1. i chanced upon an American pagan woman’s blog earlier this week. i immediately disliked the swagger, the malapropism in the first paragraph, the crass teenage Americanisms; it sounded like it was written by a vacuous snarky 14-year-old but she is actually in her 40s. i forced myself to read on and found she probably knows more about heathenry than i do (i am a protestant heathen); but nonetheless i found it impossible to take her seriously. i won’t quote but it ran more or less thus: “So like [a god] stuck his head in and said yo peeps whassup? And I was like, OMG, it’s [a god]!!! Now I TELL Y’ALL this ain’t my first run-in with a god but I nearly shat myself! My bad!” and so on .
Later, i wondered if i was just being priggish about it. After all, real knowledge need not preclude childish frivolity. But the more i thought about it, the more i decided that it rang as false as when the Viking talked of “getting Poped up” (becoming a Catholic). It’s a way of denying the strangeness of this encounter; it denies the sacred, tries to make it profane and ordinary and matter for cheap jokes; it is of a part with the modern Catholic Mass and Satanically awful modern translations of the Bible (the Viking objected to the King James, saying it is impossible to understand).
2. My own understanding of these matter is, in a sense, aesthetic. i’d read hundreds of books, and written several hundred thousand words before i had any real, direct experience of non-worldly power. A good decade before my weird year in 2008, i had encountered power in another form – in art. There are works which are worthwhile but flawed, for example John Cowper Powys’ A Glastonbury Romance, which i nearly ditched before more or less attuning to its bizarre extravagance; then there are works which are flawed but beyond rebuke, for example Dante’s Comedia, the King James Bible, much of Shakespeare; and works which seem to me flawless: The Great Gatsby, The Waste Land, some Shakespeare (the flaws in, for example, Hamlet, don’t detract from its greatness; if anything, they just make it stranger). The latter two categories provide a standard. In the last circle of Inferno, Dante writes:
S’io avessi le rime aspre e chiocce,
come si converrebbe al tristo buco
sovra ‘l qual pontan tutte l’altre rocce,
io premerei di mio concetto il suco
più pienamente; ma perch’io non l’abbo,
non sanza tema a dicer mi conduco;
chè non è impresa da pigliara a gabbo
discriver fondo a tutto l’universo,
nè da lingua che chiami mamma o babbo.
Had I the harsh and grating rhymes that would be fitting for the dismal hole on which all the other rocks bear down I would press out more completely the sap of my conception; but since I have not it is not without fear I bring myself to speak, for to describe the bottom of all the universe is no enterprise to undertake in sport or for a tongue that cries mamma and babbo. (John Sinclair)
This should stand as rebuke to those who would make the sacred plain, or worse than plain – coarse and japing. Perhaps because of mass media, pornography, science, and ubiquitous marketing, people find it hard to imagine any area of human understanding which could be private, incommunicable. The private core of experience remains, however; all public attempts at it – for which pornography is the most explicit example – result in a caricatural form, and this then makes it harder & harder to arrive at true speech, whether on or off camera.
My more rarefied diction is not greatly dissimilar to my ordinary speech; but it is far removed from the lower reaches, the way i tend to speak with, for example, Toddball (a jovial hustler & petty crook from Chicago). It seems to me that the vulgar pagan woman has no other tone; or that she chooses to talk of the sacred in the language of MTV. This is typically American – egalitarian – and it’s notable that the Viking speaks a strange, Germanic-inflected trans-Atlantic idiom, to the extent that Germans assume he is American and even English speakers assume he’s a foreigner. He sounds like a Germanic Californication character.
3. A couple of days ago i went to a Swans concert in Munich. i arrived early and managed to stand near the front, probably unwisely since i’d forgotten to bring ear plugs and they have a reputation for ear & brain-destroying volume. Most of the audience were my age or older. Just before the band came on, a young German couple – students, by the looks of it – pushed their way in front, with the casual “ja, ve are the best, ve drive a BMV, out of ze way” insolence of rich Germans. They both looked like the students i saw in Durham: rich, affecting a carefully bohemian look, well-scrubbed and characterless. The girl had carefully coiffured hair and spoke a prissy, complaining High German; the boy reminded me of the hipster from Lonely Island’s ‘I Threw It To The Ground’
Michael Gira came on stage, looking professorial in his glasses, and planted a stand with the set list. Throughout, the two clean German kids craned forwards to read his set list, with that peculiarly brazen German insolence. Given Gira used to leap into the audience to attack headbangers, i hoped he would at least kick them in the face, repeatedly. i was about a meter away from the man himself and kept making meaningfully disgusted eye contact, nodding at the German hipsters and making strangulation gestures to indicate he should commit an atrocity. For some reason, he didn’t. He even shot me the occasional irritated glance.
Swans began with a slow, eerie piece, Gira holding his arms out and moaning “there are millions and millions of stars in your eyes”. The clean German girl gave her boyfriend an incredulous, unimpressed, sneering questioning look, and he shrugged with an equally Germanically unimpressed and critical look. i could imagine their disgusting German thoughts: “ughh, we thought this vas to be some bohemian hipster punk band ja but it is an old timer talking about ze stars. I vill sue them for many moneys.”
Then the noise began.
i don’t know what songs they played as most of it was so unbearably loud that i was only aware of volume and rhythm and madness. The German hipsters immediately inserted ear plugs. i’d brought chewing gum, deciding that if it grew painful i could use them as rudimentary aids. But it was just this side of painful; appallingly loud with a strange stillness to it; like qawwali or Arvo Pärt. And it was all superb:
The noise they created on The Library’s stage didn’t feel like an isolating wall, it didn’t block out audience, it enveloped them. It felt like you were within it, hurtling with it through dark and unsettling scenes, becoming ever more willing to hand yourself over to its all-consuming power, not even caring that it was turning anything caught in its wake to dust.
Gira cavorts and wobbles like a drunk Sufi, sometimes directing the other musicians to a different rhythm or noise. He’s a commanding, strange presence; he can look abruptly startled by his own music, then lunge into it and snarl or laugh. Near the end, he walked menacingly over to the drummer, then squatted slowly down, swan-like, and fluttered his hands gently. The drummer tilted his head and gestured with his sticks, as if to say “like this?”, Gira assented, and the drummer began a rapid, light movement; Gira stood and raised his hands, summoning more volume, then directed the others to follow, the swan beating wings.
After about 30 minutes the German hipster girl shouted complainingly into her hipster boyfriend’s ear and left. After another 15 minutes, he left too, presumably to drive her in his Audi TT to an exclusive hipster party where they would talk about how they went to a dingy club to watch a subversive transgressive American band. Swans continued and now i was right by Gira, praying he would submit to kick me brutally in the face so i could photograph my wounds for posterity (he didn’t).
After what seemed like another decade of noise, they came to a halt. The band lined up at the front and Gira introduced them in good German (one of the members, Christopher Hahn, is a German) and they all performed light, graceful bows, smiling broadly.
i walked 15 minutes in the rain to the nearest s-bahn, wondering that passing cars sounded like part of the show. It took 2 days for my ears to recover.
4. i rarely go to concerts, as i’m broke and don’t like big arenas (the Munich gig was commendably small and grotty). Thus far i’ve been to a big REM concert in 94 (shit), a Tori Amos concert in 95 or so (good, though i don’t like her music now), a few classical music concerts at Durham, Spiritualized in 98 (akin to Swans in magnificence) and 2001 (the same), and Alasdair Roberts in Manchester in 2007/8 (wonderful), and Wagner’s Die Meistersinger von Nürnberg and Der fliegende Holländer (astonishingly and quite good, respectively) in Kassel. Swans, Spiritualized, Roberts, and Die Meistersinger are the closest i’ve come to a public experience of the sacred. One has a veneer of superficial understanding – Swans are a punk band, Spiritualized are a British trance/electronic rock band, Roberts is a Glaswegian folk singer, Wagner is Wagner – but the experience was das Ding an sich, something you can talk about if you want but all your talking will fall far short. For hipsters, only the superficial is of importance; i can imagine the clean, pushy German students heard Swans were radical and underground and wanted to go to as it were add another feather to their Southron apple polishing hats; they wanted to go to talk about it. They were in fact repelled and humiliated by the thing in itself.
i wondered what kind of people would pay 30 € and then walk out; what did they expect? – and what kind of people would lean forwards and crane around to see the set list; what kind of people (Southrons) wouldn’t respect the band’s space and privacy? But then for this kind of rich polisher everything exists for their own hipster gratification. They have no understanding of raw, unmediated experience; hence they left early. For such people, everything is known; everything is subject to, and exhausted by, talk. If they were Christians they would read modern translations of the Bible and talk about it at Bible Study meetings, earnestly talking about everything, because they would talk themselves into reality.
5. In our times, there is almost nowhere to encounter that which is beyond talk. In the universities now, one reads Shakespeare – or rather, attends a lecture – and then vomits forth an exam paper about white privilege and “patriarchy”; and if you do otherwise, you will be penalised. The Christian religion has become a kind of MTV “spirituality”, where everything is made plain, easily digestible by idiots and the profane. There is nothing to look up to, nothing which deafens.
i don’t think the gods have departed; they just have nowhere to come to, in our culture. There is no longer a place for them set aside at the table, and so they walk the streets, or the forest.