The Nietzschean Outlook of Black Metal

Metal’s long affair with the influence of Friedrich Wilhelm Nietzsche is nowhere more apparent than the impact his train of thought has had on the sub genre of Black Metal. Some groups bare their Nietzschean influence more blatantly than others. Judas Iscariot held the flag high on Akhenaten’s ‘The Cold Earth Swept Below’. Anaal Nathrakh have manipulated phrases for song titles: ‘Human, All Too Human’, ‘Revaluation Of All Values’. UKBM group Contra Ignem Fatuum could not make the influence more obvious, bearing Nietzsche’s fully moustached face on the cover of their upcoming release through Supernal Music. Hate Forest recorded an EP called Nietzscheism. Beyond this basic symbolism though, lies a deeper train of thought that has ties with nihilism, anti-christian sentiments and misanthropy.
Nietzsche himself, a radical outsider, whose vast body of work remains as steeped in literary metaphor as it does in the opinionated misconceptions conveyed by so many scholars’, presents the ideology of a modern day metal aficionado pertinently. In his day, controversy and assumed superiority were all too familiar to Nietzsche. His negation of Christianity, the declaration that God was dead, that man was responsible for his death and the revelation that all that could follow a period of moral-revolt was nihilism and chaotic nothing did not sit easily with his fellow countrymen. Political and social disagreement followed Nietzsche’s every word.
The controversy surrounding black metal was made most famous by reference to the early Norwegian church burnings. Perhaps a bit too physical for the hermetic musings of a great man turned syphilitic lunatic, the early events surrounding the Norwegian scene provided a notoriety of complete political incorrectness. The anti-christian sentiments were also part and parcel of what Nietzsche believed: “I call Christianity the one great curse, the one great intrinsic depravity…I call it the one immortal blemish of mankind.”
I refuse to cite as influence to the satanic/evil aspect of Black Metal Nietzsche’s grand proclamation that God Is Dead here solely because black metal as a whole is not limited to denying Christianity and embracing evil – and neither is Nietzsche’s philosophy. That would be naïve. The trait runs much deeper, a dissatisfaction with society and commonly held belief, not just glorifying satan for controversies sake. Shallowly this can be interpreted as expressing self enlightenment, misanthropy, nihilism and controversial action. More abstractly it can be represented as a continuation of the philosophical pursuit of truth and disbelief in the self-centered stupidity inherent to the majority of mankind.
At Nietzsche’s heart lies disgust and reprehension to humanity and religious organisations. The beguiling spectacle of mankind’s self imposed significance could not be further from Nietzsche’s opinion. The philosopher writes as if in a constant state of misanthropy, as the prophet Zarathustra retreats to a mountain cave to ruminate over the failure of everyday man to appreciate his insights. Misanthropy in general has played a large role in formulating the atmosphere particular to bands that celebrate nature and solitude:
When one speaks of humanity, the idea is fundamental that this is something that seperates and distinguishes man from nature. In reality, however, there is no such separation: “natural” qualities and those called properly “human” area indivisibly grown together. Man, in his highest and most noble capacities, is wholly nature and embodies its uncanny dual character. Those of his abilities which are awesome and considered inhuman are perhaps the fertile soil out of which alone all humanity… can grow.
Within the belief that Nietzsche understood the world better than the majority of humanity initially resulting in his anger and disturbance by common man, the link between misanthropy and assumed superiority/enlightenment is highly apparent. Black metal as a venture prides itself on its cloistered nature. This is not for outsiders. Only we truly understand and truly comprehend this music… et cetera, ad infinitum – a sense of solace that misanthropes and sociopaths can revel in. Moreover I think Black Metal’s uniquely negating and questioning attitude is essentially a less rigorous Nietzschean philosophy expressing dismay and unhappiness with society as it stands. In a genre often (incorrectly) stigmatised for never really progressing anywhere, we have a burgeoning collection of ideologies and beliefs that sever cultural and social norms to deliver exciting, inspiring artistic movements.Kind of pointing out largely the obvious, I know. Now I’ll leave you with my favourite Nietzschean quote.
A very popular error: having the courage of one’s convictions; rather it is a matter of having the courage for an attack on one’s convictions!

You'll find me in the vast wilderness of British Columbia, talking metal at LURKER, or working in publishing and front-end web/eBook development.

12 Comments

  • Reply August 18, 2010

    Invisible Oranges

    The best thing I've read on here yet!

    I would disagree that "Black Metal" has a "uniquely negating and questioning attitude". Conformity is rife within it – even enforced – of which capitalization of the term, like a religion, is evidence.

    Those who are true individuals do not dress and make music like others.

    • Reply November 17, 2010

      dschalek

      Cosmo,

      I would argue that the truly great, genre transcending black metal acts rise above the conformity, and destroy it in turn.

  • Reply August 19, 2010

    Alex

    I'd agree that there is an undercurrent of bands that conform and I'd even go to say this represents the majority of black metal projects. This cannon fodder numbering over the 20,000 mark (if metal-archives is to be believed) clearly remains oblivious to any kind of Nietzschean aspect in their philosophy. If they HAVE any philosophy! They seek only to copy.

    I have trouble reconciling this glaring fact with the equally obvious fact that there are projects out there pushing the genre into unique and refreshing territory. When I was approaching the topic I had in my mind a philosophy that I have come to acquaint with the majority of bands that I appreciate, not so much the cannon fodder that I intended to omit at the outset. Either way its directed at the idea and not the inevitable misunderstandings prevalent within it (how ironic – misanthropy within misanthropy).

  • Reply August 19, 2010

    Krumbled Kookie

    Very nicely done. I've often pondered the relations between Nietzschean phiolosphy(ies) and metal, and have tried writing pieces such as this, but it has always ended with my pulling my hair out of my head.

    My next attempt will be to investigate the likenesses between metal and the philosophy of Arthur Schopenhauer. Unless, of course, you beat me to it 🙂

  • Reply August 19, 2010

    Keith

    On what black metallers pulled from Nietzsche's thought, you say: "Shallowly this can be interpreted as expressing self enlightenment, misanthropy, nihilism and controversial action. More abstractly it can be represented as a continuation of the philosophical pursuit of truth and disbelief in the self-centered stupidity inherent to the majority of mankind."

    Not sure I understand exactly what you're saying here, but it sounds like you think Nietzsche is a nihilist. No?

    Nietzsche did not endorse nihilism. LIke Schopenhauer, he sought to reconnect man to his essence, and thought Christianity and similar world-views (slave moralities) were responsible for the life-denying nihilism in his society. True, as you say, he thought the possibility of reconnection was slim to none, and he had little faith in humanity. Freud borrowed this sentiment. But this doesn't mean he was a misanthrope. In fact, he was the opposite. Nietzsche praised the master, the "yes" man, the life-affirmer; he hated the racist, the nihilist and the slave. He wanted the strong to flourish and the weak to know their place.

    Any life-denying black metal band, then, runs completely against Nietzsche's thought. There are a lot of nihilistic black metal bands. I'm not sure which *aren't*.

    If I'm right about Nietzsche, and I had to choose a metal sub-genre for him, it'd obviously be Viking Metal.

  • Reply August 19, 2010

    Keith

    By the way, love the blog, keep up the good work!

    And now that I think about it, Panopticon seems to resound with my existentialist (and by extension Nietzschean!) sentiments. But his music may be too political and reactionary for Nietzsche to endorse.

  • Reply August 19, 2010

    Terzij de Horde

    Very cool Alex. And in addition to the link between the value-questioning outsider attitude in black metal and "negative Nietzsche" (in his role as a deconstructor), there is also a strong link between the sense of power, energy and thirst for freedom you find in "positive Nietzsche" and the more majestic forms of black metal as well.

    @Keith: Well, it's true that Nietzsche was really the extreme opposite of a nihilist. However, I think it's a bit strong to say he was the opposite of a misanthrope. He did not reject humanity as a whole, to be sure, but it seems that he disregarded about 99% of them, and only found praise for those few that possessed genius, talent and vision.

    So the full-on nihilism and obsession with the negative found in black metal certainly goes completely against Nietzsche's thinking. But the relentless attack on existing values that can be a part of (some) black metal could be seen as a crude reflection of Nietzsche's perspective(s). And so can the sense of pure energy and power you find in black metal. It depends on your definition of the genre, but I think viking metal is both a bit too cartoonish and too tradition-obsessed for Nietzsche's taste 🙂

    On Panopticon – I agree about the reactionary, political stance not falling well with Nietzschean thinking at al.

    I think Liturgy is a better example, from an interview:
    "The idea of a ‘no’ to nihilism, which comes from Nietzsche, is very meaningful to me. So I call that renihilation. Whether or not Liturgy is post – black metal musically, it certainly is biographically. Misery is what originally made me want to make black metal. For me, personally, I needed to transform black metal from an expression of nihilism into a transcendence of nihilism."

    Or just go and listen to Terzij de Horde 😉

  • Reply August 19, 2010

    Terzij de Horde

    From Thus Spoke Zarathustra, this could well be applied as a comment on the professed outlook of a lot of black metal bands. On the other hand, it could just as easily be a blueprint for the lyrics of another type of black metal:

    ON THE PREACHERS OF DEATH

    There are preachers of death: and the earth is full of those to whom desistance from life must be preached.

    Full is the earth of the superfluous; marred is life by the many-too-many. May they be decoyed out of this life by the "life eternal"!

    "The yellow ones": so are called the preachers of death, or "the black ones." But I will show them unto you in other colours besides.

    There are the terrible ones who carry about in themselves the beast of prey, and have no choice except lusts or self-laceration. And even their lusts are self-laceration.

    They have not yet become men, those terrible ones: may they preach desistance from life, and pass away themselves!

    There are the spiritually consumptive ones: hardly are they born when they begin to die, and long for doctrines of lassitude and renunciation.

    They would fain be dead, and we should approve of their wish! Let us beware of awakening those dead ones, and of damaging those living coffins!

    They meet an invalid, or an old man, or a corpse—and immediately they say: "Life is refuted!"

    But they only are refuted, and their eye, which seeth only one aspect of existence.

    Shrouded in thick melancholy, and eager for the little casualties that bring death: thus do they wait, and clench their teeth.

    Or else, they grasp at sweetmeats, and mock at their childishness thereby: they cling to their straw of life, and mock at their still clinging to it.

    Their wisdom speaketh thus: "A fool, he who remaineth alive; but so far are we fools! And that is the foolishest thing in life!"

    "Life is only suffering": so say others, and lie not. Then see to it that ye cease! See to it that the life ceaseth which is only suffering!

    And let this be the teaching of your virtue: "Thou shalt slay thyself! Thou shalt steal away from thyself!"—

    "Lust is sin,"—so say some who preach death—"let us go apart and beget no children!"

    "Giving birth is troublesome,"—say others—"why still give birth? One beareth only the unfortunate!" And they also are preachers of death.

    "Pity is necessary,"—so saith a third party. "Take what I have! Take what I am! So much less doth life bind me!"

    Were they consistently pitiful, then would they make their neighbours sick of life. To be wicked—that would be their true goodness.

    But they want to be rid of life; what care they if they bind others still faster with their chains and gifts!—

    And ye also, to whom life is rough labour and disquiet, are ye not very tired of life? Are ye not very ripe for the sermon of death?

    All ye to whom rough labour is dear, and the rapid, new, and strange—ye put up with yourselves badly; your diligence is flight, and the will to self-forgetfulness.

    If ye believed more in life, then would ye devote yourselves less to the momentary. But for waiting, ye have not enough of capacity in you- nor even for idling!

    Everywhere resoundeth the voices of those who preach death; and the earth is full of those to whom death hath to be preached.

    Or "life eternal"; it is all the same to me—if only they pass away quickly!—

    Thus spake Zarathustra.

  • Reply August 19, 2010

    Alex

    @Krumbled Kookie, I personally find writing the similarities between Schopenhauer's philosophy and metal harder to bring out than those between Nietzsche and metal. Probably because I studied him for my dissertation, so I always go off on wild tangents discussing his metaphysics of the will and analysis of music. Either way its something I would love to see done one day and I'm very tempted to give it another go myself!
    I've considered giving the Heidegger correlation with Black Metal a go – but that really would fry my meek brain, hahaha.

    @Keith, I was not labelling Nietzsche an outright nihilist. Rather, @TerzijDeHorde interpreted my point pretty clearly. Like Nietzsche, there are bands reacting to the concept of nihilism (whether cognized through the idea of a banal society OR through disgust through other bands with no meaning at all, the influence could be anything), who are usually the awe-inspiring, genre-forwarding artists that we (I would hope) all here appreciate (go listen to Terzij De Horde, Weakling, etc). The idea in itself is pretty Schopenhauerian, all great artists must have suffered immensely or have some kind of raised consciousness to contribute anything of value. The reaction to nihilism is what counts, the search for revaluing values and overcoming any sense of overarching emptiness. I'm well aware that a lot of bands grab the nihilism and fail to see past it, and there are a few worthwhile bands of this ilk, Nortt for example paints a monumental feeling of nihil.

    @TerzijDeHorde, I could not really agree more. Also, the explanatory power of your English is better than mine!

  • […] Alfred Schopenhauer’s hefty influence on the philosophies of Friedrich Nietzsche, who enjoys a comparatively elevated status in the ideological underpinnings of Black Metal, the […]

  • Reply June 18, 2011

    E.

    Hi Alex, I’ve read all of the comments on here and so came across yours saying you wrote a dissertation on Nietzsche and Metal. I find this very interesting, being a philosophy student myself, and writing on this exact theme. What was your focus, how did it work out?

  • […] 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 […]

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