"To be sure, I am a forest, and a night of dark trees. But he who is not afraid of my darkness will find banks of roses under my cypresses." -Nietzsche, "Thus Spoke Zarathustra"
Lately I've become gratefully engrossed with an essay written by the very insightful Thomas M Hawley, called "Dionysus in the Mosh Pit: Nietzschean Reflections on the Role of Music in Recovering the Tragic Disposition".
Mr. Hawley's insights have been extremely valuable to me, and have helped make sense of years of glorious heavy metal madness, and shown me quite convincely that, far from being "bad" or destructive (as many seem to believe), the Nietzschean spirit that pervades much of the music that has kept my soul from despair in my own darkest hours, is in fact, just that: a glorious and healthy corollary/help to the fundamental struggles of growing up in a world/universe and human condition of mystery, pain, and (and often crippling) paradox.
In this article, I want to review Mr. Hawley's 2010 essay, compare Nietzsche's words and themes with the lyrics and music from the heavy metal titans, Slipknot, (and in particular their latest single release) and paint a larger picture of the "roses" that can be found under Nietzsche's (and ours) cypresses, for those who have the courage to walk the journey.
The Tragic Disposition
To understand the connection between heavy metal (Slipknot in particular), and Friedrich Nietzsche, one needs to first understand a term coined by Nietzsche: The Tragic Disposition.
For Nietzsche, this particular "disposition" in humans was no small matter. It was in fact so important to him that he claimed:
"There is only one hope and one guarantee for the future of that which is human; it lies in this, that the tragic disposition shall not perish" -Nietzsche, "Zarathustra"
One of Nietzsche's first works was the book, "The Birth of Tragedy Out of the Spirit of Music". Although it's true that many years later Nietzsche himself would look back on the book as clumsily written and overly optimistic in some regards, the core idea of the book remained standing firm.
And a main contention of this article (and from Hawley's essay) is that it is in modern styles of music totally unknown to Nietzsche (heavy metal was yet to be invented, although hints and cross-fading within classical music already existed), where the central idea of his book comes to a new level of remarkable fruition. It is proposed in this article that it is out of the "spirit of music" of heavy metal that this "tragic disposition" has been most effectively re-gained in humans in modern times.
But first.. why a tragic disposition? And why must it not perish?
Well, a disposition is so much more than just a belief or an opinion. It is a fundamental "quality of character"; a tendency or manner of carrying oneself. A disposition is the ultimate acknowledgement of something you believe to be true, almost undeniable proof that you believe it, it is reflective in (incorporated into) your... disposition. In a sense, you carry it with you.
And for Nietzsche, it was a disposition of Tragedy that was most needed among humans. And it was that which was precisely what was lacking.
But why tragedy?
Because for Nietzsche, tragedy was something he perceived all throughout our world, in our lives, and possibly even in the essence of things. He saw it as a stage that everything (us humans as no exception) seems to go through, to get to a higher plane of growth/development. As so naturally, in this view of life, if one has their eyes on a higher plane, one must be willing to suffer through tragedy and loss in the present. The axiom "No Pain, No Gain" is actually a Nietzschean idea, which comes from his quote: "That which doesn't kill me, makes me stronger."
But this is much easier said than done, as one cannot just "put on" this disposition out of nowhere (especially when not accustomed to it)... it has to be achieved. And more specifically, it has had to be made safe to attain, and to maintain. Why? Because facing the notion that life is so often full of immense tragedy, pain, and disappointment (even if thought of as a temporary stage) can often be a depressing and daunting task. But maintaining an at least somewhat honest perspective of the tragic side of life (a "disposition" of tragedy), instead of full retreat into denial, comfort, and distraction ("decadence"), has been a needful task in Nietzsche's view. And thus we have needed tools to help us do this, and we should, in his view, look to those who have found those tools already.
And in all of history, more than anyone else, Nietzsche admired the Greeks for having attained/maintained this disposition most effectively/safely, and in Nietzsche's view, they were all the more healthy and strong/resilient because of it. But how did they achieve this?
In Nietzsche's view, with their Tragic Plays/Greek Theater Tragedies ("Attic Tragedy"). Nietzsche's fundamental contention about the Greeks was that, through their plays, which incorporated the tragedy and difficulty of real life that we all (the viewers) inevitably experience in our own lives (and which the Greeks knew all too well also) into a meaningful narrative, they were able to transform or sublimate their own (often seemingly senseless) tragic episodes, into something meaningful, by implication. Or, at the very least, imply that their (our) own tragedies, must at least have some meaning (especially in keeping with the Nietzsche's view that there is "gain" on the other side of "pain)..
It was this incorporation/transformation into a narrative of meaning/self-empowerment, which enabled the Greeks to avoid succumbing to otherwise tempting nihilistic/depressing conclusions, that the sometimes chaos and madness of life, and our shared human condition, would have tempted them to (as they sometimes do us all).
In other words, when chaos and apparent meaninglessness confronted the Greeks, it was their tragic plays which harnessed and incorporated those tragedies into a meaningful narrative, which, instead of creating sadness in the viewer, it would do the opposite, and give the viewer more strength (particularly psychic strength, as Hawley discusses in his essay), and even vitality, to carry on.
In many ways, it is helpful to think of the fundamental job that a modern automobile engine accomplishes. What's the essence of what the engine does?
It sets off an explosion, and then harnesses the power of that explosion; something that would normally be only destructive and negative when not harnessed, and transforms it into a positive (a harnessed explosion ultimately moves the vehicle).
And it was Nietzsche's contention that modern Christendom (the West) had largely given up on, or abandoned, this healthy outlet/sublimation tool that the Greeks so effectively utilized (we prefer to just put out the dangerous fire/explosion entirely). And thus, without using tools like this, it was inevitable that we would decline, and ultimately perish.
To Nietzsche, all the so-called "negative" aspects of life, and of our shared human condition (rage, envy, malice, etc), needed to be harnessed for a greater "good" (or more specifically, to enhance our own sense of power and strength), and thus given meaning (and subsequently also "valved-off", or given expression), so as to ensure that those negative emotions wouldn't fester into something much, much worse.
Slipknot - TITANS of RAGE-Transformation/Sublimation
"Step inside, see the Devil in I. You'll realize I'm not your "devil" anymore."
-Slipknot, "The Devil In I", from The Grey Chapter
To quote Hawley in his essay of heavy metal in general, he said:
"Of no musical genre are Nietzsche's arguments about the Dionysiac more apposite than heavy metal. It's intoxicating effects are the equal of any other, and the role played by dissonance is not only significant but deliberate and challenging. The harshness of it's sound, the violence of it's aesthetic, and the purity of the rage that so often inspires it's performance has undoubtedly repelled at least as many listeners as it has attracted." (page 29)
And then he rightly recognizes the Stand-Out Titans of Heavy Metal:
"...Slipknot stands out for the truly shocking intensity of the rage that fuels it's music. It simply defies easy understanding how a group of people can sustain such extraordinary levels of anger over so many years while also maintaining the energy necessary to give it artistic expression. It is raw, difficult, and uncomfortable (as one A&R man put it after seeing a Slipknot show, "If that's the future of music, then I want to be dead:), and yet it is transformed into something paradoxically wonderful within the band's overall aesthetic". (page 30)
And it is my contention that, in the same way that the automobile engine has harnessed the fire and force of an explosion (as discussed above), no musical band has harnessed the frustration, anger, rage, and angst of our shared human condition, like Slipknot has.
They truly are the stand-out Titans of Rage-transformation, and I believe that history will show that countless people have avoided depression-linked tragedies (like suicide), because of how this band (and so many like them) have managed to connect (sympathize/mirror) with so many millions who have been (however subconsciously) seeking meaning to their own journey through the mire of dirt that life seems to so often confine us.
Heavy metal fans not only find a sympathetic mirroring of our tension, but a means to VALVE it off, and, in so doing in an appropriate way, experience a strong sense of personal POWER.
Finding Power (and Calm) Through a Contained Expression of Rage
"What is good? All that heightens the feeling of power in man. What is bad? All that is born of weakness. What is happiness? The feeling that power is growing, that resistance is overcome."
-Nietzsche, "The Anti-Christ"
One of the great misunderstandings/ distortions of Nietzsche, is that he was somehow an advocate or forerunning supporter of the ideals of the Nazis who would eventually come to power a few decades after his death. Indeed, elements of the Nazi party actually appropriated some of his works, even though he himself was totally opposed to many of their key elements, like anti-semitism (and he described himself as "anti-political").
What has become much more clear is that, when Nietzsche used the word "power", he did so in a way that many tyrants who would come after him, did not mean the word. In the same way that the loud roar of an engine can simply be a display of it's power, without the vehicle trampling over others (at least consciously), so he imagined the ideal of humans learning to not condemn their "dark side", but rather learning how to harness it, and to celebrate their greatness in doing so (not that he was against conquest of others per se, but against conquest rooted in "ressentiment", ie: extreme resentment).
This is very reminiscent of a quote by the popular clinical psychologist Jordan B Peterson:
"You must learn to become a monster, and then control yourself."
It is my contention that, in speaking sentiments like this, without knowing it, Peterson is getting to the underlying healthy principle of heavy metal.