Death, the Gothic, and Reflections on Musical Matters

Christopher Partridge

Christopher Partridge

Researching the issues discussed in ‘Music and Mortality’, some of which I am going to address in this lecture, has led to me thinking quite differently about my life, about my family, and about my work — about what matters and also about what really does not matter. Certainly, as I get older and as I reflect on the fact that most of my life is behind me and less than I like to think is probably in front of me, certain things come into focus and others drop out of focus. Again, as I mentioned in the ‘Introduction to Music and Mortality’, music has been very important to me in this respect.

For example, the title of George Harrison’s album ‘All Things Must Pass’ (1970) is increasingly a memento mori challenge to me. While the words themselves struck me as profound when I first bought the album in the mid-1970s, now the music itself immediately draws me into reflection on the passing of days and the fact that “there’ll come a time when all of us must leave here.” (‘Art of Dying’, 1970)

Of course, it is not the only album that has had this effect on me and you will also, no doubt, be able to think of music that has a particular meaning for you — a particular existential impact. Numerous albums, songs, melodies, and even musical phrases transport us to significant moments in our past and, as such, to reflection on the passing of time.

While reflection on death is, of course, of ultimate significance to us as mortals, as beings who will have to experience it at some point in our lives, only the unwell and the foolish will spend much time thinking about the temporary nature of personal existence and the short time we have to experience life.

Indeed, the contemplation of one’s own impermanence is probably not possible for extended periods of time without becoming unhealthily morbid. As the psychiatrist Robert Wilkins has commented, “the only reason that we are able to lead productive lives is that most of us, for most of the time, ward off such anxieties by marshalling our defence mechanisms. Psychodynamic forces such as denial and repression push down the disturbing reality of our own mortality into the eddying nether regions of our subconscious minds” (1990, 13).

This, of course, is an important point. While we quite naturally avoid serious reflection on the extinction of the self, nevertheless, its inevitability haunts us and fascinates us. We cannot but think of the terminus towards which we are progressing and which others have reached. As such, it needs to be dealt with. We do this in a number of ways that surface in social institutions and culture.

As Zygmunt Bauman has argued, “culture is the sediment of the ongoing attempt to make living with the awareness of mortality liveable” (quoted in Jacobsen 2011, 382). That is to say, much of the cultural work we do as humans and the value we place on that work relate to our awareness that life is short. Because we have not got much time, the time we have is precious and what we do in it is significant.

There is, moreover, a niggling need to address the suspicion that existence is absurd. There is, as Albert Camus discussed (1975), a legitimate and necessary question as to whether life has meaning. In short, mortality raises a number of important issues, which are routinely addressed in human culture, particularly in religion. This lecture is intended merely to be a look at mortality through the lens of popular music culture.

While the same ideas are articulated in more or less profound ways throughout the arts, my argument is that because of its peculiar ability to create “affective space” and, as such, to function as a “soundtrack to our lives”, popular music is a particularly powerful medium for drawing us into reflection on mortality. That is to say, it is often, whether we realise it or not, more than simply “entertainment”.

For many people, popular music is central to the construction of their identities, central to their sense of self, central to their wellbeing, and therefore central to their social relations. Consequently, it has become a key feature of the everyday personal lives of most people (see Hesmondhalgh 2013). As such, it constitutes one of the principal ways in which we make a living with the awareness of mortality bearable.

Moreover, because popular music is typically rooted within the liminal cultures of youth, within which death tends to be viewed at a distance, it often confronts the taboos of mortality with an uncompromising explicitness censured elsewhere in Western societies.

Indeed, to a large extent, I want to suggest that it is helpful to understand popular music’s treatment of mortality in terms of the Gothic, in that terror is viewed at a remove. More particularly, there is something of Edmund Burke’s notion of the sublime here, in that death is viewed at a distance and, as such, it engenders a frisson of dread without immediate risk.

From a position of safety, the listener can emotionally “delight” in the excitement of contemplating the terror of death. For Burke, of course, “terror is the ruling principle of the sublime” (1998, 54). However, in Burkean aesthetics terror and the sublime are not synonymous. That is to say, if we are actually threatened by that which is terrifying, we are unable to appreciate it aesthetically.

Actual terror simply overwhelms our judgement and, as such, it is “incapable of giving any delight whatsoever”, it being “simply terrible”. This is the position of the individual threatened with immediate annihilation. However, and this is key, “at certain distances, and with certain modifications”, terrifying events and objects “are delightful” (Burke 1998, 86).

Indeed, “delightful horror” is, he suggests, “the most genuine effect and truest test of the sublime” (Burke 1998, 24). For Burke, “delight” is not “pleasure” as such, but rather it is the experience of being removed from the awfulness of the “terror”. This brings us close to Julia Kristeva’s notion of “abjection”, in that there is something both alluring and repellent about death and decay — but the allure can only be fully experienced at a distance.

The point here is that this obsession with mortal vulnerability, which is central to the Gothic imagination, is comparable to the youthful treatment of mortality in popular music. As such, while many of the discourses of depression, decay, and death in popular music might (often with good reason) worry those of us who are older and concerned about the wellbeing of our children and the cultures shaping their minds, they remain basic to the human condition.

They can, therefore, function as healthy memento mori in societies that taboo the fundamental fact of existence that “all things must pass”. In other words, as with eighteenth-century English Graveyard poetry (see Parisot 2013) or cultural events and celebrations focused on death, such as the Day of the Dead in Mexico, popular music can provide a space within which we are able to reflect on mortality and, as such, come to terms with the inevitability of death and its implications.

Indeed, because popular music is so entwined with the subjective lives of listeners, it is able to create spaces in everyday life within which they can express and think about what matters most to them. From reflection on oppression and aggression within hip-hop, extreme metal, and hardcore to meditations on depression and suicide within black metal, darkwave, and Goth music, spaces are created within which the often disturbing facts of mortality can be thought about and come to terms with. Again, this is important for cultural work.

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