In his essay “The Light That Illuminates Itself, The Dark That Soils Itself: Blackened Notes From Schelling’s Underground”, Steven Shakespeare quotes an interview with US Black Metal band Wolves In The Throne Room who address their relationship to the explosive globalisation of the Black Metal movement and its origins in the controversies of True Norwegian Black Metal.
The band say that, as far as they are concerned, “the driving impulse of [Black Metal] is more about deep ecology than anything else”, an “eco-psychology”; the “deep woe inside black metal is about fear — that we can never return to the mythic, pastoral world that we crave on a deep subconscious level.” Distancing themselves from their predecessors, however, they explain:
Our music, then, is not “true” Black Metal for we have moved beyond this fantasy of nihilistic apocalypse; beyond our own misery and failure. Our music is balanced in that we temper the blind rage of Black Metal with the transcendent truths of the universe that reveals themselves with age and experience. Our relationship with the natural world is a healing force in our lives.
What is this if not the repudiation of a prior adolescence? Wolves in the Throne Room present themselves as the elders to True Norwegian Black Metal’s youth, but are they really so distant?
Wondering whether this new position taken by the Wolves is “a betrayal of roots, or a new baptism of the earth”, Shakespeare attempts to excavate the darker side of German Idealism, specifically through the thought of F. W. J. Schelling.
Schelling’s overarching project can perhaps be summarised in the same terms as the Wolves define their break with the Black Metal canon. He would likewise consider humanity’s “deep subconscious” affinity with nature — indeed, for Schelling, what must be unearthed is something more akin to a “natural” (that is, a planetary; an eco-logical) unconscious.
Whereas his predecessor, Immanuel Kant, in his famous three Critiques, would consider the ways in which nature is, for us, noumenal — unknowable in-itself to us, as selves conditioned by the prison of our own inescapable experience — Schelling (and other German Idealists of his generation) would instead consider the ways in which we ourselves are nonetheless a part of this nature that we cannot know. As the German Idealist scholar Frederick Beiser writes: “What Kant claimed reason could not know — the absolute or unconditioned — Schelling wrote volumes about.”
Whilst the outside — the world outside ourselves as subjects — may be unknowable beyond the conditions of subjective experience, we can nonetheless think of ourselves as nature thinking itself, in the Spinozist sense of naturas naturans, rather than being anthropocentrically and traumatically separated from our surroundings.
With all this in mind, we can perhaps see this “third wave” of Black Metal — epitomised by the North American bands, of which Wolves in the Throne Room are an seminal example — as a similar sort of development in our understanding of our relationship to nature. Whereas True Norwegian Black Metal privileged (or at least paid lip service to) a horrified Kantian “truth” of existence, in violent opposition to the illusory theologies of church (and, by association, state), Wolves in the Throne Room represent a Schellingian shift to a more productive and positive relationship to the world around us.
Shakespeare, in his essay, demonstrates this through quotations from Schelling’s works Ages of the World and Philosophical Investigations into the Essence of Human Freedom. He writes that, for Schelling, “creation ‘begins with a dissonance’.” His argument, similar to Spinoza’s, is that God and nature are inseparable and, if we are created in God-comma-nature’s image, it is in the sense that we too are beings of the natural world, despite our delusions of grandeur to the contrary. However, as Shakespeare emphasises, we are “a long way from nature worship” here: “If we are dealing with a religion here, it is more like a contamination, in which spirit goes to ground.” Our existence is not defined by its relation to its outside but, rather, the ways in which the Outside is already within us. Shakespeare continues:
For Schelling, behind God lies a primordial ground, an unconditioned absolute. From this ground, an unconscious arises. It is a will to know itself as absolute. The unconditioned is “the will that wills nothing.”
For Shakespeare, however, the central question of Black Metal becomes: “What does the absolute sound like?” And he responds by evoking the “buzzsaw guitar, the all too audible crudity of the production process” of the genre; Black Metal’s “aural friction, a scoured glass of sound.”
But something is missing here…
Shakespeare ends, more or less, on an open question: Do these staples of the Black Metal sound “enable us to hear nature differently, breaking the spell of reflection which seeks to bind everything in its proper place?”
Not for me. I’m left thinking not about Black Metal ecologies but the likes of Chris Watson, specifically his recordings of glaciers. Are these recordings of displacement not closer to the sound of of nature’s own Will? A sound more Black Metal than Black Metal itself could ever produce?
This is to forget that our all too human musicians are, in themselves, nature’s dissonance.
What seems to be missing is a story…
We should acknowledge that Shakespeare’s whistle-stop tour through Schelling’s Naturphilosophy — no doubt restricted by the presentation format for which the essay was originally intended — is inevitably truncated. He is absolutely correct in aligning the Wolves with Schelling’s positive philosophy of nature, but I only wish more could have been said on their relationship to mythology — the topic that Schelling would explore in great detail later in his life.
As previously explored and argued in this series, rather than distancing ourselves from the mythologies of adolescence, we can instead see our more recent cultural developments as the continuation of this process, previously blocked by a wayward egotism that Wolves in the Throne Room themselves nonetheless hold onto in their proclamation of occasioning a break from what has come before — just as Euronymous did, in his own way.
Towards the end of his life, Schelling would give a series of lectures on the nature of mythology. He would note how mythology, for the Greeks, was understood in “the broadest sense [as] the whole of their own particular tales, legends and stories, which in general go beyond historical time.” In Schelling’s sense, mythology is a form of understanding the world and our place within it in a way that “consists of occurrences and events that belong to an entirely different order of things”. Mythology, then — as a “system” and “history of the gods” — is born of “a type of alienation” that is, perhaps, inherent to the history of epistemology. Schelling notes that, “according to its origin, mythology indeed loses itself in a time into which no historical tidings reach.” It is the untimely cultural product of the questions that philosophy has long asked itself: who are we and how do we know?
Wolves In The Throne Room, in asserting that they have left the adolescence of True Norwegian Black Metal behind them, and having likewise given up on its mythologies — instead opting for the safe and scientific (eco-logical) understanding of nature — attempt to turn away from the originally adolescent form of alienation that exists at the genre’s heart whether they like it or not.
However, theirs is not a rejection of alienation in its entirety, theirs is rather a favouring of alienation through rationality in contrast to the alienation of inexperience. Both nevertheless crash upon the shore of the encounter with the unknown and unknowable. In this way, rationality and inexperience function as the mouth and tail of Black Metal’s ouroboros: adolescent non-knowledge and the aged understanding of our lost wisdoms.
The problem that presents itself here for me, as a listener, is that this somewhat arrogant assuredness and understanding of lost wisdoms is something shared by the scene’s more reactionary elements.
However, if we choose to be more generous to this group, we might also acknowledgement that a “lost wisdom” can likewise be understood as a sense of a wisdom from “before” that has been lost to modernity. This is to say, it is the “wisdom” of adolescence rediscovered by way of its absence from our experience of modernity.
This is, for Schelling, the atemporal birth place of poetry — or, rather, poesy — and it is a form of thought that moves diagonally through the naive rationality of the Wolves’ self-proclaimed ascension above their predecessors.
Schelling posits an analogy:
If a series of true events was told to us in a detailed and understandable lecture, then it will occur to none of us to ask what this story means. Its meaning is simply that the narrated events are real ones. We presuppose in him who tells it to us an intention to inform us; we listen to him with the intention of being informed. For us, his story undoubtedly has a doctrinal meaning. In the question of how I am to take this — that is, what is mythology supposed to be, or what does mythology mean? — it is thence already recumbent that the questioner feels himself incapable of seeing truth, actual events, in the mythological stories as well as in the mythological representations themselves because what is historical is here inseparable from the content. But if they are not to be taken as truth, then as what? The natural antithesis of truth, however, is poesy.
Poesy is, for Schelling, antithetical to truth by its innately multiplicitous nature. Truth is singular; monolithic. Poesy is, on the contrary, dissonant.
As Shakespeare would write in his text, ruminating on the lyrics of “Rain” by Fauna:
There is a multiplication of shadows and the earth writhes. There is no rest in this nature, no Eden. […] The purity which is envisaged by the song is not that of transparency to truth, to spirit, to the face of the other. This face is empty. […] Nature punctures skin, it is an opening, a folding of shadow. Becoming animal, we look for birth beyond the human. […] Nature breaks us. Its blackness, the blackness of earth, corrodes the solidity of existence from within. […] I have become the open seam, the wound that cannot be filled, where the heart was, where the ‘I’ reigned, there is a void.
This is precisely the Schellingian swamp, rendered in gothic form, from which mythology emerges. He would discuss mythology via its explicit relation to humanity’s own multiplication. The very act of multiplication, the repetitive introduction of difference into the human socius, produces a multiplicity of stories and perspectives. However, for Schelling, it is not a people which produces a mythology but a mythology that produces a people and True Norwegian Black Metal is a scene that was most certainly produced by its own mythology.
Indeed, mythology, in this way, is integral to adolescence. It is not just the stories that we tell ourselves but the stories which come to define us as we move maniacally into the imperceptible zone of adulthood. However, the interesting case of True Norwegian Black Metal demonstrates how a desire to establish and embody a mythology may just swallow us whole.
This is the tragedy of the True Norwegian Black Metal scene. It was immortalised upon a naive belief that those young men had in controlling their own story. It was already written for them and they were destroyed in their attempts to control its flows, just as we find ourselves threatened by the arrogance of our attempts to control the world around us.
The ecological thought of Wolves in the Throne Room had already been predicted as this series’ end point by one particularly perceptive reader. In the comments section of Part One, Dominic Fox sent a link to another interview with the Wolves in which they say:
Norwegian black metal is completely unbalanced -– that is why it is so compelling and powerful. It is the sound of utter torment, believing to one’s core that that winter will never end, that spring will never come. It is really music that can only be made by bitter and rage-filled teenagers. It is powerful and important to have these kinds of feelings of deep misanthropy and misery while one comes of age, because our age is sick. I don’t think, for instance, that a 35-year old man could make a record as great and pure as Filosofem. Black Metal is about destruction, destroying your belief system — it is a cleansing fire that opens up new possibilities for thought and feeling. In many ways, it is a first step, not the alpha and omega.
But, again, I beg to differ. The core of Norwegian black metal, to me, seems to be a nauseous unknowing; a Kierkegaardian “sickness unto death” that Shakespeare would describe as the “constant exposure of the wounded nature of selfhood, a self established by an other power not in its grasp.” As we’ve established, this other power is undoubtedly nature and the exposure of our own naivety before it is surely an ontological adolescence.
Things to not end here, however. All is not lost for the genre of Black Metal. As Dominic would add to this brilliantly in his comment on Part One:
For [Wolves in the Throne Room], this adolescence is something to be got beyond, rather than loitered in. But loitering is the characteristic adolescent mode of abiding: infesting a space, overstaying your welcome. An adolescent is always-already an “overgrown adolescent”, someone who should already have started to know better.
Commenting more specifically on those bands discussed in Part One, Dominic continues:
Whitehouse strike me as very overgrown-adolescent in just that sense. Whereas [Death in June] strike me as creepy old men hanging around the carpark where the youths gather to drink cider and smoke, whose sunwheel denim patches are supposed to make them look cool and edgy but who are generally shunned as nonces except by a few sad cases who can’t resist the attention.
Wolves in the Throne Room are, thankfully, far closer to Whitehouse in their mastery of dissonance, but still there is an uncertainty of position that seems amiss within their earlier summaries of their ecological position. Mourning the apparent loss of our connection to Nature is a slippery slope to towards a reactionary thinking. Instead, in keeping Black Metal focussed on the future of our planet and our place within it, we might say that the horror of Black Metal today is precisely a horror at the innate adolescence of our species, which has perhaps overstayed its welcome within a global ecosystem that can no longer afford us.
The role of mythology within this — of which Black Metal is an exemplary part — is not to embrace the easy nihilism of such knowledge but to account for it so that we might productively handle the consequences which will, undoubtedly, require a species-wide ego-death and the refutation of capitalist arrogance.
Indeed, if our age is as sick as Wolves in the Throne Room declare, it is perhaps because of an absence of myth and Black Metal may hold the keys to reigniting the void — even that which is within itself. The waves of adolescence that give Black Metal such persistent buoyancy are its ruinous grace. As Georges Bataille once wrote:
The myths which, in the white and incongruous void of absence, exist innocently and shatter are no longer myth, and their duration is such as to expose their precariousness. At least in one sense the pale transparency of possibility is perfect: myths, whether they be lasting or fugitive, vanish like rivers in the sea in the absence of myth which is their lament and their truth. […]
“Night is also the sun”, and the abscence of myth is also a myth: the coldest, the purest, the only true myth.