Last year – and I no longer remember what prompted this – I became briefly obsessed with Norwegian black metal, especially the band Mayhem.
There’s a car-wreck fascination about Mayhem, partly because their backstory’s so extreme. Briefly, the band formed in the 1980s, playing a more minimal, less rock’n roll style of metal, a music that eschewed guitar hero theatrics for a bleak, evil sound. The key members – guitarist, Euronymous; the vocalist, Dead; the drummer, Hellhammer and bassist Necrobutcher – became the centre of a scene that merged Hollywood Satanism with Norse pagan imagery. In 1991, Dead, a deeply troubled individual who pioneered the white stage makeup (‘corpse paint’) now associated with the scene, shot himself. Images of his bloody corpse, photographed by Euronymous, turned up on a later album cover; his bandmates also turned his skull fragments into amulets. The surviving members were involved in a rash of church burnings until, in 1993, Euronymous was stabbed to death by Mayhem session guitarist, Varg Vikernes, who then recorded extensively while in jail.
There’s other lurid details as well but you get the general idea.
Aesthetically, it’s not a music that appeals to me and politically the scene merges into a loopy occult fascism (Vikernes, the main intellectual of black metal, is an overt racist). Yet what’s interesting is that, reading the accounts of the early black metal scene, you get the impression of an art movement that really mattered to those within it. (Perhaps only for a brief period: the later Mayhem conveys a distinct sense of going through the motions.)
Anyway, it all made me wonder: why doesn’t literature inspire the same devotion as, say, pop music? That is, the Mayhem story might be over the top – what with all the murder and all – but it’s not at all unprecedented. The history of pop music is of musicians and bands and cliques around which aficionados have built entire lifestyles. If, say, you’re a mod, you don’t simply listen to a certain groups. Your identification shapes your haircut, the clothes you wear, the places you go, the way you act – it’s a thorough-going way of being.
Literature claims to offer a profound aesthetic experience, in works of art more intricate and complex than three-chord pop. Why then doesn’t it shape how we live in the same way as simpler forms?
Sure, reading’s an isolated, contemplative activity, quite different from the Dionysian experience of a rock gig. So, in a way, it’s apples and oranges.
But I do think there’s something in the question. Even these days, when rock’s at a low ebb, music fans divide into warring tribes, each making their enthusiasm for a particular genre or band in their particular personal style. When you go to a rock festival, you can tell, from a distance, the diehard supporters of various acts. Why doesn’t anything similar happen at writers’ festivals? Why don’t literary readers form subcultures around particular literary movements, so that you can tell from their tattoos which event they’re attending?
To an extent, I guess, it happens with genre, with SF fans dressing like characters or whatever. But in some ways that simply presents the question in a different form. Why SF and not literary fiction, given that the more literary modes claim to offer a more profound aesthetic experience?
Let me put it like this: the Norwegian black metal scene was kind of ridiculous and tragic,* based around a homemade theology mashed together from B-movies, a garbled Norse patriotism and Lord of the Rings. Yet, for a time, a bunch of bright, talented kids were so gripped by its aesthetics that they shaped their entire lives around it, in quite extreme ways. Does Australian literature have this effect? If so, what does it look like?
*Take, for instance, the story of Gaahl, the lead singer of Gorgoroth. Gaahl’s career was almost as legendarily violent as Vikernes’. He was imprisoned for assault and torture; Gorgoroth’s concerts featured impaled sheep heads and naked models doused in blood and crucified upside-down. Like Vikernes, Gaahl flirted with fascism, denouncing blacks and Muslims. Then, in 2008, he threw the scene into disarray by announcing he was gay and in a relationship with a European fashion designer, whose clothing range he was helping to fund. The dismay that still pops up on some of the fan sites, where a macho Norse warrior persona remains central to the music, is very funny. Gaahl himself now seems much happier: in a recent interview, rather than ranting about ‘subhumans’, he was venting his rage against ugly sweatpants.