What forces are at work when blood runs black? From Beherit’s ‘Oath of Black Blood’ to Mütilation’s ‘Black Imperial Blood’ to Behexen’s ‘My Stigmas Bleeding Black’ to Xasthur, for whom “shadows of human suffering have found a home, watered with blackened blood”, black metal hotwires the historical poetics of early modern humoral theory, summoning the sanguine urge of celebration, and the choleric rage of the berserker, only to pollute these Hippocratic streams of blood and bile with the cold and dry essence of black bile.
As the sallow face of Dürer’s angel becomes the absolute pallor of a corpse painted “frozen moon”, the signature affect of ancient Greek medicine and Renaissance high culture undergoes a paroxysm of parody, profanation, and ruin in which black metal whitewashes early modern melancholy, and speeds it up.
Yet the infusion of melancholy’s “wretched wisdom” (Krallice) into black metal modulates the black metal war machine just as strongly, detuning downwards towards despair.
In this article, I wish to consider the complex, polychronic encounter between black metal as an already self-belated formation and black bile as a material substance perpetually archaic and passé with respect to itself. But before the amps and distortion pedals of black metal theory are engaged at full volume, some preliminary tunings, mic-checks, and clarifications of the essentially vague and murky nature of black bile’s intellectual history are required.
As a humoral fluid in circulation alongside and mixed within other liquid substances, melancholy is always already fundamentally impure. But the circulation of black bile within black metal, aptly described by Nicola Masciandaro as the “thrown conceptual space” of ‘Melancholy Black Metal’, models with particular virulence a kind of temporal distortion already implicit in the early modern archive of melancholy representation, an impurity which is theoretical insofar as it is a categorical encounter with temporality: the past of an archaic origin and the endpoint of an extinct finitude yet to come are both brought into a present moment.
As is well known, melancholy is experienced as both a heightened contemplation of heavenly mysteries and a depressive submergence into thing-like muteness. Frozen in a philosophical trance indistinguishable from catatonia, melancholy sage and melancholy idiot join in aping the posture of a corpse. This distortion of temporality is also a distortion of tempo: melancholy models a time that is at once “ancient” and “to come”, and, accordingly melancholy keeps a time that is at once fast and slow.
This conundrum derives from a basic push-pull between philosophy and medicine articulated by the two core authority figures within the intellectual archive of black bile: Aristotle and Galen.
In pseudo-Aristotelian panegyrics, the presence of an excess of black bile manifests a manic state of enervated inspiration: melancholy is a kind of genius.
In Galenic pathological writings, the presence of an excess of black bile manifests a stupefied state of vegetal shutdown: melancholy is a kind of sickness. The result for the medieval and early modern inheritors is that melancholy names neither a substance nor a subject but an essentially incoherent problem space stretched between the two incongruous definitions of the same object.
Preceding their clinical separation into the forked or horned pairing of bipolar disorder, the speed of mania and the slowness of despair remain mixed and mutually enmeshed in the symptomatic spectrum of ancient Greek humoral thinking and its subsequent citation in Christian Dollarspe, and this fundamental discordance is carried over into black metal’s re-use of humoral poetics.
Thus, an impurity of historical location and an impurity of mixed feelings are made simultaneous: what we are feeling and when we are feeling it are called into question, swirled into a state Watain evoke as ‘Lawless Darkness’. How does melancholy time operate within black metal?
Reading black bile’s circulation within black metal on behalf of a metallic blackening of the archive of early modern melancholy, I seek to translate the darkness of this thrown conceptual space of ‘Black Metal Melancholy’ in terms of the historical/political temporal dynamic that Alain Badiou in ‘Logics of Worlds’ has christened “occultation”.
If the warlike clustering of black metal collectivities has recently been theorized in terms of the multiplicity of wolf-packs, acephalous hordes and kvlts (formations which themselves recall the swarming, cross-species manifolds implicit in Renaissance representations of atrabilious temperament as a plane of indivisibly black immanence), the rise to prominence of so-called “depressive suicidal” black metal would seem to compromise the viability of those models.
For the entrenched and domestic Werther-ism of so-called “depressive suicidal black metal” risks collapse into the perfect commodity-form of private, solitary, defeatist quietism, leaving black metal ripe for critical re-territorialization as nothing more than ambient shoegaze dressed up with gothic posturing (something for lone wolves rather than for packs).
In his polemic of 1931, ‘Left Wing Melancholy’, Walter Benjamin long ago flagged the quietistic implications of this emotion, lambasting the ultimately harmless and conciliatory aura of “tortured stupidity” that it proffers as an inadequate response to capitalism.
As an aesthetic mode staked upon intoxicating reveries of suicide, masochism, failure and retreat, the necro-politics of melancholy seem perfectly suited to index the vanishing point of the pagan and ancestral collectivities mourned within black metal, representing them as lost objects of love impossibly cancelled by the politics of the present.
For this very reason, black metal’s embrace of melancholy constitutes a contemporary expression of the process which Alain Badiou, in ‘Logics of the Worlds’ (2009), terms “occultation” and defines as “the descent of the present into the night of its non-exposition”.
Neither the faithful subject standing in a stance of fidelity to the politics of the event (a Communist) nor the reactive subject who simply subverts/denies the event (a neoliberal reformist), the “obscure subject” constitutes a third option: a temporal stance of revolt, but a revolt against living within the present as such, a flight not simply backwards but out of time.
The black metal kvltist chooses to drown the present in a fog of black bile, offering what Badiou terms “the paradox of an occultation of the present which is itself in the present”. The passé nature of melancholy, at once exhausted as an aesthetic and discredited as science, constitutes a means of subtraction from its grip.
It is here that the critical disjunction between modern “depression” and early modern “melancholy” — to most, a purely pedantic distinction without a difference — offers us some critical leverage. I am indebted here to Dominic Fox’s account of depressive black metal as “a reaction to belatedness” in his book ‘Cold World: The Aesthetics of Dejection and the Politics of Militant Dysphoria’. Fox takes the belatedness to function at the level of the black metal scene itself, which it does; but I think it can be stretched further back to the self-belatedness of melancholy as an already inherently “polychronic” substance.
Therefore, I want to offer an account of black blood as neither a matter of race nor face but instead as a radically impure phenomenon of what I term melancholy assemblage, temporally and materially distributing black blood across subjects and across time, rather than essentially compressing and preserving any racial or subjective essence inwards within particular bodies in the hopes that this might darkly illuminate the political scene of “occultation” staged within black metal.
Trying to make good upon the imperative to “blacken” theory, in the space thus opened out I will offer not an argument but an invocation. My article’s title is a spell whose sequential order I shall immediately revile and overthrow through a suitably satanic inversion: not the Lord’s Prayer backwards or, as Marlowe’s Doctor Faustus puts it, “Jehovah’s name / Forward and backward anagrammatized”, but the sequential progression of rational argument turned deliberately arsey-versey. This inversion is itself a working outwards through five onionskin layers of inclusion, which could be formalized thusly: ‘Corpsepaint Towards the Re-Occultation of Black Metal Blood’.
Accordingly, this text begins in blood and ends in the gestural leap towards its very beginning: inverting its own titular order, we move from blood to black blood, from black blood to its occultation, from the occultation of black blood to its re-occultation, and finally, the full spell will be articulated as the movement towards the re-occultation of black blood. The first shall be last and the last shall be first.