Heartwork, the 1993 release by Carcass, is easily one of the most compelling metal albums ever recorded. First and foremost, it is an explosion of monstorous guitar riffs, frenetic drumming and raging energy. The music is captivating and overwhelming. Heartwork is a remarkably powerful lyrical album that deals intelligently with issues like globalization, dehumanization and existential dread. The music has been widely praised by many music journalists. The lyrics, however, have been given scant attention. Jeff Walker, the band’s singer, bass player and chief lyricist, envisions a world that is entirely devoid of human feeling or empathy. Walker’s adept use of language, particularly double entendre, lays bare the man’s inhumanity in all of its baseness. His world is an empty one, filled only with sorrow, guilt and deep-seated hatred.
The album behaves like a book, each song a chapter examining a set of widely held beliefs and contrasting them with his vision of a world gone completely insane. Over the next few months, I will attempt to analyze the themes and ideas song by song in an attempt to convey the inventiveness of Walker’s lyrics as well as the perspicacity of his message.
Welcome, to a world of hate
A life of buried dreams
Smothered, by the soils of fate
Welcome, to a world of pain
Bitterness your only wealth
The sand of time kicked in your face
Rubbed in your face
When aspirations are squashed
When life’s chances are lost
When all hope is gone
When expectations are quashed
When self-esteem is lost
When ambition is mourned
…All you need is hate
In futility, for self-preservation
We all need someone
Someone to hate
Buried Dreams is a nightmare vision of a world completely unconnected to its humanity. It serves as an overview of the themes that are addressed in each song and is a great starting point because it contains the most unambiguous lines on the record. In Walker’s “world of hate”, humans begin their journey in life filled with hope only to see that hope slowly eroded by the fixed nature of reality. This reality is the death and pain experienced by all humanoid beings. It is immovable, unchangeable and constant. Humans search blindly in the dark for some reason, some deeper meaning that will connect the dots and make the pain they experience intelligible. We fill ourselves with illusions in order to soften the blow of this horrible truth. As the truth becomes more real, we grasp harder at the illusion but ones commitment to an illusion will never make that deception a reality. We slowly come to terms with the understanding that there is no connection, there is no one tending the fire and the center simply does not hold. Once this veneer of meaning has been stripped away there is nothing left to hold onto but pure visceral hatred.
By experiencing hatred for something, we are given the ability to overcome our basic alienation from ourselves all the while connecting to the other beings around us. Love would be another way to connect, but the drawback of love is that it is fleeting. Its initial joy is snuffed out by the understanding that our basic existential problem, death, will cause love to one day give way to sorrow and despair. If you connect with hatred you never have to feel loss because the eventual vanquishing of your foe will be greeted with a feeling of joy and accomplishment. No one mourns the death of their enemy.
On the surface, the lyrics could be read as a simplistic explanation of the rise of fascism in Europe in the 30s and 40s. A society like Germany, which was drowning in debt and filled with impoverished humans recovering from the insanity of years of mindless trench warfare, was ready for the message of hate that Hitler brought. I believe the song is meant to have much more of a timeless message with broader overtones about the human condition. The line that universalizes this song is “in futility, for self-preservation, we all need someone…someone to hate.” This is a Hobbesian view of a world of beings so frightened of death that they are willing to do anything to avoid it, even if they know that their actions are eventually pointless. We are willing to create a Leviathan that may kill us for our disobedience in order to be safe. The wall each of us run into is death and we are willing to embrace any idea that allows us to fully avoid thinking about our eventual consequence. We are willing to embrace ideas that are self-destructive in order to escape the fear of death. If this isn’t true, then how do you explain war? This horrible irony of our basic condition is that we long to avoid death, but we do so in a way that often hastens its coming.
And so our dreams are buried as we are carried kicking and screaming to our own certain demise. We mask our fears with delusions of enemies all around us. We think that we can stop the inevitable if we bomb that thing or execute this thing but with our last dying breath we are reminded of the futility of all of it. Even hate cannot save us. The final, horrible irony of our Buried Dreams is that we will eventually be buried next to them.
(I am pretty darned excited to announce that this series will also be running at MindOverMetal.org, one of my favorite metal sites. Special thanks to my homeboy Metal Matt Longo who not only agreed to run the thing, but even gave me a fantastic title for the series and some killer editing ideas. Anyway those dudes speak truth and wisdom over there, check’em out)
Back in May I got the opportunity to attend a basketball coaching clinic at the Harrah’s Casino in Tunica. The clinic featured some of the top college coaches in America including George Mason’s Jim Larranaga, LSU’s Trent Johnson, Virginia Tech’s Seth Greenberg and the one and only Robert Montgomery Knight (his friends call him Bobby). Myself and about 1,000 other coaches were herded into an auditorium converted into a gym for three days in order to find out the secrets of how to lead young men and women towards becoming championship caliber athletes. Anyone who has ever been to one of these clinics before knows the drill…coachspeak followed by coachspeak followed by the occasional substantial and interesting point followed by more coachspeak and more coachspeak. By coachspeak, I mean the repeated uses of expressions like “the short corner” or “attacking the elbow” which are meaningful to most coaches but come across like some mysterious hybrid of Swahili and Mandarin Chinese to the uninitiated. The one astute point in the midst of the coachspeak is often fantastic, which is why I highly recommend these clinics to other coaches, but the hours upon hours of coachspeak can take it’s toll on even the most fervent hoops junkie.
I am not a very good note taker, but I decided I was going to try to get down as much of what was meaningful as possible. This worked for the first 5 or so hours. I have lovely, detailed sketches of out of bounds plays and wonderful points about how to properly position my post players when they are down on the block. After a certain point, I began to drift away from the land of normal coaching thought. Too many things that were not basketball began to assert themselves into the clinic. The words character and discipline began to rear their ugly heads. Coaching has developed an odd fixation with these ideas over the years. They are somehow indicative of the deeper meaning of sports. If you are a good coach, your team wins. If you are a great coach, your teams win and develop discipline and character. You cannot win without discipline or character. You will be tested; under these circumstances discipline and character will show. The pantheon of great athletes all had discipline and character. Blah, blah, blah. My problem with this formulation is that there is very little discussion over what these terms actually mean. We are just supposed to know.
My mind was spiraling out of control. I had been reading a ton of Descartes and had recently listened to an incredible online course on Death by Yale Professor Shelly Kagan. These thoughts were ping ponging around my mind. They had begun to merge with my notes. Here is the mental chaos that ensued:
(For the sake of time and not boring the noncoaches out there, I have removed all of the traditional basketball and have all left the weirdo philosophical stuff basically untouched)
1. What is character and discipline but the denial of the self? Why must the self be removed or fought for someone to play the game well? Is the self such an albatross that it must be obliterated in order to achieve “greatness”?
2. Does the self even exist? How is it possible for the self to exist as something different from the body? Are there two of us in here? Am I the Ghost in the Machine and if so, who is that in here who keeps telling me to not do the things I want to do? Why am I so committed to not letting the Ghost play?
3. So…does the self exist? It must because we are asked to deny it. Discipline asks us to deny the self, so something must be asking us to deny the self. It must be the self. It is a similar formulation to Descartes’ “I think therefore I am”. There must be a self otherwise what is there to deny the self. The question then becomes, why on earth would the self ask to deny itself? That is a bizarre idea that must lead to a good amount of confusion when someone first enters the “Church of the Winner”.
4. What is discipline? The self wants, the self says no. Why would it deny what it wants? Denial of short-term gratification for deeper long-term fulfillment. Losing the self in the team. But why would we want to lose the self?
5. Why does the self imagine? What set of circumstances would make it want to wish for more or different?
6. Here is a list of the things that have been labeled acceptable by coaches at today’s clinic:
Victory over other selves
Destruction of other selves in other uniforms on the path to victory
Adulation of other selves if the correct function has been performed correctly
Greed as long as it stays unadmitted
Here are the things that have been labeled unacceptable by coaches at today’s clinic:
Gluttony (in terms of food or comfort, but not in terms of success)
Destruction of other selves wearing the same uniform as you
Adulation of other selves when the correct task has been performed incorrectly
Adulation of other selves when the wrong task has been performed correctly
Obvious greed for the wrong things (cars, status among the wrong people, “bling”)
7. Here are the rules when attempting to gain victory over other selves:
A. Winning at athletic contests can show the superiority of the self that denies the self (but doesn’t admit it)
B. Cheating is wrong because it skews the game, thus defeating the illusion of the level playing field. How can we determine which self is better if we haven’t deluded ourselves into thinking that we have triumphed over another self in a fair set of circumstances?
C. Hard work represents a self more able to deny the wants of the self. Pope Jordan the Ascetic.
D. In work matters, the self that can deny some of the wants of the self (rest, gluttony for the wrong things, comfort) and can nurture other wants of the self (the unspoken enjoyment of adulation, greed for money or status, appearance of a lack of the self) will get almost none of what the self wants, but more than the self that doesn’t.
E. Terminology is the coin of the realm. Terminology is a tiki mask of legitimacy. It is the short cut to proof that one is the self that can deny the self. If I understand these absurd terms, I must have spent hour upon hour of self-denial in learning these hollow metaphors that make very little sense. My commitment to irrational details shows how willing I am to obliterate the self for “greatness”. The more the metaphor rings hollow, the greater the proof of the self that has given up more immediate opportunities for gratification in order to learn them. The sheer absurdity of the basketball cliché has a normative function.
F. Emotional and physical discomfort are goals to be aspired towards. The more we pretend we are experiencing them, the more we will be ready when they show up. A champion is one who has vowed to spend his or her entire life mired in this sort of discomfort so that when the moment of real discomfort arises, they will have a lifetime of awful experience to draw on…and then they can put the round ball in the round hole one or two more times than the self in another uniform who hasn’t put him or herself through as much pain.
G. Creativity is something that is both an expectation and a curse. One is expected to think thoughts that fit into a neat box, but in a slightly different way than the other selves. When a self creates something that doesn’t fit in that box and loves it enough to share it with others, the self will be ridiculed or snickered at for the heinous crime of self-indulgence.
8. The self that denies the self (and claims not to) feigns praise for the creator but really respects and admires the editor, the salesman and the promoter. Creativity requires a complete exposure of the unfettered self. The self that denies the self (and claims not to) is appalled by pure creativity because it is a reminder of the dull rituals it is shackled to in the hopes of further denying the self.
9. ”Deny! Deny! Deny!” -a coach stressing the importance of defense.
10. If the self that denies the self (and claims not to) conquers other selves, it feels a momentary sense of relief and the joy of not being conquered and being exposed as a self that doesn’t deny itself. This is followed by a horrific realization of the more than 6 billion predatory selves that may be lying in wait; hunting for the same moment of relief and joy.
11. How does the conquering self know the difference between itself and the conquered self? The self needs an Arbiter in order to know it’s worth. Without the Arbiter, the self cannot tell the difference between Pyrrhic victory and a miserable defeat. So, an Arbiter is created. The Arbiter (a scoreboard, an official) is declared real in our minds (except for most of the time). We often declare the Arbiter wrong (the refs hosed us, the final score doesn’t reflect how the game went, etc.). Who even knows who conquered whom?
12. Many of us long for a time (long ago) when “the rules meant something” and could give us a longer period of relief when we conquered the other selves. We think that this time existed and that somewhere along the line the losers rose up through the sleight of hand of a group of morally relative sycophants who took our comfort in winning away. We no longer even feel like we can enjoy the illusion we have created.
13. The odd thing about this belief is that I’m not sure that this magical time of the primacy of rules ever really existed. Maybe all there ever was were a group of selves pointing backwards trying to find new a clever ways to conquer other selves.
14. Consume in the name of the past, in the name of progress, in the name of protection, in the name of peace, in the name of whatever allows us to remember to forget or forget to remember what we are.
15. ”Why do we think of offense and defense as different things?” Great point, coach! Better than you even know.
An Inconsistent Truth: A Psychological Review of The High Art Museum’s Showing of La Moustache 11/5/10
“No one who has not experienced how insubstantial the pageant of external reality can be, how it may fade, can fully realize the sublime and grotesque presences that can replace it, or exist along side of it.”
-R.D. Laing “The Politics of Experience”
It is truly frightening to be in a room full of people who are laughing and not get the joke. I don’t just mean not get the punch line, but not get the words, the meaning or anything else. To feel as if one is from another planet and has landed here with a cursory knowledge of the English language and a two-day session on the lives and mating patterns of human beings under his belt, only to have to listen to two voracious baseball fans discussing the importance of the infield fly rule. Maybe I missed something; maybe something was never there.
I walked into the High Art Museum at about 9:30 at night and was greeted by one person in a fake moustache, then another, then another. I was overwhelmed and confused. Apparently this was the theme of the evening. Moustaches, moustaches everywhere. I had heard that at some point in the evening some men who had real moustaches were going to shave them off. It was one of those hipster rollicking good time things that I’m sure would have really impressed me back when I had rollicking hipster intentions.
The main purpose of this whole thing was to show Emmanuel Carrere‘s surrealist film “La Moustache“. Because of this, I decided to leave my house on a Friday night for the first time since Carter was in office. I love the film. It is a deceptively simple story of madness and personal alienation. A man shaves his moustache and no one believes he ever had one. That’s really all of it. In spite of its insane story line, it manages to come across as a remarkably realistic picture what it is like to experience genuine confusion. For some reason, I had it in my head that seeing the film in a theater would be even better. What I didn’t really get until the lights dimmed was that seeing 2001: A Space Odyssey in a theatre is a unique experience because you have an opportunity to see special effects that were meant for a big screen. Seeing a yuppie French couple arguing over the husband’s bizarre personal grooming fantasies is not anymore enjoyable around a bunch of popcorn chomping film fans. As a matter of fact, it’s pretty damned depressing.
The woman who introduced the film was some former film critic from the Atlanta Journal Constitution who really didn’t know very much about the film or the writer or the director or French cinema or how she got to the building in the first place. She kept saying over and over that this film was “funny…really, really funny.” This set a monumentally bad tone for the evening. The crowd immediately settled in, ready for a French yuckfest on par with the work of Johnny Knoxville. I have to tell you, I’ve laughed at a lot of thoroughly inappropriate things in my day, so I guess I had this evening coming to me. I nearly got tossed out of the Phipps Plaza Theater some years back for nearly laughing myself into straightjacket for the last 15 minutes of the faux horror classic “The Devil’s Advocate”. I spent a good portion of my younger years telling horrendously insensitive jokes about everyone from Mother Theresa to Ted Bundy. This night was my punishment for many a sin against good taste. Hopefully, this will count as my confession and I will be absolved of further mental floggings.
I sat there for a good hour and a half with blank expression on my face. The audience exploded with laughter over and over again at the most inopportune times. Marc, the main character played by Vincent Lindon, wanders through the film slowly losing touch with everyone he knows and loves. He begins to doubt the very fabric of reality, becomes a stranger in his own body and disappears into a blinding fog of regret, scorn and loneliness. Hysterical stuff! Marc sifts through the trash, trying to find any proof that his experience is real, that he is not living an unexplainable fantasy and that his mind isn’t decaying. Stop it, my side is hurting!
Truth be told, this is a horrifically sad movie. So many wander through life trying to catch up to the world, trying to understand an endless series of in jokes and references that fly by them, hoping to understand what the world means while being handed self-help books and truisms about “being yourself” and “trying your hardest”. Our personal realities often do not mesh with the world. Our truths are often only true in our minds. One minute’s certainty is the next minute’s mirage. There are nearly 7 billion of us blindly groping for a light switch in the dark only to be handed an octopus. This is the message of The Moustache. To take this film as a lighthearted romp is to miss a wonderfully genuine explanation of what it is like to be a human. Or maybe I just don’t get it.