I may lend the false impression that I possess certain conservative qualities. But this is only true in an aesthetic sense. I believe in politeness, principles, morality and classically defined values. These words are certainly part of the conservative vocabulary, but it is rare to find such things of substance in their morbid, racist, slave-owning and monarchical traditions.
Truth of the matter is that the classical era is of such utmost fascination to me because it was the only time in recorded history where outcasts did not have to live like outcasts. Where every culture was a subculture, and every subculture was a culture. Socrates was a convicted criminal, Diogenes was a homeless man, Pythagoras was a cultist, and Aristoteles was a nerd. It was a beautiful time of freaks and oddballs. A time where radicalism was conformity, and conformity was radicalism.
Rather what gets me about a lot of modern subcultures is precisely the aesthetic content of them. That if you wear a leather jacket instead of a suit, then you’re a rebel. But I ask, why? You’re still giving money to a corporation, you’re still buying products to fit into a consumer demographic. What gets me is the pretense of these outsiders. Real outcasts, radicals and oddballs and freaks do not find themselves being famous rockstars or winning awards.
Usually they die an early death. Usually they are not appreciated until they’re gone. Take the goth subculture for instance. Aesthetically you can find all you need at an alternative clothing store, like Hot Topic or whatever. But substantially I think the most gothic character in history is a very unlikely candidate. This subculture came out of a very beautiful interpretation of classical cynicism. The idea of finding beauty and meaning in tragedy, in embracing the world in a more holistic sense. To, even if you live in darkness, try to find some kind of light. Some kind of meaning. It is in many ways where cynicism means romanticism, and it’s a wonderful thing.
And I think if you’re looking for an embodiment of this, then the best example might be Vincent Van Gough. A man whose life was embodied through an existential struggle between light and darkness. His whole life he suffered the worst kind of pain, he lived an anguished existence, and yet what defined him was his desperate and passionate pursuit to find beauty in a world that was unforgiving and ambivalent towards him.
Granted, the goth subculture is a little bit more contemporary, and not to mention centred around music as opposed to paintings, but if there ever was a troubled enough soul who possessed the virtues that give essence to the gothic archetype, then I think it was Van Gough. Aesthetically he is wholly different, but substantially? He’s like Edgar Allen Poe’s depressing brother.
Similarly, you can find an interesting archetype to the metal subculture in none other than Frederic Chopin. Metal is often considered nihilistic, contrarian, edgy, and pessimistic. But I would beg to differ. This is once again an aesthetic interpretation. It’s very misleading. I think the beauty of the metal subculture does not lie in what it absconds with, but rather what it decides to keep. Namely, passion.
Yes, there’s anger and rage and fury and madness, but look at the beautiful things they become. People going to shows, forming communities, having fun, looking out for eachother. Once again we see how it turns something dark and miserable and troubled into a positive outlet.
And when I read about how Frederic Chopin would not lie down to rest on his death bed, but would instead sit at his piano, and keep playing it, even when the keys were covered with blood from his violent coughing, then I see the metal archetype. To just live according to your passions, right up until the very moment you’re gone.
And I think that’s what real social rebellion is about. There’s countless other examples, but they all possess a vital thing, which is to turn something negative and miserable into something positive and useful. Postmodernity and neoliberalism have been given us a religious doctrine of pessimissm. That’s the way in which corporations aim to end democracy once and for all. Because despots and kings prosper when the people have low expectations. The idea that the media is full of liars, that all governments are corrupt, and that all societies are doomed from the start are not ideas possessed by critical thinkers, rather it is the highest conformity.
By persuading the public that a better world is impossible, there’s no longer any accountability. Our leaders can be as corrupt, criminal and self-serving as they like, and all people will think is “Well that’s what they’re supposed to do. Anything else is too good to be true.”
So I think the radical content of social rebellion comes from examining what lies beyond the aesthetic, and within the substantive. It comes from a kind of universalist understanding of life and humanity. To be able to look past the appearances of others, and to be able to relate to them on a more fundamental, human and spiritual level. And I think that people who possess such a virtue are generally the freaks and the outcasts.
And I think they are more often than not the driving force of culture, art, music and spiritual things. From Siddhartha leaving his life of nobility to sit under the Bodhi tree, to Oscar Wilde bringing a sense of refinement and intelligence to a huddle of aimless Bohemians.
I think all cultural currents in this sense therefore has an internal contradiction. Because you have the aesthetic individuals, often known by some moniker like “posers” and what have you. These people will just focus on the appearance of it all, and their own individualistic needs. They drink alcohol, party, take advantage of people, pursue popularity, and generally seek to hegemonise and profit from the superficial content of it all.
And in the end all you see is a series of shifting themes within the same central event, which is usually a big and obnoxious party in a mansion. Sometimes it has a rock theme, or a punk theme, or a rap theme, but generally speaking it involves some egotistical millionaire and their feckless horde of miserable sycophants. This is where culture often goes to die.
And it’s a centuries old problem. From the Venetian masquerades of the baroque era, to the centuries long traditions of the English “thespians” who, if prompted, would sell their own mother into slavery for their allotted fifteen minutes of limelight.
That is a problem, but in the words of Fidel Castro: History will absolve me.
Individualism is a poison upon culture. It turns something that is bigger than ourselves into yet another resource to be shamelessly exploited. It is the driving force of publishing monopolies, cultural hegemony and corporate media.
But it also shoots itself in the foot. That’s why I have hope. Human beings always strive for a higher meaning, and it’s okay to be a freak. In fact, I fail to see how you can’t be if you wish to explore things that lack any kind of reasonable intuition. It’s fine to be awkward, and troubled and misunderstood. To embrace the human condition instead of hiding from yourself. To be human is to be naked, and to be naked is to be embarrassed. But that’s when we get to see what lies beyond the aesthetic.
(Also that’s a metaphor by the way, simply undressing yourself with the goal in mind to explore your inner essence is probably pointless)
And I think if I looked for an antipode to Vincent Van Gough then it would probably be Salvador Dali. Dali was obsessed with personal celebrity, status, and vanity. He loved spectacles and attention and people who stroked his ego. He was a devoted support of Spain’s fascist party, and all in all a generally obnoxious guy.
And yes, when you look at his works it’s all very sublime. But the problem with the sublime is that it wears off pretty quickly, and then all you’re left with is a bunch of arbitrary nonsense. Outside of the aesthetic, all we’re left with when it comes to Salvador Dali is a selfish rich guy who didn’t really teach us anything about the world.
Contrast that with Vincent Van Gough. A guy whose humble efforts at simply trying to come to terms with his own pain and difficulties in life is something that resonates with all of us, even long after he’s gone.
Van Gough was able to move humanity with a single sunflower in a way which was more profound than anything Salvador Dali produced, even with an infinity of high minded concepts at his disposal.
And I think the reason why is simple. Van Gough was only trying to be human. So we see his humanity. Dali on the other hand wanted to be a demigod, and that just makes the rest of us estranged from him… unless you’re some kind of Machiavellian lunatic who wants to be a demigod I suppose.
What I’m getting at is that if you have a troubled mind, then consider yourself lucky. Because no one ever did anything useful by thinking everything was fine.