‘If the immediate and direct purpose of our life is not suffering then our existence is the most ill-adapted to its purpose in the world: for it is absurd to suppose that the endless affliction of which the world is everywhere full, and which arises out of the need and distress pertaining essentially to life, should be purposeless and purely accidental. Each individual misfortune, to be sure, seems an exceptional occurrence; but misfortune in general is the rule’
Despite Arthur Schopenhauer’s hefty influence on the philosophies of Friedrich Nietzsche, who enjoys a comparatively elevated status in the ideological underpinnings of Black Metal, the cynic himself is rarely acknowledged. The man is viewed by many as a pessimist and not much else, despite laying the groundwork for the majority of Nietzsche’s musings.
The exchange between Schopenhauer and Nietzsche is in its sum the totality of the black metal experience. With Schopenhauer you have an absurd world and few chances to escape or transcend it. With Nietzsche you have the anger and struggle to overcome this absurdity. The core concepts of black metal – those of triumph, catharsis and power – are prevalent Nietzschean notions. This is, perhaps, the reason black metal works; it provides a semblance of strength and progress. Black metal is a coping mechanism for the world. A world, most followers of the genre would agree, that is fraught with privation, anguish, and frustration.
If Schopenhauer lays out the initial worldview, then Nietzsche provides the mental conditioning to handle it. If Nietzsche conquered the “how,” then Schopenhauer posed the “why?”. His key tropes are all readily apparent in the genre: the absurd character of life, withdrawal into misanthropy, asceticism as escape, and the power of the sublime. They are not as prominent and efficacious as Nietzsche’s ‘how?’, but they underpin the accepted worldview of black metal.
Schopenhauer’s magnum opus, The World as Will and Representation, is where the man’s metaphysics and aesthetics are fully explained. The books are rich with metaphor and, unlike so much abstruse philosophy, marked by genuine literary prowess. I will attempt to do them justice with two separate articles. This first piece will handle the basics of Schopenhauer’s metaphysics, where he justifies his pessimism, and will show how this pessimism is implicit in the standard black metal worldview. The second piece will elaborate on his understanding of art and how it can help us ascend past the pessimism of his metaphysics. I will consider his treatment of music in particular and how this differs from Nietzsche’s answer to the Schopenhauerian “why?”.
For Schopenhauer the human condition is a state of eternal suffering; this renders existence absurd by definition. His grand metaphysics convinced him that the only true escape from absurdity was to denounce life and embrace the destruction of the will/body. He wrote highly of the path to asceticism, of denying human instinct and desire. He wrote contemptuously of Christianity and the naïve scare/warmongering tactics embedded within its doctrine. He held up Buddhist self-abnegation as a brilliant device for transcending metaphysical boundaries. This gave him a deep respect for the animal and natural worlds, which became central to his treatment of the arts and the sublime in particular.
Schopenhauer was preoccupied with the belief that our place in the world as subjective beings, located in time and space and held to the rule of causality, precludes the possibility of an objective reality. For him, the world as we experience it is that of representation. We can only ever view the world through our senses, never as it is “in itself”. This world he labels Will (responding to Kant’s transcendental idealism and his notion of the noumenal world). There is a disparity between the way the world appears to us and the way the world is in-itself. For example, this discontinuity is something physicists battle with on a daily basis as they employ theoretical mathematics to comprehend the world of the very small and the world of the very large. Humankind is tethered to its perceptual apparatus. We are limited to our senses. This inability to ever contemplate an objective reality forms the basis of Schopenhauer’s brutal nihilism – Truth evades us.
Despite the unknowability of the world as will in general, Schopenhauer argues that Will makes itself manifest to us indirectly, in its effects. Will is a kind of driving, all encompassing force that pushes relentlessly on. Everything around us is manifestation of this continual state of willing and blind striving. Gravity and electricity are ‘at the very lowest grade the will manifesting itself as a blind impulse, an obscure, dull urge, remote from all direct knowableness’ (Bk2,Sec27). Natural selection and the process of evolution are a step up, themselves unending and unforgiving – the byproducts of a perpetual will to live.
Consciousness is the highest manifestation of the underlying Will. Here man is filled with endless desires and an unshakable will-to-live. All the greed, materialism and egoistic desire that characterize human behavior are just the shadows of Will. When one desire is fulfilled, it is quickly replaced by another. It presents man with an inherently absurd dilemma: ‘If man were asked why he wills generally or why in general he wills to exist, he would have no answer. Indeed, the question would seem to him absurd’. This Will is the basis of Schopenhauer’s metaphysics. It is without end, or goal, or direction, and that is what makes life devoid of meaning – there is no ultimate purpose for which we strive, no goal to be fulfilled, and therefore no cosmic justification for all the suffering brought on by the Will.
‘The life of every individual, viewed as a whole and in general, and when only its most significant features are emphasized, is really a tragedy; but gone through in detail it has the character of a comedy. For the doings and worries of the day, the restless mockeries of the moment, the desires and fears of the week, the mishaps of every hour, are all brought about by chance that is always bent on some mischievous trick; they are nothing but scenes from a comedy. The never-fulfilled wishes, the frustrated efforts, the hopes mercilessly blighted by fate, the unfortunate mistakes of the whole life, with increasing suffering and death at the end, always gives us a tragedy. Thus, as if fate wished to add mockery to the misery of our existence, our life must contain all the woes of tragedy, and yet we cannot even assert the dignity of tragic characters, but, in the broad detail of life, are inevitably the foolish characters of a comedy.’
Every man does will, desire, want, need and further himself along the road of life – but in the last instance, he does so pointlessly. One satisfied desire only quells the appetite of the will for a small period of time before some new longing takes hold; ‘all willing springs from lack, from deficiency, and thus from suffering. Fulfillment brings this to an end; yet for one wish that is fulfilled there remain at least ten that are denied… fulfillment is short and meted out sparingly’.
Schopenhauer’s insight reveals a fundamental pessimism about human psychology. Suffering, and not pleasure, is the starting point for man; ‘a quick test of the assertion that enjoyment outweighs pain in this world, or that they are at any rate balanced, would be to compare the feelings of an animal engaged in eating with those of the animal being eaten’. Suffering is prior to happiness in existence.
The pervasiveness of suffering isn’t just a matter of the exchange rate between pain and pleasure, though. The world itself is a fragmented, warring, insufferable and tormented place. Every aspect of the will seeks to exercise its desires and needs over the needs of others. Moreover, since each organism and object represents an individuation of the universal Will, existence itself is a state of loss, lack, and longing. In the mutual antagonism and underlying unity of all will, Schopenhauer sees a grotesque contradiction; ‘thus the will-to-live generally feasts on itself, and is in different forms its own nourishment, till finally the human race, because it subdues all the others, regards nature as manufactured for its own use’.
Struggle, hate and destruction are the intrinsic characteristics of conscious man’s life. The Western capitalist model is built on the idea of endless striving, of greed and egoistic drive. The scale of the success of this model is testament to how well it fits our innate disposition. We waste no time supporting companies that enslave and exploit their workers, so long as our desires for the latest trinkets are met. This underlying chaos amongst people, and the lack of any common good, is proof that the will is essentially fighting against itself, a tragedy at the level of representation turned absurdly comic at the level of the Will.
‘The vanity of existence is revealed in the whole form existence assumes: in the contingency and relativity of things; in continual becoming without being; in continual desire without satisfaction; in the continual frustration of striving which life consists’.
Schopenhauer looks to life itself and asks “Why?”. This unflinching interrogation is very much in line with the disgust, self-deprecation and negative world view that lies at the heart of metal. The genre’s disgust at modern values and mainstream consciousness can be expressed in terms of this metaphysics of the Will with startling faithfulness. Black metal’s dedication to misanthropy, preoccupation with nature and espousal of anti-human values are all a result of the insurmountable problems faced in society and existence on a daily basis. The deeply engrained belief that the creation of black metal should not be swayed by the desires of fans or for financial gain strongly parallels the ideas of Schopenhauer.
Schopenhauer was against religion, for the most part, arguing that it preferred to hide behind veils and never really addressed what it promised to address: the problems of metaphysics. ‘The bad thing about all religions is that, instead of being able to confess their allegorical nature, they have to conceal it… we must recognize the fact that mankind cannot get on without a certain amount of absurdity, that absurdity is an element in its existence, and illusion indispensable; as indeed other aspects of life testify.’
Yet Schopenhauer’s asceticism lends itself to the oft-stereotyped satanic asceticism modeled by bands like Deathspell Omega and Funeral Mist. Their espousal of self-flagellation to deter bodily cravings is, according to Schopenhauer, the only permanent way to break the endless cycle of willing, to escape servitude to Will.
‘Yes, burn the self to kill the human within, and fetter now these lustful limbs, fetter the flesh, choke the sin’ – Funeral Mist, Holy Poison
‘The idea of Salvation comes, I believe, from the one whom suffering breaks apart. He who masters it, on the contrary, needs to be broken, to proceed on the path towards the rupture.’ – Deathspell Omega, The Repellent Scars of Abandon and Election
‘DESTROY. YOUR LIFE. FOR SATAN.’ – Mütiilation, Destroy your Life for Satan
Schopenhauer believed that animals, plants and the fundamental forces of nature stem from the same underlying Will that dominates our existence, and that we must respect them as we respect ourselves. This is a feeling not unlike being in the kernel of nature and realizing you are a part of the earth, birthed of the same cosmic dust as the trees and mountains. This kind of self-reflection has been the subject matter of mystical music, not just black metal, for decades.
I encourage you to go home, dig out some Paysage d’hiver and muse with Schopenhauer on the meaning of the sublime, because the parallels between this kind of music and his philosophy are manifold. The riff repetition goes hand in hand with the basic, endless striving of nature. It is unceasing and uncaring and therefore reveals a feeling of the sublime, similar in part to the famous ‘Wanderer above the Sea of Fog’ painting. Furthermore it holds sacred the isolation and purity of nature. I will come back to this in part two, where I deal with Schopenhauer’s aesthetics.
‘What gives all that is tragic, whatever its form, the characteristic of the sublime, is the first inkling of the knowledge that the world and life can give no satisfaction, and are not worth our investment in them. The tragic spirit consists in this. Accordingly it leads to resignation.’
‘The view opened up to me the clarity, simplicity and yet infinite complexity of being’ – Paysage d’hiver, Das Tor
Schopenhauer believed that the will to live could be broken through a heady ascent on the path of asceticism and self denial, i.e. self destruction. Through this kind of action the true nature of the world becomes clear: ‘To those in whom the will has turned and denied itself, this very real world of ours with all its suns and galaxies – is nothing’. This kind of will-denial, devoid of satanic undertones, is well documented by depressive black metal. Destruction of the self is a central theme of the band Make a Change… Kill Yourself, whose extended compositions and elongated riff-work bring to mind the different shadings of the will.
‘This tormenting reality makes you dream of things you can never have, or will ever live to see. Solutions are rare and the answer lies in death.’ – Make a Change… Kill Yourself, Fooling the Weak
Furthermore, this ‘heady ascent on the path of religious asceticism’ can be seen in some of the more occult and mystical strains of black metal. The idea of a discrete world in-and-of-itself, beyond immediate access to our intellects, is echoed in the sentiments of the Lovecraftian under-studies and any other band attempting to ‘peel back the veil’.
It is not that Schopenhauer has created a fantastical metaphysics that diverges from modern life; rather, his metaphysics is a complex system of interwoven observations that all find their base in the concept of the Will. Pessimism and absurdity are intricately interwoven into Schopenhauer’s philosophy. It is this worldview that is concurrent with that of black metal. ‘The astonishment that urges us to philosophize obviously springs from the sight of the evil and wickedness in the world. If our life were without end and free from pain, it would possibly not occur to anyone to ask why the world exists.’ In such insights, it becomes clear that, while Nietzsche’s philosophy might explain the rebellious spirit of black metal, Schopenhauer’s thought process goes a long way to explaining why we have this worldview, why this worldview needed to come into existence through Nietzche and the artists who followed in his wake.
The World as Will and Representation is intoxicating reading, and if you can stomach a bit of metaphysics and logic, you will be rewarded with a wellspring of ideas on suffering, pessimism and absurdity that are sure to influence your outlook on life. In part two, I will discuss the man’s aesthetic philosophy. For Schopenhauer, music was the highest art – and aesthetic contemplation was one of the most important aspects of our futile existence.
‘The composer reveals the innermost nature of the world, and expresses the profoundest wisdom in a language that his reasoning faculty does not understand.’