We spoke with Eric Liewald about loving your neighbor, describing a rose, the intellectual dishonesty of artistic positivity and the properties of an electric night.
We have more important, absolutely better things to do in this bizarre, fundamentally mysterious world that never fails to pose new twists, new experiences, new feelings.
We’re in a scary, divided world right now that’s being met with a reactive nihilism in music, film and popular culture. We’ve talked about Kierkegaard before and his Christian writings, but I never really studied that kind of philosophy like you did. Do you think a sort of neighborly, almost Christian love is the antidote to nationalism and fear?
The problem of how to love is, I think, the most relevant practical, political, philosophical and theological question that we have. Love is such a potent problem because it has such a foundational agency over the general ethical norms and personal actions in our society. Most of these norms are bullshit, uncritical, and — if you are really cynical — are probably only advocated en masse to help further the growth of capital, like when Paul Ryan whines about markets slowing down due to millennials not having kids.
Beyond this cynical perspective, however, what is significant is that the question of love has this almost universality to it. It encompasses both Christian and secular worldviews. Like, even deranged punks and metalheads think that its at least important to be there for your friends, protect them, and make “loving” connections with them, however ephemeral these experiences may be. True, punks love in a totally different way than middle America, but still, love retains this meaning that is infinitely malleable to ostensibly any walk of life. (Except GG Allin, maybe.)
What really got me hooked on the problem of love was Nietzsche’s notion of amor fati, which means “love of fate.” Nietzsche poses a challenge to his reader to live so intensely, that basically no matter what happens, even with what happens outside of your control, that you will viscerally love your fate. For Nietzsche, the ultimate anti-Christian philosopher, the ethical questions of love being in the world do not necessarily arise, but in a world so starkly defined by the arbitrary and whimsical violence of incompetent and undeserving elites, I find the question of how we can viscerally accept the human interrelations of the world to be fruitfully complicated.
For me personally, as a lover of aesthetic pleasure, sensual experiences, and people whose work I love to enjoy, the world does not meet my standards. Bullshit nationalism is one obstruction to the world I envision.
The question of how to love the neighbor is an extremely potent one when truly taken to heart. One of foremost problems of with love, as Kierkegaard saw, is that love has become a pure cliche. You buy fixtures that say “Love” at HomeGoods for your stupid wall; you order a Big Mac and the container is emblazoned with the word “Love” above your burger. Donald Trump, I am sure, has talked about love in the most nauseating way possible during his presidency.
To viscerally question what it means for me to love the neighbor as a global practice would necessarily require one to beat back a lot of the myths of nationalism, but more strikingly, I think the question would force us to realize how incommensurable this capitalist global reign is with a society of love — how food, water, medicine and housing are so unequally distributed in the world.
For me, as an atheist, loving your neighbor would mean to have in place this basic texture of livability in the world, to negate the baser forms of violence such as struggles over resources, and phantasmic differences between humans grounded upon mythic superficialities. These violent struggles are of a lower nature to me than the higher violence inherent to the act of artistic creation, the claiming of what we deem as beautiful and deserving existence through our work. We have more important, absolutely better things to do in this bizarre, fundamentally mysterious world that never fails to pose new twists, new experiences, new feelings.
All of this is to say that I think loving the neighbor, in practice, would take on a much more banal, quotidian sensibility than the contrived, hippy-dippy, half-assed bullshit the term has inherited. It would be a basic recognition of difference, a basic letting-be of others to do what they do, of not forcing them to have care about strangers. Like, I don’t think loving everyone requires this overtly mushy-gushy, intense relationship with everyone I meet.
For me, it means not having to fucking deal with 99% of people I meet. It means letting other people be themselves, but recognizing that we have enough in common that certain kinds of conflict are just fucking stupid. Like, struggles over resources should be non-issues, just as race or gender should be non-issues; myths of resource scarcity and racial superiority/difference are just pawned off to the masses keep this absurd system going.
Ideally, loving your neighbor should be woven into the fabric of society so that hunger poverty are systemically dealt with. This kind of love should be a systemic product of a society. Thus, when we are incessantly bombarded on the news and social media about charity campaigns for people to get necessities for life, friends begging for money to have necessary surgeries, the homelessness crisis in America, etc., all of this should be perceived as the failure of love to really take effect upon how humans are organized today. It is a failure because individual acts of charity are utterly impotent at changing things. When I give food to someone on the street, it changes nothing. What is necessary is a radical transformation of human life, of how love is seen as a practice, and integrated into the daily goings-on of social, economic and political human life.
In her book about love, bell hooks said that love is essentially never violent. I disagree with this. Also, Christian thinkers like Augustine, Aquinas, and Kierkegaard disagree too, in their own ways. There are acts of violence, which, if they miraculously occur, will make the world a much more livable and loving place. It is a supreme irony that fundamentalist Christians are the greatest ideologues of violence in America and that the leaders of “ethical capitalism” are the greatest practitioners of social discord. Ultimately, what I am getting at is that collective violent actions such as the nationalization of Amazon for the greater good, for example, would be one of the most loving things we can do to impede nationalism and many of the -isms we are facing today. Among these actions, I would also include the public drawing and quartering of Erik Prince, the founder of Blackwater.
What was your last encounter with flowers?
The book The Name of the Rose by Umberto Eco is on my shelf. The name of the book comes from a 17th century Mexican lyric, which reads: “Red rose growing in the meadow, you vaunt yourself bravely, bathed in crimson and carmine: a rich and fragrant show. But no: Being fair, you will be unhappy soon.” I love this book.
I think optimism in thought or artistic creation is a kind of intellectual dishonesty, and reflects one’s distance from the lived experiences that so define the state of the world right now.
You’re a thoughtful, college-educated guy and a heavy metal fan/practitioner. Has anything in your research or studies driven you to engage with “dark” or “hopeless” art?
I am extremely privileged and was able to study useless things like philosophy and literature, but I also studied sustainable agriculture. I think I did so because, at the time, it seemed like the most practical thing one could study. I had some friends that worked on farms, and I had some pretty idyllic experiences on farms in the mountains involving swimming holes, nudity, gorges, sun-drying tomatoes, wine, smoking weed stolen by ex-vets that live in the woods from horrific grow ops, with all the naïve ecstasy that such transformative experiences entail.
But ultimately, I think the material world and the realm of ideas equally influence one’s artistic outlook, or are effectively the same thing through their interaction. Having the privilege to read all kinds of works has absolutely changed how I think, and due to the state of the world and climate change and all, made me more cynical, as heightened by my past experiences with what the world could be. Philosophy and literature for the past 100 years has been extremely negative, and I definitely have tried to get outside of this bubble or self-justifying circle that it imputes to the world. But, it’s not like my experiences in the material world have really been able to help alter what I’ve learned from my reading.
If anything, just grinding and getting by has made me just more angry and hateful. Maybe I would be less angry if I could just read more, but I think optimism in thought or artistic creation is a kind of intellectual dishonesty, and reflects one’s distance from the lived experiences that so define the state of the world right now. The argument that “there’s less violence than ever in human history” is fucking garbage to me. These “studies” overlook the everyday violence that forces people to do brutal labor for effective slave wages, and the ongoing slow transformation of the climate that is only going to radically increase violence and refugees all over the world.
I definitely use music as a way to actively purge myself of my anger and my hopelessness. But at the same time, I’m generally a happy person, and I think even if we lived in an utopia, a necessary ingredient to it would be my liberty to create dark, violent music. Deleuze says something somewhere along the lines that there is truly no sad music, or that there is always this underlying joy to the act of creation. I think that this is true to my experience. As dark and depraved as the music I make is, there is this purely Bacchic joy that occurs alongside the act of playing or listening to this music.
Do you believe culture can reach an endpoint and just endlessly gnaw at its own past? I guess I ask because pop culture operates on nostalgia like never before, at least that I can remember. Is there nothing past the edge of the cliff?
The end of music will never come. There is no end to the permutations that can happen to existent tropes, thus there will always be ways at making a “new sound of old school death metal” or any other x genre. And even if that end could come, the ritual aspect of playing, hearing, seeing music live can never die, and is what has sustained human cultures for all time.
Recently, I’ve been thinking about if and when some wild, total fallout happens, and if and when we won’t be able to play music together or go to shows anymore. Like, what if we don’t have the infrastructure to receive the metals and materials to make our instruments anymore, or transport them? And if that happens, and I’m, like, old as fuck and haven’t been able to see live music for years, and somehow things get better again, and some kids get enough shitty instruments to play something resembling some heavy-as-fuck music?
Can you imagine the joy of being able to bear witness to live music after being not being able to do so for 60 years? I cannot. That would be such an indescribable feeling. We are at perhaps the peak moment of saturation with music ever in human history, and sometimes it seems like everything has been done. But still, people do innovative shit and it feels like there is more good music coming out than ever before.
Please define childlike joy to me. When did you last experience it?
Childlike joy is to be lacking self-consciousness, to be purely immersed in your world, to have a playful or perplexed attitude towards all objects or people around you, all supplemented by a general happiness that is extremely difficult to put into words, an intangible x. The last time I experienced this was probably at a show in Los Angeles a couple months ago.
LA is going through a kind of artistic renaissance right now, and there is shit happening that just did not happen, like, eight to ten years ago, at least to my poser ass. There were two shows happening at once in the same building, one extreme metal and the other a really hyped punk show. The metal show was in this grimy bar where I saw Human Agony, Rohit and Methgoat. The punk show was in the back in this bizarre, cavernous, enormous emptied-out building that you could only access going through this extremely packed passage and doorway.
At that show I saw Zoloa, Grimly Forming, Haram and Blazing Eye. I was going back and forth between both shows, saw all kinds of friends I hadn’t seen in a long time, all in one place. There were hundreds of people there. Everyone was smoking inside. I was drunk. It just had this primal and electric feeling to it. That was a good night.
Do you see history as cyclical or a straight line? Can you provide any citations or examples?
This is a matter of subjective opinion or aesthetic taste, but in my view, it is a straight line. Structurally events can be seen as similar in a way akin to the structural similarity of a novel. Every novel contains a plot, characters, conflict, etc. But the contingencies that comprise every novel or event are utterly new and comprised of totally different people in a new place and a new time. Even if an event occurs that has similarities to the one before it, the new event is made utterly different precisely by the fact that the event is a repetition to event previous to it. This change is so radical that it even changes the way the first event is perceived.
As a grim example, take the school shooting crises that keep happening in America. Imagine all the shock that surrounded Columbine, how new it was, the horror, the adrenaline. Now with all of the ones that have followed, Columbine itself has changed. It has taken on this kind of stark originary status, and each shooting not only changes how we experience our present emotions, but how we experience the past. We not understand Columbine as not this single event, but an event that marked a new trajectory of a chronic problem that plagues American life.
T.S. Eliot presents a similar account through his account for what constitutes artistic excellence in his essay, “Tradition and the Individual Talent.” What makes an exceptional work of art is not how well an artist can mold him or herself to the norms that preceded the artist, but to what extent the artist can make a work so original that it changes how we see the whole tradition of literary history that preceded the artist. To this end, maybe Ginsberg’s “Howl” would be an accessible example. It made the nitty-gritty, gross, sexual, low-class art capable of being seen as “high” art in a way that was not possible prior to Ginsberg. It forced high-class snootiness to not be in itself a precondition of art, but merely one kind of art among an infinite array of others.
The key to seeing history as a straight line is to remain open to all the differences that ineluctably partake in every new event in time.
Ancient Romans were a bunch of nihilist pagans drunk on the power of a withering empire. That sounds like late capitalism to me.
Do you feel cynicism can have a real-world benefit, or is it generally a useless and lazy attribute for someone to have?
Extreme anger and hopelessness is equally as capable of instigating change as hope and joy. But the inverse is true as well; hope can placate you and make you okay with your situation, even if it truly will never change. For every nihilistic Instagram punk that thinks everything is fucked, there’s a suburban new mother who thinks it’s still morning in America. These are polar worldviews, yet they can both be equally pacifying.
What I think is important is to note is that the cynic and the believer inhabit the same world. I consume and fuck up this world just as much as the ignorant Christian mothers in my air-conditioned office job. So I think the either/or between hope and anger is pretty arbitrary, and in material terms, both worldviews end up being the same if nothing changes. Maybe we’ll actually start to believe we can make a new world, and it’ll happen. Or maybe we’ll all get so fucking angry we’ll drag the hedge fund managers from their yachts to the gallows. I don’t think either is less practical, or that they are even mutually exclusive.
What period in world history could you most accurately compare our current stage to? Is that an easy designation to make, or are we truly in uncharted territory here?
I don’t know history. The fall of Rome? I don’t even know much about the fall of Rome. They were a bunch of nihilist pagans drunk on the power of a withering empire. That sounds like late capitalism to me. What I do know about Rome, I know from a book called The City of God by Saint Augustine.
At the time Augustine was writing, Rome had recently become exposed to Christianity, temporarily having Christianity as the state religion at one point. After Rome began to deteriorate and was sacked by barbarians, pagans began to attack Christianity, asking why, if the Christian God was so great and powerful, he would let Rome suffer such atrocities.
Augustine argues that Christianity is a religion that does not expect God to necessarily help humans experience happiness in this world. If humans do experience temporal joy, it is only by the grace of God, and Christianity is the greatest religion because it offers an incomprehensible experience of love and perfection in a world beyond this one. To hope for happiness in this world is utterly futile. For Augustine, paganism can only offer such a hopeless worldview, and though Christianity can not really expect better treatment in this world, it offers happiness in the next world.
I say all this just to comment on the ironic religious differences between Rome and our world today. Namely that, at least in America, we live in a Christian nation subject to an utter dependence on hedonistic pleasures. The people in power pray to God for worldly power, for riches, and security. Christianity in Roman times expected the exact opposite as to what Christians hope for in our times. Economically and politically, however, I expect there to be many similarities between the 21st century and the fall of Rome. In any case, I bet that Roman aristocrats would have loved Burning Man.
Curated by: Morgan Enos
Conducted by: Email
Published: September 6, 2018
Total questions: 8
Word count: 3095
Reading time: Eleven minutes
agriculture, benefit, Blackwater, carmine, Christianity, comprehension, creation, crimson, cynicism, definition, difference, Disgusted Geist, distance, drumming, electricity, ephemera, Eric Liewald, Erik Prince, experience, feeling, fragrant, Friedrich Nietzsche, gallows, Heavy Metal, honesty, housing, Humanoids, intellectual, material, medicine, metal, morning, nihilism, nostalgia, pagan, philosophy, punk, reflection, refugee, Rome, rose, Saint Augustine, scarcity, Soren Kirkegaard, superiority, system, T.S. Eliot, transformation, twist, Umberto Eco, utopia, violence, yacht
About the curator
Morgan Enos is a songwriter and journalist originally from California. His curatorial work for North of the Internet aims to strike a deeper place in his conversation subjects — the dreamy subtext to the linear everyday. Morgan also frequently writes power pop records as Other Houses about joy, outer space, frustration, chess and spiritual light. He resides in New York, where he continues to creatively fire on all cylinders.
Related conversations W