Mar 27, 2011

Metal Music, (Heideggerian) Mood, and Memory

Right now, as I start writing this entry, blogging from my (temporary) iPad, I'm sitting in an Irish pub in the Boston airport waiting on a connecting flight to Chicago O'Hare, where I then grab a rental car and drive down the Dan Ryan through the city, up on the Skyway, and south into Indiana, where I watch my daughter dance her parts in a local ballet production of Sleeping Beauty. After that brief respite, enjoying my girl's deepening initiation into one of the high arts, a discipline inducing and perfecting grace and balance, I retrace my steps almost exactly, driving back to O'Hare to catch a flight to Boston, then another down to Raleigh-Durham, then drive back to Fayetteville, to resume classes again Monday morning and finish out what remains of my last semester at Fayetteville State.

On the first flight, suspended in the sky, relocating constantly over who knows what terrain, as I switched back and forth between rereading Platonic dialogues on an iBook reader and writing notes preparatory to an upcoming presentation in a word processor, listening to metal songs shuffling through the sequence my internal iPod randomly spun out, I found myself washed over by the sorrow of nostalgia, an always unfinished grief for times past, that unpredictably swells up out of imperceptibility, and wells up tears -- a reaction I've experienced enough times to know and be comfortable with as much as one becomes towards eccentricities of long-lived-with companions

You see, once you possess halls of memories stretching out long enough for you to have forgotten great portions of what lies behind, once they have looped over each other, sometimes crisscrossedly repeating, sometimes referring, confabulating -- or to forge another hallmark, when some of your memories are of times and moments where you remembered, you ruminated upon, you brought back to affective vivacity other intervals and events -- then enough of your own life is behind you for the past to assume aspects, dimensions more acute and complex than the young can really imagine (though they can yearn for it when they read of it -- glimpses with the heart's eye are afforded some of them).

In our experiences -- and instances of remembering, recalling, being mindful (all words I use in translating the rich Latin tongue's memor esse) also fall within experience's realm -- there are times when associational structures unite elements, aspects, dimensions in ways demanding something like the connoisseur's developed, cultivated, practiced attention, respectful of the complexity of the object, the experience, one wishes to know better, to understand, even to love.

For me, these confluential moments often juncture music, mood, and memory. The former, a song, an album, even at times a line or progression is the trigger lingering on past it's effective evocation of one of the others, which then hearkens to the third. Such moments of feeling, remembering, while listening on my first flight of the day (as I write this now actually embarked on the second leg, from the sky of the eastern midwest, misting up with Iron Maiden and Motörhead and Dio in my ears) are among the subjects of this blog post

By training, I am, among other things, a phenomenologist; accordingly I do not harbor the prejudice that would regard such intensely personal experiences as insufficient material for starting points for -- let alone impediments that must be methodologically stripped away as a preliminary to -- philosophical work. Phenomenology supplies to its diligent (as opposed to dilettantish) practitioners tools penetrating but also finely flexible enough to transform individual experience into "leading clues" (as one classic practitioner called them) for the acts of analysis, description, and metaphysical and moral reflection so much at the heart of philosophy as an activity.

One tonality, or if you prefer metaphors drawn from other fields, one underlying chord structure, one wash beneath the other colors, to the mood evoked at times for me by the Heavy Metal of my childhood and break into adulthood (the 1970s and 80s) is an attachment to the past, the lived moments, the realities available now only through their effects, in my own ruminatory remembrances, or in shared time and talk with those who likewise lived through those years with those songs in their ears and in in their hearts. Some give to this lasting feeling or affective habitude -- as well as the moments it breaks through into conscious experience -- the name "nostalgia."

For me, that affect often gives rise to, or is accompanied by, a much stronger, more pressing emotion. I find myself suddenly in sadness, feeling the loss of the now semi-present moments -- and the experiences, the places, the acts, the paths and vehicles, the friendships and rivalries, fears and elations, loves and hates, the days sweating under one sun or another, nights listening to rain without, twilights girding up then picked up for parties, sipping cans of beer whose bitterness I had not yet come to enjoy around bonfires illuminating a corner of dark countrysides.

Such sadness bears a familial resemblance to grief, an emotion with whose shades and periods I am intimately familiar, having grieved over -- some of them I also buried, even eulogized -- both my parents, each of my grandparents, and early on a girlfriend and not long after a best friend. Grief yearns for and remembers the real goods of the past stripped away, and like wine transmutes as it ages. It is not the same as the wish, the desire, the demand that cannot be met, that the past be back in the present. But that can be an element to grief.

Such sadness is not sorrow either, if by the latter we signify a sadness over one's own actions or omissions, their effects and consequences, their character and what they reveal about own. Such does have to do with the past, of course, but sorrow understood in this sense is different enough from sadness that some spiritual advisers counsel against allowing oneself to remain in or choose actions on the basis of sadness while regarding sorrow as an affect potentially positive for the one who feels it.

For me, the sadness of the present -- evoked in time, the finite measures of a song, the temporal space of so many words arranged, rhymed, emphasized, chorused -- typically is mixed in with a reverberation of the feeling of the moments I am remembering: the excitement of a high-speed late-night drive, the camaraderie, the flush of infatuation, flirting, making out, moments of fun, boredom, humor.

I could go on, so much of my life was lived out, experienced, thought, felt, talked, done, to a perpetual soundtrack sometimes blaring from a car, a boombox, a stereo with its speakers my Walkman, sometimes lulling me to sleep (Scorpions Love at First Sting and Blackout were reliable favorites), sometimes just in my head as I sang, hummed, whistled, or drummed along. We walked, we drove, we worked out, we fought, we skated, we hung out and almost always there would be some of "our" music playing.

It was that time of life of discovery after new, exciting discovery. The night a week of walks on white, cooling sands and swims in Florida's dark waters gave way to losing my virginity, on a moonlit beach, Ratt and Judas Priest playing in the background, initiated me also into the bitter but intoxicating taste of just-smoked cigarette tobacco in the mouth of the girl who kissed me. I can't say each new band, each new record, each new song was as exciting as that, but often it came close as we listened, then begged to borrow so as to make copies.

So the affects of the past are not primarily that sadness I feel as my memories are provoked through the Heavy Metal music I have returned to over the last five years. I knew and felt something very much like it in my teen years, but it was more formless. It had little to fix itself upon definitively, not least, I recognize now, because I lacked the length of years that modify and deepen the nature, meaning and feeling of memory, as I wrote above.

I bring up Martin Heidegger here, a philosopher with whom I have very deep disagreements, because one of the matters I think he got fundamentally right and in which he made a vital contribution to understanding emotions, cognition, time -- and even music, though he was note explicitly discussing it there -- is his extended discussion of how basic aspects of human being, as it experiences the world, others, itself, and perhaps glimpses a mystery lying yet deeper at the core of existence, how these basic aspects interpenetrate each other and structure our very way of being in time. I am going to give a very simplistic, thumbnail sketch of his teachings on these matters, mainly because they illuminate my experience of sadness mixed with other feelings, mood associated through interwoven memories and music.

Heidegger writes of four basic, inescapable aspects of human being and he calls these by German terms sometimes rendered as: mood, thrownness, understanding, and articulation. Each of these are connected with our experiences of and the reality of time, the past, present, and future, the course, the flow, the structure of temporality.

By mood what he means is that our existence is never lacking in some affective resonance, the one note of a simple, single feeling, the pervasive coloring by a mood, the complexities of mixed and intermingled emotions, the push and pull of desire. Thrownness refers to the condition that we are never without a situation. We always find ourselves already caught up in myriad contingencies, acting, suffering, witnessing, or compelled by intersections of narratives. Understanding is the set of interpretations, constructions, even confabulations or ideologies we project upon what we face or expect, how we make sense, the meanings we discern or determine. Last, articulation includes the systems which connect together and provide a vocabulary for the other three aspects. Heidegger refers specifically to language, and it is clear that he understands language as inextricably bound up with culture. Really, any semiotic system -- any system encompassing signs and their interpretations -- so also music -- intricates and disseminates itself within this aspect.

Heidegger connects each of these with one dimension of time: past, present, future -- and the very continuity that binds and sequences these. Mood is indeed felt in the present, but arises from and connects us to the past. Thrownness reflects the ever-present condition of the current time, the point, the interval, the moment, the time of the now. Each time when something can happen, where by our wills we can intervene, we are always in a situation. Understanding points toward the future, even though it works in the present. We project an interpretative understanding, a set of connected meanings, structures, categories from which we can then draw further inferences, onto every situation. And articulation connects everything together, locate it within systems that not only exceed the horizons of any given subject in the present, but also provide continuity to past and future as present moments float from futures yet into the time of the now and then into receding pasts.

It is worth pointing out two other features of Heidegger's system (a term he would reject vehemently, but which I'll nonetheless use) of temporality. The first is that, if we contrast cognition and emotion, or the intellectual and the affective, there is a definitive tilt connected to temporality. The future possesses its presence and significance through intellectuality. The past has its through affectivity. The present, and the overarching structure, are where intellectuality and affectivity, mood and understanding, are fused together.

This brings up the second feature, which is that each of these aspects, in the specific determinacy they take on for individual existing human beings, correlates to another aspect. Mood by itself does not correspond to understanding, because these remain abstract. But each mood, Heidegger says, has its corresponding understanding, and vice-versa.  Each situation into which we are thrown has its corresponding possibilities of befitting moods and understandings.  The system of articulation itself filters, steers towards some and away from other moods, interpretative understandings, grasps of situations.  I recall that Heavy Metal's aggressivity baffled my mother:  why do you like to listen to that music?  It's just so angry all the time.  While for me, it encompassed and evoked everything from wonder to humor, from clashing excitement to camaraderie, from down and dirty lust to longing, to tenderness, from regret to nostalgia. . .

The uses of my music -- or really our music, because there was a sort of community, one realized individually  finding out another person one would never suspect was after all a metalhead, a headbanger; or, one grasped it communally in the oceanic vastness of the crowd in the concert halls and on the lawn at Alpine Valley -- were multiple: hanging out in the parking lot during breaks, or before and after school.  Every party, of course, and the rides there and back, rides anywhere as a matter of fact. Wrestling, sparring, working out, skating, flirting, making out, hanging out, camping, taking walks, painstaking work of painting models, doing homework, reading, writing -- to all of them a nearly constant and ever more varied soundtrack played, so that, for example, until my memories entirely fade away, Van Halen's albums Women and Children First and Fair Warning will always evoke reckless biking on trajectories as  precise as knife edges through traffic and down roads in Waukesha, a particular infatuation on my mind at that time, sitting at home reading Moorcock's Cornelius Chronicles, and a walk and talk after driver's ed up Highway 83 with a tattooed guy recently out of prison.  I remember drifting off to sleep with Metal softly playing.  My favorite for that were from The Scorpions' Love at First Sting and Blackout albums.

I remember music nearly all of the time, if not playing from a stereo or a boombox, then from my headphones, and if not that, in my head.  Sometimes I sang along, or hummed, or whistled, or (in class) just drummed along with pencils or my fingers.  So many of my past moments were lived in what memory would transform into associational webs connecting music with feelings, desires, yearnings, pains or enjoyments, to situations, to activities, to plans, viewpoints, interpretations of events, persons, and relationships.  When those moments are being recalled to me, as I listen to those songs again, from the library I've been slowly rebuilding -- even expanding beyond what I had on vinyl and cassette in the 1980s,  the moods of my past self -- and those of the others with whom I shared those moments, come back, not precisely felt, but not simply known about.  Rather, they are, let's say, registered

This music, moods, and memories remain connected in my past, and stray into my present where I welcome them but also experience the sadness I described above.  Typically, it is the music that reveals these junctures, evoking memories then, with the past moods following, and then the other mood of sadness, coexisting with the original moods' shades and reflections.  For in the present, recalling these remembered moments, and a different time, an alternate -- older and younger -- stage of life, there is also the corresponding situation I am thrown into, a new one in some way.  It is not as if I've never felt that sort of sadness before -- I did at times eve back then -- but there was nothing upon which to anchor it, so it remained inchoate, stored away in my heart to be made better sense of later, to be given meanings, an interpretation, correlated to an understanding of the time to come and the time past -- easier now that I am at what I hope to be the halfway point, fourth years past, forty yet ahead.  It is since I rediscovered this universe of distinctive signs -- the music that I'd left behind in my youth, as my tastes expanded and changed, and as CDs replaced my collections of LPs and cassettes, so vulnerable not only to wreckage but also to my constant moves, my shift to more transportable and reliable media -- that this experience of being in time can make better sense, can be articulated more fully.

There is a point on which I have been in entire disagreement with Heidegger since the first time I read Being and Time a decade and a half ago.  He famously claims that one mood in particular reveals our condition, our being in the world, more fundamentally than all others.  Angst, or "anxiety," is the privileged gateway to reality.  I have always thought this a mistake, for wonder, joy, gratitude, love these can be just as global, just as revelatory of the fullness and the limitations of being and beings -- and so can sadness, at least sadness of certain sorts, including this one, like affective glue, binding me to my own rediscovered, awakened past, or better put, binding all of those moments to the self ever moving further into the future of those pasts, binding them so that they remain -- in memory, through mood, via music, just as close as the breath of the present moment.  That type of sadness, I think, opens up to us the mystery of our time-bound lives, but only once we are readied by enough forgotten experiences to allow it its space, not of mourning, not of sorrow or regret, but an appreciation of the goodness of being, transmuting and assimilating in the present not only all of the pleasant, exciting remembered situations and moods, but even all of that time's own angers, fears, lonelinesses, embarrassments, disappointments, boredoms and griefs, into tears with no sting left, just wetness and heat.


  1. the whole thing is fantastic - but that last paragraph is the most essential. it is strong, driving, and poetic - much like the music you're writing about. kind of like, if this blog post is blackout, that last bit is china white.

  2. Thanks very much -- yes, I suspect that some of my sensibilities have been formed precisely through that genre of music, whose complexity and depth (and in many respects similarities to classical music) were somewhat under-appreciated back then.

    And for a metalhead, its high compliment to have one's prose compared to the Blackout album, and especially to that last gorgeous, bass-pulsing, wall-of-distorted-guitar, vocal-wailing song