Type
Review
Category
Music

The magic of magic: black metal in Jenny Hval’s Girls Against God

Gilles Deleuze and Felix Guattari wrote that Kafka’s work is ‘a rhizome, a burrow’, a maze with ‘multiple entrances’ that can only be followed and connected without attempting to interpret his work, or to hierarchically value one entrance over another. Jenny Hval’s new book, Girls Against God, seems to demand such an approach.

The book is mostly comprised of a series of vignettes taking place over decades, covering a variety of topics that are not always related: from the oppressive whiteness of Southern Norway, to the transgressive film Sweet Movie, to the calcified reactionary formulae of black metal. Though one could take any number of approaches from any number of angles – from feminism to Norwegian national identity to European whiteness – the latter idea will be this essay’s entry point.

RM Temin argues that black metal’s reactionary politics stemmed from the performative, hollow transgressions initially promoted in punk music. In his essay ‘Rock Against Anything’, he writes that metal’s association with transgression for its own sake truly began with Venom’s ‘profuse, shameless and cynical use of Satanic and occult imagery’. Rather than Black Sabbath, who used Satan and the occult as literary devices, Venom drew on Satanism and the occult for the counter-cultural purpose of scaring the parents of their listeners. Over time, Temin notes, Christianity came to be associated with weakness in the Nordic black metal scene, and thus the imperative for transgressive black metal acts was to crush Christianity, and human weakness, with a fascist will to power. Ironically, as far-right politics have become decidedly more mainstream in recent years, the far-right in Sweden have begun abandoning black metal because of its negative associations, rather than the other way around (see Benjamin Teitelbaum’s Lions of the North). This has not stopped National Socialist Black Metal (NSBM) festivals from emerging, with Ukraine-based Asgardsrei being the exemplar.

In her novel, Hval laments the socio-political development of the black metal scene, describing its founders as

Angry, lonely boys, looking for their own negative and a way to redefine the term evil. One winter they decide that everything should be black, the colour of evil, white upside down.

From these prescribed rules, from the dictatorial negation of society, emerged ‘the epic drama, the hierarchy, the gender segregation, the authoritarianism, the xenophobia, the silence’ that have since defined the genre’s public image.

Not all black metal musicians disagree with Hval’s statement. In fact, some have come to argue that an adherence to Satanism and far-right politics is essential to being a black metal musician. In a notorious interview for the magazine Zero Tolerance, Famine of Peste Noire stated emphatically that ‘real Black Metal is always extreme right-wing music … and it is always Satanic’ (cited in Benjamin Noys’ ‘Remarks on the Politics of Black Metal’). Famine describes black metal’s ideology as a double nationalism: one on the horizontal axis, favouring one’s land and race over others; and another on the vertical axis, favouring hell over heaven.

The strict adherence to authoritarian Satanist ideology is another point of criticism for Hval, who recalls bumping into a teenaged Satanist at a party:

He’s spouting … some stuff he’s read in a book, a book that looks too much like the Bible and the Word and probably has just as many capitalised letters and just as few women’s voices.

The opinion that Satanism has become just another religion is a tired one, but its religiosity is especially apparent in black metal, where many, like Famine above, treat an allegiance with Satan as a pre-requisite for earning the right to play black metal.

Hval shows an interest in eschewing conventions altogether in her novel, beginning with the Southern Norwegian accent. The southern Norwegian accent ‘is so formulaic and repetitive, it won’t allow [Norwegians] to say anything new’, demonstrating a need for new languages to appear. She aims this criticism at the conventions of black metal specifically, noting that

If it’s really true that singing and writing can transgress the borders between the real world and someplace else, then there’s no point in wrapping it all up in convention and corsets. Why should you not question, not doubt or go forth in chaos, not scream or bark or howl? You have to open up to the strange. You have to say something new.

Art can be transcendent and otherworldly, she argues, but then why should it be limited by what has come before? Surely the otherworldly and the spiritual shouldn’t depend on what a handful of teenagers were doing in the early 90’s?

Black metal’s stylistic conservatism is exemplified by the harsh reactions to the band Liturgy in the lead-up to their second album, Aesthethica, in 2011, as well as their idiosyncratic leader Hunter Hunt-Hendrix.

In 2010, Hunt-Hendrix released a pamphlet outlining her theory for a new development in black metal called ‘transcendental black metal’. It draws on Nietzsche’s will to power and Hegelian dialectics to argue that transcendental black metal represents a negation of Hyperborean (Scandinavian) black metal’s negation to lift black metal to new, solar, heights. Vice wrote at the time that the pamphlet ‘belongs to a rich, collegiate tradition of taking a movement or piece of art that you enjoy and writing about it in a way that suggests you take no enjoyment from it whatsoever’, and the criticisms from the general black metal listenership, including my teenage self, were even more vitriolic.

The pamphlet, and the album to be released the following year, were for many the apex of ‘hipster black metal’, the atom bomb in black metal’s specific culture war discourse that would fill the mainstream internet in 2014 with a videogame-related incident that will remain nameless.

Many black metal fans – like fans of geek culture generally – have often been resistant to stylistic changes in their chosen genre. The band Dawn Ray’d, as I’ve written elsewhere, largely follow black metal’s stylistic formulas, only to subvert them with explicitly anarcho-communist lyrical themes. The band’s sound, album art, and band photos fit in among those of early Darkthrone, Satyricon, or Peste Noire, implying black metal fans will accept the celery of radical leftist politics, if accompanied with the peanut butter of old-school black metal conventions.

To use Deleuze and Guattari’s terminology, black metal is a thoroughly territorialised art form. Its boundaries delineated by fans and artists alike, the genre has been so far defined by reactionary politics and a set of stylistic guidelines that resist many attempts to change them. The question, then, is how to deterritorialise black metal? How do black metal fans and artists open potential lines of flight that can break out of such limitations? Hval offers an escape through art’s occult potential; its ability to alter reality.

Central to Hval’s thesis is that magical and artistic creation share important characteristics. She describes art, and imagining the non-real, as the natural consequence of language:

When signs, or words, emerged, you could describe the surrounding world, signless until then. And from there, figuring out that this language could also describe things that don’t exist in the world was no great leap. It’s possible to just make stuff up, take ourselves places we didn’t know existed and that perhaps don’t exist

I’ve emphasised the second half of that quote to highlight Hval’s intent in drawing a connection between artistic and magical creation. What is magic if not the ability to make something out of nothing, to find something unreal and make it real? This is the key to magical realism after all: by treating magic as everyday reality, it becomes everyday reality through shared belief.

But magic needs magicians. Specifically, witches. Just as Sylvia Federici’s historic figure of the witch was once ‘the embodiment of a world of female subjects that capitalism had to destroy: the heretic, the healer, the disobedient wife…’, Hval’s three witches – her unnamed narrator-protagonist and her two friends, Venke and Terese – self-consciously identify as witches to assert themselves as those that resist forms of injustice. However – unlike Federici’s witches, whose magic was immanent in their resistance to primitive accumulation at the birth of capitalism – Hval’s witches use art as magic to resist the unjust and rewrite reality.

Hval first reveals her goal in liberating art, its subjects, and its audience, in a discussion on Edvard Munch’s Puberty. In the original Munch painting, a dark shadow looms behind a naked girl sitting on a bed, illustrating the supposed loss of innocence accompanying female sexual maturation. Hval writes about rewriting Puberty, and changing the frame in which the girl exists.

I’m struck by the naïve notion of taking the girl home, painting clothes on her, black clothes maybe, painting her into a new framework, as the Canadian writer Aritha van Herk does to Anna Karenina in Places From Ellesmere. … As far as I know, no one has tried this witchcraft on Munch and his Puberty (she doesn’t even have a name), but now I want to paint or rewrite the girl in the painting, save her, save us. Because it’s definitely just as much about me, about saving myself from the position of a contemporary subject passively accepting the narratives offered it by past art, past stories about gender, expression, hierarchy. I want to save myself from nodding in acknowledgement to Munch, to 1890, from the outside, with insight, and accepting that Puberty is the mirror art has installed for me.

A few things warrant specific mention.

Firstly, Hval directly refers to her changing the circumstances of Puberty as an act of ‘witchcraft’, the first time witchcraft is mentioned in the novel, in fact.

Secondly, by writing that ‘it’s definitely just as much about me,’ she acknowledges the importance of critically examining art, of avoiding the assumption that art reflects reality instead of one subjective reality of many. Uncritically accepting Munch’s painting as reflective of reality allows girls and women to internalise the notion that puberty has to involve the loss of innocence, and that the loss of innocence is inherently negative.

Lastly, the book itself is reframing reality, just as Hval’s narrator-protagonist wants to reframe Puberty. Girls Against God does contain elements of Hval’s actual life – her Norwegian upbringing, being in a metal band in the late 90s, etc. – but labelling itself specifically as a novel allows Hval to artistically play with history and reality.

Semi-fictionalised memoirs – one of the genres to which Girls Against God belongs – magically rewrite their authors’ lives. In this case, as if they were the adolescent girl in Munch’s painting. Chris Kraus’ I Love Dick contains real elements of the author’s life, including her infatuation with Dick Hebdige and her marriage to Sylvère Lotringer.

Kraus fictionalises elements of her memoir to better explore the culture of upper-class misogyny in the New York art and intellectual scene. In Oranges Are Not the Only Fruit, Jeanette Winterson fictionalises elements of her coming-of-age and the discovery of her lesbianism to draw queer people, and the transgression they represent, into heteronormative bildungsroman narratives and fantasy stories didactically repeated to children. These memoirs, or memoir-novels, treat the act of memoir writing as a creative archaeology of the self: the author is free to decide what to keep, invent, or discard, depending on the story they want to tell, what spell they want to conjure on their own life history. Hval’s thesis, that art acts as magic that can alter reality, is self-evident in the face of a novel that blends memoir, manifesto and fiction.

*

So what story does Hval want to tell about black metal? Unlike Famine and his nationalist-Satanist diktat, she chooses not to offer strict guidelines on what black metal should be. Rather, she pries into black metal’s past to present an alternative, radical, and genuinely liberating trajectory for black metal to exist as a dissident art form.

Imagine if churches hadn’t needed to be burned down or gravestones toppled, but instead black metallers had reconsidered the craft and the traditions. Imagine if they had broken into churches and redecorated them to make spaceships, radical pirate radio studios and queer clubs … or maybe dropped a glitter bomb. Instead, the churches were set ablaze.

Cory Doctorow wrote recently in Slate that speculative fictions often create ‘a commonsense assumption that we are one power failure away from Mad Max: Fury Road’. Black metal’s misanthropy creates a similar vision of the future, defined by our supposedly natural will to violence and destruction that primes people for pessimism and negativity.

The black metallers of the 90s preferred the grand spectacles of violent destruction – murdering their bandmates, arson, death threats – over any sort of positive, creative endeavour that may have changed the world for the better, and these moments of extreme violence and performative transgression have defined the black metal genre for almost thirty years. Hval asks herself, and her readers, what could have been different if black metal had instead been defined by mutual aid? By fighting authoritarianism instead of taking the reins? By allowing experimental and creative social and artistic forces to emerge?

Not content to wallow in pessimism and decry black metal as an irrevocably tainted genre, Hval casts a witch’s hex on black metal and creates a new trajectory for the genre in the novel’s second part, the film-in-prose called ‘The Forest’.

Here, the character of Śmierć represents the territorialised, bounded genre conventions of black metal discussed earlier: he is ‘dressed entirely in black, with a tattered leather jacket, leather trousers, spikes on his arms and corpse paint on his face’. Hval notes that the soundtrack to the scene she is describing begins as a ‘standard atmospheric black metal intro’, but gradually changes ‘into sounds that we can’t quite fit into a genre. We’re in a new place, where we can make connections we don’t understand’. What began the scene as a cliché is becoming more and more unusual. The nineties’ cliches Śmierć typifies are changing, becoming something unrecognisable even to those who want to recognise it, a somewhat uncomfortable moment.

The process of deterritorialisation is disconcerting, as it always is when something radically new is emerging; one reason why Laboria Cuboniks, the feminist collective behind the Xenofeminist Manifesto, suggest following paths of alienation forged by deterritorialised gender norms. The instinct to resist radical change is a natural one, but rather than giving in to that impulse, it should be overcome. Śmierć’s death allows these radical changes to occur. As the three girls carry the egg that emerges from his body, their egos begin to dissolve:

feet are one with the ground they step on, bodies pass straight through trees … All boundaries are rubbed out, and nothing is impenetrable anymore.

It is no coincidence that Deleuze and Guattari’s ‘body without organs’ – their ultimate, unreachable symbol of infinite potentiality, is represented in Anti-Oedipus as an egg, and the process of turning oneself into a body without organs, full of potential, freedom, and experimentation, requires the dismantling of the self and the dissolution of the ego in A Thousand Plateaus.

After paying proper respects to black metal’s origins by turning Śmierć’s bones into an upside-down cross, the potential it has birthed must be carried on by others who can remake the genre as they wish, a rewriting of history and reality that sees black metal as a genuinely emancipatory genre. Hval’s black metal may look unrecognisable, but as Alex Garland’s film Annihilation shows, radical change often takes the appearance of destruction.

Black metal deserves to be improved, and black metal fans and musicians who want to break out of its restrictions need to believe that it is capable of change. As Hval writes,

this is the magic of magic; that it’s impossible to know whether it happens or not, since magic goes against reason and therefore necessarily becomes a question of faith.

Black metal needs to have some faith in itself beyond performative transgression for its own sake. If it is truly the transcendent (that word again) spiritual, creative art form that fans and musician believe it to be, its potential needs to be split open, artistically and magically, to uncover something new.

 

Image by Rene Passet

Overland is a not-for-profit magazine with a proud history of supporting writers, and publishing ideas and voices often excluded from other places.

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William Peel has a BA in literary studies and anthropology, and is doing his best to figure out the whole 'writing' thing. You can follow him on Twitter @billpeel6

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