Dionysian Music – Slipknot

I’m back in the States, despite a brief stay in Belford Hospital in Port William. Having time on my hands in the hospital, I was able to learn a new favorite poem (“I wake to sleep, and take my waking slow”), and, of course, think through a quick defense of music such as that produced by Slipknot and Rage Against the Machine. I owe my inspiration for the following to many drugs and to Glenn Cannon(!) Arbery.

To use the words of Nietzsche, Slipknot participates in the Dionysian element of tragedy: “an assured premonition of highest pleasure through destruction and negation.” [To clarify, Nietzsche says this about Dionysian music in general, not about Slipknot in particular.] To summarize elements in The Birth of Tragedy that call to mind heavy metal, the Dionysian and the Apollinian (I use Kaufman’s spelling to reflect the debt I owe to his thought), “appear coupled with each other, and through this coupling ultimately generate an equally Dionysian and Apollinian form of art–Attic tragedy.” For Nietzsche, the Apollinian functions through beautiful images. It has vanquished the primal order of the Titans that ruled before. It is not, however, just a “healing;” it is also a type of “illusion:” Apollinian art hides from the viewer the brutal, primal terrors and energies that are hidden under the phenomenal world.

Dionysian art, on the other hand, functions through music. “Through music,” says Nietzsche, “the viewer participates in an assured premonition of highest pleasure through destruction and negation, so he feels as if the innermost abyss of things spoke to him perceptibly;” this innermost abyss has a “hidden substratum of suffering and knowledge, revealed by the Dionysian.”

What kind of knowledge do we gain from seeing the Oresteia, or from watching King Lear, or from attending a Slipknot concert? We do, as Aristotle says, achieve some kind of catharsis, or purging, of unclean emotions; yes; but, I think Nietzsche advances our understanding of the knowledge of tragedy even further: “the metaphysical joy in the tragic is a translation of the instinctive unconscious Dionysian wisdom into the language of images;” those who enter the Dionysian become, for a moment, “primordial being itself, feeling its raging desire for existence and joy in existence…. We are pierced by the maddening stings of these pains just when we have become, as it were, one with the joy in primordial existence, and when we anticipate, in Dionysian ecstasy, the indestructability and eternity of this joy.” That is, Nietzsche doesn’t say that only when fear and pity have been purged do we gain some kind of knowledge; no, “in spite of fear and pity, we are the happy living beings, not as individuals, but as the one living being, with whose creative joy we are united.” This rapturous joy is something of what Dmitri lives in The Brothers Karamazov: “I’m a Karamazov. For when I do leap into the pit, I go headlong with my heels up, and am pleased to be falling in that degraded attitude, and pride myself upon it. And in the very depths of that degradation I begin a hymn of praise.” I can’t help but draw parallels between the Dionysian abyss and the Psalmist: “De profundis clamavi ad te Domine;” or Job, scraping his back with a potsherd; in such tragic moments, “Man, jack, joke, poor potsherd, / Patch, matchwood, immortal diamond, / Is immortal diamond.”

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This is all well and good and true for tragedy, but I guess I should at least try to suggest some parallels between tragedy and that things I like to listen to (sometimes).

There seems to be little of the Apollinian in metal, but the Apollinian image need not be beautiful in the way that we think of it normally: it is not “pretty.” As Socrates says, sometimes, you have to tell your eyes, irresistably drawn to scenes of carnage, “All right then, fine, look and have your fill!” “Feed apace then, greedy eyes,” agrees Samuel Daniel. The eyes are drawn to these images of pain and suffering, beautiful in their scenery of desctuction and begation. There are plenty of movements toward Appolinian, image-driven beauty in the music itself, and in the lyrics, of most heavy metal. To take just one example, there is that great section in the Rage song about Danny and Lisa: “They take me away from / The strangest places, / Sweet Danny and Lisa.” Something translates the “strange” forces of the Dionysian abyss into sweet and Apollinian imagery. The entire song seems to suggest a translation of the primal forces of rock considered as just music (aural and Dionysian) into those forces being conveyed in a visual medium (Apollinian) as well: “Hey man, look at me rocking out: / I’m the radio; / Hey man, look at me rocking out, / I’m on the video.”

For another parallel between the old tragedy of yore and the new tragedy of metal, I think of Wagner’s theory of gesamptkunstwerk. Wagner wanted to combine all different mediums of art into his opera with a view towards creating true tragedy. Slipknot definitely embraces the operatic gesamptkunstwerk, shown most clearly by their live shows. They combine music enhanced by huge loudspeakers (aural art), painting in their backdrops, crazy light shows, and special effects (visual art), lyrics of a sort (poetry), and, of course, masks, drummers running all over their set, band members leaping into the mosh pit to crowd-surf, long and stringy hair thrashed to the beat of the music in the “heavy” sections of music… (theatrical, dramatic art).

The song “Psychosocial” provides an excellent example of the tragic hero as presented by the lyrics of the song. I wish I knew the lyrics to the verses so I could back this up even better, but just check the chorus: “The rain will kill us all, / We throw ourselves against the wall; / And no one else can see / The preservation of the martyr in me.” Glenn Cannon says, “The tragic hero of the Dionysian [such as the character in “Psychosocial,” and the members of Slipknot] is actually Dionysius himself undergoing in disguise the agony of appearing at all, having to be and act in a circumscribed and limited mode of being.” Just as Nietzsche says that only the actors behind their masks truly face the tragic abyss, Slipknot acknowledges that “no one else can see the preservation of the martyr” in the characters that they assume.

To conclude, heavy metal today is actively participating in the genre of tragedy. All right, my drugs are wearing off, and I need bed.

“I wake to sleep, and take my waking slow. / I learn by going where I have to go.”

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2 Responses
  1. 1buttercream says:

    I always considered the guitar solos to be the "Apollinian" side of heavy metal. Those high-pitch clarion tones are such a contrast to the crunch of the rhythm guitars and inescapable pounding of the percussion. The entire demeanor of a band changes when the soloist launches into his complex, often classically-inspired sequence.

    Some metal does not include guitar solos, particularly since the advent of "Nu metal" and the 7-string guitar; I'm inclined to think that these artists tend more to the Dionisian. Aristotle himself showed a strong dislike for instrumental soloists in Politics Book VIII; this was not the kind of music conducive for the education of the soul, he says. I rarely disagree with Aristotle, but I'm inclined to think that instrumental solos, when successfully blended with the rest of musike, adds to the cathartic experience.

  2. Jonathan says:

    You wrote this over 5 years ago, and holy ****, is it ever true! I have been getting a lot into Nietzsche lately, and I am a huge slipknot fan. But I also love beautiful ballads as well. I have often thought about “and no one else can see, the preservation of the martyr in me”, and about how those who wear masks are not necessarily involved in “bad deception”, but rather very necessary deception, and paradoxically, sometimes quite noble. Thanks so much!

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