An interregnum is a time of ultimate possibility. Poised as we are between the end of the old European culture and the possibility of a new, reborn, European culture it is useful to give some thought to the direction that our new culture should take.
That the old culture has died will be obvious to anyone who has any sensitivity to such matters whatsoever. The great musical tradition that reached a high watermark with Bach, and that subsequently sought expression through the individual genius of Beethoven and Schubert, had its funeral song in Strauss’ Metamorphosen. This intensely sad work for strings evoked the destroyed greatness of the German opera houses where Strauss had had so many successes, and which, like the musical tradition itself, were lying in ruins in the 1940s. Atonality, serialism, jazz, all strode arrogantly and somewhat vengefully over the grave of the Western tradition. Now, in the second decade of the twenty-first century, ugliness has become so ubiquitous that we are in danger of forgetting what makes beauty worthwhile in the first place.
Richard Strauss' Metamorphosen (full)
The European musical tradition was so great, so intensely beautiful, that some supporters of European culture wish to revive the corpse and have it, like some deranged zombie, replay its greatest hits. We must be clear in recognizing that however sublime the music of our past culture was, it now belongs to a culture that has died. However sad it might be to think that this great tradition will never sing again, we must not be unduly sentimental about such matters. Everything dies, and our old European culture is no exception.
This does not mean that we should fail to acknowledge the greatness of our tradition. On the contrary, we should honor our deceased ancestors and learn from them. What we cannot afford to do is to engage in useless talk of cultural revival. There will be no revival of the old European musical tradition. An unhealthy insistence on the superiority of the dead culture over all present forms results in a sort of cultural necrophilia, and tends towards the sort of cultural enervation that is explicitly being resisted. In short, it is futile.
There was no single genesis for our musical culture, but the Council of Trent (1545–1563) is sometimes taken as being the midwife of counterpoint. At this ecclesiastical conference the question of counterpoint in music was discussed. The issue was controversial because it was felt by some that counterpoint was being deployed for mere ornamentation, for entertainment value. Whereas plainsong allowed for complete clarity in singing lines of scripture, counterpoint tended (so the argument went) to obscure the text by employing elaborate musical techniques that demanded adulation in their own right. The music was meant to be a mere vehicle for the praise of God. Legend has it that the composer Palestrina persuaded the Council of the merits of counterpoint by composing a mass which utilized that technique so beautifully that they accepted its application as an art suitable for worship.
In any case, counterpoint, or polyphony, came to be the quintessentially European mode of expression in musical form. Whilst the outcome of the Council enabled the genius of Bach to emerge in all its glory it also, inadvertently and circuitously, led to the present degeneration of music. Why? Because the Council’s decision allowed for the possibility that musical composition could exist for its own sake, distinct from the pursuit of the numinous.
The purpose of all Traditional art is to find expression for numinous apprehension, to recreate the ineffable through a symbolic simulacrum. As soon as this imperative departs from the creative function the appetites and desires of man become a valid subject for artistic expression. The end result of such a process, inevitably, is the sort of debased egotism masquerading as art that we see everywhere in the West today.
This decline from a numinous to a personal art can be mapped in many ways but, for the twentieth century, the emergence of numerous avant garde fads in classical music is a good example. For most people, atonality, serialism, et al., appear to be quite soulless. This common sense view contains a great deal of truth, as these musical forms attempt to elevate a sense of novelty and intellectual cleverness to a position that demands worship.
Here, it might be wise to bear in mind the origin of the word ‘culture’ in the Latin colere. Colere meant ‘inhabit’ whence the word ‘colony’ also derived. ‘Cultivation’, as in land husbandry, is another word derived from colere, which then takes on the additional sense of respect and worship, whence ‘cult’ develops. This etymological exercise is necessary because it alerts us to the fact that culture was traditionally concerned with respect for one’s land.
From this position the importance of folk art becomes clear. From this folk art it is possible to develop a higher culture which is concerned with worshiping the numinous, but it is essential to note that this form of numinous worship grows from a rooted, folkish community. Within this model of Traditional art there is no place whatsoever for “clever” or “novel” art. To worship one’s own sense of smugness is to debase what it means to be human.
Defenders of European culture can, as a result of its decline, appear to be harking back to glory days that never really existed (at least not in the way that we imagine them now). This cultural conservatism can never really succeed because culture, even whilst it maintains fidelity to the perennial tradition, must be a dynamic life-form. The spirit that creates great and lasting art is the same spirit that is found on battlefields, or in the selfless pain of a mother in labor, not the spirit of a museum curator. This spirit (if we accept that the numinous finds expression through man rather than the other way round) will seek articulation in vital, living forms, and will not necessarily respect our notions of taste.
Franz Schubert, “Das Wirtshaus” (The Inn)
Listen to “Das Wirtshaus” from Schubert’s Winterreise, and then to “Whilst the Night Rejoices Profound and Still” from Current 93’s Soft Black Stars. I would suggest that the tone of aching sadness that pervades both songs springs from the same source. To suggest that the one is a classic of the Western canon whilst condemning the other to a status of Entartete Musik betrays an attitude that is blinded by the self-righteousness of anti-modernity. Only the most dedicated taxonomist of European art would be able to discern any meaningful distinction between the two pieces of music. In fact, given that Schubert was creating the template for the modern pop song (short, lyrical, the foregrounding of emotion, etc.) and that David Tibet is actively seeking a deeper, more spiritual form of expression, one could make the case that Tibet is the greater exemplar of European culture. Heresy to aficionados, no doubt, but what other than snobbery supports their view?
Current 93, “Whilst the Night Rejoices Profound and Still”,
David Tibet, vocal
The perspective of Oswald Spengler will be germane here. In Decline of the West he compares the Christian Dies Irae with the heathen Völuspá and finds, “the same adamantine will to overcome and break all resistances of the visible”. In our European art there is found time and time again the same Faustian spirit manifesting in various superficially distinct forms. Like Odin, this spirit wanders restlessly, donning and discarding masks as it requires. The important task for us is to discern the true essence within the form. At the present time of our culture this spirit is not to be found in the classical music world.
Through the twentieth century, it is true, there have been some important, even numinous, pieces of music created in the classical music tradition. One thinks of Ligeti, Messiaen, Pärt, et al. But these works tend increasingly to be created by individual eccentric geniuses who are able to create art despite the culture, and not because of it.
The European musical Tradition used to be synonymous with church music, and as such it was wedded firmly to the aim of presencing the numinous. This was a project supported and financed by the power brokers of European societies. The art arose as an organic imperative, articulating the soul of the West at a higher level.
Today there is not a single European culture in existence anywhere in the world. Consequently, the sort of art that arose from past cultures of the West is no longer possible. There is nowhere a higher European culture based on smaller homogeneous local communities, bound together through shared sacred observances. Without the existence of such a culture there can be no continuation of the artistic current of the past.
Analogous to the development and decline of the musical tradition is the decline of our literary tradition. By the time of Shakespeare, English literature was still based on certain authentic traditional forms (Hamlet, after all, was originally a Germanic saga), but the decadence of a sophisticated cosmopolitanism was already in evidence. When Macbeth laments that, “The multitudinous seas incarnadine/ Making the green one red,” the superfluous second line is simply an elegant echo of the foreign neologisms in the first. This voracious capacity for stealing foreign words is one of the reasons for Shakespeare’s eloquence, but it also meant that poetry was already appealing to the aesthetic desires of man rather than serving the greater imperative of sanctifying his higher qualities. The earlier literary tradition, as evidenced in the Eddas, the Sagas, and the battle poems, sought to make the deeds of man sacred by immortalizing the heroic, and by sanctifying its emulation.
By the time of Wordsworth the decline of literature was such a concern that he and Coleridge attempted to revivify it by presenting a new form of ballad poetry. They attempted to discard the ornate and decorous rhetoric that had become so popular in poetry, and return to a simpler quasi-peasant tradition. William Blake’s more mystically inclined Songs of Innocence and Experience also attempted a simpler, pared-down use of English. A similar rearguard action was carried out in the twentieth century when T. S. Eliot attempted to reinvent literature through the deployment of different registers of speech and the juxtaposition of distinct perspectives. The circus of post-modernity was the reward for his efforts.
The phase of the cultural cycle we have now reached is perhaps the most exciting one of all, as it contains the greatest possibility. The moribund power structures of the West are falling down around our ears. The Faustian spirit of the West will not look to such soulless structures for its manifestation, but instead to new, emerging forms. These may appear in the highfalutin world of esoteric art or, equally, in much more popular forms. What is important is not the pretense of snobbery, based on supposed “refined” taste, but the inner essence of the art form regardless of its means of appearance. Coomaraswamy makes the point well:
The distinction is not nearly so much of aristocratic from peasant culture as it is one of aristocratic and peasant from bourgeoisie and proletarian cultures. . . . A traditional must not be confused with an academic or merely fashionable art; tradition is not a mere stylistic fixation, nor merely a matter of general suffrage. A traditional art has fixed ends and ascertained means of operation, has been transmitted in papillary succession from an immemorial past, and retains its values even when, as at the present day, it has gone quite out of fashion. Hieratic and folk arts are both alike traditional. . . An academic art, on the other hand, however great its prestige, and however fashionable it may be, can very well be and is usually of an anti-traditional, personal, profane, and sentimental sort.
As Coomaraswamy points out so often in his work, it is frequently the lower classes who are best able to preserve Traditional teaching because they are less susceptible to the charms of sophisticated cosmopolitanism than their more wealthy compatriots. This view is quite counter-intuitive to many who perceive the most educated classes as being the best exemplars of culture. It is true that when a culture is at its highest point of achievement its fruits will come from the elite. But when that elite supports a distorted culture, expressed through materialism, hedonism and egotism, we should look to other, perhaps despised, forms of artistic expression to find something that is more authentically European.
If the wheel is to turn once more and European culture is to experience a new phase of creation it will only be possible with the creation of new types of society that eschew the materialistic, globalist, authoritarian assumptions of the present time. Such societies must be based on smaller, more rural, more self-sufficient, communities. The vacuity of modern culture is a consequence of enervating modes of living that promote abstract ideologies, and virtual relationships, all at the behest of capital and the expense of the numinous. Traditional art will only arise (apart from occasional individuals of genius) from smaller communities based on more personal social relationships, and a more authentic understanding of the land and the passing of the seasons. Only in such circumstances may a new (and yet immemorially old) numinous understanding arise.
Franz von Stuck, "The Wild Hunt", 1889
At the present time we should be looking for the formation of Männerbund-type groupings that will provide the necessary warrior ethos for the formation of such communities. These groupings will be likely to form in rather rebellious subcultural cliques, one of which we have already seen in the Black Metal scene. The Norwegian Black Metal scene of the 1990s has been shown, in a booklet by the Austrian writer, Kadmon, to be an unconscious re-manifestation of the Oskorei, the Wild Hunt.
In Norway, in pagan times, cultic groups of young, unmarried men would ride horses wildly around their local area at the time of the Winter Solstice. In common with their latter day Black Metal counterparts they would dress as corpses, commit acts of sacred arson, and make a cacophonous noise. The relevance of this to the continuation of the European Musical Tradition will be lost on many, but the key element is that the Black Metal musicians were restoring a natural balance to what had become unhealthy. The earlier Männerbund-type cultic groups were not simply causing chaos for the sake of it. They had a sacred function, and by operating at the Winter Solstice they were the “dark” counterpoint to the “light” fertility celebrations of the Spring. Both are necessary for balance to be maintained.
I am not attempting to suggest that Black Metal is necessarily the sort of music that everybody should listen to although some tracks, such as “Det Som Engang Var” by Burzum, have an undeniable austere beauty. I am instead concerned with recognizing the manifestation of the numinous Faustian soul of the West however it is masked. More prosaically, we will only be moved by what speaks to us effectively. It is no doubt true that the Classical tradition represents the most eloquent expression of European music, but the most eloquent voice is not always the one that will move us most urgently.
Burzum, “Det Som Engang Var”, Part One
In the absence of a functioning European culture the authentic manifestations of the spirit of the West will arise at the margins of culture. Whether in Black Metal, folk music, neo-folk, or something yet to emerge, the key point is whether these subcultural groups maintain a connection to the numinous essence of the European spirit. The fact that there is so much heathen, pagan and occult imagery in the aforementioned genres is a cause for celebration as it demonstrates a concern with expressing an authentically European and numinous world view.
Whether the new musical formulations expressed through black metal, neo-folk, or whatever else are “better” or “worse” than the classics of the European canon that preceded them is a somewhat moot point. Perhaps these modern forms really are less accomplished and less musically articulate than the preceding forms. But the point is that, in the absence of contemporary, authentically European, forms of expression in the classical idiom, the existence of such popular expressions of the Faustian spirit should be celebrated unreservedly. However juvenile they may be as musical genres (and here I use the word “juvenile” only as a point of musical comparison with the classical tradition – these musicians are not puerile) it remains true that a great oak will only grow from an acorn, not from a fallen branch.
C. G. Kratzenstein-Stub, "Orpheus and Eurydice," 1806
Since the Renaissance the god Orpheus has been an archetypal figure for European music. His was the power to charm nature into submission through his art, a very Faustian attribute. When Orpheus’ wife, Eurydice, died Orpheus traveled to the underworld and through the majesty of his music persuaded Hades and Persephone to allow Eurydice to accompany him home, thus defying death. The gods of the underworld made one condition: that Orpheus would not look back. As Orpheus emerged from the underworld he was overcome with longing for Eurydice and turned to look back at her, but she had not yet followed him out to Earth, so she was dragged back down, this time never to return. This story is a salutary one for all those concerned with the future of European culture.
1. Oswald Spengler, The Decline of the West (New York: The Modern Library, 1962), 98.
2. Ananda Coomaraswamy, The Essential Ananda K. Coomaraswamy, ed. Rama P. Coomaraswamy (Indiana: World Wisdom, 2004), 216–17.