I'm Kind of a Morbid Person
Process Theology and Goth Culture
The video above features Anna Von Hausswolff playing her Funeral for My Future Children on a pipe organ at a Methodist church in New York City. A friend of mine -- I will call him Fred -- is intrigued by the music she plays but unsettled by what he calls the atmosphere of goth culture. "It is too dark and morbid," he says. "Too many candles."
Fred is a Christian and goes to Methodist church himself. But he only likes the bright side of Christianity: the emphases on love and adventure, on hope and resurrection. He avoids what he calls the dark side, the themes of suffering and pain, sadness and crucifixion. He doesn't like Catholic churches very much because the crucifixes seem creepy to him. He thinks Filipino Catholics who reenact the crucifixion by nailing themselves to crosses are, in his words, "just plain crazy."
Sometimes I talk with him about Buddhism and its idea that coming to grips with impermanence is an essential dimension of healthy living. I explain that in some Buddhist traditions it is important to meditation upon the decay side of life, for the sake of having a more enlightened mind. I show him a video decaying vegetables, which I share below. "It's natural," I say. "Some people use the video as a Buddhist meditation."
He'll have nothing of it. "It's too negative," he replies. Fred thinks our purpose in life is to make everything life-affirming. He pictures eternal life as a place in which there is no decomposition at all. There is only sunlight, no death.
I am persistent. I tell him about a TED talk, also featured below, in which an anthropologist Kelly Swazee introduces us to the Toraja tribe in Indonesia. They spend their whole lives preparing for death and welcome death into life. They actually live with dead bodies for a while. Kelly Swazee makes the case that, in Western culture, we need to have a healthier attitude toward death and see death as part of life.
Again, Fred will have nothing of it. "I'm not about death," he says, "I'm about life." People say Fred has -- how to put this -- a somewhat sunny disposition. I don't think he is fond of the moon. It only comes out at night.
I think of a friend of mind -- her name is Grace -- who is drawn to Goth culture. In her way she chooses life and death, not life alone.
Please understand: she is not interested in violence. She thinks guns are stupid. I tell her about an article I read on Goth culture and share its conclusion:
The Goth culture attracts teens who are depressed, feel persecuted, have a distrust of society, or have suffered past abuse. They then surround themselves with people, music, Web sites, and activities that foster angry or depressed feelings. They have a higher prevalence of depression, self-harm, suicide, and violence than non-Goth teens.*
It is written by some highly credentialed social scientists and found in Journal of School Health, Volume 78, Issue 9, pages 459–464, September 2008. It is called Vulnerable Goth Teens: The Role of Schools in This Psychosocial High-Risk Culture.
The article troubles me and it troubles Grace. We both know there's some truth in it. She has friends who have been into self-harm and suicide, and this frightens her. Grace is interested in what we process theologians might call the creative transformation of Goth culture. Creative transformation retains the wisdom of whatever is creatively transformed. It does not throw out the baby with the bath water.
Grace wants to retain the wisdom of Goth and worries about its opposite: a repression of darkness. She suspects that people who are infatuated with guns and violence are sometimes like Fred. They don't mind killing things in the interests of what they call life. They do it all the time and call it war. They draw very sharp binaries in their mind called "good" and "evil" and then pretend that they, and they alone, are on the good side. Their souls have not yet been gentled by ambiguity. The want to conquer death by killing.
Grace doesn't want to conquer death; she wants to welcome death into life in a constructive way. I think she is trying to develop a Goth process theology: a theology of creative morbidity.
Grace is twenty-seven years old and works at a local coffee shop. Sometimes she is teased by her non-goth peers as being overly morbid and maladjusted. She says: "I think they are insufficiently morbid and therefore maladjusted." She thinks those of us who hide from death under the rubric of morbidity are escapist, too.
Perhaps Grace has a point. Ursula Le Guin says:: "Life rises out of death, death rises out of life; in being opposite they yearn to each other, they give birth to each other and are forever reborn." I am not sure that Grace is into rebirth, but I do think she knows, with Ursula Le Guin, that life is nothing without death.
I think of Whitehead's philosophy with its idea that, in life as we know it, the whole of our actual universe is a creative advance into novelty that brings with it, and requires, a perpetual perishing of subjective immediacy. For him death is not simply something that is happens at the end of life; it is something that is happening throughout the whole of life. In a certain sense death makes space for life; decomposition makes space for new birth. Perhaps there are different ways to approach the decomposing side of life:
Obsession --- Fascination -- Respectful Attention -- Repression
Perhaps the problem lies at the extremes of obsession and repression, but that in some circumstances fascination and respectful attention can be good, because it is open to possibilities for rebirth and novelty.
Death Cafes that are cropping up in different parts of the world. Their objective is 'to increase awareness of death with a view to helping people make the most of their (finite) lives'. This seems like a good idea to me. These cafes have no intention of leading people to any particular conclusions about death. They just want people to be able to talk about death and the big questions in life without being afraid. They always have good food and drinks, too. And they are free! I know Fred wouldn't like them, but I think Grace would.
Perhaps God is found, not in life over death, but in life inside death. I think of the minister in Denver -- Nadio Bolz-Weber in the photo below -- who was at the large emerging church festival in North Carolina: The Wild Goose Festival. Interviewed by Krista Tippett, Bolz-Weber speaks of seeing finding God in the underside of life. It makes me want to to to church, not for answers but for questions. I don't want to solve these problems, but I would like to dance in them for a while. I need more mystery in my life. More candles.
Here's a possibility. Perhaps a process theology of Goth culture can find its home, not in sterile conversations among philosophers, but in conversations in cafes and in social service and in liturgy, with pipe organs and candles included.
On Being Comforted by Mystery Not Certainty
"And I think that me and my fellows are more comforted by mystery than we are by certainty and so there’s this mystery that you get to enter into in the liturgy and in the eucharist that we find very comforting to go back to again and again."
-- Nadia Bolz-Weber in her interview with Krista Tippett in On Being. She is the tattooed, Lutheran pastor of the House for All Sinners and Saints in Denver, a church where a chocolate fountain, a blessing of the bicycles, and serious liturgy come together. She's a face of the Emerging Church — redefining what church is, with deep reverence for tradition.
The Need to Welcome Death Into Life
Anna Von Hausswolff
I don't think I write about death. I write about life, and death is just a part of it. I believe that death is a great way to start the story and a great way to end one. Of course, death is a fascinating place where all our political ideals and values are useless. It's a place where you have absolutely no control, and when it happens to someone you love it makes you reflect on your life a little bit more. That reflection happens to everyone when someone close to them dies. It's a phenomenon that drives you to try and live better and harder. I like to deal with death in a creative way because I am frightened and fascinated by it. Also, I'm kind of a morbid person.
from Death Becomes Her: Anna Von Hausswolff Interviewed by John Freeman, June 18th, 2013 in The Quietus
"Life rises out of death, death rises out of life; in being opposite they yearn to each other, they give birth to each other and are forever reborn.
And with them, all is reborn, the flower of the apple tree, the light of the stars.
In life is death. In death is rebirth.
What then is life without death? Life unchanging, everlasting, eternal?
What is it but death - death without rebirth?"
Ursula K. Le Guin (The Farthest Shore)
The Goth Subculture
The Goth subculture is a contemporary subculture found in many countries. It began in England during the early 1980s in theGothic rock scene, an offshoot of the post-punk genre. The Goth subculture has survived much longer than others of the same era, and has continued to diversify. Its imagery and cultural proclivities indicate influences from the 19th century Gothic literature along with horror films and to a lesser extent the BDSM culture.
The Goth subculture has associated tastes in music, aesthetics, and fashion. The music of the Goth subculture encompasses a number of different styles, including Gothic rock, deathrock, post-punk, darkwave, ethereal, industrial music, and neoclassical. Styles of dress within the subculture range from deathrock, punk, and Victorian styles, or combinations of the above, most often with dark attire, makeup, and hair.
From NPR's Field Recording Series
by BOB BOILEN
One of my most surprising discoveries of 2013 is an artfully poppy pipe-organ record called Ceremony, by Swedish singer Anna von Hausswolff. Though she doesn't consider herself an accomplished pipe organist, von Hausswolff quickly learned the instrument's power, as well as some of its subtleties.
When we learned that von Hausswolff was coming to New York City this summer, we started scouting for a church with a pipe organ that could accommodate a small video crew and some secular music. We found Christ Church, a United Methodist church on Park Avenue with a gracious staff who helped us make this work.
Once we were set for a location, we lit some candles and moved the pipe organ (not the pipes) into a position that allowed us get the best view of von Hausswolff while keeping percussionist Michael Stasiak distant enough so as not to bury the sound of her voice. In the process, we captured a beautiful rendition of "Funeral For My Future Children," a song on Ceremony originally recorded at another church — this one in Gothenburg.
CreditsProducers: Mito Habe-Evans & Bob Boilen; Videographers: Parker Miles Blohm, Mito Habe-Evans, Mike Katzif; Audio engineer: Kevin Wait; Editor: Parker Miles Blohm; Special thanks to Christ Church New York City; Executive Producer: Anya Grundmann