“Meet Me Behind the Mall”: Notes on the Heavenly Storekeeper and His Stock

In the afternoon he sat in the compound breaking ore samples with a hammer, the feldspar rich in red oxide of copper and native nuggets in whose organic lobations he purported to read news of the earth’s origins, holding an extemporary lecture in geology to a small gathering who nodded and spat. A few would quote scripture to confound his ordering up of eons out of the ancient chaos and other apostate supposings. The judge smiled.

Books lie, he said.

God dont lie.

No, said the judge. He does not. And these are his words.

He held up a chunk of rock.

He speaks in stones and trees, the bones of things.

— Cormac McCarthy, Blood Meridian

Speaking previously about Taylor Swift’s inadvertent fall into black metal imagery, and the veil between inside and out that she seems to be walking like a tightrope, I decided to take a closer look at her lyrics and was surprised to find little mention of nature whatsoever.

The album does well to evoke a dreamy, folk(loric) landscape and it does speak occasionally of woods and coastlines, but Swift is far more concerned with products and things than the natural world. Hers in a material world. Nevertheless, she only seems fascinated with these things only because of the halo they carry with them. She holds her decadent possessions aloft and interrogates them in order to glimpse some something else that lurks behind them. The recurring line from “August” — “Meet me behind the mall” — echoes throughout the album in the way. What is behind the mall? A parking lot most likely, but in Swift’s dreamscape it seems like the scope of her song is far bigger than that.

Behind the mall is the world.

In much US Black Metal, this tension is reversed. In their sonic realms of fantasy and horror, these musicians proclaim they have destroyed the mall and speak of it no longer. They are back in the world, even if a little bleary-eyed and awestruck. It is a return to nature-in-itself that, according to DH Lawrence, the American mind has long been dissuaded from engaging with.


Lawrence spends the first analytic chapter proper of his Studies in American Literature by ridiculing Benjamin Franklin (who he admires but does not like). Franklin speaks so eloquently of God and Providence as to almost collapse one onto the other and begin to see God in his own capitalistic activities. Whilst God — for someone like Schelling most explicitly — is certainly to be found in “productivity”, for Lawrence Franklin’s prostituting of a natural extropy, transforming it into a Godly Providence, is nothing short of a pitiful fallacy. He writes:

Now if Mr Andrew Carnegie, or any other millionaire, had wished to invent a God to suit his ends, he could not have done better. Benjamin did it for him in the eighteenth century. God is the supreme servant of men who want to get on, to produce. Providence. The provider. The heavenly storekeeper. The everlasting Wanamaker.”

For Lawrence, the soul of man is a dark forest; not Franklin’s English country garden, all topiary and cabbages patches ready for market. “The soul of man is a dark vast forest, with wild life in it”, he writes. “Think of Benjamin fencing it off!”

And yet, this fencing off is not without its consequences. For a nomadic Englishman like Lawrence (what a paradox), trying to find his way through the dark night of the American soul, Franklin’s obstacles are most treacherous.

“Here am I now in tatters and scratched to ribbons, sitting in the middle of Benjamin’s America looking at the barbed wire, and the fat sheep crawling under the fence to get fat outside, and the watch-dogs yelling at the gate lest by chance anyone should get out by the proper exit.” So is the feeling of reaching the landscape depicted on Swift’s album cover via the vectors of her songs. Yearning for a life beyond quarantine, just as she is, we have to make it through the fire exits in a labyrinthine mall of Swift’s own making.


Lawrence’s dictums, contra Franklin, speak to a kind of Lovecraft country. But he has little time for the evangelism of the Cthulhu cult, and far less still for an intellectual’s morbid curiosity with an external otherness. He offers up the following six rules for life:

‘That I am I.’

‘That my soul is a dark forest.’

‘That my known self will never be more than a little clearing in the forest.’

‘That gods, strange gods, come forth from the forest into the clearing of my known self, and then go back.’

‘That I must have the courage to let them come and go.’

‘That I will never let mankind put anything over me, but that I will try always to recognize and submit to the gods in me and the gods in other men and women.’

For Lawrence, the great challenge of the American psyche, in its relationship with nature, is to let these gods come and go. Indeed, isn’t this folklore? The oral tradition of narrating this kind of divine passing-through? Lawrence seems to think so, although Franklin has bastardised it beyond all recognition.

Through the lens of his great American moralism, Franklin’s racism comes to epitomise a national paradox: a racialised, fearful love of otherness. Lawrence references Franklin’s encounter with a tribe of rum-loving Indians, for instance. Franklin declares, “if it be the design of Providence to extirpate these savages in order to make room for the cultivators of the earth, it seems not improbable that rum may be the appointed means.” But the land is, of course, already cultivated. For Lawrence, the new American’s joy at growing “potatoes and Chicagoes” is far less impressive than the longevity of its First Nation’s history. And yet, Lawrence does not go so far as to idolise or fetishize the first Americans. He simply acknowledges the truth that the colonists cannot see, although they will spend the next few hundred years grasping at it. He writes:

You can idealize or intellectualize. Or, on the contrary, you can let the dark soul in you see for itself. An artist usually intellectualizes on top, and his dark under-consciousness goes on contradicting him beneath. This is almost laughably the case with most American artists.

Could this cynicism be vindicated any clearer than it is on Swift’s folklore? She successfully captures an essence, but it always lurks in the background, as an all too recognisable Americana lingers on the surface like a thin layer of scum. Perhaps because Swift’s temper has been altered for good. She is not a figure breaking free from the back of the mall but a gun-totin’ hunter, stalking the edges of a dark forest that fascinates her and makes her afraid.

When Lawrence later moves onto the writings of J. Hector St. John de Crèvecœur, he points to de Crèvecœur’s similar understanding of the woods. Wood-adjacent Americans are of another sort, he says, and it resonates surprisingly well with the world of celebrity in which Swift moves. “Look what you made me do”, she snarls at the trees, taking potshots at owls and paparazzi. This is what has changed her.

‘I must tell you,’ he says, ‘that there is something in the proxomity of the woods which is very singular. It is with men as it is with the plants and animals that grow and live in the forests; they are entirely different from those that live in the plains. I will candidly tell you all my thoughts, but you are not to expect that I shall advance any reasons. By living in or near the woods, their actions are regulated by the wildness of their neighbourhood. The deer often come to eat their grain, the wolves to destroy their sheep, the bears to kill their hogs, the foxes to catch their poultry. This surrounding hostility immediately puts the gun into their hands; they watch these animals, they kill some; and thus by defending their property they soon become professed hunters; this is the progress; once hunters, farewell to the plough. The chase renders them ferocious, gloomy, and unsociable; a hunter wants no neighbour, he rather hates them, because he dreads the competition. … Eating of wild meat, whatever you may think, tends to alter their temper. …’

Interestingly, de Crèvecœur’s future would take a similar turn to Swift’s. Having lived out in the wilderness and written his stories of a farmer’s hardships, he returns to his native France a hero; a survivor. He leaves his wife and child for the luxury and comfort of Parisian literary circles. He wanted a taste but not the life, too enamoured by his old decadence. Lawrence, in his appraisal of the bougie Frenchman, once again pulls no punches:

For the animals and savages are isolate, each one in its own pristine self. The animal lifts its head, sniffs, and knows within the dark, passionate belly. It knows at once, in dark mindlessness. […]

Crèvecœur wanted this kind of knowledge. But comfortably, in his head, along with his other ideas and ideals. He didn’t go too near the wigwam. Because he must have suspected that the moment he saw as the savages saw, all his fraternity and equality would go up in smoke, and his ideal world of pure sweet goodness along with it. And still worse than this, he would have to give up his own will, which insists that the world is so, because it would be nicest if it were so. Therefore he trotted back to France in high-heeled shoes, and imagined America in Paris.

For Lawrence, this is America’s great influence on the husk from which it grew out of. Because, although America may fetishize its struggles, white Americans had known decadence for a very long time. In fact, Lawrence goes so far as to claim that “European decadence was anticipated in America; and American influence passed over to Europe, was assimilated there, and then returned to this land of innocence as something purplish in its modernity and a little wicked. So absurd things are.”

This feedback loop, like all others in postmodernity, gathers itself ever tighter. Taylor Swift epitomises it. Her hankering after a Gatsby life of American modernism is reduced to a facile glamour that is, at once, uniquely American but made exotic with its faint whiff of European aristocracy. The lesson becomes that bit more clear: There is little opportunity to separate American and European today, so fatally enamoured we are (whether culturally or politically) with each other’s ideals and each other’s natures, but that dream meridian that joins us from afar continues to seduce us.

What lies behind the mall?

3 thoughts on ““Meet Me Behind the Mall”: Notes on the Heavenly Storekeeper and His Stock

  1. Hey Matt, long time blog lurker surfacing here. In light of your recent posts, I am wondering if you ever checked out Chelsea Wolfe’s Birth of Violence which came out last year (2019) I think – an album often described as “doom folk”, which she wrote when she moved to the Oregon(?) woods. Seems to me like an interesting case in some of the dream/doom pop/folk connections you are charting at the moment coming from another pop diva. I think its really interesting that Wolfe was already connecting her diverse goth/metal milieu with this sort of pop/folk revival before the current moment of lockdown-nostalgia, all of it orbiting around this imagery of vast, beautifully decaying nature and equally putrid Americana. It all reminds me very much of Ballard’s Drowned World in that outwardly disparate characters all experience a sort collective psychic shift related entirely to an immersion or transit in the “climate” which they inhabit, all within this backdrop of decay. Maybe our moment of not-yet-here/already-past doom is being processed through this sort of gloomy nostalgia which cannot just be framed through the lock down – the latitudes of the dream meridian expanding in register much like the climate zones of Ballard’s world.

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  2. I don’t have any strong opinions about Taylor Swift. But I have a few thoughts about other aspects of your post. I’m not quite sure how it all fits into your thesis. I do enjoy thinking about how the past continues to influence the present.

    You write that, “For Lawrence, the soul of man is a dark forest; not Franklin’s English country garden, all topiary and cabbages patches ready for market.” Then you refer to Lawrence writing that, “Think of Benjamin fencing it off!” This isn’t mere metaphor. Fencing was part of the enclosure movement that came to be applied to American law. It didn’t matter what land one owned in legal documentation for in practice one could only deny use of land to others if one had it fenced.

    Such fencing served other purposes as well. In the 19th century and earlier, the garden, typically a walled garden to keep out pests, was a symbol of upper class status (see: Bryan Kozlowski’s The Jane Austen Diet, & Nina Teicholz’s The Big Fat Surprise). The wealthiest could even afford to have greenhouses to provide fresh produce year round, sometimes even pineapple.

    It required a lot of work and a lot of land to maintain a garden that would produce enough food for a family. That basically meant only people with large estates and hired gardeners were able to have fresh produce on a regular basis. Poor people were much more reliant on animal foods and some grains or else on what could be obtained from the commons or wilderness, a situation equally true in Europe and America.

    The problem in Europe was the commons were being enclosed, sometimes literally enclosed with walls such as what protected those wealthy gardens, and peasants were being crowded into cities. This meant malnourishment and starvation as they no longer had any way to supplement their diet with hunting, fishing and gathering. But in America wild food was plentiful and so they ate well. What was the point of gardening, unless one was wealthy?

    Plus, food from gardens wasn’t as trusted because of a perception of more likely getting diseases (samonella, etc) from plants. That is assuming you could gather your fruits and vegetables before the animals, insects, mold, etc got to them first. An entire garden could be destroyed in a single night. Why go to such hard labor often for little or no results and so threatening your family to starvation?

    Besides, eating the deer nibbling on the plant provided far more nutrition and calories. No plant can compare to the healthy nutrient-density of wild game. And a single kill could feed a family for a week or longer with a lot less effort. It was simply the practical thing to do for survival.

    Of course, Crèvecœur was upper class and so was used to the diet that accompanied such a lifestyle in Europe. You quote Lawrence quoting him: “Eating of wild meat, whatever you may think, tends to alter their temper.” Whether or not that was true, it was a common belief of the time. It was part of European dietary ideology that was carried over from the medieval Christianization of Galenic humoralism (Food and Faith in Christian Culture ed. by Ken Albala and Trudy Eden).

    As with gardens, dietary ideology had everything to do with class identity, along with class politics. It was thought that food affected people depending on their inherent nature and character, which depended on one’s socioeconomic status. The aristocracy and peasantry were considered separate races and diet was one way to maintain such distinctions. Dietary rules and laws as a civilizing force was, according to the aristocracy and the church, what kept the peasants from returning to their savage nature.

    Consider Carnival when the peasants could get rowdy and occasionally this would lead to outright revolt. Since meat (particularly red meat and separate from fish) was considered to heat the blood leading to vigor and libido, it was thought to be a potentially dangerous food in being too nourishing, and so meat needed to be restricted prior to and during Carnival to ensure the peasants remained calm (i.e., temporarily malnourished).

    It sounds like Crèvecœur was expressing this dietary belief in explaining the more free behavior of poor Americans not oppressed by such European restrictions. Poor Americans ate well and so were much healthier than their European counterparts. While European peasants were often starving and starting food riots, most Americans were living in food abundance. And, yes, being well nourished, rather than malnourished, does alter one’s temper. Diet in general does have a major impact on neurocognitive functioning and, to some degree, probably personality as well.

    Still, we might be getting Crèvecœur projections onto Americans than neutral observations, or else we are getting his account skewed by his own personality, social position, etc. Lawrence quotes him: “This surrounding hostility immediately puts the gun into their hands; they watch these animals, they kill some; and thus by defending their property they soon become professed hunters; this is the progress; once hunters, farewell to the plough. The chase renders them ferocious, gloomy, and unsociable; a hunter wants no neighbour, he rather hates them, because he dreads the competition.”

    Is that accurate? I doubt those early on living in the backwoods and the frontier saw wild animals as endless competition. From the beginning, wild game was an important part of the diet. Many early Americans drawn to this region were those already used to living in rural areas, near wilderness, and around borderlands. The practice of hunting, trapping, and fishing was brought from Europe; and not discovered in America as never known before. They weren’t necessarily unsociable, but many of them were escaping the ruling elites living in coastal cities and back in Europe. They probably and maybe rightly saw Crèvecœur as uppity and so unwelcome. He represented, for many of them, what they hated about the world they purposely left behind.

    To return to Lawrence, I do like the other quote you have from him: “Here am I now in tatters and scratched to ribbons, sitting in the middle of Benjamin’s America looking at the barbed wire, and the fat sheep crawling under the fence to get fat outside, and the watch-dogs yelling at the gate lest by chance anyone should get out by the proper exit.” Barbed wire, now there is fencing as symbolism taken to a whole new level.

    Lawrence was from a very different era than Franklin and Crèvecœur, as indicated by his reference to barbed wire. It’s interesting to see barbed wire as an extension of Franklin’s America. It wasn’t invented until 1874, a little over a decade before Lawrence was born and long after Franklin was dead. Barbed wire was the end of the Wild West, the final line drawn in the sand that ended the frontier way of life for Native Americans, ‘pioneers’/immigrants, and open range cattle ranchers.

    It was also the first sign of industrialization out in the Far West, soon followed by railroad tracks. All those miles of barbed wire required factories to produce such long spools of this product. This was far different than the fending of Franklin’s day that was made by hand with local materials and required constant mending. Wooden fences could only be used to fence in very small areas, whereas barbed wire could fence in vast tracts of former wilderness. It was a whole new game.

    By the way, this industrialization produced not only barbed wire but also the processed food diet that has become the standard American diet. It has meant a reduction in wild foods, in particular wild game and fish. But there is another interesting change. Americans eat less butter, lard, and beef than they did in the past. Besides the increase of refined carbs and added sugar, these animal foods preferred in past centuries have been largely replaced by seed oils (margarines, and spreads) and chicken.

    During the Middle Ages, only the wealthy ate chicken on a regular basis, likely because chickens were primarily kept for their eggs. Beef and fish was considered poor people food, whereas chicken was considered proper for more refined tastes.

    I’ll respond to one last point. You say that, “And yet, Lawrence does not go so far as to idolise or fetishize the first Americans. He simply acknowledges the truth that the colonists cannot see, although they will spend the next few hundred years grasping at it.” To be fair, many colonists did not see this truth, but others did. A number of European leaders sought a different kind of relationship with the Native Americans: Samuel de Champlain, Thomas Morton, Roger Williams, William Penn, etc.

    Also, consider the sense of affinity between Native Americans and early Scottish Highlander immigrants (see: Margaret Szasz’s Scottish Highlanders and Native Americans, & Colin G. Calloway’s White People, Indians, and Highlanders). The Scots-Irish also sometimes had similar experience of kinship. Think about a famous pioneer like Daniel Boone who when captured was adopted into a Shawnee family and considered Shawnee for the rest of his life.

    Obviously, what has dominated in American has a darker bent that suppressed the other ways of relating. Even Lawrence’s romanticism might end up occluding these deeper currents that, if far below the surface, retain a powerful pull. That is the point you’re making. My comment here adds some evidence to what other currents exist, often gone unacknowledged. Certainly, the class issues are as relevant as ever.

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