Sunday, May 16, 2010

Burzum and The Unconscious

I want to focus mainly on Burzum itself: the music, the art, the band and what it represented. I am not particularly interested in Varg Vikernes, his ideology, politics or personal opinions except where they touch on his music or either directly influence his recorded output or serve to highlight difficulties that the music brings into discussion. Some may feel that I am handicapping myself from the beginning by refusing to consider an artist's work as an expression of his personal ideology - if so, I willingly admit to be limited in the scope of this article, but it is a limitation that I am imposing on myself at the very start because Burzum, as a topic of illumination, brings into being so many questions, answers, and shades of meaning that to attempt to dissect them all is to place yourself in a place of extreme danger. What this article will be, instead, is a dissertation on what I know about Burzum, what the music of this original band makes me feel, and a confession of the ways in which it has influenced me. This is, above all, a short catalogue of the impressions I have formed over the years listening to these powerful and affecting compositions. I am certain as well that this is only the first of many articles I will write on Burzum.

I believe that Burzum has always been about achieving a certain affect - that in all of its manifestations and different styles the music of Burzum is centered on the notion of subjective expression while striving to declare, again and again, the absolute despair of isolation. It is not a coincidence, I feel, that all of this music was performed by a single person: Burzum is, at heart, the melody and harmony of loneliness. The back catalogue is a series of documents displaying the motives, affects, emotions, agonies and ecstasies of a lonely existence - the world contracted to a single voice, the essence of all existence reduced to the subjective analysis and reflection of the eternal other: the outside world, the limitless cosmos.

Burzum concedes absolutely nothing to any prevailing style, mode, fashion, or accepted form of communication. On the first album its own language is invented while it is put into use - the universe of Burzum spawning itself, reflecting itself even while it grew and changed constantly. The few elements that made up this intensely atavistic (and thus, again, the root of subjectivity: withdrawing into the primitive self, sinking down into the lightless abyss of the self) sound were forged from the darkness, stolen from the walls of subterranean passages deep within the self and bent or welded together to form the first instruments of the language. It's as if Varg reached into the unconscious (the realm of Hel, the eternal darkness) with both hands and brought into the light of higher planes of knowledge the first few discordant elements that would be forced together in a new creation: the crimson animal passions of homicidal anger, the loftiest mountain peaks of an insane pride, the blackest seductive lessons of suicide, and the grim relentless urge of a death drive that knew no bounds.

Burzum itself means 'darkness' in the adopted Tuetonic-based idiom of Tolkien that Vikernes took for his own, and that fateful label was to follow and/or guide the music through all its incarnations. If Burzum is anything it is the exploration of darkness through all its permutations, cultural meanings or assumptions, and symbolic power.

This exploration follows a set path: starting with the first album and the EP that followed it, Burzum represented a courageous dive into the Well of Knowledge to seek out the foundation of reality. This primitive beginning (primitive: thus closest to the inner man, the font of the unconscious) was the time of hoarding, the collecting of fuel for the flight into the upper reaches of daylight that 'Filosofem' symbolizes. Down here deep within the primordial sea of images, emotions, archetypes, and urges Burzum lost more than an eye in its pursuit of parted ways with its soul and was driven to madness.

Here it will be seen that madness is another great theme in Burzum's music - mainly in the power madness or insanity has to infect, conquer, dominate, seduce, and ultimately to transform its victims into new versions of themselves. Madness can be symbolized as a boundary that few ever cross back to reality after they have trespassed on its borders, but it also a healing feverish sea: madness is the first and last refuge of man, it is the true teacher in that it causes transcendence with its mere touch. Those who accept its embrace often pay for their hubris with their sanity, and no one who crosses the wall between madness and reality returns in the same fashion, or untouched by their experiences. I believe that the first two Burzum releases are indicative, more than anything else, of the struggle to escape madness and its power over the soul - the writhing and frenzied thrashing about of a body birthed back into the light after an encounter with the deepest levels of meaning that human experience has to offer. Cast out of the unconscious, Burzum had to burn away all the contagions that would only serve to draw it back into the darkness.

And so, following an age-old archetype that has seemingly been the birthright of every artist in the past, Burzum voided the darkness by the enforced action of catharsis. What better way to purge the darkness than to let it have its way with you? Darkness is symbolic of nothingness - it can not create, it can not change, it can only is the backdrop of existence. When it has been stored within you and constantly acts as an irritant on your most basic impulses, it must have its way in order for it to be understood, analyzed, and dismissed. It must be brought into the reality of action and away from the subconscious realm of potentialities in order for it to be made manifest. Once it has been summoned, it can be be banished. Once examined in the light of reason - the drawing out of its power into the sunlight of action, resistance, and reality - darkness can be converted into its opposite. This is something that most artists seem to know instinctively, they are often not afraid to descend into their own unconsciousness because their character and their familiarity with their own impulses has given them a dependable machine for their own cathartic realizations.

Starting with the first album, then, Burzum removed its own skin and invited everyone to gaze on the runes hidden deep inside its own constitution, seared their by its journey into the lightless places of the subconscious. Of course since all the hidden truths of human nature are paradoxes in that they are at the same time self-evident (because they are universal) and mysterious (because they appear only as symbols colored by their bearer), Burzum is immediately very emotionally powerful while giving off an aura of almost impenetrable elusiveness. This is the dark heart of the fascination that Burzum creates - it exists as a paradox, it is a paradox brought to life.

The basis for Burzum's ability to mesmerize takes root from this realization. Because the music is so close to the subconscious, it exists as a form of disharmonic ritual. All rituals are repetitive actions will symbolic meanings, and Burzum's music is no different in that it seeks to imprint its symbolic import through the narcotic influence of recurring influxes of the unconscious into the conscious state. It is a self-mesmerization, an auto-hypnosis, a path through the paralyzation of consciousness into the first level of unconsciousness symbolic meaning. I feel, however, that while most rituals exist as methods for introducing harmony between unconscious drives and the conscious will that must put them into action or suppress them, Burzum is novel in that it takes you down to the level of the unconscious without giving you standard vehicles for the expression of what you find there. Is it any wonder that Burzum is always taken as a sort of excitement, or to be more precise, as an incitement towards something you can not fully understand? It is because Burzum, blinded by the darkness, can not point you to a path other than its own. This is its power as an influence: seduced by its knowledge you must find your own way back to the light of artistic expression, and while perusing the archetypes that it brings to life you often find many of your own most hidden symbols - symbols that then call out to be articulated.

U. Amtey
December 14, 1999