During the second world war, while most of humanity was involved in mass warfare, the writer and thinker Jean Paul Sartre was instead laboring away in the libraries of occupied France. He was solidifying what has become known as the philosophy of ‘existentialism’. One of the main tenants of existentialism is that ‘existence precedes essence’, or in other words, that there is no fixed and immutable basis from which human life proceeds and from which it derives its meaning.
According to an existentialist, an individual human being is borne, becomes conscious, and then creates his or her own meaning from a point of reference of personal choosing, in a subjective act of pure freedom. Indeed according to Sartre, existentialism is a form of humanism, and we can see why. Secular Humanism, or modern humanism, is the normative or ethical ideal that individuals have the right and responsibility to give meaning and purpose to their own lives, free from tradition, scripture or ‘higher’ authority. So ‘existentialism’ and ‘humanism’ are both cut from the same cloth, the former being a complex (and some would argue, intentionally obscure and obfuscate) philosophical justification for the latter.
Existentialism is a reversal of the traditional metaphysical notion of ‘essentialism’, or the idea that there exists a fixed point from which values and meaning can be derived, by an objective act of intellect or rationality. The most commonly encountered form of essentialism is, in fact, religion. In the Christian, Jewish and Muslim faiths, God is the basis for existence. He forms the immutable point from which values and meaning are derived. The actions of individuals, their lives, even the actions of entire cultures and cultural movements, derive their value (Good or Evil) from their particular relationship to God. A figure representing the extreme end of the essentialist spectrum, in so far as absolutely positioning life in relation to something prior and fixed, might be Osama Bin Laden. For Bin Laden there is one Word, one Truth, one measure of values. Human ‘choice’ is only as valuable insofar as it leads to a life proscribed by the Word of God. You are beheaded with a bread knife, held down on a concrete floor in panic and terror, if, in choosing to give your life ‘its own meaning’, you align yourself against God. Needless to say, Bin Laden and Sartre would not have got along.
In light of the issues discussed above, death metal is a curious art form. Its position on the existentialist <–> essentialist spectrum is unclear. In its aesthetic outlook, it mocks religious sentiment and tears down religious imagery with truculent glee. Its lyrics praise Satan, evil, darkness and anything, it would seem, that runs against the grain of monotheism. Hence it could be swiftly concluded that death metal is anti-essentialist art, par excellence, tearing down that that last barrier to human freedom: religion.
With a shift in perspective, however, death metal could be viewed in a thoroughly different light. It could be viewed a form of essentialist art. If this is true, then what prior structures could death metal be said to worship? Firstly, death metal posits an immutable essence from which individual human existence stems and from which it cannot escape: biology. Death metal abounds in morbid liturgical hymns about dissection, disease, the tearing of flesh, and the wrenching of bone. Secondly, death metal posits an ‘absolute’ point of reference from which all human actions are judged: death. That ‘all life ends’, is embodied in roaring sentiment in the whole show of death metal. Everyone dies, and reality cares not one whit for the individual. So you, buying your coffee table and matching coasters, beware; your time is finite. Death metal might well be an artistic conduit for spiritual readjustment in the face of something inescapable that, whether we like or not, at some point we are going to have to judge our lives in reference to.
Thirdly, in compositional method and production death metal seems to be inspired, if only implicitly, by prior natural forms. Compositionally, a death metal piece evolves via the linking of riffs according to geometrical shape as opposed to the normal way of linking parts in rock music which is harmonic. This is what give death metal its atonal and, at first, unattractive sound to the uninitiated. Production wise, nihilistic individual units of distorted tone depend on their relation to other such units, or the overarching structure of the song, to achieve beauty in death metal, a bit like matter and the physical universe where a piece of matter, taken by itself, is unremarkable and unsexy.
The list of ways in which death metal could be viewed as an acknowledgement of prior and apparently inescapable aspects of reality is a long one. Battle, night, winter, solitude; all are frequent topics of lyrical subject matter and fodder for imagery. Of course, there are all sorts of aspects of reality that are fixed and inescapable yet which death metal ignores: love, growth, joy, etc. But this is because death metal is concerned with those prior structures to human life that we choose to ignore because they are uncomfortable. Hence its ominous and brooding aesthetics. But while death metal is dark music, anyone who cares to pay enough attention can apprehend that the most worthy contributors to the genre are a world away from writing protest music.
Death metal is not ‘rebelling’ against the uncomfortable parts of life that we are doomed to face up to at some point. It is an attempt to give these aspects of life an artistic redemption. In this, and only this sense, can death metal be said to be ‘humanistic’. It is an attempt at representing those aspects of reality that we often ignore, in order to give them some relevance in human affairs so that we might adjust our lives accordingly, in full awareness of the place of human live in the cosmos.
If all this is correct, then death metal may very well be ‘naturalist religious’ music: A ‘yes’ to, and artistic redemption of, life as process, renewal, conflict and reductive energy.
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