Saturday, May 15, 2010

The Culture of Blasphemy

O Prince of exile, who was dispossessed,
Who ever rises stronger when oppressed,
Satan have mercy on my long distress!

- Baudelaire, in his 'Les Litanies de Satan'

I suppose at one time there was a genuine spirit of revolt - a life-or-death aggressive impulse against the will of the oppressor (whoever he was: God, landlord, parent, authority) and against everything he could be connected with: his love, his life itself, his property, his lies, his constructions, his manipulations - everything he does or has in order to maintain himself in his position. Anger, the warm solace of the dispossessed, as it is echoed in almost every line of Baudelaire's poem to Satan, has traditionally been the source for much of the inspiration in our art, my brothers. Negative inspiration, it is true - an inspiration that tends to slowly poison the acolyte of its manifestation - but a source of power nonetheless. The powerless and downtrodden have traditionally always been able to rely on their access to Bacchanalian revolt - 'mindless' violence, self-destruction, the storms of mass movements. But this inspiration, where has it now gone? Where are the true artists of hatred? Do you dare call yourself one? What is there to be done when this emotion has itself been abstracted, packaged, codified, its territories drawn, its borders measured, its energy bled away? When this emotion no longer acts on individuals - and then understood by that individual in his own personal revolt - but when it is made an icon of culture, of 'fashion', of collective misunderstanding, and thus an entry into pacifism, hedonism, and stagnation? How has anger been systematically 'disqualified' or 'dismissed' as irrational? How are these emotions - so long exiled, on the edge of what is considered 'polite', cultured, or 'admissable' in close quarters, in the company of strangers - in the minds of the 'elect', the determinates of cultures - in 'society'...how have they been tapped for their 'drawing power' and then manipulated for gain on the part of our handlers? Most of all: why is it that a man or woman, alone, loveless, staring the madness of the world straight in the face...how is it that he or she can no longer even trust his or her own instincts? Why can he or she no longer feel 'justified' in being angry - why so sheepish, so apologetic, why are our passions and sins now so weak, so colorless? Why is our art now so anemic even in its highest transports of blasphemy? Is a true blasphemy - the use of speech that weakens, dares, strikes aggressively - is this even possible anymore? Is there anything that still exists that calls out to be blasphemed? Is everything not...dead...beyond all reproach, beyond all fear, beyond our power to affect it?

God? Do you exist, oh God? Is it possible, is it warranted, is it probable, in what form - in what way, can you affect us, can you change anything for the better or the worse...and even if you do exist, does it matter? Why? If I blaspheme, if I break the commandments, if I suffer all the torments that flesh is heir to: the heartbreak, the tearing of the physical body; watching my children raped and mutilated, treated as objects without names, watching my wife die in front of me, felled by mere chance, or worse yet: succumbing to mental disease, so that she stares blankly at me and can not remember any part of our life together...and now here is all my love and eagerness for life, all for naught; witnessing my friends and family struck down by wretched disease or meaningless accidents; when, as Euripides would say, 'There is nothing left for you but to curse Heaven and die' - and still I refuse to give in and attribute 'meaning' to the universe by bowing my knee to you, foul Saviour, white worm, father of pestilence who died on the cross. You, God, the beneficent, the merciful, falling like the path of Venus to earth and into the form of your own son, birthed by a virgin, expressly out of love, so that you could suffer all that we suffer, I spit in your face, I spit into your mouth, I hack at your limbs, I gouge out your eyes, I rub salt into your wounds, I would tear and stab at myself if it would hurt you all the more - I would hurt everything you love, I would drink your black blood, flowing from your pierced side, down the cross, if it could erase your memory. All of this, this world that you have created...I want it to die...and still this is not enough. It is not enough because...you don't exist, you are silent. And still I am fighting with phantoms and everything I say is meaningless. To all of my cries, to all of my actions, the sky returns only...silence.

Is it possible to even imagine anymore the courage of those who blasphemed and swore against The Almighty in scorned anger, or who cursed in cold voices the Son of God, when it was a generally accepted belief that The Creator did, in fact, actually exist? Imagine the pain expressed by these voices, these summonings, these hateful exclamations - imagine the depth of passion they felt, the agony of their souls calling out against their torturer, the fear they felt when their tongues loosened and spread their pain into the air...and now we blaspheme only because we know, as a matter of fact, as a commonly held belief, that God does not exist at all...our blasphemies, our eager imprecations, are only fairy tales...our prayers are diversions or mnemonic devices, our curses are powerless...and courage has left our world. When there is nothing left to die for...there is nothing left to live for.

Hatred in art loses itself in its own expression, it gets absorbed in and mesmerized by its own manifestation, its own breathing, the shaking and stretching of its extremities, its features...and I have trouble approaching hatred in art if it is shown to me as an 'anthropological' document, a sort of crystallized essence, frozen in space and time - an 'expression' (meaning the inner made, for a time, outer) merely, a statement...I prefer attacks arising out of hatred: physicality, violence, the achieving of ends, the means of change. When art is seen as merely 'expression', as something eternally removed for whatever reasons - for 'society's sake', for the status quo, for our 'sanity' - from life and from the actions of humans who view it, I tend to become highly suspicious. What is every 'work of hatred' viewed in this way but a symbol of pacifism? Of passion that was 'channeled' and sublimated (in effect, destroyed) into art? It is a documented fact, an unimpeachable truism, that stored emotions, suppressed passions, give way, in the end, to some kind of violent expression...in the asylums or mental institutes the handlers encourage 'art therapy' because this tends to reduce the outbursts on the part of the inmates - but usually only because the patients come to appreciate this slow time of communication and freedom (what is expression if not the manifestation of freedom in certain limited domains of our capabilities for action?) and they are threatened with its removal if they 'act' violently. In this sense, their 'expression', which the authorities view as meaningless (if it is not examined for internal evidence, which is to say: 'interpreted' under some science, and thus given a meaning) becomes yet another tool of oppression or authoritative 'guidance'. Art and expression can be manipulated, like anything else, or used as a weapon against its owner. The people who say to us that art has a 'function' in society, that is must be relegated to a storehouse, shut away in a 'collection', that is must be 'interpreted' and 'understood' - what are they really saying to us...or rather, what are they forcing upon us?

In his novel 'Naked Lunch', William Burroughs pictured a scenario - just one of many like it in his writing - where the 'Wild Boys', the 'inmates of the world', storm a museum and systematically defile all the 'great' (in society everything is seen in a hierarchy, or not at all - this is a cultural myth that still persists) works of art...to him, this was an expression of pure freedom. Burroughs and Gysin, with their 'cut-up' experiments (where they took famous texts and cut the sentences - physically, using a pair of scissors, or in auditory terms blending, splicing, and recombining spoken word pieces or readings, the precursor of our modern technique of 'sampling' - into fragments, and then reassembled them) banished, on their own terms, the authority of the text, the 'official' meaning given to a work, and assumed this 'power of meaning' for themselves. This is just another method in which 'modern' art seeks to escape the autonomy and isolating 'hierachy' of meaning, and usurps this power in the name of subjectivity and the individual. By doing this, Burroughs sardonically pointed out the relative nature of all meaning, the ease in which the power structures of all accepted meaning (and artistic 'ascendency' or primacy) could be collapsed. The Surrealists imagined complementary scenarios in that they evinced an ambition to systematically erase all the boundaries of the imagination by destroying what was then 'known' as art. Of course they are now part of the hierarchy themselves, written into history by the rationalizing psychiatrists and critics of culture who see in them an 'attempt' (I would say, rather, that they succeeded) to bring the theories of Freud into the popular consciousness. There are countless other examples of artists, singly or in movements, trying to widen the boundaries of art or collapse the borders they felt hindered their ability to express themselves. In fact, art (says common wisdom, which is always at least a century behind the times) can not 'progress' without periodic influxes of these kinds of ideas, which almost always seem new at the time, even though they have an advanced, aged, and ancient lineage - it is the times themselves, the spirit of the age, the local characteristics, that change...rarely the ideas expressed or the modes in which these ideas infiltrate consciousness. But, truly, isn't it yet another modern myth - a 'mythology' that Barthes would feel comfortable delineating - that art, as a whole, is 'progressing' towards something: a completion, a full capability, an extended range of powers, a 'perfection'? Where is art going, now, at this late stage? Does anyone still believe this?

In fact, I believe it is actually the opposite...art, over the last century, has in fact been slowly dying, losing its powers...and now, weakened, bloodless, anemic, it has simply lost its place in the world, and by seeking to expand its boundaries or reach too far, modern artists have 'created' methods (which are only the use of methods in rebellion against art's history - that is, a self-destructive methodology) that no longer either have the power to encapsulate or picture the inner world of the artist or to communicate the vision of this inner world to any of the art's witnesses. In effect, I believe that art - which should be (at least for me, but I am old-fashioned) about communicating that which can not be contained in language/speech - is no longer able to translate anything at all across the boundaries between inner and outer worlds, between consciousness and unconsciousness, between subject and object, artist and audience. In fact, one of the hallmarks of the postmodern (one of the few 'movements' that still seeks to accurately reflect its era, its epoch), if you'll take a moment to notice it, is that artists now, at this time, have recourse to the methodology, ideas, literature, beliefs, and expressive techniques of every age in art - modern artists feel equally at home painting in an 'abstract' mode as well as a Renaissance style. Why? Because, through art history and criticism, through the collapse of the idea of 'progress' in art, or art as a Hegelian dialectic - a slow coalescence of form or meaning through thesis and antithesis - it has now been demonstrated that every age's ability to express itself, every technique is equally viable...some would say: 'equally meaningless'...but I hesitate at the edge of that statement, if only because I am an artist myself, and I have instinctively always fled from anything that speaks of the 'modern', in art or anything else...this is considered 'postmodern', this artistic approach, because it reflects the indeterminacy of our own age, a belief that is becoming clear slowly (as always) to most people that our civilization, our 'times', are not any 'better' or more 'progressive' than any other in history. And because art, for so many centuries - at least in the West - has been held under the yoke of 'progress', told to bear fruit in a reflection of society's industrialization, it now seems 'meaningless' after these ideas have finally collapsed. Besides, an art that does not pivot on any one societal level of understanding, that does not express itself within strict conventions or within the boundaries given to it by the civilization/epoch/society it appears in, is naturally 'out of step', its expression of meaning is much more difficult for the people in that epoch to grasp. As such, it appears to be completely without meaning, even though it may just be manifesting itself in a langage that no audience can understand...after the Surrealists, art has concentrated almost completely on the 'modernist' approach, which is to say: the language of the individual artist, 'meaning' or 'value' understood or appearing on a solipsistic, subjective level, and every artist ultimately only speaking, through his art, to himself, his own life, his own experiences...

So, if everything is valuable (and so: nothing is valuable) in a society that recognizes absolutely no hierarchies of meaning, no limits to expression, no boundaries between the arts, no limit to what artists can accomplish, how is blasphemy - historically the breaking through of limits, the transgression (some would say 'transcendence') of border lines, the aggressive, willful expression of a desire to flout propriety - how is this possible? Does blasphemy, when expression or 'art' is given to us under this name...does it still have any kind of value? What can it mean to us, who recognize no sources of meaning, no limits, no hierarchy, no God?

This is, again, where I fear I have to grow dogmatic in my essay, and rather rudely force my thoughts upon you...I am apologizing in advance. Let me ask you this: if all art is truly, now, at this late stage in our civilization, 'meaningless' unless it comes from deep within, written in the solipsistic language of the individual's soul (Kafka's 'Hunger Artist'), created merely to throw the inner world of the artist back into his own experience, to project the inner onto the outer in order to let the conscious view its own processes, or the workings of the unconscious...if all this is true, and 'meaning', as well, can only be said to coalesce at certain points of reference where the artist makes connections between the conscious and unconscious, between will and experience, reality and remembrance, then what is the function of blasphemy? How is it possible? How can the artist transcend limits that are set on his own expression from within? How can he sin, then, in the most egregious way, against the tyranny of the inner as well as the outer world? What one act can still break through all the structures placed on the soul from within and without, from society and the will of the individual? What act still maintains its power as an unmitigated symbol, a blood sacrifice, a final work of art that speaks in all languages and none? That says everything possible and yet is mute, for eternity?

Suicide.

In Catholic dogma, which has revealed itself, propogated by centuries of empires, in disparate minds across this globe, suicide is the highest (or lowest, certainly the most damning) of all sins. Why? Because it is the ultimate, ending action of despair, which, in dogmatic terms, is the highest crime of faith a man can commit against God. Despair is the expression of absolute unbelief: only one who can not (or will not - there is little distinction here) believe in God, His existence, His coming judgement, or His hand that sways all events - Providence - could give in to despair or, truly, fear the wages of life and death. Despair is a turning away from God...and so suicide, a death that results by one's own hand (only God or his righteous Judges, his emissaries here on Earth have the power of life and death) in sin, in hatred of the Light, after turning one's back to God, is the 'worst' reply to God's repeated admissions of love and guidance, it is taking the 'gift' of life that God gave one and using it against him. Suicide, seen in this way, is the last revolt, a summit of blasphemy...

The suicide, in fact, is an eternal 'no', a withdrawing from everything possible. The person who takes his/her own life not only turns his back on all the possibilities that a future existence could bring (and thus defiles Life itself - God's creation), but on all of society, on his closest friends or lovers, on his family, on his own memories, on all the life that has come before - in drowning in the darkness, his memories and remembrances die with him, they cease to exist, their importance is nullified. All relations and actions are that he may have witnessed or enacted are cast into nothingness. All the experiences that acted upon him in some way, sinking down into his unconscious and fermenting there, waiting for a chance to spring into life again as an act, a word, a belief - all of these are killed, sent into uncreation as if they never happened. The suicide in this way tears apart time, he escapes time, he goes beyond it...

Artists, who are always trying to 'say more' than they can or are allowed to, based on whatever internal or external limitations, naturally give almost every act a symbolic meaning of their own...their minds, accustomed to the world of abstractions and icons (much like the mystics, or the priests, who are obsessed with ritual in all its aspects) freely traverse this sphere of spiritual 'coloring', and every act, including all the minute movements of artistic creation, both internal and external, takes on a symbolic import, in a language that is displayed to others in the hope that they can at least partially decipher its hieroglyphics. Why? Because artists, more than any other 'type' of human being, have been given the key to the world of interpersonal communication (we use them in order to locate, in a body, all the functions of creativity or expression, even though all of us can lay claim to these abilities) in order to facilitate the creation, location, or manifestation of meaning. If an artist can not communicate to others, he is as seen as absolutely useless. Even the artists who are convinced that their works, based on their internalized experiences or deepest beliefs, are not communicating anything, will go on creating. It is a matter of instinct. Society speaks through its artists, almost always, even when they are convinced they are creating solely for themselves - the fact that others then take these works of art, lend them meaning, attach 'importance' to them, look at them, observe their construction, ruminate upon their existence, etc. is a symptom of our need for objects that define our ideals, ideas, beliefs, or systems of thought. We need objects that reflect, as I said above, our inner world back to us. It is only through a mirror, after all, that we can truly see ourselves...what is a symbol but this?

What higher function can the blaspheming artist grant his life then - his body, the witness of all his suffering, the external emblem of his existence - than turn his body itself into a symbol, an object for others' interpretation, a last 'no' that can only be interpreted as anti-Life, anti-God?

But this is where the limitations of communication appear. In art, suicide is the last act of the artist - no other act, movement, word, or expression is possible. Through planning the circumstances of the act, an artist can seek to speak, as it were, from beyond the grave - leaving his corpse, cold and rigid, as a 'mute testimony' (that phrase is only one of the many paradoxes that appear when thinking about the 'function', appearance, and language of suicide) to his vision of life - the ending of Nerval, hanging from a street light with a manuscript in his pocket, is only one of the famous examples history has given us. But this last 'statement' is rarely ever 'interpreted' in the way that the man/woman would probably have wanted - surely this is a grim irony, a way the universe laughs at our pretensions. Suicide, in itself, is almost always seen as a wholesale rejection of life - as a statement, an expression - even though in many cases it is not this at all. Think to yourself...how many reasons can there be for suicide? As many as there are individuals who 'contemplate' it. Who can know all the facts of another's internal life? What can one say over the corpse of a suicide other than this person, at one point or another (and thoughts fly by so fast in our consciousness/conscience - which ones are more 'important' than others?), decided to end his/her own life? Anything other than that is mere conjecture, and the corpse, speechless, invites us, in our awkwardness before death, to speak for it...it invites us to place any meaning on it that we will. Few can resist this urge for 'narration', even though the corpse mocks all our attempts at meaning...

And so the suicide once again is cast back into the self, into the inner world, where the act has all the meaning possible, all the meaning it will ever have...in fact, for me, a suicide reflects the utter uselessness of all art, all creation, all action...what is the result but misinterpretation, a short-circuit somewhere in the chain of meaning between the artist and his audience? Kill yourself or not, there is no difference. Life or death, there is no difference. This 'ultimate blasphemy' is really, again, only a nothing that says nothing, an empty sound in an empty room, a voice in a void...

U. Amtey
5 March 2001