I hate shallow music.
Let me be clear: I don’t just hate the way it sounds, or people who make or listen to it, or the way it always seems to get played in situations where you have no convenient route of escape. These things are of course irritating, but life is full of petty irritations. Hatred is a feeling that most sensible people reserve for things which directly threaten their own wellbeing, or the wellbeing of those things they hold as more important than themselves: things like their family, their religion, or their higher ideals of right and wrong. I know it will make me sound somewhat irrational, but I want to begin by asserting that I do not use the word hate lightly, and that I consider shallow music to be threatening in all of these ways.
I’ll tell you what I hate about it, because it’s something I think most people don’t dare consider. It’s not the inane subject matter. It’s not the catchy simplicity that gets it stuck in your head even after it is over. It’s not even the artificiality, the falsehood, the mockery it makes of real music. It’s actually the opposite of that last one: what I really hate about shallow music is the profound truth in it– the truth that it exists, that it is well-loved, and all the real and horrible things this confirms about the world we live in … a world which, try as I might, I cannot convince myself to accept as it is.
The fact is, it’s not just shallow music I can’t stomach. It’s shallow conversion and shallow books; shallow art exhibitions and shallow films; in general, shallow thinking and shallow living. I have worried, from time to time, that this inability of mine to splash around with everyone else in the kiddie pool of modern life makes me a drag to be around. As a friend of mine once put it:
“Dude, I like you, but sometimes hanging out with you is like listening to the Encyclopedia Britannica on tape.”
It’s embarrassing to admit, but I’m sure he wasn’t exaggerating. Ever since I was a small child, people around me reacted with perplexity at my habit of encountering a subject, single-mindedly expanding my understanding of it as far as I could, and then moving on to the next one. To me, this always just seemed like the most natural way to do things. However: as I matured and found subjects which could not be easily exhausted, I started to realize that I had to pick the ones I thought were really important for deep study.
My first truly inexhaustible passion was Greco-Roman mythology. Though I discovered it in early childhood, it has until this day never ceased to yield up more wonder and insight. In fact, not only has my interest in it proved sustainable, it has grown with me. Through it, I also discovered other bodies of legend in Egyptian, Mesopotamian, Biblical, and Norse-Germanic texts. In high school, it was only logical that my taste for the power and splendor of myth would translate to a fascination with authors like J.R.R. Tolkien and Robert Jordan. When I reached the point in my adolescence where children develop an affinity for loud music which might bother their parents, my most enduring favorites were bands like Led Zeppelin, Black Sabbath, and Iron Maiden.
On the surface, it was obvious enough (at least to me) that all of these authors and musicians were creating work that expressed a common longing for some distant, lost sense of the heroic– a longing with which I could identify with intimately. Though this alone would have been more than enough to hold my attention, there was an additional sense of something else behind their work, something for those like myself with the inclination to look longer and with greater attention. It was only a matter of time before my efforts to decode my favorite lyrics and album art were rewarded with a new fascination: mysticism and the occult.
The word “occult” comes down to us from the Latin occultus, meaning “hidden.” Though at the age of sixteen discovering tarot images in Zep’s album art certainly felt like unearthing some kind of forbidden secret, the trappings of occultism are anything but concealed in from our sight. The more I looked into the occult, the more I discovered that it was everywhere– not just in fantasy novels and rock albums, but in geometry, language, government and military insignia, and even the ornamentations on furniture and architecture. Nearly any object one encounters in daily life is likely to have taken its present form due to some inner meaning that form holds– an inner meaning which is not hidden in the sense that it is not available to be learned and understood by anyone with a desire to, but hidden from our understanding because we have not brought ourselves to that meaning. There is no need to conceal the information found in books from the illiterate, or the songs which lie dormant in a musical instrument from someone who has no training in playing it. As Arthur Waite once put it, “the Divine Mysteries secure their own protection from those who are unprepared.”
In occult terminology, the outer seeming of things is referred to as “the exoteric.” This is all that the layman perceives, whether he is sitting in a church, standing in the front row at a metal show, or working at a desk with a ruler and compass. The inner significance or “the esoteric” is concealed in the same way that the sweet pulp of a fruit is concealed inside the rind. To eat of that fruit, we must first endeavor to peel back the outer skin of the exoteric.
Though esoteric significances are generally characterized as ephemeral qualities which transcend conventional expression, I generally feel that real understanding of these concepts is not found in intellectual abstractions, but in an intimate observation of the physical. Consider the pomegranate. Its thick, blood red juice and bone white membranes are certainly quite suggestive of our own inner parts. Cracking one open is like peering inside an opening in the human body. It is no surprise that the pomegranate is associated with carnality, both in terms of death and sex. The double meaning of the open pomegranate as both a fertile, receptive vagina and a deathly wound gave it a special significance in the cult of the fleshly goddess Ishtar, who presides over both love and war. Stories of Ishtar’s contests with her twin sister, the mournful goddess of the underworld, echo down into the mythos of Persephone, the daughter of the harvest goddess who ate of a pomegranate in the underworld and became queen there during the winter months.
Largely, esoteric meanings are what our consciousness uses to animate our understanding of the physical world around us. Our minds simply do not function on a basis which is wholly material. Many of the things we create, or surround ourselves with, or take into ourselves in the physical world, are merely indexes for thoughts and mental states that are not physical but seek physical expression as a natural consequence of their existence. The conditions we encounter in the physical world shape our mental states, and our mental states give rise to thoughts, which become action in the physical world, thus shaping it to create new conditions.
One’s consciousness is constantly altering the face of reality as it bubbles into the physical world, seeking to manifest itself. The things we encounter in the physical world are not just things: they are manifestations of the ideas and mental states, both our own and those of other consciousnesses. Though these thought-objects and though-places have observable interactions with the physical world, they cannot be said to be physical in and of themselves. Though the mental state we term “sadness” is certainly as real as the events in the physical world that engender it, their relationship is one of intangible parallels rather than concrete connections. These mental states and physical events are interacting through the intermediary of consciousness from two planes– one above and one below.
The one below we call physical, but the one above we call “metaphysical,” from the Greek words metá (meaning “beyond”) and physiká (meaning “physics.”) All physical things have metaphysical correlatives which define the way they interact with consciousness. This is why when we listen to shallow music, we are not just listening to shallow music. We are internalizing the manifestation of the metaphysical presence which is the heart of physical shallowness. It is a great, black, gnawing entropy, dark and terrifying in its predatory comfort of safety, like a crocodile lurking in the baby pool. It hungers not for flesh, but to swallow down spirit … and in the physical world, we are the ones who take it into ourselves. With eagerness and joy, modern people eat up poison, which in turn will eat them up. Finally, we turn on each other in a mad hunger to fill the hollow shell which now comprises our own manifestation– a slave, a tool, now just another expression of that which destroyed us so utterly.
And yet, despite the fact that these physical manifestations of the shallow life leave us no recourse but to admit the reality of this omnipresent crocodile of the spirit, there are also irrefutable traces of sacrosanct ideals which cannot be destroyed. Aleister Crowley, the writer, painter, sexual athlete, and globe-trotting adventurer who is responsible for much of what we know today as modern occultism, affirmed the Eucharistic significance of every bite of food we take in this elegant line from his Gnostic Creed:
“[…] forasmuch as meat and drink are transmuted in us daily into spiritual substance, I believe in the Miracle of the Mass.”
This is the heart of magic, mysticism, and the occultist’s quest to uncover the hidden: the knowledge that everything you think, say, or do is a magical act, and the realization this is no great secret, but like a baby drawing its first breath. Everything before this understanding is just a prolonged umbilical moment before you truly begin to be conscious of your own existence.
It is by sanctity that people live as much as by the air that they breathe. Even when we deliberately reduce our ideals to the secular and the material, it is impossible to alter the way that truth resonates in the human soul. A love of great ideals is a love of great ideals, regardless of how we dress them. It is when we begin to disdain truth, to love the disintegration of meaning, when we see entropy and willingly invite it in, that we are truly fallen. Alain De Benoist, an influential modern mystic who has become an equally important figure in the New European Right, mirrored Crowley’s insight from another angle when he quipped in a London newspaper in 1982:
“Better to wear the helmet of a Red Army soldier than to live on a diet of hamburgers in Brooklyn.”
A life of ideals, even ones opposite to his own, struck De Benoist as preferable to one without any ideals at all. Though Crowley’s words illuminate the sacred transformation of the material into the divine, De Benoist points out that divinity descends back into the material plane through the physical manifestation of ideals. The oppressors of freedom and the makers of war are more divinely inspired than the fry cooks and drive-thru servers of fast food, and when we eat fast food, we are internalizing the physical presence of that same dark crocodile of the spirit which haunts all other manifestations of the shallow life.
That burger is a crystalized package of metaphysical presences and states– the presence of a globalist anti-culture, the state disregard for health in favor of immediate gratification, the reality of not cooking in the home and of having no time to sit down to a decent meal. The only conditions under which one would have any desire to consume such a food would be in a world ruled by “eliminative materialism,” a philosophy that not only emphasizes the greater importance of material objects and events, but outright denies the existence of anything that is not material. This includes all thoughts, emotions, mental states, and even consciousness itself. Proponents of this philosophy emphasize that free will does not exist, and that our decisions have no potential to create new chains of consequences, this being due to the fact that they are predetermined by the movements of tiny particles according to physical laws. In such a world, the metaphysical does not exist. It is in the best interests of the purveyors of fast food that our world should be like this: bright, empty, comfortable, convenient, efficient, and solely material.
For many people, this is already their life. I know, because up until recently I was living on a diet of hamburgers in Brooklyn.
It started when I was working at this awful frozen yogurt shop. The whole place was made of one piece of shiny white plastic. There were soft colorful lights on the wall which glowed and changed into different abstract patterns. The store was always filled with the nauseating smell of cleaning products, because we were required to constantly polish every surface to keep the nice white plastic from getting dirty. I spent eight hours a day cleaning a space that didn’t need to be cleaned, while my own home fell into squalor.
I worked so hard at this job that when I came home I had no energy to make food for myself. I went out to eat for every meal, and as a result spent a sizable portion of the money I made at my job on food. I didn’t want to spend all of it, so most of the time I ate badly and cheaply: foods like cut-rate pizza and falafel. I started eating McDonald’s “Baked apple pies” because you could get two for a dollar. On the package, in a bold but imperfect typeface designed to look like it had been applied by the hand of a human being, it proclaimed:
“MOM DIDN’T HAVE TIME TODAY SO WE MADE YOU THIS BAKED APPLE PIE”
The apple pies were reasonably good. They were hot and the filling had a hint of cloves, bringing them a little closer to the way a real pie should taste than I had initially expected. Aside from the fact that this filling was sealed in a tube of crust, flattened and crimped into a little brown rectangle, McDonald’s was doing a reasonably good job simulating what it would be like to eat a pie that might have been baked by someone who loved you.
I’ll be honest. I’d be kidding myself if I pretended I believed that even one of the people I encountered in a New York City McDonalds had a mother who baked for them. Usually when I went into these places, I was the only white person there, and definitely the only person with any reasonable claim on the term middle class. These people were scraping by on public assistance, and probably had been for generations, eking out their livings at jobs that probably weren’t too far off from ringing a register at McDonalds. Fast food is cheap, and doesn’t bother people who have already had their spirit taken from them in so many other ways.
It strikes me as possible that the comment on the package might have been intended as a joke– a sort of wink and nudge between the purveyor and the consumer, an acknowledgment that McDonald’s had actually provided for them in a way which far outdid their families. In a world where institutions of business are far more stable than the average family, it is natural for the corporation to seek to fill the place abdicated by so many mothers in favor of a job outside the home– a way towards more money.
A lot of the mothers I saw there would have large groups of children in tow. I would look at them and think back to my own childhood. I came from a large family too, the oldest of five kids. Money was always tight, and we rarely went out to eat, even to fast food. Though it certainly would have made our financial lives easier, my mother never worked outside the home. She couldn’t bear to think of any of us growing up in daycare, raised by paid strangers. After my parents’ marriage dissolved into a particularly ugly divorce, she made ends meet by turning our house into a day care for other people’s children. She was more willing to take on extra children beyond the five she already had than to let anyone else have a part in raising hers.
Times were particularly tough in the years surrounding the divorce. As I got older, conflicts with my mother were frequent and intense. Though there are many things she and I will never see eye to eye on, I will always be grateful for her commitment to being with us every step of the way, even when it was miserable.
Since she was also a mother who insisted on baking everything from scratch, who never once fed me a frozen dinner and wouldn’t buy me an article of clothing if the brand name was visible, my newfound habit of eating these pies every day was one of my first real exposures to a kind of spiritual pollution I had always been shielded from. The taste of the food, the ingredients, and even the nutritional value were close enough to the real thing that on a material level, these pies were satisfying. Let’s face it: pie is dessert, and it isn’t meant to be good for you on a nutritional level. As much as one may attempt to condescend upon those who eat McDonald’s based on material objections to the content of their food, McDonald’s has skillfully circumvented these arguments in the last few years by simply making their food with no artificial ingredients and stating this fact on every piece of packaging they use. They are not substantially different on a material and nutritional basis from the most sacred of mom and pop diners. The monstrous poison in their food is not a poison for the body. Rather, it is a poison for the soul.
In the end, I found that though I now had more confidence in my ability to pay the rent on time, I barely reaped any additional financial benefit from my labor. My living situation, however, had deteriorated noticeably.
It was during this particularly dark time that a friend of mine hanged himself in his bathroom. My fiancée and I were out of town when it happened, and he had been feeding our cats. One of my first conscious thoughts after I had absorbed the terrible shock of the news was a sharp pang of guilt about making him spend his last week on Earth visiting our wreck of an apartment.
Though he had the courtesy to do what he did in his own home, he had my keys in his coat pocket. I wouldn’t get them back until we organized a group of those who survived him to clean out his place. As a result, I got stuck outside of my apartment building on one of the coldest nights in January until my better half could come home to let me in. It was late, and with no other option presenting itself, I retreated to the twenty-four hour Burger King across the street from my apartment building.
For some reason, this particular Burger King was decorated like some kind of junk-drawer Americana theme park. There were movie posters and pictures of Hollywood stars all over, and some of the booths were shaped like ’57 Chevys. A disorienting assortment of music videos ranging from classic rock oldies to contemporary hip-hop and country music played on several flat screen TVs suspended from the ceiling around the restaurant. Oddly enough, this haphazard mishmash of cultural detritus came together remarkably well. Everything being called upon to create this weird atmosphere was presented with such uniform shallowness that it was impossible to focus on the internal contradictions that should have been obvious. Audrey Hepburn, Hulk Hogan, and Will Smith were being offered for my consideration alongside the video for Ratt’s “Round and Round.”
I decided that with nothing else to do, I might as well see how Burger King’s apple pie and coffee compared to the ones I’d been getting at McDonald’s.
The Burger King pie came factory-sealed inside a little cardboard triangle that allowed it to look like it was cut from a normal pie which you might conceivably share with other people. I sat down in the driver’s side one of the classic cars and imagined my friend’s ghost sitting across from me. Thinking of him there, and how he might have shared my half-amused horror at this place, I shook my head and laughed, not really caring how crazy I looked alone in a Burger King after midnight, sharing a joke with my invisible friend. I asked him out loud why he had brought me to this stupid place. In my mind’s eye, he just laughed back. One thing about me is that I’m a born skeptic who reads tarot cards and hangs around in makeshift mystical lodges, where the holy things are made from paper and gold paint. Sometimes when my buddies cry from seeing a vision so sad and beautiful in a dark basement, I get jealous. Whenever I try to talk to ghosts or angels, they always just laugh at me.
One of the reasons I always got apple pie at these places was that it was of the only vegetarian things on the menu. I never liked being called a vegetarian because of the kind of company it put me in, but with the rare exceptions of my grandmother’s cooking and hot dogs at Coney Island, I hadn’t eaten meat since high school. However, in the days that followed the strange night when I conversed half-heartedly with a ghost in a fake plastic car, I felt compelled as I hadn’t in years to eat a bacon cheeseburger.
And I did. Soon after that night in the weird Burger King, I ordered one with some friends at a proper sit-down diner where everything was made of silver chrome. We had gathered together for the first of the many “hey, our buddy died” themed meals. We were there for hours, in and out of the place for cigarettes or bouts of tears. At the time, I had imagined that this burger I was eating was going to be a one-time thing, but somehow I allowed myself to fall into the habit of getting one every time our little gang would gather to puzzle out our loss. Sometimes we would come together in groups of three or four; other times we would take over the entire restaurant. We would roam aimlessly along our old turf where we had walked with him so many times. Our presence was not unnoted: at one point, I overheard a stranger whispering to his friend.
“Something’s going on. These weird arty people have been all over the Lower East Side since last week.”
I lived on bacon cheeseburgers for about a month before I started to slow down. Though my fiancée was worried at first, she eventually decided just to be grossed out.
Something else about my friend’s suicide– in the months leading up to his final decision to do it, he was habitually viewing images and footage of mutilation and death.
At present, I have another friend who is dealing with a nasty separation from a girl he loved a lot. He spends his days in a marijuana haze, doing his best not to focus on any one thought too long. He is unemployed, and spends most of his time watching videos on the internet … many of them the same sorts of videos my suicidal friend was compulsively viewing. An abscess being removed, a child having his hand blown off by a malfunctioning firework, a man with his jaw torn off trying to speak– this along with pornography and horrendous clips of people emoting on daytime television fill a considerable portion of his day. Though I don’t think my love-sick friend would ever kill himself, I recognize in him the same hunger for terror and ugliness that my now departed companion had in his last days. There is a state of mind, one which is not necessarily particular to the suicidal, which manifests as a desire to see these sorts of things. Holding these images in your mind is the same as holding a prayer or a sigil: they will shape your experience in their image.
When I went to clean out the apartment where my dead friend had lived, no one really wanted to go into the bathroom. In the sink was the knife the police had grabbed from the kitchen in order to saw the rope from his neck. Fibers still clung to its serrated edge. On the floor was a small piece of the rope, about two inches long, which had somehow been left behind. It was a brown, fibrous hemp rope like you might see in a movie. Typical of him– theatrical to the bitter end.
Looking at that little bit of rope with which he had ended his life so recently, it struck me that it would probably be swept up with the rest of the garbage and unceremoniously dumped at the edge of the curb. Who would want to hold on to something like this, this little artifact of a despair so poisonous and fatal?
I snatched it up and tucked it into a hidden pocket on the inside breast of my coat. Sometimes, I suppose, we are hungry for something bitter … perhaps with a touch of poison.
Over the next few days, I would reach inside my coat pocket, feeling the frayed end, haunted by the irrational fear that it might disintegrate somehow– that it might twist apart and fall somewhere where I could never find it or retrieve all the pieces if I did. On a day when I was feeling particularly lost amid these fears, I retreated into a little Tibetan store on 2nd Avenue where they peddled jewelry and religious objects. Hidden away on the bottom shelf in one of the cases was a small pile of swastika charms.
I should tell you that the swastika was his symbol, this dead friend of mine. It seems like a bad joke now, but his tarot significator, the card which I always used to represent him in a reading, was the Hanged Man. Among other things, the Hanged Man is a solar symbol, representing the sun in its palingenetic aspect– that is, in its nature as a thing which submerges into darkness to be born again. He is suspended from what could be a gallows or a sort of cross, made from living wood and budding with new leaves. The hanged man is hung by his foot, not his neck, and his free leg is bent across his tied one to form a second, hidden cross– a fylfot or swastika. As an image of infinitely renewing light, the swastika has sometimes stood in for the sacred heart of both Christ and the Buddha in depictions where themes of rebirth are emphasized. Though the crooked cross is not symmetrical on any axis, it does have rotational symmetry … and when we rotate the card to the overturned position as the symbol suggests we should (this being position where most cards are at their worst) the hanged man comes upright and appears to be dancing.
I held the talisman in my hand and thought of my Hanged Man. It had come as no surprise to anyone when the news arrived that he was dead. He had tried it the winter before, and survived. This was actually the reason I had chosen this card as a significator for him in the first place. In the year between these two attempts, his normal habit of aimlessly wandering the streets at night turned to a more direct flirtation with death. He would go down into the subway, climb down off the platform onto the tracks, and then step over the electrified third rail to the express track. The express trains don’t run at night, but that didn’t mean that there wouldn’t be one coming through on some kind of detour or on its way to maintenance. He would walk through the darkness (so black, he told me, that he couldn’t see his hand in front of his face) and pass through that space where death might come roaring up behind to strike him down, just to have the experience of coming back up into the light.
In the oldest religious cosmology we have written records from, the sun was a god who descended into a tomblike passage at the western end of the world each night and walked through the underworld to the east. In the morning, he would rise from the tomb again to illuminate the world with his light. My friend the Hanged Man didn’t know about any of this. He didn’t need to be told.
The talisman was composed of two small squares of brass, both graven with the unmistakable image of the four-legged sunwheel. These were linked with a kind of foliate bar which suggested two flowers bending their petals toward each other in a sort of kiss. It was heavy on my palm, and warm from being inside the little shop. Despite the fact that I was in no position to spend $25 on something like this, I paid the man and headed back out into the January cold with the object in my left pocket, the same side of my coat that little piece of rope was hidden in.
As much as I now feared that the wrong person would see that little piece of brass, I feared even more what might happen if the right person saw that piece of rope. I could feel those objects stir something inside me whenever I put my coat on, their twin natures of Thanatos and Palingenesis bubbling together in the retort of my mind. A good deal of magic is about transforming your own manifestation into a better vessel for great ideals to work through. The trouble was, I had no idea what these things were making me into or what would happen when they were done.
I showed the charm to a few people. I couldn’t help it– even though I knew it might get me into trouble, it was such a great good thing. It was astonishing to realize every now and then that I had the physical manifestation of something so holy, hidden unassumingly in my left pocket. There was just no keeping it to myself.
The rope though, I didn’t know how to explain that. There were so many people I wanted to show it to, but it just seemed impossible. It was like a dark, wordless prayer I was saying all the time to a place so void of sound and light that no amount of anything could fill it up. And yet, here I was pouring endless, endless golden light into it forever, like I had developed a second circulatory system that excreted silence and pumped deafening song.
It was on a night slightly warmer than that bleak, bitter one where I had been trapped outside and forced to seek refuge in the strange Burger King, that I was walking with a few of the others from Hanged Man’s inner circle of close friends.
Though it was late, we didn’t want to part. Truth be told, I think it was because we were all a little scared that if we did, another one of us would disappear forever. The only lights on ahead of us were the warm inviting glow of a twenty-four hour McDonald’s.
We went in. I wanted to get my usual apple pies, two for a dollar, but they only had one left. It threw off my routine. I asked them what else they had, and they gave me a couple of chocolate chip cookies to go with it. One of my friends was too broke to afford even the dollar menu, so I gave him the cookies.
It was there, in that desperate place of refuge, that I started telling them all about cleaning the apartment and about the terror I felt at what a not-big-deal it was, and how I found the rope, and how I had been keeping it in my pocket. All of them stared at me. I could tell that they wanted to see it, but that no one wanted to be the one to ask me to take it out. I told them as much, and said that if no one objected, I would show it to them. No one objected. I reached my hand into the hidden pocket on the left side of my breast and produced that little object in which so many unspeakable horrors and divine truths had made themselves manifest.
As soon as I had revealed it, the metaphysical pressure in the room exploded. It was like a bomb went off. Everyone at the table wept openly, real tears of loss and fear and relief and remembrance. I started saying all kinds of spiritual truths about the universe that I can only half remember. I suppose this is what it must have been like to have been the one of those few people in medieval times who carried the true relic of a saint. I was the guy who brought something holy into the impious shelters of the poor and the displaced and the disensouled, to shine a supernal light on some dirty table and drag everyone present out of the shallow life and off the deep end.
It’s embarrassing because all this makes my friend into a saint and a McDonald’s into a holy site. Whatever. Maybe they are at that. I don’t really know what that makes me though.
A magician, I guess.
Written by Stuart Sudekum