Friday, September 07, 2007

Malefic's Mirrors IV


Mirrors play a seminal role in the lyrics to the music of US Black Metal Band Xasthur. This is the fourth in a short series of posts, in which I examine some of the lyrics to Malefic's music to find out the significance of the mirror inXasthur's aesthetic.

I dedicate this post to Dominic, who is currently writing a book which will contain a chapter on Xasthur and whose comments to the second in this series of posts was one of the sources of inspiration for this post.


Xasthur is a Black Metal Narcissus, obsessed by his reflection in the mirror. But where Narcissus's gaze is trapped in the mirror by a cursed infatuation with his own image, Xasthur's eyes are fastened to the looking glass by revulsion, self-hatred.

The myth of Echo and Narcissus might well be one of the most-analyzed - especially by psychoanalysts. The myth has inspired Freud, Lacan and Kristeva. For Freud, Narcissism was the withdrawal of libidinal energies from the world, from others, directing it towards the self. Hypochondria, megalomania and narcolepsy are disorders which Freud relates to Narcissism.

So will Malefic be asked to be seated on Freud's sofa for this post? Will Malefic's unconscious mind be brought forcibly to the light by the x-rays of psychoanalysis? Will his lyrics be read as a confession of a specific type of narcissistic hypochondria, in which the anxiety is not directed at the body but at the mind?

No. Certainly not. I won't do that.

Instead, I'll examine the myth of Narcissus and Echo from the perspective of the theory of the gift as developed by the French anthropologist Marcel Mauss, as developed in his seminal "Essai sur le don. Forme et raison de l'échange dans les sociétés archaïques".

According to Mauss, trade is aimed at the accumulation of goods; gift-giving, on the other hand is aimed at circulation of goods within a given social community. In fact, the circulation of goods through gift-exchange constitutes the community. For Mauss, gift-giving is a 'total social fact', an activity that binds together diverse cultural strands of a society: art, law, economy, religion and politics. Gift exchange has a ceremonial character that is absent in trade. The ceremony of gift exchange is ruled by three obligations: the obligation to give, the obligation to receive and the obligation to reciprocate. These obligations are often upheld by supernatural forces, which will intervene if the obligations are not met. Gift exchange and sacrifice are closely related. Sacrifice can be understood as gift exchange with the Gods; alternatively, gift exchange can be interpreted as sacrifice amongst mortals. Finally, gift-exchange is an intimate act: by giving one is giving oneself.

In the story of Echo and Narcissus, the obligations of gift exchange are at the center of attention. Echo is a nymph, a female nature deity belonging to a large group of such deities. Echo offers her love to Narcissus, but he refuses the gift, refuses to commune physically with this spirit. Thus, he sins against the obligation to receive, the obligation to accept offered gifts. In some versions of the myth, Narcissus fails to accept repeatedly - that is, until either Echo or another offended party calls upon the Gods to punish Narcissus's wrong-doing. The Gods answer the call and make Narcissus fall in love with his own reflection in a mirror-like pool. The euphoria of falling in love turns out to be poisoned, however: a curse disguised as a blessing. In some versions of the story, Narcissus pines away love-struck and dies; in others he commits suicide when he realizes he can never possess the object of his love. In refusing the gift of the nymph's love, he is cast out of the gift exchange cycle and thereby exiled from society; and to be an outcast means (social or actual) death.

If Narcissus's fatal attraction to the mirror is a curse disguised as an euphoric blessing, might Xasthur's relation to the mirror be a blessing - a blessing in the disguise of a dysphoric curse?

And if it is a blessing, by whom is Malefic blessed?

The title of one of his most accomplished albums is highly relevant with regard to this question: "Telepathic With The Deceased". The lyrics to the eponymous song are:

"Telepathic with the deceased

Tranquility in sickness to soothe the inner madness / (Dissonant inner code, blueprints to genocide). / Inseminated knife wounds are infecting your thoughts (A reprogram the mind) / Come and see how easy, expendable it is for human life to be forgotten, / Haters of life are telepathic with the deceased. / Fragments of failure, some said it was art, for it only bears a meaning when all life is torn apart. / For all we are, are messengers of death and sacrificial hope, for we are a communion of the cataclysmic, / Inverting all oceans that shall drown into an eternal twilight (waves so high, once eclipsing the sun) / A funeral for those damned, is a funeral for the light. / Let us gather in the netherwomb reborn with enough hate to breed tomorrows doom

Malefic's obsession with the mirror does not denote being an outcast from the gift exchange cycle. On the contrary, the mirror is his medium for exchange, a portal to a fertile afterlife ("...netherwomb...").

Where Narcissus refused to accept the gifts of the spirit world, Malefic is engaged in an telepathic exchange with the spirits of the dead; in communion with spirits who (like nymphs) are supernatural forces. Xasthur's music is a gift from the spirits of the dead.

Simultaneously, the music is a gift from the living to the dead, an offering to the deceased. After all, Malefic presents himself as a messenger both of death and of sacrificial hope, as a messenger of both the deceased and of the living, the living who give themselves to death in hopeful sacrifice.

Xasthur = psychopomp.


Derrida lectures on the Narcissus myth, his thoughts wandering as through a maze of mirrors.

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