Agalloch, Romanticism, Wonder and Nature

One of my favourite bands is Agalloch; they are a metal band from Portland, although their music has progressive and folk elements. One interesting element of their music is that many of their albums have a significant pagan element, which expresses a strong sense of wonder towards the natural world. This sense of wonder towards the natural world can be found in much romantic art and literature. For this entry I would like to examine some of Agalloch’s lyrics to try to outline the nature of the wonder we experience towards nature. Furthermore, I will argue that the reason why we experience this wonder towards nature is that our phenomenological experience of nature is something that resists our sense of the universe as disenchanted, and because we are “porous selves” who are vulnerable to being controlled by external forces, including elements of nature.

The Agalloch piece that I will examine is “In the Shadow of our Pale Companion.” In this song the lyrics state:

“Through vast valleys I wander
To the highest peaks
On pathways through a wild forgotten landscape
In search of God, in spite of man
’til the lost forsaken endless
This is where I choose to tread”

It should be noted that in these lyrics the search for God is not something that is done through dialogue with other human beings about the natural world. Rather God is something that as isolated individuals we search out for in the natural world. Our connection to God is not mediated by our social role, or membership in a society. Rather, our relation to God is one that stands apart from society.

Furthermore, the lyrics state:

“Here at the edge of this world
Here I gaze at a pantheon of oak, a citadel of stone
If this grand panorama before me is what you call God
Then God is not dead”

It should be noted that the suggestion being put forth here is that the revealing of God is something that can occur through a vision of the panorama of nature itself. Furthermore, the allusion to Nietzsche’s notion that “God is dead” suggests that while God may seem dead as we live our everyday lives in society, that our sense of wonder towards the natural world reveals something beyond. Consequently, according to Agalloch it seems that our sense of wonder towards nature is something that consists in seeing something powerful, majestic and transcendent in nature that tends not to reveal itself through our lives within society.

While I may not believe that God exists in nature in the way that some of these lyrics suggest, I do a feel a deep sense of wonder and transcendence as I encounter certain elements of the natural world. I remember standing at the top of Mt.Pilatus in Switzerland and feeling a deep sense of wonder towards the view. I could not clearly articulate what this sense of wonder meant in terms of propositional belief, but I certainly felt something resonate deeply within me, and this sense of resonance is not something that I tend to experience as I navigate society. Consequently, Agalloch’s lyrics in this song seem to present an accurate and compelling picture of the sense of wonder that we experience towards nature.

The preceding may have clarified the nature of the sense of wonder we experience towards nature, but it has not clarified why we feel this sense of wonder towards nature. So for the remainder of this entry I will address that question. While I do believe that humans have always felt a sense of wonder towards nature, I think that for members of post-industrial societies this sense of wonder is intensified by the fact that most members of post-industrial societies, whether they believe in God or not, believe in a disenchanted universe. This belief in disenchantment states that the universe is purposeless, in and of itself, and can be best understood in terms of efficient causation. In this sense, the universe is best understood in analogy with a machine. However, while the phenomenological experience of post-industrial society reinforces this mechanistic view of the universe as everything within society seems to operate in terms of efficient causation, the phenomenological experience of nature does not. There is something mysterious and powerful about the phenomenological experience of nature that does not seem to be rendered intelligible by translation into strict efficient causation. The natural world seems to be a living place with its own meanings, rather than just an extremely complex arrangement of matter reacting in particular ways. Consequently, it seems plausible to think that one reason why contemporary people have experiences of wonder towards nature is because our experience of nature is one which suggests to us that the natural world cannot be fit into the simple disenchanted worldview that we have. Nature then appears as something that transcends the disenchanted universe and consequently we feel wonder at this seeming transcendence. It should be noted that I am not suggesting that the natural world cannot be made sense of in terms of a disenchanted view of the universe, only that our phenomenological experience of nature seems to suggest that it cannot.

One other reason for the wonder we experience towards the natural world is the fact that the natural world has a power over us such that we come to feel wonder for it without choosing to do so, or looking to nature for inspiration. Charles Taylor coined the term “buffered self” to refer to the way in which modern people see their self as invulnerable to being acted upon by the external world; this idea is encapsulated by the idea that if we try we can avoid having things get to us if we are disciplined enough. Taylor contrasts this with the notion of the “porous self” which he suggests would have been common during the middle ages in Latin Christendom, in which the self was vulnerable to being acted upon by meanings that were outside of itself; things that were a part of nature or emanations from God or Satan. These meanings could take control of us, and guide our actions for significant portions of time. To some degree our phenomenological experience of nature is one in which our nature as porous selves is revealed. My sense of the power and majesty of the mountain acts on me and I feel a sense of wonder for it. I do not choose to feel a sense of wonder towards the mountain, rather I am acted on by the mountain and come to feel a sense of awe or wonder, and there is nothing I can do about this fact. Thus, it seems plausible to think that our sense of wonder towards the natural world might be a function of the fact that, despite the self-image we possess, we are porous selves to some extent and are vulnerable to being acted upon by nature.

While there is no specific political, ethical or spiritual point that I am trying to make through this entry beyond what I have specified above, it should be noted that if we better understand our sense of wonder towards nature then we are better able to understand our spiritual predicament. And one way to best ensure that we adequately respond to this predicament is through gaining the deepest possible understanding of the situation as we can achieve.

Now listen to some Agalloch because they are absolutely wonderful.

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The Appeal of Amon Amarth – Violence, Independence and Domination

As I was listening to Amon Amarth this past week I began to ponder why a significant portion of the population of post-industrial societies are fascinated by, and drawn to, the brutal way of life of the Vikings, the Huns, and other conquering peoples. The norms of these people are absolutely opposed to our own, in many regards, but yet people seem to be attracted to the way of life that they lead, and furthermore, it does not seem that we simply see it as a manifestation of evil. We might see their way of life as cruel and inhumane, but there is something that we esteem in their way of life.

For those who are unaware Amon Amarth is a melodic death metal band whose lyrics revolve around Norse mythology and the Viking age. In Amon Amarth’s song “Gods of War Arise” they offer a fictional chronicle of Viking raids. At one point in the song the lyrics say:

“Some seek shelter in the church
A refuge for those with faith
But we know how to smoke them out
A pyre will be raised

But those who choose to stand and fight
Will die with dignity
For the unfortunate few who survived
Waits a life in slavery”

This is a very stark statement of the notion that the pursuit of survival for its own sake lacks dignity and that the real “man” is someone who takes what he can get and will fight to the death rather than accept a servile existence.

To some degree it is difficult to take Amon Amarth seriously as their lyrics seem to espouse a “Viking” perspective with such candour, that it is hard to imagine any member of the band actually is endorsing this perspective. Nonetheless, there must be some reason why they chose this topic and why many find their lyrics fascinating. It seems to me that the appeal of their lyrics is a result of a couple of factors.

The first factor seems to be that despite the fact that we are all civilized, polite people we value elements of the brutal way of life that was manifested in the Viking age. One element of the Viking way of life we value might be colloquially known as the value of the “badass.” The badass takes whatever he or she wants and does not cow to anyone’s commands. They are truly self-directing, and because of this they need to have no regard for the claims of justice or public morality. Likewise the Vikings as a people took what they desired to have and did not bow down to anyone. The badass is very spirited and so are the Vikings. The point of this is not necessarily to gather riches or material goods, but rather to be a person or a people whose will does not bend to the will of others. We may not endorse the activities of the badass, but secretly part of us wishes we could be like them. Consequently, the appeal of Amon Amarth’s lyrics seems to at least partially lie in our appreciation of the value of the “badass” as it is manifested through the images of the Vikings that Amon Amarth presents.

However, our appreciation of the value of the “badass” is at odds with the very social norms of our own society. Most people will necessarily have to work within a hierarchical structure, and working in a hierarchical structure encourages compromise and servility. One can only be so authentic when working with superiors who control one’s ability to support oneself. To some degree, we must placate our superiors and censor ourselves to ensure that we have a stable income and a comfortable life. In a sense, the significant group who accept this compromise are like the person who chooses the life of slavery over fighting to the death. They choose survival and existence over independence. In this sense, the value of independence stands in stark contrast to much of life in postindustrial society. This is further supported by the fact that in postindustrial society we acquire goods through commerce and trade, rather than force.

However, while this factor explains part of the appeal of Amon Amarth’s lyrics it does not necessarily explain the appeal of the violent elements of their lyrics. For example, in “Gods of War Arise” the vocalist roars

“The day draws to an end
The night comes dark and cold
We return to our ships
With silver, slaves and gold
We gave them agony, as they fell and die
The gods have granted victory
For our sacrifice”

Spiritedness and independence need not take on the violent form that they do in Amon Amarth lyrics. So, we are still are left to explain the appeal of the violent elements of their lyrics. These lyrics not only seem to see violence as an important means of the acquisition of property for the Vikings, rather they suggest a kind of glorification of violent conquest as something that is to be valued for its own sake.

While I am not entirely sure why people find the the violent elements of Amon Amarth’s lyrics fascinating it seems to me that the best explanation is provided by the fact that we have an unrecognized desire to dominate over others. This desire is not the dominant desire of humanity, but to deny its existence in the face of human history seems to be questionable. The desire to master others and be a little tyrant whose every wish is obeyed seems to be a natural desire for all human beings. This is evident when we witness the tantrum of a two year old. The two year old who has a tantrum does so because their parents are not obeying them as good subjects should obey a tyrant. In a sense we can overcome the desire to dominate others by discouraging them and encouraging the desire to be seen as an equal rather than a master, but I do not think we can completely escape our desire to dominate over others. Consequently, there is a part of us that will always be attracted to violent domination. There is a reason that video games, films and literature that portray violent domination are often more popular than those that portray ordinary civilized human relationships. Thus, the appeal of the violence of Amon Amarth’s lyrics seems to lie in this deep seated desire to dominate others. Once again we do not endorse the Vikings brutal domination of others, but on some level we cannot help but being impressed by their ability to dominate their enemies.

The preceding analysis points to a problem for post-industrial societies. That problem is how to deal with our desire for a fierce form of independence and our desire to dominate over others. To some degree we sometimes pretend that these desires don’t exist, but our art and our entertainment seem to suggest that they are very real. Consequently, we cannot simply ignore these desires. Some may wish to try to rid society of these desires, others may want to try to direct them towards something useful, but we must recognize that we have these desires and cautiously consider the dangers these desires pose and how they are best dealt with. It is unclear to me what the best course of action is, but we must begin to think and talk about this side of our nature.

Elitism and Music

Tyler Cornwall`s life revolved around his love of Techno. He spent most of his free time listening to Techno and could easily classify any Techno track within its appropriate subgenre including Post Early 2000s Berlin Minimal Housey Techno. Whenever he encountered people whose music taste revolved around what they heard on the radio he would feel superior as he had done the work to dig through all sorts of music to discover the most beautiful music in the world, Techno.  Consequently, in Tyler`s daily life he took every opportunity he could to display the beauty of Techno and would try to illuminate and re-educate those who did not see its shining beauty.  

Kyle Cassian had the same characteristics as Tyler, except in his case his love was for Extreme Metal, rather than Techno.  On one occasion Kyle had even skipped work in order to respond to a poster on an internet discussion board who had disparaged extreme metal, as something that lacked musical ability and all sounded the same. With his post Kyle had fulfilled his raison dètre as he had overwhelmed the naysayer with a post revealing the distinction between different genres of Extreme Metal, and explained why Extreme Metal takes a great degree of talent to perform. There was no way this naysayer would ever go around badmouthing Extreme Metal again.

By happenstance Tyler and Kyle ended up posting on the same internet discussion board. Kyle had bad mouthed Techno and referred to it as something `that any talentless idiot with a decent computer could make.“ This drew Tyler`s immediate attention and soon after he responded to Kyle. Tyler`s response clarified the history of Techno and how much talent was required to take simple, seemingly dull, rhythms and make something infectious with them.  Furthermore, he posted several examples of what he considered to be quality Techno. This did not convince Kyle however. In fact Kyle was offended by the fact that somebody could take Techno so seriously. Extreme Metal was a truly majestic art form, but Techno was trite and any person with the least sense of the true meaning of what good music was, could not consider Techno to be good.  

Soon after this exchange of posts occurred two other people posted additional responses to Kyle and Tyler. The first of these, Harvey Johnston, was upset with the fact that these two people were trying to prove that a particular genre was good. His response argued that there no way to distinguish between good music and bad music, and that music was merely a matter of preference. For Harvey, just as some people like Olives and others do not, some people will like Techno and others won`t.                                   

 However, the other poster, Anthony Martin, took a different tact. He saw the great passion for the beauty of music that both Kyle and Tyler had, and because he shared that passion for beauty, he wanted to expose them to his favourite forms of music, Classical and Jazz. He did not try to illuminate their minds or convert them to being avid listeners of Jazz and Classical; he merely suggested some artists they might like given Tyler`s love for Techno and Kyle`s love of Extreme Metal.  In this way Anthony just wanted to share the love that he had developed. While Anthony did think that his music taste was more elevated than Tyler`s or Kyle`s, and this elevation signified his ability to grasp a more nuanced conception of beauty, he was motivated by a simple desire to spread his love of music.  He merely wanted to encourage the growth of a love in others that had enriched his own life.