Can bad people make good music? A few thoughts on Burzum and nostalgia
My latest artwork inspired by ‘Fattigmannen’ which was also the cover of one of Burzum’s albums triggered a heated discussion on a closed facebook group.
Varg Vikernes is well known for his extreme views and past actions and is considered to be a reprehensible individual by almost everyone. Is it justifiable to promote or even listen to Burzum then? Does liking his music somehow contaminate you morally? This blog post is also a response to the youtuber ‘theneedledrop’ who was asking the same question in this video.
In his book ‘The Righteous Mind’, Jonathan Haidt provides some great insights on the fundamentals of human morality. He argues that all humans have a set of pre-wired moral foundations relating to harm, fairness, loyalty, respect, purity and liberty. These are specialised circuits in our brains who act in a similar way to taste receptors – whenever we ‘taste’ a violation of a moral foundation we come up with an instant emotionally charged judgement (‘this is bad!’) which we afterwards try to justify rationally.
The strong reaction against Burzum should be understood in this light. He is well known for his Volkisch sympathies; he says nasty things about certain ethnic and religious groups. For the Western public, all these things are summed up under ‘fascism’, a category that triggers our moral receptors of harm, fairness and liberty. These triggers demand an immediate, visceral rejection of anything related to this man – his music, his friends, his youtube channel. Someone stated this plainly in the facebook group discussion: “If someone is a fascist or a Nazi they don’t have any redeeming qualities.”
Clearly, these visceral reactions of anger and disgust have a beneficial purpose. Their downside, however, is that they limit our empathy towards the persons who commit such transgressions, blocking our capacity to understand their motives, which are regarded as pure evil anyway. Trying to grasp their mind contaminates you. Besides, what would be the point of aiming to understand people like Varg – other than to justify their actions? These emotions are therefore easily manipulable. One can use them rhetorically to make accusations of guilt by association, to demonize other groups and even ask for extreme measures of censorship or violence.
I have listened to Varg’s ramblings enough to understand that precisely the mental process I described above has lead him in particular (and the early Norwegian black metal scene in general) to those extreme views and actions. Movements like these emerge from a strong sense of cultural loss and amnesia. People can no longer relate to the modern world, its lack of boundaries, challenges and purpose. They feel they have lost all connection with the past and their ancestors. The industrial revolution was the first event that triggered this reaction in the 19th century, causing a wide range of nostalgic reactions which formed the Romantic Movement. In Greek the word nostalgia means ‘the longing’ (algia) to ‘return home’ (nostos). All these groups shared the ‘algia’ but each found different ‘nostos’, and it is this last part (claiming a mythical home) that causes people to become intolerant towards those who refuse to share their values. Catholics rooted towards the rich historical heritage of their church. Fundamentalist Christians who viewed both Catholicism and Protestantism as compromised rooted towards the mythical apostolic faith. Varg, as a late adept of the Volkisch movement, could find no meaning in the powerless and austere protestantism of his country and was drawn to the heathen traditions of his ancestors.
Now I would argue there’s nothing wrong with nostalgia and the search for the mythic home. There’s nothing wrong with finding something meaningful from the past either. Maybe the titanic project of modernity had some unexpected side effects that made us lose what was valuable to us, so some people choose to idealise cultures from the past instead of the contemporary global culture or the [not so] transhumanist future. The problem lies in what Haidt calls ‘the partisan mind’. When you’re so convinced that your subculture is the only ‘trve’ culture, that you have totally found what you were looking for, you will try to freeze your movement in that historical point. Varg has a video entitled ‘About why (all) movements fail and turn to shit’ in which he claims that weak leaders are unable to keep their groups pure enough so they become contaminated by outside sources. Having this mindset, it was natural for him to consider Christianity (and Judaism) as his greatest foe, and the age of king Harald Hardrada (1000 AD) with its forced conversions, desecrations of pagan monuments, witch burnings etc. as the fall of the West. “People who call themselves pagan shouldn’t respect monuments that symbolize apostasy laws and being burned alive for 700 years” says a heathen guy on a black metal page. People with partisan mindsets don’t see the irony of their stance. The stave churches, the Saxon crosses, the writings of Snorri Sturluson and saint Bede – these are the closest things we have to the pre-Christian era. Almost everything Varg knows about his heathen past was collected, kept and transcribed by monks in Christian monasteries. There is wisdom to be found outside your ideological group. It is also necessary to point out that the mythic home of every restorative nostalgic movement never existed in the idealised way in which it is portrayed.
Some might be quick to point out that only nostalgic movements develop totalitarian tendencies. This is totally wrong. Many totalitarian movements rose from within Modernism; just think of colonialism, mechanised warfare, several forms of fascism which exalted technological progress (nazism included), communism etc. At present we are also getting a taste of what a Postmodern dictatorship would look like. You can be just as partisan and intolerant if your spotless treasure is set in the present or future, not just in the past. You can cry wolf (‘fash’) and manipulate people to hate those outside your ideological echo chamber just as easily; consider them subhuman (‘beyond redemption’) and then accuse anyone who does not agree with you of guilt by association (‘if you don’t say the words I want you to say, you’re a fash too’).
These people with partisan minds are the greatest threat to artistic expression. The first Scandinavian Christians who destroyed heathen monuments and burned nonbelievers were no doubt partisan. Varg was no doubt partisan when he burned a stave church. But so are those who want to ban Burzum, who cancel neofolk concerts, who attack movie producers for not showing enough adhesion towards a certain ideology. The Zhdanov Doctrine did this in the USSR. In 1946 Andrei Zhdanov proposed that the world was divided into two camps: the “imperialistic” headed by the USA and the “democratic” headed by the Soviet Union. “Zhdanovism soon became a Soviet cultural policy, meaning that Soviet artists, writers and intelligentsia in general had to conform to the party line in their creative works. Under this policy, artists who failed to comply with the government’s wishes risked persecution” (Wiki). If you want to see what bands were forbidden in 1985 in USSR, have a look here. Yes, Julio Iglesias is among them (guilty of neofascism) along with all your dad’s favourite rock bands.
Those who wish to ban Burzum for wrongthink also fail to see the irony of having a black and white mentality (I’m looking at you, antifas). In many ways Varg is diametrically opposed to the alt-right nationalists. He doesn’t believe in making America great again, he does not bemoan the death of God. For him the West started to fall even before the East-West Schism. He’s also critical of colonialism and capitalism. Being a passionate environmentalist, primitivist and survivalist, he can’t wait for the decline of Western society so that a heathen revival could happen. All these beliefs bring him much closer to far left identitarians or anarchist types than to right wingers. He might have violent tendencies and an innate arrogance, but how is he any different from his Viking ancestors? Take for instance the saga hero Egil Skallagrimsson; although he was cruel and violent (killed a fellow during a sport contest for no other reason than pride, fought many battles), he had the usual virtues of a Norse hero: strength, courage, honour, loyalty, poetic and musical talent.
So as a classical liberal I can appreciate Burzum without embracing any of Varg’s ideological tenets or without being magically contaminated by his sins. I guess one has to be nostalgic and somewhat fascinated with traditional cultures to dig his music, not to mention the goth and horror element. To love nature and to fear it.
I believe time can be revisited just as space; although no one can go back and live in past ages, they are not completely gone. We have somehow inherited history within ourselves. So I can appreciate the cultural aspects of certain ages more than others without adopting a partisan attitude. “Home” is not static, it’s something you keep revisiting and re-imagining.