Thursday, March 05, 2009

Black Metal Getting Medieval

I've just finished reading Carolyn Dinshaw's 1999 book Getting Medieval. Sexualities and Communities, Pre- and Postmodern. The book examines and constructs relations between contemporary queer communities on the one hand and medieval dissident figures and groups: prostitutes, heretics, sodomites. I became intrigued about Dinshaw's work through the medieval studies blogs In The Middle and The Medieval Club of New York (to which Nicola Masciandaro is an occasional contributor).

Dinshaw aims for a tactile historiography, focusing on bodies touching each other across many boundaries: those of space and time and text and death, inter alia. Her desire to touch, informed by the work of Roland Barthes, aims to create transhistorical communities consisting of those who are not like others: the queer.

What would such a desire mean for the historiography of that strange dissident community, which has been the subject of many posts of this blog: the Black Metal Inner Circle?

Two of the central episodes of the history of the Black Metal Inner Circle put bodies touching each other center stage: the episode of Dead's suicide and the episode of the murder of Øystein 'Euronymous' Aarseth. Both 'touchings' dramatically took place on the limen of life and death.

The first touching: 'Dead' Per Yngve Ohlin, a young Black Metal musician, aged only 22, kills himself with a shotgun round to the head in a house on Sørumvein Road, Kråkstad, Norway. His still-warm body, dressed in a black jacket and a white "I Love Transylvania" t-shirt, is touched by his fellow band member Øystein 'Euronymous' Aarseth, is touched to be rearranged for aesthetic purposes: photographs are taken to be used on the record sleeve of the 'Dawn of the Black Hearts' album, and (according to Black Metal legend) fragments of Ohlin's skull are collected and forged into talismanic necklaces.

The second touching: Christian 'Varg' Vikernes, former protegé and bosom friend of rings on the door of Aarseth's flat in Oslo. Aarseth, dressed only in his underwear, lets him in. Vikernes stabs Aarseth's half-naked body with a knife, from behind, to the point of excess. Vikernes's accomplice, Snorre 'Blackthorn' Ruch: "We had intended this to happen in the appartment, and fast - no big, dramatic thing with a hundred knife-stabs or something." What had been intended as a cold-blooded murder turned into a disorganized, unrestrained, inordinate performance. According to official reports Aarseth received a total of twenty-three wounds: two to the head, five to the neck, and sixteen to the back. Can the fact that Aarseth is murderously penetrated from behind be said to mean that the murder touches upon sodomy - an act that was exalted by the Satanist Aarseth as 'evil'? Whatever the case may be, in the March 27th 1993 issue of the Metal magazine Kerrang!, Vikernes appeared half-naked in the snow, bragging about his crimes. Vikernes's naked upper body rhymes with that of his victim.

What do these 'touchings' mean to me? Dinshaw's book prompted me to face the corporeal, tactile aspects of my continuing fascination with the drama that unfolded in the Black Metal Inner Circle.

If I were - with Dinshaw - to suppose that this fascination is informed by a desire to form a tactile transhistorical community with that Circle, with a desire to touch the protagonists of that drama, there is one photograph to which I must point.

It is a photograph of Aarseth taken in the legendary Helvete record shop, which functioned as the scene's temenos.

Aarseth is portrayed in a medium shot, from a straight-on angle, on a horizontal level, in an oblique profile. Aarseth himself seems to be posing, but the pose is uneasy. It looks as if he wasn't prepared to be portrayed.
From the point of view of Black Metal iconography, the picture contains only few orthodox motifs. There is no corpse paint, Aarseth is not wearing a theatrical costume. As an object of studious contemplation (Roland Barthes' 'studium'), the only interesting things about this photograph are the record sleeves and a Godflesh poster ('Pure') that can be seen in the background. One of the record sleeves, of Pungent Stench's 1991 album 'Been Caught Buttering', features Joel-Peter Witkin's 'The Kiss', showing two male corpses kissing each other on the mouth. An inverted cross hangs above a door.

Aarseth himself looks tired, he is badly shaven and his long black hair appears to be uncombed.
He is squinting his eyes. Around his waist is a bullet belt. His faded black Mayhem t-shirt is cut-off, exposing his white arms and belly.

The white belly - the belly button specifically - is the element in the photograph which touches me. Roland Barthes: “The second element will break (or punctuate) the studium. This time it is not I who seek it out (as I invest the field of the studium with my sovereign consciousness), it is this element which rises from the scene, shoots out of it like an arrow, and pierces me. A Latin word exists to designate this wound, this prick, this mark made by a pointed instrument: the word suits me all the better in that it also refers to the notion of punctuation, and because the photographs I am speaking of are in effect punctuated, sometimes even speckled with these sensitive point; precisely, these marks, these wounds are so many points. This second element which will disturb the studium I shall therefore call punctum; for punctum is also: sting, speck, cut, little hole - and also a cast of the dice. A photograph’s punctum is that accident which pricks me but also bruises me, is poignant to me.

Post scriptum

Scan of Kerrang! magazine courtesy of Full Moon Productions.


Anonymous said...

Brilliant article, as always!

Sometimes I find myself thinking about that if Euronymous and Varg were fictional characters there probably would be Slash fiction featuring them.

Scott Wilson said...

Hello Valter, fantastic site, like Bataille’s oeuvre according to Barthes, one continuous text, pulsing with obsessions. I just wanted to say that I totally go along with your obsession with the Norwegian black metal inner circle and the events that defined them. And while Nicola is no doubt right that there well may be black metal on another planet (15.02.09 post), on this one those events exert a shaping force on a genre that opens up the shared (communal) space and rhythm in which to experience the ‘impossible’ in the sense of an incommensurable outside. That is to say, even: outside genre, history, the social. Black metal does not find its origin in Venom or Bathory (as lovely as they are), on the one hand, or even in a negative relation to death metal, on the other. All origins are mythical, and black metal finds its origin (on this planet at least) in the myth of the Norwegian inner circle. It is as if, in 1962, John Lennon murdered Brian Epstein or, in 1977, Johnny Rotten stabbed Malcom Mclaren to death (both Epstein and McLaren owned shops, coincidentally!) This presents us all with a problem. In so far as we are fanatical about black metal we are complicit in the celebration of this myth even if we absolutely do not condone murder or are revolted by the absurd idiotic egotism of one or other of them. As WB Yeats said of John MacBride, a man he loathed, in the wake of the Easter rising, ‘all is changed, changed utterly, a terrible beauty is born’. The vitally important thing, it seems to me, is to think any ‘transhistorical’ (or even interplanetary) black metal community in relation to the sacrifice/murder of Dead & Euronymous outside of the logic of the ‘primordial murder’ that establishes a fraternity and the law of genre in an attitude of remorse/recrimination/ressentiment (irrespective of the fact that Varg and others represent it this way). On the contrary, it needs to be regarded in the spirit of acephale, as the evil that guarantees the intimacy of communication even if all that is communicated is that intimacy (the ‘touching’, perhaps, you mention in this piece). It is not just a myth; it really happened and it was truly idiotic, but black metal, and we who follow it, find our truth there in so far as we affirm it.

valter said...

Thank you!

Kelly said...

Interesting article indeed... I think it is also interesting to note that it was Varg Vikernes who sent Dead the ammunition he shot himself with!