is a sense of profound separation from the world, which then figures into our aesthetic comprehension and political relationship to that world.
The bulk of the book is focused on the “aesthetics of dejection” rather than the political import, which is left a little fuzzier in a single discussion of the politics of the Red Army Fraction’s Ulrike Meinhof. For his set texts, he takes (in rough order of appearance) Codeine’s album The White Birch, Iris Murdoch’s Flight from the Enchanter, Gerard Manley Hopkins’s ‘terrible sonnets’, a handful of bits and bobs by Coleridge, and contemporary depressive black metal (mainly Xasthur and Nortt).
That’s a pretty fragmentary list, and I must admit to being far more au fait with Codeine and Xasthur (Nortt, apparently a “pure depressive black funeral doom metal” combo (p55), is a tip for which I am grateful) than Coleridge; but even in discussing the more melancholy end of rock music, his view is basically literary-critical. In a sense this is an interesting move – The White Birch‘s closing track, “Smoking Room”, is taken apart in the broad manner ofAmerican ‘new criticism’ (pp3-4). The closing couplet, “the world is frozen now; it glitters, sparkles and shines” is contrasted in a fairly orthodox manner with the first verse, and also taken on as a kind of manifesto by Fox – only when the world appears frozen, divested of enjoyment, can it shine.
Hopkins is wheeled out essentially to make points about the sublime – that aesthetic concept which, since Immanuel Kant’s Critique of Judgment, has come to mean an encounter with something so vast and powerful that it cannot even be named. It lurks behind everyday phrases like ‘terrible beauty’ – in Hopkins’s terrible sonnets, Fox reads a kind of sublime despair, a permanent and paralysing pain of existence to which even death cannot put an end. Philip Larkin’s fear of death pops up, to be read not as a fear of an absolute end to existence but rather of permanent desensitisation, “the anaesthetic from which none come round”. By this point, Fox has warmed to his theme, and the essays on (broadly) Coleridge and black metal reprise it in different ways.
The burden of ‘militant dysphoria’, then, falls on Meinhof – the final essay, “The Brain of Ulrike Meinhof” is essentially an extended reading (more lit-crit…) of her Das Konzept Stadtguerrilla, out of which he draws a “revolutionary ethics of seccession”:
The passage from concerned leftist political discourse to concerted militant activism is a passage from that which soothes, placates and mollifies to that which concentrates displeasure and directs it towards its source: a militant dysphoria. (67)
Much of his analysis is focused on the fate of a civilian, the librarian Linke, shot and injured in the audacious jail-break of Meinhof’s comrade, Andreas Baader. In Fox’s reading, that ‘ethics of succession’ creates a kind of blind spot – the world is viewed by the RAF militant as frozen, and contingencies of human behaviour such as Linke’s wounding by definition cannot be foreseen. To do so, after all, would mean (according to Meinhof) accepting the terms of bourgeois morality, and (according to Fox) thus being part of the world from which the dysphoric militant is by definition thoroughly alienated. This is the occasion of Fox’s most eloquent image:
Only the disenchanted can have agency: it is like a playground game of statues, in which captured players must be tagged by free players before they can move again…once one has analysed the positions of the statues, one does not expect them to move around of their own accord. (64)
The contradiction, then, is with the reality that life – or something like it – continues in the cold world. “The secret of the cold world is that there is something moving in its icy wastes, something astir in its gloomy forests. The statues blink and change positions in the night” (69).
Fox is a little unclear on what, in the end, he makes of Meinhof – he is entertainingly scornful of the West German state’s decision to keep the brains of the dead RAF leaders for neurological study (in an even more peculiar twist to that story, unmentioned by Fox, all of those brains have since been lost – except Meinhof’s), and seems to consider her a kind of archetype for the revolutionary. Yet her struggle is ultimately called “desperate” (70); and there is the matter of her insensitivity to the contradictory agency of the rest of us, the moving statues, and ultimately to “nature as the unconscious of human reality”. By contrast, “late black metal, in its vertiginous mortal despair is more sensitive to the secret ministries of this unconscious…but these cannot be the only choices” (69).
Indeed not (though one can’t help wondering what Meinhof or Gudrun Ensslin would have made of Xasthur). The solution for a more traditionally minded leftist would be to invoke the dialectic. “Changing the world involves a curious kind of doublethink,” says Terry Eagleton – not only must see the world-to-be-changed before us as it actually is, but as it could be:
At the very moment the mind is required to be chaste and self-forgetful, it is also asked to spurn the actual in the name of the possible. It must combine the indicative mood with the subjunctive, yoking a coldly demystified sense of the present to a warmly imaginative leap beyond it…In this sense, radical politics demand a strangely hybrid human being, one who is both more sceptical and more trustful than the average.
Fox might have considered, rather than depressive black metal, the influential Quebecois post-rock band Godspeed You! Black Emperor, whose eminently morose instrumental epics are tied to a political vision of the simultaneous impossibility and necessity of overthrowing capitalism. They, too, espouse an ‘ethics of secession’, living in the period of their most famous recordings in various squats in the run-down Mile End district of Montreal, as isolated from corporate capitalism as was practicable, yet very obviously aware of the basically defensive nature of this stance. (The music’s pretty good, too.) This is the flipside of Eagleton’s idea of the revolutionary.
In the end, the limitation of Fox’s interesting but frustrating little book is that it lapses into cryptic generalities on this point. As such, the relationship between ‘the aesthetics of dejection’ and ‘the politics of militant dysphoria’ remains quite as obscure at the end as it is at the outset. There is no reason why the state of dejection should be resolved politically, rather than in an isolated recovery of one’s vitality (the film American Beauty, which reintroduces something sensuous into the banal life of American suburbia, would be a good figure here), and the examples used – be it Nortt or Gerard Manley Hopkins – rather underline this point.
As a rather more restricted argument for the way misery glances at the sublime, and an analysis of ‘what sadness does to the way we see the world’, it works a little better.