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IT’S TIME FOR A RETURN TO TRADITION

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Modernity is in trouble. From the menace of migrant crime in Europe to the sexual transgressions rife in modern-day Hollywood, the moral argument for modernity is quickly waning. How did things go so wrong? And how do we fix it? Perhaps a return to traditional values and ideals are in order.

The modern world developed over hundreds of years. The post-medieval period has seen the advent of tolerance as a social and political virtue, the rise of the nation-state, the increased role of science and technology in daily life, the development of representative democracy, the creation of property rights, urbanisation, mass literacy, print media, industrialisation, mercantilism, colonisation, the social sciences, modern psychology, emancipation, romanticism, naturalist approaches to art and culture, and the development of existential philosophy.  From the computer to the mobile phone, the motor car to the aeroplane, the marvels of the modern world are all around us.

The modern world has replaced the Aristotelean and faith-based concept of human life that was popular in the Middle Ages with a worldview based on science and reason. Modern intellectualism, therefore, follows the example set forth by Cartesian and Kantian philosophy: mistrusting tradition and finding its roots in science and rationality.

Culturally and intellectually, the 21st century represents the postmodern era. Postmodernism can be difficult to define accurately because the various cultural and social movements that use it as their central philosophy define it for their own purposes. Jean-Franҫois Lyotard (1924 – 1998), who introduced the term in his 1979 book, The Postmodern Condition, defined postmodernism as “incredulity towards metanarratives.” Similarly, Encyclopedia Britannica defines it as a philosophical movement in opposition to the philosophical assumptions and values of modern Western philosophy.

Postmodernism came about as a reaction, indeed a rejection, to modernity. With its roots in the philosophies of Friedrich Nietzsche (1844 – 1900), Martin Heidegger (1889 – 1976), Sigmund Freud (1856 – 1939), and Karl Marx (1818 – 1883), the postmodernist rejects the philosophical theory of Foundationalism – the idea that knowledge is built upon a solid foundation – in favour of large-scale scepticism, subjectivism, and relativism.

The postmodernist likes to see himself as Beowulf fighting Grendel. That is, he likes to see himself as the mythical hero fighting the historical-critical monster. Inspired by doctrines of white privilege and toxic masculinity, and driven by an anti-capitalist (except when it comes to their I-phones), anti-racist (provided the person isn’t white), anti-imperialist (but only European imperialism), and anti-transphobic (because gender is a “social construct”) rhetoric, the post-modernist inspired neo-Marxists and social justice warriors have invaded the modern university and college campus.

Modernity and post-modernism have produced a swathe of existential and moral problems that the Western world has, as of yet, proved unable (or perhaps even unwilling) to solve. To begin, the modern world has abolished the central role that God, nature, and tradition has played in providing life with purpose. In spite of all its cruelty, the German sociologist, Max Weber (1864 – 1920) saw the Middle Ages as a highly humanistic period. Everything was considered to have a divine purpose. Even someone as lowly as a Medieval serf, for example, could feel that he had a role in God’s greater scheme. There was a sense of, as Martin Buber (1878 – 1965) puts it, “I-thou.” Modernity swapped “I-thou” for “I-it”. The human will replaced God as the ultimate arbiter of meaning.

This problem has been further exacerbated by the alienation of the human spirit to nature. Science, for all of its positive qualities, has had the effect of rendering nature meaningless. No longer is a thunderclap the voice of an angry God, nor does a cave contain a goblin or a mountain harbour a giant. Science may be an excellent means for understanding facts, but it is not a substitute for wisdom or tradition when it comes to determining human purpose. No longer does the natural world command the sense of reverential majesty that it once did.

The answer to the problems of the modern, and, by extension, post-modern, world is a revitalisation of the traditional beliefs, values, ideas, customs, and practices that have made the Western world great in the first place. We must reject the destructive ideas espoused by the postmodernists and work to revitalise our traditions. It is high time we started taking some pride in the traditions that have made our civilisation so great.

ROCK IS MASCULINE

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This July, Elvis Presley’s first single, That’s All Right, turned sixty-three years old. For the youth of the time, Elvis Presley’s arrival marks the cultural shift away from the Bing Crosby and Doris Day mentality of their parents’ generation to one that is centred around youth and adolescence. The repercussions of this seismic shift can still be felt.

Like all cultural phenomena, rock was denounced as a passing fancy at best, and satanic at worst. And like all cultural phenomena, many have failed to grasp its masculine cultural symbology: while there have been some great female rockers (Grace Slick, Suzi Quatro, Joan Jett, Deborah Harry, to name a few), rock has primarily been the manifestation of raw masculine energy and lust.

Rock music owes a lot to the myths and folklore of the past. In his book, the Secret History of Rock ‘n’ Roll, Christopher Knowles postulates that rock music is deeply rooted in the mythological figures of Orpheus, Cybele and Attis, Isis, Mithra, the Druids, and so forth. Knowles writes:

“What did the Mysteries offer that other cults of time did not? Almost exactly what rock ‘n’ roll would, thousands of years later. Drink. Drugs. Sex. Loud music. Wild pyrotechnics. A feeling of transcendence – leaving your mind and your body and entering a different world, filled with mystery and danger. A personal connection to something deep, straight, and impossibly timeless. An opportunity to escape the grinding monotony of daily life and break all the rules of polite society. A place to dress up in wild costumes and dance and drink and trip all night.”

Nowhere is this sentiment better expressed than in heavy metal. A genre whose thematically operatic power is drawn from themes of violence, madness, mythology, and the iconography of horror. Central to heavy metal music are fantasies of masculine virtuosity and control. According to Robert Wasler, author of the book Running with the Devil, “metal songs usually include impressive technical and rhetorical feats on the electric guitar, counter-posed with an experience of power and control that is built up through vocal extremes, guitar power chords, distortion, and sheer volume of bass and drums.”

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Originally, the term ‘rock ‘n’ roll’ was an African American euphemism for sexual intercourse. Blues music, one of the roots of rock, contains a plethora of examples of the raw masculine aggression and lust that later rock music would allude to. Muddy Water’s Hoochie Coochie Man, for example, utilises the theme of masculine self-mythologization:

“The gipsy woman told my mother

Before I was born

I got a boy child comin’

He’s gonna be a son of a gun

He’s gonna make pretty women’s

Jump and shout

Then the world wanna know

What this all about

But you know I’m him

Everybody knows I’m him

Well you know I’m the hoochie coochie man

Everybody knows I’m him.”

In a similar way, Muddy Water’s Mannish Boy, itself a response to Bo Diddley’s I’m a Man, continues the theme of masculine self-mythologization:

“Now when I was a young boy

At the age of five

My mother said I was gonna be

The greatest man alive

But now I’m a man

I made twenty-one

I want you to believe me, baby

I had lots of fun

I’m a man,

Spelt ‘m’, ‘a-child’, n’

The represents ‘man’

No ‘b, o-child, y’

That spells ‘mannish boy’.”

Sex forms another important theme in blues music. Waters’ song Got My Mojo Working features themes of hoodoo – an African American form of folk spiritualism – and seduction. Other songs, such as Screaming Jay Hawkins I Put a Spell on You, focuses on the raw, animalistic qualities of lust:

“I put a spell on you

Because you’re mine

Stop the things you do

Watch out!

I ain’t lying, yeah

No running around

I can’t stand

I can’t stand, no put me down

I put a spell on you

Because you’re mine

Watch out, watch out

I ain’t lying

I love you

I love you

I love you, yeah

I don’t care if you don’t want me

I’m yours right now

I put a spell on you

Because you’re mine.”

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Masculinity and sex have always been themes in rock music. These themes manifest themselves most peculiarly in the quasi-religious experience of rock concerts. No one who has seen footage of Woodstock or its darker equivalent, Altamont, can fail to notice the undercurrents of tribalism present at these events. As one observer noted: “one of the most interesting developments in the United States in 1956 was the behaviour of hundreds of thousands of mostly white, middle-class girls, who screamed, danced, and sobbed to the point of ‘enthralment’, ‘near hysteria’, ‘mass hysteria’, or ‘pandemonium’.”

Rock songs of the 1960s, 70s, and 80s contained a plethora of references equating masculinity with sex. Dion’s the Wanderer is about a cad who roams ‘from town to town.’ Bob Seger’s Night Moves refers to a woman’s breasts – a natural object of male desire – as ‘points all her own sitting way up high, way up firm and high.’ More darkly, the Rolling Stones’ Brown Sugar contains themes of slavery, rape, interracial sex, underage sex, physical abuse, and drug taking. Then there are the music videos, many of which were banned from play on mainstream media. Duran Duran’s Girls On Film features nudity and mud wrestling. Queen’s Fat Bottom Girls features nude women riding bicycles around a sport’s track.

And, of course, it is not unusual for rockstars to enjoy favouritism from the opposite sex. Indeed, sexual prowess and adulation from women form an important theme in rock lore. Groupies of heavy metal artists, for instance, are not just female fans but are seen as extensions of the musician’s artistic identity. Women and access to sex are almost gifted to the rock star, much like the harems of the Ottoman Sultan, the mistresses of European monarchs, or the concubines of Chinese Emperors.

Rock music is the modern reincarnation of ancient myths and folklore. It relies on the same motifs and themes and therefore has a similar effect on the human psyche. As a result, rock music and mythology and folklore share many of the same tropes. Rock music glorifies masculine energy and lust through symbols and metaphors. It raises the rockstar to an exalted position and then confers benefits upon him by giving him greater access to women and sex. This, in turn, gives the rockstar an almost deific quality. Feelings of unity and tribalism are expressed through the quasi-religious nature of the rock concert. The long-lasting popularity of rock music arises from its ability to give expression to ancient symbols of masculinity, and in its capacity to provide an outlet for the more repressed aspects of our nature.

FRANKENSTEIN

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This week for our culture article we will be looking at Mary Shelley’s (1797 – 1851) 1818 Gothic masterpiece, Frankenstein; or, the Modern Prometheus. The story that gave rise to countless plays, radio-shows, TV shows, movies, video games, and created one of the most iconic characters in horror.

BACKGROUND

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Mary Shelley was inspired to write Frankenstein whilst touring Europe with her future-husband, Percy Bysshe Shelley (1792 – 1822), in 1814. On the Rhine, they visited Castle Frankenstein where they were told a ghoulish story about a mad alchemist who had attempted to resurrect corpses two centuries prior.

Two years later, in the summer of 1816, the Shelleys travelled to the Swiss Alps but were forced to stay in their lodgings due to bad weather. (1816, for anyone who is interested, was known as ‘the Year Without Summer’ – an event caused by the eruption of Mount Tambora in 1815).

There, joined by Lord Byron (1788 – 1824), they amused by reading Fantasmagoriana, a book of German ghost stories that had been translated into French. Byron suggested they all put pen to paper and see who could write the best ghost story.  Shelley, much to her dismay, was unable to think of a story. Then one night, after they had all gone to bed, Shelley had a waking dream:

“I saw the pale student of unhallowed arts kneeling beside the thing he had put together. I saw the hideous phantasm of a man stretched out, and then, on the working of some powerful engine, show signs of life, and stir with an uneasy, half vital motion. Frightful must it be; for supremely frightful would be the effect of  any human endeavour to mock the stupendous mechanism of the Creator of the world.”

Initially, Shelley only thought her dream only gave her enough material for a short story. However, she was encouraged by Percy Bysshe Shelley to turn it into a fully fledged book. Setting herself to this task, Shelley finished writing her story in April/May 1817. It was picked up by publishers Lackington, Hughes, Harding, Mavor, and Jones and published in January of 1818.

ANALYSIS

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In one sense, Frankenstein is a cautionary tale. By using Victor Frankenstein and his creation as an example, Shelley’s classic tale warns us of the dangers of interfering with the world’s natural order. There are things in this world, Frankenstein tells us, that are beyond our ability to understand, and which are better left alone.

Both Victor Frankenstein and his creation are tragic figures. For Victor, it is ultimately his obsession with Natural Philosophy (that’s the archaic name for the sciences), his passion, and his unchecked ambition that lead to his downfall. In trying to play God, Victor creates the catalyst for his own doom. In the end, it is his remorse, shame, and burning hatred that destroy him.

Similarly, Victor’s creation is also destroyed by his hatred. This hatred, however, is not borne of remorse or shame, but of rejection. Victor’s creation is intelligent and articulate. He desires human companionship, but, due to his hideous appearance and massive size, finds people to be cruel and unwelcoming. Even Victor himself fails to see his creation as adequately human, not even bothering to give him a name (Victor’s creation is referred to as ‘wretch’, ‘monster’, ‘creature’, daemon’, ‘devil’, ‘fiend’, and ‘it.’) Ultimately, it is this rejection that leads Victor’s creation to destroy not only Victor Frankenstein, but also himself.

Frankenstein is ultimately a tale of what happens when we fail to see others as human. It reminds us of the limitations of human endeavour, and what may happen when we surpass those limitations. But, more importantly, it reminds us of the importance of love and compassion.