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?