Sunday, 1 April 2012

How I Learned To Stop Worrying And Love The Mountain Goats

The rituals of the Church are meant to draw us out of our usual lack of focus and into a focus that sharpens our blurry edges and makes us more ourselves.

In the rituals of addiction, we seek to do the opposite: to sink ourselves and lose ourselves so that we don't have to think too hard about what we're doing. I'm not entirely sure if this is the language I want to use, but provisionally I'll say that there are ecstasies of eros ("the paradoxical desire for union with what is different") and ecstasies of thanatos, self-destruction; and addiction rituals draw us into the latter. Addiction rituals are meant to fragment the self, muffle the conscience, and blank out the mind.
That's from Eve Tushnet, via the excellent Cigarette Smoking Blog. Thanatos is my new favourite concept - the fascination with destruction, especially the destruction of the self. For some people I imagine it serves as a refuge from anguish; for others it is the unavoidable source of anguish; for some it is the source of creative endeavour; for some it shuts down all creativity, and so on. Certainly I don't understand it, not fully.

But I do not trust anybody who hasn't in some measure touched the ecstasies of thanatos. Kierkegaard, the great Dane himself, talks in Fear and Trembling about "a person who has grasped the horror of life, has grasped the meaning of Daub's statement that a soldier standing alone with a loaded rifle at his post near a powder magazine on a stormy night thinks strange thoughts". Now Kierkegaard is talking about somebody who has achieved an understanding - or at least a recognition - of the skull behind the skin, and so on, which is difficult. Few people do this and, like I said, I certainly haven't. But I can touch it at least. Like Helen Rittelmeyer at CSB, I appreciate the desire towards self-destruction. Anybody who doesn't harbour a similar desire (to some extent or other, at some time or other) is alien to me.

Ecstasies of thanatos and addiction rituals are common themes of the Mountain Goats' music. I contend that the primary theme of the Mountain Goats' work is love as thanatos, an all-consuming, destructive addiction. Look at the images of the lyrics: empty gin bottles, stick pins and cotton, cigarettes stubbed out against walls, and so forth. When John Darnielle sings  I hope you die, I hope we both die, or I hope the stars don't even come out tonight, I hope we both freeze to death, it's not hatred or self-pity so much as an attempt, as Eve Tushnet says, to "fragment the self". It's like a sailor clinging to the mast of his ship as it rounds the whirlpool who decides what the hell, if I have to go I may as well go, and swan-dives into the center of the swirling waters.

I've rambled on long enough in this post, but here is an excellent (and hilarious) example of this kind of art, in comic form. And here's an example of the Mountain Goats' embrace of thanatos:

I think that love of thanatos stems, as Kierkegaard suggests, from existentialism and the recognition that we are, in all important respects, fucked. Correspondingly, the lack of such love goes along with self-deception, Sartre's bad faith, and the belief that everything is, of course, going to turn out pretty well. I can get on board with hope, or with thinking that all will be well against all odds, but I find the 'of course' alternately pitiable and disgusting.


  1. I've wanted to comment for a couple days. Here's what I can pound out before the coffee shop closes!

    This sort of thanatos seems to be a component of apocalypticism. I think there can certainly be more to the apocalyptic than this, but this seems to be a part, at least for some. Even without any religious hopes, I am sometimes still attracted to thoughts of the end of everything.

    Uh... time for approximate quotes!

    Jesus: “there will not be one stone left upon another”

    mewithoutYou: “one day the water's gonna wash it away!”

    Thrice: “look to the day the earth will shake, these weathered walls will fall away!”

    Arcade Fire: “all the walls that they built in the seventies finally fall, and all the houses they built in the seventies finally fall”

    Lastly, it seems that suicide is generally not a utilitarian act. The suicidal people I've talked to don't seem to primarily think that suicide will alleviate pain. Rather there is a direct drive toward suicide, along the lines of thanatos or otherwise. Suicide as creative or expressive, rather than alleviating.

  2. Hmm, that's really interesting. Fascination with the apocalypse, I think, is tied in with wanting the world to end as much as fearing it. It's partially the attraction of a clean slate, of neatness, and partially the attraction of a great all-encompassing conflagration, the glorious annihilation of everything.

    I won't pretend to know what motivates the suicidal, but what you said sounds right. The 'death drive' was the one convincing part of Freud I read.