Some more from the fascinating notes made by a youngish Mao on Friedrich Paulsen’s A System of Ethics. Here he reflects on death.

To accept it and die, what is there to regret?

That the living must die is the law of all natural things, that what comes into being must perish … Our death is not death, but simply a dissolution [jeisan]. All natural things are not destroyed; neither are we human beings destroyed. Not only is death not death, life too is not life, but simply a uniting. Since a human being is formed of the uniting of spirit and matter, what is there to dread when the decline of old age leads to their dispersal? Moreover, dispersal is not a single dispersal that is never united again. This dispersal is followed by that uniting. If the world contained only dispersal without reuniting, how could we see then every day with our own eyes phenomena that represent unitings (I do not mean reincarnation)?

The universe does not contain only the world of human life. There are many other kinds of worlds in addition to that of human life. When we have already had all kinds of experience in this world of human life, we should leave this world to experience other kinds of worlds …

Would we then think that dying was painful? Certainly not. Never having experienced death, what makes us think it is painful? Furthermore, pursuing it logically, it would seem that the event of death is not necessarily painful. Life and death are two great worlds, and the passage between these worlds, from life to death, is naturally very gradual, and the distance is by nature barely perceptible. Elderly people peacefully come to the end of their years and enter a natural state, an event that is necessary and proper…

Human beings are born with a sense of curiosity. How can it be different in this case? Are we not delighted with all kinds of rare things that we seldom encounter? Death too is a rare thing that I have never experienced in my entire life. Why should it alone not delight me? … Some may fear the great change, but I think it is profoundly valuable. When can such a marvellous great change be found in the the world of human life? Will it not be truly valuable to encounter in death what cannot be encountered in the world of human life?

When a storm rolls over the ocean, with waves criss-crossing in all directions, those aboard ship are drawn to marvel at its significance. Why should the great waves of life and death alone not evoke a sense of their magnificence!

(Mao’s Road to Power: Revolutionary Writings 1912-1949, pp. 245-47)

Berørt dronning fik besked om Mærsks død kort før balkonhyldest

(A Touched Queen Was Told About Mærsk’s Death Shortly Before Her Birthday Appearance on the Balcony)

Published in Politiken today. Some context, since most people wouldn’t have a clue as to what has happened in the navel of the globe. Today A.P. Møller Mc-Kinney Mærsk, the real ‘king’ of Denmark, died at 98. He was responsible for taking a small shipping company and turning it into one of the largest freighter companies in the world, along with oil drilling, supermarket chains and so on. How did he make such a killing? He made a handsome profit indeed during the Second World War selling arms to the Nazis. All for a good cause. And today happens to be Queen Margrethe of Denmark’s birthday; she is 72. Just as she was about to go out on the balcony to greet her adoring subjects on this occasion, she was told of Mr Mærsk’s death. Some editor astutely decided that this was the best photo to line up with the headline. Almost restores your faith in journalists.

Every now and then, an early death is a good career move. Take Kurt Cobain, for instance, or Lenin in 1922 (at the age of 52), or indeed Jesus himself.

But not always. Max Stirner (aka Johann Caspar Schmidt), author of the influential The Ego and Its Own (1845) came to his end as follows: while caring for his mad mother, and skipping from address to address to avoid creditors, he was stung in the neck by a winged insect (what a wimp: we get stung by winged insects every day over here). It was May 1856 and he was 49. He fell into a fever, went into remission and then keeled over on 25 June. No one noticed, not even his mother.

As I sink into my two main projects for 2011 – Lenin and Theology and The Sacred Economy – a brief intro to the book I have just completed on Nick Cave, with a preface written on the Trans-Mongolian train, somewhere in Siberia …

Over 2010 I wanted to engage in some other material that has interested me for a while – the Fleshly Readings book, which has managed to piss off a goodly number of people, and the one on Nick Cave. The latter is called Cave Droppings, looking at things like his engagement with the Bible, the novels and total depravity, death, apocalypse, love, Jesus and a big chapter on the philosophy of music and musical form, via Ernst Bloch and Theodor Adorno. The best bits were listening again and again to all of the music (back to 1977 and the Boys Next Door), engaging deeply with Bloch and Adorno on music, and reading through some 300 or more interviews, unpicking the narratives he spins about himself. And that’s where you find some pretty good turns of phrase, like:

I’ve got to stop quoting from the Bible because it’s irritating.

A chilly thing. The Bible. Sometimes.

All they wanted was the usual holiday snap of hell.

To eat at the same ball of vomit year after year.

When the big bomb goes off, all that’s going to survive are goths and cockroaches.

Two abiding passions – crime and theology.

Death looms large because it should.

And the decomposing lover says …

Jesus only loves a man who loses.

When those two things get together, love and violence, it makes for some nasty song-writing.

But he [Blixa Bargeld] was always more concerned with making his guitar sound like a dying horse, more than anything else.

Sometimes it [Cave's voice] sounds like the moaning of a dying insect

And the TOC:

Introduction.

Chapter One: Searching the Holy Books.

Synopsis: Nick Cave and the Bible.

The Life of Nick.

The ‘Word’ of Cave.

Conclusion, or, Strategies of Containment.

Chapter Two: The Total Depravity of Cave’s Literary World.

Cave World.

That House on the Edge of Town.

A Slug of White Jesus.

Rain in the Valley.

Bible.

Lamentations of Woe.

The Calling of Eschatological Madness.

Conclusion: The Dialectic of Redemptive Depravity.

Chapter Three: Some Routine Atrocity, or, Apocalyptic.

Three Modes.

God’s Anger: The Flood.

Murder, Mayhem and Atrocity.

Glimpses of Redemption.

Conclusion.

Chapter Four: Death.

From Form to Content: The Sinister Song.

Death Inflicted.

Death Suffered.

Individual Annihilation.

Collective Destruction.

Death Overcome.

Conclusion: Death Is Not the End?

Chapter Five: God, Pain and the Love Song.

Secular Soppy Songs: No Pain, No God.

Painlessly Divine: No Pain, With God.

Painfully Secular: With Pain, No God.

Brutally Divine: With Pain, With God.

Chapter Six: Jesus of the Moon, or, Christology.

Volume and Noise.

Sex and Seduction.

Heresy.

Conclusion.

Chapter Seven: Hearing Round Corners: Nick Cave Meets Ernst Bloch.

Hearing around corners.

Concerning the Wandering Path of the Note, or, Forms of the Song.

Anarchy …

… and Discordancy.

Transition.

Hymn (and Lament)

Sinister Song.

Dialectical Song.

Voice.

Conclusion: The Dialectics of Theo-Utopian Hearing.

Conclusion: Gates to the Garden: The Search for Redemption.

Almost done with the final chapter of my book on Nick Cave – an alternative interest apart from the usual stuff on Marxism, the Bible and theology. It’s on the uplifting topic of death, in which I draw upon Adorno, Horkheimer and Bloch for some theoretical perspective in dealing with death both inflicted and suffered. Concerning the latter:

The immediate impression is that death suffered – of a solitary individual, usually the singer – is a theme that dominates the earlier material from The Bad Seeds, especially From Her to Eternity, The First Born Is Dead, Kicking Against the Pricks, Your Funeral … My Trial and Tender Prey. A number of themes emerge from this material, such as execution for a crime, the depravity of a life that ends in a sordid death, relief and the escape offered by a death that is better than life, but above all the struggle against being forgotten after death, the struggle for memory and the threat of complete annihilation. In other words, we find a concern for the process of dying, how one approaches death and the ontological status of death itself, with a distinct emphasis on that last category.

Concerning the process of dying, often the victim is or is about to be executed for a crime that may or may not have been committed,[1] or less often he is the victim of a murder.[2] No peaceful passing here, for the end comes as a result of violence, at times in the context of what can only be called total depravity or a sickness unto death. For example, in the early ‘Blundertown’ from Junkyard (Cave 1982) in The Birthday Party days, we find the sordid reality of life characteristic of the drug-fueled punk albums. This was a time when the bassist, Tracy Pew, died of an epileptic fit brought on by the cocktail of drugs and alcohol (Hattenstone 2008).[3] Tied in closely is an apocalyptic dimension to this sense of utter corruption, in which the world is on course to destruction as the subject of the song slips away. For instance, in ‘Saint Huck’ in From Her to Eternity (Cave 1984), Huck’s death takes place as ‘‘The mo-o-o-on, its huge cycloptic eye / watches the city streets contract / twist and cripple and crack’.[4]

How do these individuals face death? Some do so with an anticipation of release from a dreadful life, looking forward to the peace of not being pursued or persecuted any longer. Thus, in ‘Swampland’ from Mutiny – The Bad Seed (Cave 1989b), a song that may well have come from the novel And the Ass Saw the Angel (Cave 1989a), the subject of the song is caught in quicksand, desperately hoping, albeit not without some terror, that it will suck him down before his pursuers appear with bloodlust in their eyes. Or in ‘Knockin’ on Joe’ from The First Born is Dead (Cave 1985), the singer awaits execution on death row in a mixture of protest at the life lived and relief, since after death ‘You cain’t hurt me anymore’. And in ‘Wanted Man’ from the same album, he mentions the place where he is not wanted any more, namely ‘the place that I call home’.

However, the dominant theme of these songs is death simply leads to total annihilation as a person, with a struggle against the odds simply to be remembered. So, in ‘A Box for Black Paul’ (Cave 1984), the singer searches in vain for some means to remember the executed Black Paul. Everything that he wrote becomes scrap on the street, the ‘whole fucken lot’ going ‘right up in smoke’. Or it may be one anonymous and veiled lover who visits the grave in the dead of night, as in ‘Long Black Veil’ from Kicking Against the Pricks (Cave 1986a).[5] Even the crows eventually forget a corpse strung up on a pole once they have finished feasting on its rotting flesh (‘Black Crow King’ from The First Born is Dead (Cave 1985)). Yet memory is a fickle beast, just as likely to throw up gruesome and unwelcome reminders, such as the carny’s horse in ‘The Carny’ (Cave 1986b), the corpse of which floats out of its shallow grave during an apocalyptic storm as the carnival grimly attempts to leave the scene. Ultimately, one cannot control those memories, as people dig about for dirt and gossip – so in ‘Lay Me Low’ from Let Love In (Cave 1994).

That fickle memory and the ever-present threat of its loss comprise but one element of the annihilation of death. Saint Huck’s river in From Her to Eternity (Cave 1984) becomes a metaphor for the sucking obliteration of identity brought about by the ontological status of death.[6] Alternatively, the devil may take one down, down, down into hell and oblivion (‘Up Jumped the Devil’ in Tender Prey (Cave 1988). Or a rock star may find that he or she suddenly undergoes what is known in the fame business as ‘irrelevance syndrome’, as we find in ‘The Singer’ from Kicking Against the Pricks (Cave 1986a), who fears that suddenly ‘nobody knows me’. Yesterday, the multitude may have screamed out his or her name and cried out for a song, but now he is gone, like the ‘pages of a book’ used to light a fire. All of which is summed up best in the penultimate line from ‘Jangling Jack’ (in Let Love In (Cave 1994): having been shot by the barman, Jack dies slowly in a pool of blood, until at last ‘he vomits and dies’.


[1] As in ‘A Box for Black Paul’ in From Her to Eternity (Cave 1984), ‘Black Crow King’ and ‘Knockin’ onj Joe’ in The First Born is Dead (Cave 1985), ‘Long Black Veil’ from Kicking Against the Pricks (Cave 1986a), ‘Mercy Seat’, ‘Up Jumped the Devil’ and ‘Mercy’ in Tender Prey (Cave 1988).

[2] ‘Stranger Than Kindness’ from Your Funeral … My Trial (Cave 1986b), ‘Jangling Jack’ and ‘Lay Me Low’ from Let Love In (Cave 1994).

[3] We also find this tone in ‘Saint Huck’ in From Her to Eternity (Cave 1984).

[4] So also in ‘Jangling Jack’ from Let Love In (Cave 1994), apocalyptic creeps in as Jack is killed by the barman as he goes for a drink: ‘He sees the berserk city / Sees the dead stacked in piles / Sees the screaming crowd.’

[5] See also ‘Stranger Than Kindness’ in Your Funeral … My Trial, in which memory is held by one, the survivor of a toxic love affair.

[6] As does the quicksand in ‘Swampland’ from Mutiny – The Bad Seed (Cave 1989b).

The first time it was a little sad and poignant – reading through the 50 volumes of the Collected Works (I got them cheaply via a dodgy deal in California). When Marx died from pure exhaustion and, some years later, the ever-exuberant and priapic Engels finally succumbed to throat cancer at 75 from a lifetime of fine tobacco and good beer and wine, I was in a melancholy mood. The second time was when I finished the long manuscript of Criticism of Earth, the third when I completed a thorough revision of this 450 page tome. By this time I had a distinct feeling of deja vu.

But now, running through 58 years of writings by Engels and 50 years by Marx, in both English and German (and all the other fucking languages in which they wrote – Engels seemed to spout them off with no trouble), I wish they would fucking hurry up and fucking die.

Two possible sayings before death:

This life has been a good one, but I’ll have a good laugh if there isn’t another one on the other side.

I can take care of myself, but will be able to manage without myself, too.

In one of my favourite pieces, a dialogue between Ernst Bloch and Theodor Adorno called ‘Something’s Missing’, we find this astonishing argument concerning death from the ‘gate keeper’ of utopia:

Ever the dialectician, Adorno is interested in the resistance to utopia that shows up in the question of death, for this is the crux of utopia and anti-utopia. Suggest, he proposes, the elimination of death to someone who may be sympathetic to the idea of utopia. At least you will not get the knee-jerk response that you must be crazy. But the knee will certainly come up at another point: to eliminate death, says the interlocutor, would be dreadful. It would be absolutely terrible, boring and enervating, to face endless life. For Adorno, this is the moment of the most absolute resistance to utopia, since the strongest tie to the status quo is not social but an identification with and attachment to death. Given Adorno’s commitment to the determinate negation and the need to maintain, even negatively, the hope of utopia, this resistance must be negated. How? Death must be eliminated if utopia is to have any meaning.

So the anti-utopian attachment to death must be negated and that the way to do so is insist that on the elimination of death. But what does Adorno mean? He accepts Bloch’s distinction between dying and death. The former concerns the scientific, physical process of dying. In this he is not interested, or rather, he argues that utopia would not involve new scientific discoveries that enabled one to pass over the threshold from organic to inorganic life. He is, however, very interested in death as an ontological state, one that we face with horror and dread. Is this light, we can understand the following extraordinary observation:

I believe that without the notion of an unfettered life, freed from death, the idea of utopia, the idea of the utopia, cannot even be thought at all. … There is something profoundly contradictory in every utopia, namely, that it cannot be conceived at all without the elimination of death; this is inherent in the very thought. What I mean is the heaviness of death and everything that is connected to it. Wherever this is not included, where the threshold of death is not at the same time considered, there can actually be no utopia.

Note well: the elimination of death involves eliminating the heaviness of death and all attached to it. In other words, the sheer terror and horror of death, the pure annihilation that such a state is supposed to entail, must pass for any utopia to have meaning. Awaiting the threshold should hold no dread for us; indeed we may be able to look forward to it: ‘Utopian consciousness means a consciousness for which the possibility that people no longer have to die does not have anything horrible about it, but is, on the contrary, that which one actually wants’.

Not the Adorno to whom we are accustomed. To my knowledge, this is one of Adorno’s most forthright statements concerning both utopia and death. He has been led to this point not merely by the arguments of Bloch, but also by the logic of his own position. Determinate negation is the key, for the attachment to death as it now exists is also an attachment to the status quo. That anti-utopian resistance must be met by the determinate negation, for ‘death is nothing other than the power of that which merely is’. Even here he remains to true to his position that one must heed the ban on images, for in arguing for the negation of the attachment to death, he remains within a negative argument. Yet the dialectical outcome is that Adorno has made a positive statement, surprising even to himself. ‘Excuse me’, he says a little later, ‘if I have taken the unexpected role of the attorney for the positive’. So we are left with the position that dying in a physical sense may well continue; we will still die as we do now. But the horror of death as an ontological state may itself pass, so that one may look forward to the threshold of dying. Bloch, of course, agrees, for the moment of passing over becomes an open question, one of hope rather than despair, the beginning rather than the end of a journey.