Saturday, January 31, 2009

Shock Xpress - Lindsay Shonteff (pt. 3)

This is the third and last part in a short series inspired by an interview with the z-grade film director Lindsay Shonteff in the second Shock Xpress book.

Spy Story (Lindsay Shonteff, 1976)

Licensed to Love and Kill
(Lindsay Shonteff, 1979)

Thursday, January 29, 2009

Blanchot Variations

Below is a riff on a paragraph from Maurice Blanchot's 1953 essay 'The Pursuit of the Zero Point':

"In Norway in the 1980's, parliamentary democracy formed a stable horizon which the Social and Christian Democrat parliamentarians did not contemplate ruining or exceeding. It is tempting to say that in those times Black Metal took upon itself to gather within itself the risks of politics, thereby saving Norwegian society from the dangers to which politics subject it: parliamentary democracy is protected from Black Metal as it is made very visible, very distinctive, a domain enclosed by high walls - and at the same time Black Metal is protected from itself by being firmly delineated and accorded such precise rules that musical indeterminacy is disarmed as a result."

The original text of this paragraph deals with the respective roles of poetry and literature before the nineteenth century. Black Metal took the place of poetry; parliamentary democracy took the place of literature; Norwegian society the place of language; and politics the place of art.

I think Black Metal took upon itself that which was abjected as dangerous and violent ('risky') in Christian Democracy and Social Democacy: respectively Satanic Absolutism and Fascism. Did Black Metal thereby function as a scapegoat for the Norwegian political system? Watch the 1998 documentary Satan Rir Media to see how Black Metal was made "...very visible, very distinctive..." in the news media and how one of the main artists of that musical domain came to be "...enclosed by high walls...". And certainly, Black Metal is a formulaic genre, "...firmly delineated and accorded (...) precise rules..."

Transformations such as these bring to mind the work of Claude Lévi-Strauss on mythology, in which he compared myths of neighboring Indian tribes, analyzing transformation of symbolic units within these myths and transformations of the relations between these units. Does the ease with which I transformed literature and poetry into parliamentary democracy and Black Metal point to a latent formation in European culture?

Post scriptum

I read Blanchot's essay in Michael Holland's 'The Blanchot Reader'.

Tuesday, January 27, 2009

Shock Xpress - Lindsay Shonteff (pt. 2)

The second of a series of short posts featuring films directed by Lindsay Shonteff, inspired by an interview with the director in the second Shock Xpress book.

(Lindsay Shonteff, 1969)

Big Zapper
(Lindsay Shonteff, 1973)

Sunday, January 25, 2009

Night and Black Metal

From Maurice Merleau-Ponty's 1945 book Phenomenology of Perception:

"When [...] the world of clear and articulate objects is abolished, our perceptual being, cut off from its world, evolves a spatiality without things. This is what happens in the night.

Night is not an object before me; it enwraps me and infiltrates through all my senses, stifling my recollections and almost destroying my personal identity. I am no longer withdrawn into my perceptual look-out from which I watch the outlines of objects moving by at a distance. Night has no outlines; it is itself in contact with me and its unity is the mystical union of the mana. Even shouts or a distant light people it only vaguely, and then it comes to life in its entirety; it is pure depth without foreground or background, without surface and without any distance separating it from me.

If we interpret this text from a Bataillan perspective, Merleau-Ponty's night is a formlessness that is homogenous.

These last few days I've been thinking a lot about this extremely interesting text, and about how it relates to the trope of 'night' in Black Metal, and how that trope relates to the sense perception of Black Metal music itself. I've published this post fully aware that my thoughts on this subject still lack definite shape and form - but than again, in night "the world of clear and articulate objects is abolished".

'Night' is a fairly prominent trope in Black Metal. Just search for the word 'night' in blogs like 'Dunkelheit' and the search results will display dozens of albums which employ the word in its album or song titles. The way Black Metal uses the trope of 'night' can easily be related to Merleau-Ponty's text. Many titles relate night to destruction: "Cut, with the Night, into Mine Heart", "Night Of Retribution", "Night of Pagan Wrath", "Midnight Mutilation". Some even specifically relate night to the destruction of personal identity: "Black Night Of Soul". Where Merleau-Ponty relates night to the sacred (mana), so does Black Metal: "Night of Shadow Magic", "Satan, Eye of the Night", "Black Night Astral Projection", "Temple of Eternal Night". Some titles ascribe to night a life of its own, echoing Merleau-Ponty ("... it comes to life..."): "Summon The Night", "The Will of Night", "The Dark Spirit of the Night". Other titles link 'night' to depth: "Journey Into The Depths Of Night". I could go on and on, and I haven't even touched upon night-related tropes such as 'darkness', 'black', etc. The titles can be read as (often childish and clumsily formulated) metaphors for the embodied perception of night.

How does the perception of night as formulated by Merleau-Ponty relate to Black Metal production style?

Depth is rarely associated with Black Metal production. Depth in music is generally associated with bass: Dark Ambient and Dubstep are genres which are often described using tropes of 'depth'. Black Metal music distinguishes itself from other musics by the absence of bass's fathomless depths. I recall the production of French Black Metal Haemoth's excellent 2006 'Kontamination' album being called 'wafer thin': pure surface without foreground or background, without depth - the polar opposite of Merleau-Ponty's night.

Furthermore, Black Metal in the style of Mayhem, Darkthrone and Satyricon is a sharp object, an object which does not enwrap but which pierces, an object which does not infiltrate but which penetrates. From a review on the Invisible Oranges blog: "The music is plenty scathing, but the sound is an icepick in the ear. (...) This shit is painful." Despite the poor production of Black Metal, the riffs have relatively clear and articulate outlines.

Nevertheless, an album like Mayhem's 1994 classic De Mysteriis Dom Sathanas is unremittingly dark. The only sensory perceptions that album provokes are those of touch and smell: the album is cold, and stinks of vomit and dust. Beyond these perceptions, only darkness. How does the music achieve the effect of darkness without mimicking the embodied perception of night? Or should one conclude that Merleau-Ponty's description of the experience of night is somehow flawed or lacking? Or did I not listen carefully enough to the music? Should I listen to what lies beyond the wafer thin surface?

Perhaps the clear and articulate outlines are only there to be subsumed in raw and primitive buzz, abolished by thick roiling blackness, destroyed by murky ambience that enwraps and infiltrates, smothered in guitardrone... "Even shouts or a distant light people it only vaguely..."

Friday, January 23, 2009

Shock Xpress - Lindsay Shonteff (pt. 1)

I'll have to disappoint all of you who had hoped this post would feature trailers from the oeuvre of Bodil Joensen: the films in which she 'starred' are not featured on YouTube.

Instead, this post focuses on the films discussed in an interview with z-grade film director Lindsay Shonteff by film journalist Allan Bryce, published in the second Shock Xpress book. Bryce: "I first became interested in Lindsay Shonteff movies in the early '70s, when I spent an unhealthy amount of time frequenting the lower class of London soft porn cinemas - the sort of places where even the cockroaches wear dark glasses to avoid being recognized."

Devil Doll (Lindsay Shonteff, 1964)

Licensed to Kill aka The Second Best Secret Agent in the Whole Wide World (Lindsay Shonteff, 1965)

Wednesday, January 21, 2009

De Sade and Music

From Maurice Blanchot's 1947 essay 'A la recontre de Sade' (translated here as 'Sade's Reason'):

"La nouvelle Justine ou les Malheurs de la Vertu, suivi de l'Histoire de Juliette sa soeur appeared in Holland 150 years ago. It was a monumental work of nearly 4000 pages. The author had rewritten it several times, greatly increasing its size. Overwhelming and almost endless, it immediately threw the world into a panic. If there is a department of forbidden books in every library, it is for such a book. We may as well admit that no literature of any epoch has ever produced so outrageous a work and that no other volume has ever wounded people's thoughts and feelings more deeply. In our age, which shudders at Henry Miller, who would dare to compete in license with Sade? Yes, we can safely say that here we have the most scandalous book that has ever been written, and surely this is a reason for taking interest in it. (...)

It is an outrageous book because it is hard to get at and cannot be made public. But it is also a book that proves that there is no outrage where there is no respect, and that were the outrage is immense the respect is proportionate. Who is more respected than Sade? Even today many people still believe that they would only need to have this accursed work in their hands for a few minutes to make Rousseau's boast - that any virgin who reads a single page of it will be undone - come true. Certainly such respect is a trophy for a literature and a civilization. And we can hardly resist a longing to whisper to all his present and future critics and editors: when dealing with Sade, at least be respectful to the outrage."

Reading Blanchot's essay, I was struck by the question why there is no composer or musician comparable to De Sade's? Why is there no composer or musician whose Evil is of the same stature?

Sure enough, there have have been many highly controversial composers and musicians. Stravinsky, whose Le Sacre du Printemps was scandalous at the time, springs to mind as one example; more recent examples include The Beatles, Throbbing Gristle and Burzum. And there have been many musicians who identified with Evil - this blog is full of them.

But no piece of music has ever wounded people's thoughts and feelings as deeply as the writings of De Sade. No piece of music has been regarded as an outrage for as long as De Sade's work.

Le Sacre du Printemps is now regarded as Classical music. The Beatles have been knighted. Throbbing Gristle, once deemed "wreckers of civilization", now play at Tate Modern. Even Burzum is in the process of becoming legitimate - the fact that his music is reviewed in The Wire is surely a sign of that. The outrage over these musics has lasted only a comparatively short time.

Why? Why can't music claim such a trophy of Evil?

It is tempting to hypothesize that the reason for this is that music and literature are essentially different, that music - exactly because it is music and not literature - can impossibly cause a moral panic on the scale of De Sade's literary work. In such an hypothesis, music would be an innocent art form, compared to literature. Nonetheless, I feel I should first try and find a socio-historical reason for the absence of a musical Marquis.

Blanchot notes, " literature of any epoch has ever produced so outrageous a work...", thus implicitly suggesting that only the epoch in which De Sade lived could have produced such a work. Indeed, the numerous theories De Sade produces are indelibly connected to the moral, legal and political ideals of Enlightenment. Even if De Sade's theoretical though is elusive, chameleontic, inconstant and contradictory, it is more than merely a sardonic perversion of these ideals. In a strange way, his work is still loyal to Enlightenment. Surely this is the reason why the work of De Sade has stayed so unnerving for such a long time: the moral, legal and political ideals of Enlightenment form the foundation for our current liberal democracy. De Sade corrupts these foundations from the inside out. Thus, he is more effective than his heirs, the Romanticists and the Decadents: they had already become disloyal to Enlightenment and could therefore not anymore infect Enlightenment at the root. Such Evil as De Sade created, could only be created when our present society was still in its formative stage.

During this formative stage, music was not in a position to produce such Evil as De Sade created.

The literature produced by De Sade was not only informed by Enlightenment. More ambiguous than that, it was just as much informed by Absolutism, and especially by the despotic tendencies in that form of government. The protagonists of De Sade's writings are Absolutist despots, even if they speak the language of Enlightenment. In this, they are phantasmatic proxies for the aristocratic author himself - even if De Sade was very different from his protagonists and (unlike his heroes) capable of displaying human feelings. While writing literature was an acceptable passtime for the aristocrats of the Absolutist era, making music was not. Music was made by servants, not by masters. Classical music of the era could speak the language of servants exalting the masters; it could not yet speak the language of the masters themselves. De Sade's heroes were no and could be no musicians. And where the writings of De Sade could speak from the perspective of the despot, music could not.

Furthermore, De Sade's writings are the product of a profound loneliness. As Blanchot notes, the censors and judges who claimed to have immured De Sade are really in his service, and are in fact fulfilling the liveliest wish of his libertinism. "For Sade always longed for the solitude of the Earth's entrails, for the mysteries of a hidden and solitary life. Time after time he formulated the idea that man's greatest excesses demand secrecy, the darkness of the pit and the inviolable solitude of the cell." Secrecy, darkness and solitude may well be circumstances under which a Sadean literature can flower; but these circumstances did not at the time favor the production of music. Though is it not entirely inconceivable that one would compose music in secrecy, darkness and solitude, certainly orchestration and the actual playing of music demand interaction with musicians. Today, of course, technological developments permit music to be made in secret, in the pit, in the cell: the legions of one-man Black Metal bands testify to that.

In this post, I've concentrated on the circumstances in which De Sade's oeuvre was produced, and in which a comparable musical work was not produced; while perhaps I should have focused on the circumstances in which De Sade's oeuvre was received and in which music did not get the same same reception. What is needed to answer the question posed in this post is historical-comparative research into the reception of transgressive music and literature, based on reception theory. Of course, such research presents immense theoretical problems, not to speak of the practical difficulties one would face.

In the mean time, only our imaginations can create a music which a composer comparable to De Sade might have created. I imagine it to be created by a vast orchestra, consisting of hundreds or even thousands of musician slaves; I imagine it to be at once repetitive to the point of boredom, and as frenziedly festive as the storming of the Bastille. De Sade: “How delightful are the pleasures of the imagination!... [where] the whole world is ours; not a single creature resists us, we devastate the world, we repopulate it with new objects which, in turn, we immolate.

Monday, January 19, 2009

Shock Xpress - Georges Franju

Having more or less exhausted the first Shock Xpress book, this series now turns its attention to the second book. This book opens auspiciously with an article on the films of the excellent French cinéaste Georges Franju, titled "Masks, Masques and the Illusion of Reality" by David Taylor.

Surprisingly, I could find only two trailers to Georges Franju films on YouTube. I've already posted his documentary Le Sang Des Betes, here.

La Tête Contre les Murs
(Georges Franju, 1959)

Les Yeux Sans Visage
(Georges Franju, 1960)

Saturday, January 17, 2009

Caïna - Temporary Antennae (pt. 2)

Listening to Caïna's Black Metal, as presented on his recent album Temporary Antennae, is an intertextual pleasure. Caïna's mastermind, Andrew Curtis-Brignell, alludes to literature, film and art. In this post some of these allusions are explored.


"If I had verses harsh enough and rasping
as would befit this dismal hole
upon which all the other rocks weigh down,
more fully would I press out the juice
of my conception. But, since I lack them,
with misgiving do I bring myself to speak.
It is no enterprise undertaken lightly --
to describe the very bottom of the universe --
nor for a tongue that still cries 'mommy' and 'daddy.'"

Curtis-Brignell derives his band's name from the XXXIInd Canto of the Inferno from Dante's Divina Commedia. The lines quoted above open this Canto. From various sources around the internet:

"Dante divides circle 9, the circle of treachery--defined in Inferno 11 as fraudulent acts between individuals who share special bonds of love and trust (61-6)--into four regions. Caina is named after the biblical Cain (first child of Adam and Eve), who slew his brother Abel out of envy after God showed appreciation for Abel's sacrificial offering but not Cain's (Genesis 4:1-17); condemned to a vagabond existence, Cain later built a city (named after his son, Henoch) that for certain Christian theologians--notably Augustine (City of God, book 15)--represented the evils of the earthly city. In the circle of the lustful, Francesca identified her husband (Gianciotto)--who murdered her and Paolo (Gianciotto's brother)--as a future inhabitant of Caina (Inf. 5.107). Dante's attention is here drawn to two brothers, the ghibelline Napoleone and the guelph Alessandro, who murdered one another because of a dispute over their inheritance (Inf. 32.55-60)."


The track which opens 'Temporary Antennae' ends with Andrew Curtis-Brignell reading a stanza from 'Grief' a poem found at the end of William Hope Hodgson's fantastique novel 'The House On The Borderland'.

The complete book can be found on Project Gutenberg (here). The Providence recluse, H.P. Lovecraft, wrote about the book in his 'Supernatural Horror In Literature': "The House on the Borderland (1908) -- perhaps the greatest of all Mr. Hodgson's works -- tells of a lonely and evilly regarded house in Ireland which forms a focus for hideous otherworld forces and sustains a siege by blasphemous hybrid anomalies from a hidden abyss below. The wanderings of the Narrator's spirit through limitless light-years of cosmic space and Kalpas of eternity, and its witnessing of the solar system's final destruction, constitute something almost unique in standard literature. And everywhere there is manifest the author's power to suggest vague, ambushed horrors in natural scenery. But for a few touches of commonplace sentimentality this book would be a classic of the first water."

You can hear Coil's Jhonn Balance reading William Hope Hodgson's poem on a rather lovely limited edition picture disc 7", which was released in 2005 to commemorate Balance who fell to his death on November 13th 2004 (4 years ago already!). The reading is accompanied by a beautiful drone crafted by John Everall, one of the unsung heroes of the British Industrial music era (the 1993 album Pathogenesis is a classic!). You can find the 7", which is of course completely and utterly out of print, here. I've reproduced the poem below.

Grief - William Hope Hodgson

Fierce hunger reigns within my breast,
I had not dreamt that this whole world,
Crushed in the hand of God, could yield
Such bitter essence of unrest,
Such pain as Sorrow now hath hurled
Out of its dreadful heart, unsealed!

Each sobbing breath is but a cry,
My heart-strokes knells of agony,
And my whole brain has but one thought
That nevermore through life shall I
(Save in the ache of memory)
Touch hands with thee, who now art naught!

Through the whole void of night I search,
So dumbly crying out to thee;
But thou art not; and night's vast throne
Becomes an all-stupendous church
With star-bells knelling unto me
Who in all space am most alone!

An hungered, to the shore I creep,
Perchance some comfort waits on me
From the old Sea's eternal heart;
But lo! from all the solemn deep,
Far voices out of mystery
Seem questioning why we are apart!

"Where'er I go I am alone
Who once, through thee, had all the world.
My breast is one whole raging pain
For that which was, and now is flown
Into the Blank where life is hurled
Where all is not, nor is again!"

The Innocents

Considering that he has a degree in film studies, it should come as no surprise that Andrew Curtis-Brignell's music references film. On 'Temporary Antennae' samples a song, 'Oh Willow Waly', from the 1961 psychological horror film The Innocents. The film, based on the novella The Turn of the Screw by Henry James, Caïna's album too. The song simulates two types of 'authenticity': that of children and that of folk singers. It appears to be sung by an eleven year old child, but was actually sung by Isla Cameron, a Scottish actress and singer who was 31 at the time. And the song itself seems to be a traditional folk song, but was actually written by British screen writer Paul Dehn and French composer George Auric. The lyrics - considering they are supposedly sung by an 11-year-old - evince a sensuality and suicidal character that borders on the perverse. "The Infant Kiss", a song by Kate Bush from her 1980 album Never for Ever, was inspired by the film. The lyrics to Kate Bush's song are narrated in the first person by a woman who has an almost pedophile infatuation with a young boy in her care.

Below are the lyrics for "Oh Willow Waly", and YouTube videos with the trailer for the Innocents, with the song "Oh Willow Waly" and with Kate Bush's "The Infant Kiss".

Oh, Willow Waly

We lay my love and I beneath the weeping willow.
But now alone I lie and weep beside the tree.

Singing "Oh willow waly" by the tree that weeps with me.
Singing "Oh willow waly" till my lover return to me.

We lay my love and I beneath the weeping willow.
A broken heart have I. Oh willow I die, oh willow I die.

Theatrical trailer for The Innocents

Willow Waly - Song from The Innocents


Kate Bush - The Infant Kiss

Gentian Osman

Andrew Curtis-Brignell considers the Washington-based artist Gentian Osman to be Caïna's official visual interpreter. Here is her Flickr set, which is very nice.

Thursday, January 15, 2009

Shock Xpress - Roger Corman and The Filmgroup (pt. 4)

In an article in the first Shock Xpress book, Mike Wathan discusses Roger Corman's movie production and distribution company, The Filmgroup. These are trailers for some of the films mentioned in this article.

The Devil's Partner (Charles R. Rondeau, 1962)

Night Tide
(Curtis Harrington, 1961)

Tuesday, January 13, 2009

Caïna - Temporary Antennae

Reading David Gordon White's book on medieval South Asian Tantra and listening to Caïna's brilliant Post Black Metal album Temporary Antennae, images from the two works merged in my mind.

White's book describes medieval South Asian Tantra as a cult in which fierce bird-headed, flying goddesses - Yoginis - were placated by offerings of raw meat, alcohol and semen. Caïna's album presents us with a vision of England's hidden reverse in which the pastoral landscape is crawling with all sorts of beetles and larvae.

This imagery spilled over and into each other to produce a Dream Land in which Black Metal fans sacrifice raw meat, vodka, pills and semen to many-armed, insect-headed goddesses residing in picturesque English village cemeteries; a Dream Land in which ornate Gothic Revival architecture is merged with that of medieval Indian temples, decorated with sculptures of Christian saints in all conceivable states of undress and sexual positions; a Dream Land in which corpse-painted Siddhas fly over Ben Nevis, the Venomous Mountain; a Dream Land in which M.R. James leads a nocturnal double life as an immortal practitioner of left-handed Tantra in dark ant-nest-like catacombs beneath King's College, Cambridge; a Dream Land in which hosts of child-eating female deities, whose hateful cries sound like a downtuned cold black insect buzz, haunt Tintern Abbey; a Dream Land in which Satan's claw is the mandible of a huge stag beetle; a Dream Land in which not Euronymous but Jhonn Balance was Mayhem's sacrificial King.

From the larva of the short, Coil-like opening number, 'Temporary Antennae' pupates in a chrysalis of Lurker of Chalice-influenced Black Metal before emerging metamorphized into a many-colored yet sinister butterfly.

The opening track, 'Manuscript Found In Unmarked Grave, 1919', starts with echoing bells and percussion lost in a roaring drone and ends with a distorted voice (reminiscent of Jhonn Balance's voice on Musick To Play In The Dark 2) reading part of a poem. The poem is 'Grief', and it can be found at the end of the 1908 novel The House on the Borderland by William Hope Hodgson, a British writer of fantastic stories who was killed by an artillery shell at Ypres in April 1918.

When the voice has died down, a fierce, primitive-sounding guitar erupts: 'Ten Went Upriver'. This track shows clearly the influence on Caina of the work of US Black Metal musician Wrest (Leviathan, Lurker of Chalice): the rawness bleeds into blackened sheets of shoegazer sound, melancholic ambient keyboards, and acoustic guitar.

With an intro that brings to mind Justin Broadrick's Jesu, the slowpaced, despondent, distorted psychedelia of the album's third track owes more to the Doom Metal of bands such as Warhorse than to Burzum and his kindred. The song ends with a long sample of the song “Willow Waly” sung by Isla Cameron imitating the voice of an eleven year old girl in Jack Clayton's classic 1961 film The Innocents.

The eerie faux-folk song from the film heralds a turn towards a more dreamy, folk-like music, influenced by Current 93, Death in June, early (1980–1982) The Cure and later (1991-1992) Swans. In these songs Caina proves that is he capable of more than merely following Wrest's 'freezing moon', creating a sound that departs even further than Lurker of Chalice from the orthodoxies of Black Metal. Musically, Lurker of Chalice relates to Caïna as Bauhaus relates to The Cure. But the meaning of the structural relationship extend beyond the strictly musical sphere. Where Wrest revels in extravagant nocturnal theatricality, artifice and aesthetics, Caïna chooses autobiography, personal experience, sensitivity, authenticity. Where Wrest attempts to overstrain the listener by means of a violent gloominess and unresolvable musical matter, Caïna is unafraid of creating harmonies. While Wrest runs the risk of becoming Camp, Caïna risks becoming sentimental to the point of weepiness. Though from a theoretical viewpoint I do not privilege the one approach above the other, Caïna's is more audacious in the context of Black Metal culture.

All in all I find Caïna's Temporary Antennae one of the most interesting - and perhaps the most interesting - Black Metal albums I bought in 2008. I've played it so often these last few weeks that if I'd bought it on vinyl the record would have turned a very pale shade of grey by now. Highly recommended!

Willows And Whippoorwills

Here is an excellent interview with Andrew Curtis-Brignell, the man behind Caïna.

Sunday, January 11, 2009

Shock Xpress - Roger Corman and The Filmgroup (pt. 3)

In an article in the first Shock Xpress book, Mike Wathan discusses Roger Corman's movie production and distribution company, The Filmgroup. These are trailers for some of the films mentioned in this article.

Beast From Haunted Cave (Monte Hellman, 1959)

Battle Beyond The Sun (Mikhail Karzhukov, Aleksandr Kozyr, Francis Ford Coppola, 1960)

Friday, January 09, 2009

Trans Xasthur Express

Do you know what I would like to hear on Xasthur's upcoming album? A Black Metal cover of Kraftwerk's 'The Hall of Mirrors' from the 1977 album Trans Europa Express. The song's subject matter ties in nicely with Malefic's obsession for the speculum.

Thursday, January 08, 2009

Filled with a Strange Frenzy

"The Hindu Mantramahodadhi of Mahidhara, a 1558 c.e. work, describes a rite in which the practitioner worships the Goddess while sitting on a corpse with flowers sprinkled with the practitioners own semen."

This is a quote from the book I've just finished reading - David Gordon White's highly interesting book on medieval Tantra, 'Kiss of the Yogini. "Tantric Sex" in its South Asian Contexts'.

The quote put one of the most scandalous and disgusting episodes of George Bataille's oeuvre in my mind: he masturbated naked, in the night, before his mother's corpse, which lay on her bed, alone, stretched out between two candles for her vigil. Both scenes evince the same disturbing assemblage of necrophilia, aesthetics and religious devotion to a motherfigure.

Thus, the quote from White's book prompted some internet research.

In another book by White, 'Tantra In Practice', he describes the Mantramahodadhi as a Sanskrit text that prescribes the mantras of different deities and ritual practices connected with them. "Mahidara wrote the work with the intention of gathering all significant information on the topic in a single book. Because of the clarity of its presentation, the Mantramahodadhi - along with the Nauka (The Boat) , the author's commentary written to enable practitioners to cross the "Great Ocean of Mantras" - has enjoyed great popularity in all parts of India up to the present day." Indeed, the Mantramahodadhi can easily be orderered through the internet (here, for example). Sadly, I could not find the book on Google Books or Project Gutenberg.

In the 1861 book 'The Literary Remains of the Late Professor Theodore Goldstucker' I did find the following:

"The Vamacharins [followers of the left-hand ritual] ... and amongst these especially that branch called Kaula or Kulina, adopt a ritual of the grossest impurities. Their object is, by reverencing Devi, who is one with S'iva, to obtain supernatural powers in this life, and to be identified after death with S'iva and his consort. 'According to the immediate object of the worshipper,' Professor Wilson says, ' is the particular form of worship ; but all the forms require the use of some or all of the five letters M viz., Mansa, Matsya, Madya, Maithuna, and Mudra i. e., flesh, fish, wine, women, and certain mystical gesticulations. Suitable mantras (or formulas) are also indispensable, according to the end proposed, consisting of various unmeaning monosyllabic combinations of letters, of great imaginary efficacy. Where the object of the ceremony is to acquire an interview with, and control over, impure spirits, a dead body is necessary. The adept is also to be alone, at midnight, in a cemetery or place where bodies are burned or buried, or criminals executed ; seated on the corpse, he is to perform the usual offerings, and if he does so without fear, the Bhutas, the Yoginis, and other male or female goblins, become his slaves.

In this, and many of the observances practised, solitude is enjoined ; but all the principal ceremonies comprehend the worship of S'akti, and require for that purpose the presence of a female as the living representative and type of the goddess. This worship is mostly celebrated in a mixed society, the men of which represent Bhairava (or S'iva as the Terrific), and the women, Bhairavi (S'akti or Devi as the Terrific). The S'akti is personated by a naked female, to whom meat and wine are offered, and then distributed amongst the assistants ; the recitation of various Mantras and texts, and the performance of the Mudra, or gesticulations with the fingers, accompanying the different stages of the ceremony ; and it is terminated with the most scandalous orgies amongst the votaries.'

The same author adds that, "in justice to the doctrines of the sect, it is to be observed, that these practices, if instituted merely for sensual gratification, are held to be as illicit and reprehensible as in any other branch of the Hindu faith"; but full assent must be given to his remark which follows a text quoted by him in support of this view, for he says: " It is only to be added that if the promulgators of these doctrines were sincere, which is far from impossible, they must have been filled with a strange frenzy, and have been strangely ignorant of human nature.

Filled with a strange frenzy! But are they really so 'strangely ignorant of human nature'?

Wednesday, January 07, 2009

Carl's Musical Exchange

A rather, rather nice post by Carl Impostume on music appreciation as a phenomenon of social exchange, a post which provides much food for thought.

Some observations:

- Carl Impostume is completely right when he writes: "There is a deep and gratifying reciprocal element to music appreciation of course, swapping tapes, breathlessly naming tracks and artists in reverence sessions down the pub etc ....". As an ethnographer the words 'reciprocal element' immediately brings to mind Marcel Mauss' classic 1923 work on gift exchange, Essai sur le don. Interestingly, what is exchanged (music is the gift behind the tapes and names of tracks and artists) is in itself also an object of reverence. Where in many gift-exchange relationship the object that is exchanged is passive, this gift - music! - almost seems to acquire a life of its own. The gift exchange between "concrete others, family members, friends, lovers etc" is perhaps at once a sacrifice to music. In the Maussian scheme of sacrifice, the energy expanded in swapping tapes and breathlessly naming tracks and artists would be the sacrificial victim. Sacrifice can, as Mauss demonstrated, be seen as a form of gift exchange with the divinity to whom the sacrifice is offered, and who will reciprocate with blessings. If you sacrifice much to music, you can expect to receive more of music's blessings, can't you?

- The post made me feel rather lonely. Unlike Carl Impostume, there is barely any music that my parents, my sister and I all thouroughly enjoy. My close friends and my missus used to like the same music (Industrial) when we were in our early twenties; we used to listen communally like Carl Impostume does with his friends in the pub; but musically we have grown apart. I know no concrete person personally who likes Black Metal. Carl Impostume is of course right when he writes: "Even if the people for whom/on whose behalf you’re always listening aren’t concrete others, family members, friends, lovers etc, it's non-contentious enough surely to suggest that you are always listening for someone, in terms of critical voices, political ideas and ideals, a sense of the tradition etc ..." But these non-concrete (one could use virtual, if the connotations weren't so wrong) others cannot replace the concrete others. They are mere 'masturbatory phantasmata'. This is why I'm so very happy with people who react to my posts, either with the comment box or in their own blog. But even these cannot replace flesh-and-blood others.

Tuesday, January 06, 2009

Shock Xpress - Roger Corman and The Filmgroup (pt. 2)

In an article in the first Shock Xpress book, Mike Wathan discusses Roger Corman's movie production and distribution company, The Filmgroup. These are trailers for some of the films mentioned in this article.

The Wasp Woman (Roger Corman, 1959)

The Little Shop of Horrors
(Roger Corman, 1960)

Sunday, January 04, 2009

David Gordon White - Kiss of the Yogini. "Tantric Sex" in its South Asian Contexts

In a tale of Tantric sorcery, the hero comes to a cremation ground in the dead of night, where he secretly beholds a wandering mendicant seated upon a corpse and uttering mantras:

Suddenly, the corpse beneath the mendicant began making a 'put-put' noise, as flames belched from its mouth and mustard seeds shot out of its navel. Thereupon the mendicant, taking those mustard seeds and standing up, slapped the corpse with the palm of his hand. The corpse, which was inhabited by a gigantic [vampire spirit], rose up, and the mendicant then climbed up on it's shoulder. Thus mounted, the [vampire] began to move quickly away. ... [Then, having completed some bussiness in a Durga temple], the mendicant went out, and again striking him with his hand, caused the [vampire] to rise up with the sound of 'put-put'. And climbing up on the shoulder of him whose mouth was spewing flames of fire, he flew up, and went across the sky.
David Gordon White's book on medieval Tantra, 'Kiss of the Yogini. "Tantric Sex" in its South Asian Contexts' contains many such fascinating tales. More importantly, it is a book on South Asian Tantra which is free from insipid New Age idealism.

Using textual, sculptural, archeological and ethnographic evidence, White examines that element which distinguishes Tantra from other religious traditions: a form of eroticized ritual practice that emerged in India in the eighth century CE. In this ritual practice, Yoginis where worshiped: avi-cephalic or zoo-cephalic flying goddesses, at once divine and demonic, at once benign and dangerous. To these female divinities, sacrifices were made of meat, of alcohol, but most of all of semen. These oblations would be reciprocated by the Yoginis, who allowed the worshiper to drink their sexual fluids and menstrual blood. Drinking this 'flow of liquid gnosis' made the worshiper part of a clan family (kula), whose lines extend from the god Bhairava down to the human initiate. What is more, drinking the Yogini's sexual fluids and menstrual blood transformed the very being of the worshiper, and conferred supernatural powers, most particularly the power of flight and bodily immortality.

Between the tenth and the twelfth century CE, this medieval Tantric practice was gradually gentrified, in order to make it acceptable to Hindu "mainstream". This gentrification involved the subordination of the female goddesses to the male Tantric practitioner. Furthermore, Tantric practice became less and less corporeal, knowledge taking precedence over eroticized praxis and ritual taking precedence over sacrifice. In this process, the Yoginis came to be regarded not as sctual goddesses but as (symbols of) chakras, wheels of energy which were believed to exist in subtle bodies of man: the fierce goddesses were rendered powerless by internalizing and semanticizing them.

Nevertheless, it seems likely that practitioners of corporeal tantric rites continued to observe the heterodox rites in semi-secrecy, dissimulating their nocturnal identities. Dissimulating gave medieval South Asian elites an opportunity to experiment with a multiple religious identity.

White's book is magnificent, assembling a wealth of scholarly knowledge into a coherent - and to this reader, convincing - whole.

Nevertheless, I feel that White's book would have been even for interesting for the general reader if he had taken care to explicitly relate his empirical findings to theoretical concerns. The exchange of fluids between the Yoginis and their consorts could have been connected to Durkheimian and Maussian themes such as sacrifice, gift exchange and the idea of 'the sacred as the social'. As is, I feel White's reading of medieval Tantra must implicitly be informed by these themes, but the book would have gained in strength if they had been made explicit. Furthermore, the analysis of the strategies of dissimulation could have become stronger if they had been connected to ethnographic thought on secrecy and the social; I'm thinking of some of the essays in Michael Taussig's 2006 book Walter Benjamin's Grave.

I sympathize with White's disdain for New Age Tantra: 'New Age Tantra is to medieval Tantra what finger painting is to fine art, a remarkably unimaginative "series of yogic exercises applied to the sexual act ... a coitus reservatus par excellence ... a sad attempt to mechanize the mysteries of sexual love."' However, in some of his derogatory remarks I felt that he was loathing the right thing for the wrong reasons: the problem with New Age Tantra is not that it is inauthentic, Americanized. I'll quote Michel Leiris once more: “As far as I am concerned, I love everything that presents this dimension of mixing, everything mixed blood, from sarcophagi dating from Roman times with faces of splendidly made-up women painted in the most realistic way to Fuegeans wearing European pants found in shipwrecks, not forgetting Alexandrine philosophy and the unmatchable elegance of Harlem negroes along the way.” The problem with New Age Tantra shows reluctance before excesses of joy, lacks audacity, asks for deliverance and salvation, is anaemic and impoverished. New Age Tantra - like Hindu elites between the tenth and the twelfth century CE - domesticates the wild Yoginis.

Notwithstanding these minor points, I can recommend White's fascinating book to all who are interested in Tantra, in the history of religions and in the anthropology of the body.

Post scriptum

These are some of the words from White's book which I (not being a native speaker of the English language) had to look up in the dictionary:
  • soteriology- the theological doctrine of salvation
  • hypaethral - partly or entirely open to the sky
  • melopoeia - the art of forming melody
  • theriomorphic - thought of as having the form of a beast. Used of a deity.
  • antinomian - opposed to or denying the fixed meaning or universal applicability of moral law

Friday, January 02, 2009

Shock Xpress - Roger Corman and The Filmgroup (pt. 1)

Happy New Year!

In an article in the first Shock Xpress book, Mike Wathan discusses Roger Corman's movie production and distribution company, The Filmgroup. These are trailers for some of the films mentioned in this article.

The Terror (Roger Corman, 1963)

Dementia 13
(Francis Ford Coppola, 1963)