Sunday, July 22, 2007

MZ. 412 - Burning The Temple Of God

"It is better to devastate a church than to close it down".

Marcel Proust, "La Mort des cathedrales" ~ Le Figaro, August 16th 1904

I

The magnum opus of Marcel Proust, "Á La Recherche Du Temps Perdu" begins with an image of a church - that of Combray. Proust wanted to construct his oeuvre like a cathedral; and this he intended to show by calling parts of it "Apse", "Window" and "Narthex". He thus likened the work of a writer to a architect, organizing the least parts of the text into an interdependent whole. Both Proust's text and the cathedral are the products of a synthetic spirit, binding together diverse domains of knowledge into a coherent edifice. Panofsky: "The classical cathedral, in its imagery, seeks to embody the totality of Christian knowledge, theological, natural, and historical, by putting everything in its place and by suppressing whatever no longer found a place". For Proust, the cathedrals of France were not only the most beautiful monuments of French art, but also the only works of art which still lived a life of completeness ("...leur vie intégrale...").

However, in 1904, French Socialist parliamentarian Aristide Briand drafted legislation concerning the strict separation of church and state, which was informed by strong anti-clerical sentiments. Briand's legislation declared all religious buildings property of the state and local governments. This threatened to close down many churches, turning them into casinos, banks, museums or conference centres.

This offended Proust's aesthetic ideals so strongly, that he preferred the destruction of the churches over their submission to strictly utilitarian ends. Rather than making the artistic heritage of religion into a tool for production, rather than subordinating churches to utility, churches should be devastated, sacrificed to nothingness, torched.


II

On June 6th 1992, Fantoft Stavkirke, a medieval wooden church near Bergen, Norway, was torched. It burned to the ground.

The church, of the type known as "stave churches", was built around 1150. Between 1100 and 1300 some 1,000 stave churches were built in Norway. Today only 28 remain. The stave churches were built as palisade constructions; thus, their architecture is based on that of fortifications. Their rich ornamentation mixes Christian design with Viking motifs, interweaving theological, natural, and historical imagery into a synthetic whole. The oldest stave church, which is very well preserved, is on UNESCO’s World Heritage List of most valuable cultural memorials in the world.

Why? Why was this stout and beautiful place of worship burned to the ground? Why did other churches follow? Why Holmenkollen Chapel, the church King Harald V and the royal family attended? Why Skjold Church in Vindafjord? Why Åsane Church in Bergen? Why many others?

We will never know. That it is well known who was responsible for the destruction of these cultural treasures - Count Grishnack, Samoth and other Norwegian teenage Black Metal adepts - does not help us any further. In literature, "the author is dead". The same goes for the arsonists: they are dead too. Not in the literal sense, of course. They are dead in the sense that we will never be able to reconstruct the meaning that the crime had for the perpetrators at the time it was committed. This meaning is hidden behind time's curtain.

The motives Varg Vikernes ('Count Grishnack'), acquitted but in all probability responsible for the arson of Fantoft Stavkirke, put forward, illustrate this point. In an interview with Michael Moynihan for the controversial book "Lords Of Chaos" he stated his (hypothetical) motive as follows, without admitting that he was guilty:

"I am not going to say that I burnt any churches. But let me put it this way: There was one person who started it. I was not found guilty of burning the Fantoft stave church, but anyways, that was what triggered the whole thing. That was the 6th of June and everyone linked it to Satanism. (...) What everyone overlooked was that on the 6th June, year 793, in Lindesfarne in Britain was the site of the first known Viking raid in history, with Vikings from Hordaland, which is my county." He also stated "They [the Christians] desecrated our graves, our burial mounds, so it's revenge". In another text: "For each devastated graveyard, one heathen grave is avenged, for each ten churches burnt to ashes, one heathen Hof is avenged, for each ten priests or Freemasons assassinated, one heathen is avenged".

Vikernes's statements do not hold up to scrutiny. It is not only that the Lindisfarne Viking raid did not occur on the 6th of June, but on the 8th. Furthermore, Fantoft Stavkirke had been moved from it's original location in 1883, so it did not anymore "occupy" the place on a heathen Hof. A more fundamental issue with the statements is that in June 1992, Vikernes had not yet "converted" to the Odinist fascism he is currently preaching. Only after being ostracized from the black metal community, Vikernes announced that he was no longer a Black Metal Satanist, but rather a Odinist fascist. In the statements on the Fantoft burning, he is inscribing a meaning into it that it could not have had at the time.

The burning churches are a text which “...consists of multiple writings, issuing from several cultures and entering into dialogue with each other, into parody, into contestation" (Barthes).

So what is there to do but to give meaning to the crime ourselves, as the audience of the fires? After all: "The unity of a text is not in its origin, it is in its destination” (Barthes again).

As a spectator of the fires, seeing them from the perspective of this blog's concerns, I'd like to turn to Georges Bataille's essay in "La Litterature Et Le Mal' on Jules Michelet's 'La Sorcière' to see if that essay can illuminate the path to that destination - the essay as torch light, as a madman's lantern in the bright morning hours.

In the essay, Bataille posits that the popular development of the Black Mass at the end of the Middle Ages may have corresponded to the decline of the Church. In those time, the intense sacrality of the sacrifice of Jesus on the cross was diminished as the Church only served the most conservative cares - like work and the maintenance of life. The Church became too mundane - not awe-inspiring, not frightening enough to be perceived as sacred. The popularity of Black Sabbath points towards an attempt to regain this lost intensity of the sacred. For Christianity, not only God was sacred. Satan too belonged to the world of the sacred, embodying the negative, left handed or transgressive elements of sacrality. More than being merely parasitic on Christianity, Satanism audaciously went "one step beyond", by sacrificing the sacrifice of Jesus. The Satanic sacrifice consists in establishing a means of communication between a Satanic sacred world and the profane world through the mediation of a victim, that is of a thing that in the course of the ceremony is destroyed. In this case, a concept - the sacrifice of Jesus - is destroyed, sacrificed by means of defilement.

So how was the situation in Norway in the early nineteen nineties?

Norway had a State religion; paragraph 2 of the Norwegian Constitution says that “the Lutheran-Evangelical faith is the religion of the state”. Nearly 83% of Norwegians are formally members of the State Church. The Church is closely intertwined with the political life of Norway. Prof. Stensvold: "Throughout the 20th century, the political parties in power have, without exception, used the state church as a political tool and used it as a reservoir and transmitter of a set of (Norwegian) ideals, values and worldview. So far, this has been a surprisingly fertile collaboration for both. Church leaders have willingly supported state legislation". The political life of Norway after the second world war was dominated by social democracy. The Norwegian Labour Party had been part of the Norwegian government almost continuously since 1927. Social democracy's biggest success was the creation of the welfare state, which provides comfort and material security for its citizens. Thus, welfare and religion were brought together by the Norwegian State.

So perhaps the Norwegian State Church became too committed to a life of comfort, impoverishing the sense of the sacred, making the sacred anaemic, unable to inspire enthusiasm, ecstasy. What Proust feared would be the result of Briand's legislation, happened in Norway: churches were submitted to strictly utilitarian ends, becoming a branch office of the welfare state, somewhat like a State bank, a museum, a government conference centre. The result? Norway is a society with one of the highest scores on the secularization scale, Norwegian normative Protestantism is in crisis, and priests have lost their former authority.

And like Bataille's medieval peasantry, the youth of Norway, which was disenchanted by the Church, turned to Satan to experience something awe-inspiring in celebrating the Eternal Exile's feast: the Black Mass. And like Marcel Proust, they preferred torched churches to churches whose "...life of completeness..." had drained away. In a sense, setting fire to the Fantoft Stavkirke, the Holmenkollen Chapel, the Skjold Church and the Åsane Church represented a defilement, a malefic sacrifice of the sacrificed God.


III

The burning of churches had a galvanizing impact on the early-nineties metal scene. The holocaust (in the original sense of the word) of these places of worship gave rise to enormous media attention - see the "Satan Rir Media" post - and conferred a charismatic aura on the Black Metal genre. Through the attention of the mass media, the genre exerted a tremendous fascination on Metal musicians, and many started to play in the style pioneered by Mayhem, Burzum, Satyricon and Emperor. Indirectly, the church burnings brought about a renewal and rejuvenation of Metal. And not only Metal was affected by the crimes of the Black Metal inner circle - the force of it's attraction extended to other musical genres as well, more specifically to electronic music genres. "Black Ambient" and "Black Industrial" came into being.

And this finally brings me to the intended subject of this post: MZ. 412's album "Burning The Temple Of God".

The Swede Henrik "Nordvargr" Björkk (often credited as Kremator - another fire reference) created Maschinenzimmer 412 in 1989. The band changed its name to MZ.412 with the 1995 release of "Burning The Temple Of God"; and it also changed it's image to one of black leather, long hair and corpse paint. Not only did the record's name refer to the church burnings, it's cover art featured a photograph of Fantoft Stavkirk in flames. The album is regarded as the very first "Black Industrial" album, organizing Industrial Noise, Ritual Ambient and Black Metal into a coherent whole. It was put out on the Cold Meat Industry record label, which specializes in Industrial Ambient from Scandinavia.

Putting the burning of a Christian temples center stage, focusing on strategies against ecclesiastical architecture, raises certain expectations about the music: one is led to expect radically destructured music, disjointed and charred compositions, fissures of orchestration, scorched arrangements, incongruities, interruptions, and breaks.

Nothing could be further from the truth: "Burning The Temple Of God" contains highly structured electronic music. Even if the sounds are harsh, abrasive, noisy, they are strictly sequenced. Sequencers were the software with which electronic music was made in the mid-nineteennineties; and a sequence is defined in the Oxford Dictionary as ‘the following of one thing after another; a set of things belonging next to each other in a particular order’; the Industrial, Black Metal and Ambient sounds are organized in relationship to each other according to a constant measure. The musical structures are decorated with samples from horror films, which present a panoply of Satanic occultism: the sounds of ritual magick, daemonic possession, exorcism and witchcraft trials.

MZ. 412's music on this album is architectural, even monumental in nature. It is not so much a cathedral in flames as an inverted cathedral, inverted as the Satanic cross; it is not so much a burnt Mass as a Black Mass. To paraphrase Coil's Jhonn Balance: it is a Black Temple for a Black Pope in Black Rome. Evil, majestic, intimidating.

So is MZ. 412's music a closed system? Is whatever no longer finds a place suppressed? No. A specific sample, placed at the beginning of the sixth track called "Submit And Obey", is an opening which provides some fresh air, an escape route from the Satanic edifice. In the sample, a young woman with an English accent and an incredulous, sarcastic tone speaks the following words:

"I told them we eat babies and drink piss. I told them we watch corpses being raped by dogs and shit on the host. I told them a goat with a prick of hot iron comes out of the trees and will all kiss its rump by the light of living children buried in excrement up to their necks with their heads on fire. And they believe it! Every word! They cross themselves with every new abomination and thank the Lord for bringing this poor monster into the light of His redemption".

Though scornful of Christianity, these sentences also point to the fact that the Satanic crimes of the Black Metal inner circle were the last word. "The mythical man is dead, leaving us his final message - a black laugh".


IV

Burning churches is a thing of the past; a crime which now can only have a impoverished and nostalgic meaning. Georges Bataille in 'Literature And Evil': "I do not believe this type of provocation will ever lose its power of seduction, but the effect of seduction is subordinated to the interest of a purely external success, to preference for a deception which can be immediately appreciated. The servility of this type of quest for success is the same in the author and the reader. Each one, author and reader, avoids the pangs, the annihilation of sovereign communication. They both limit themselves to the prestige of success".





Post scriptum

The first to paragraphs of this post are heavily indebted to Denis Hollier's "Against Architecture. The Writings Of Georges Bataille" - a book with a burning cathedral on it's cover, the Cathedral of Reims in flames after being bombarded by the German armed forces on September 19th, 1914.

Interviews with Nordvargr can be found here and here and here.
An interview with MZ. 412 member Drakhon can be found here.

A beautiful post on churches, pilgrimages and apocalypse, can be found on the Ecclesiastical Proust Archive blog (link).

Apparently, the Fantoft church, which was torched by Varg Vikernes but rebuilt, has become a place of pilgrimage for Black Metal adepts, much to the dismay of the churchgoers (link).

An excellent interview from the Observer with Mayhem's Necro Butcher, penned by Chris Campion, provides much information about the Dream Time of Scandinavian Black Metal (link).

Another long piece on Norwegian Black Metal (link).

Here is a link to the Unholy Black Cult website, a web museum for Black Metal.

3 comments:

Dominic said...

This is really excellent. I appreciate especially the phrase "the Dream Time of Scandinavian Black Metal", which expresses very economically the role of the 1990s' satanic conflagration in the imaginary of contemporary black metal. In the book I'm writing at the moment there's a chapter on Xasthur, which argues that the "depressive" turn in BM is a response to its belatedness: what links Xasthur to early Mayhem is a certain perverse vitalism (a vitalism of war, chaos and death - of excess and overcoming) which gives rise in Xasthur to the negative image of a world from which this vital principle has faded. What you hear in Xasthur is the long, melancholy withdrawing roar of the Black-Metal-Ist-Krieg enthusiasm of Mayhem and Darkthrone. One interesting thing here is that I think Burzum *already* has this sense of belatedness: Vikernes may have meant "Aske" as a provocation and incitement to further action, but it's a strangely contemplative piece of music, already slipping into dream-time and retroactive fabulation.

I also greatly appreciate your fact-checking on Vikernes's narrative of justification for the church burnings. It's interesting that he was especially outraged by the sections in Lords of Chaos on the psychosexual motivations of arsonists - not that the psychosexuality of Vikernes is something I especially want to speculate about, as he's clearly a bit of a one-off, but what this shows I think is his intense need to impart a larger (historico-politico-spiritual) significance to the act, to resist its reduction to the mindless acting-out of one troubled soul. One of the strong subtexts of Lords of Chaos is the disenchantment and desacralisation of the church in Norway: it appears that the BM youth hated it for its insipidity more than anything else (so it's natural that the later, Odinist, Vikernes should fixate so much on the colonial cruelty and violence of Norway's Christianisation - yes, those were the days!). The burning of Fantoft, while an immense and horrifying crime (it was a tremendously beautiful building), was also a symbolic act of incredible power - what other image could have appeared on the cover of Lords of Chaos?

Ornine said...

not sure if you are aware of him, but the sculpter Banks Violette did some interesting pieces based on the framework of these stave churchs cast in Salt and resin, some information is here. really interesting writing, keep it up.

paulina said...

GET REAL! VARG RULES! :D