Wednesday, 16 December 2020

Christmas Special: In Search of the Northern Soul


It's common these days to hear people lamenting the loss of the European spirit, that we've lost our way and become something abnormal. We must ''return to tradition'' or ''become who we are'' or to rekindle our spirits in one way or another. But when you then ask what that is, how it can be found or described, it usually becomes reduced to military prowess or scientific discoveries, or various art forms.

 And so for my video this Christmas, after what can only be described as a grueling and dispiriting year, I decided to set off in search of ourselves. Let us be honest, where we find ourselves at the end of 2020 isn't exactly a great place and I've spent all year grumbling about it so there's no need to dwell too long on it here, except to say that we're living in something resembling a technocratic dystopia wracked with ethnic tension and social strife. 

 The forms that gave meaning to life are dead or on life support, economics and politics are all that remain but even politics is crumbling. People engage in power politics, if we can just offer more money to working class whites while lurching far right on conservative principles. In other words all we need is a new ideology, if we twiddle the knobs and pull at the levers long enough the perfect political construction will emerge and we will be at peace once again.

But this is to try and answer the crisis of late modernity within the paradigm of late modernity, a Machiavellian power grab in the face of an existential crisis. It maybe necessary, it maybe desperately needed, but does it reveal anything about us we didn't know? I think we need to travel further, in fact we need to transcend these bean-counter ideologies and political schemes entirely, just for a change, just for Christmas.

The Northern spirit of Europe was never primarily interested in the conquering and enslaving of other people, that was just an offshoot of the main drive of northern European man which is the exploration of and obsession with, empty space. It's here we have to part ways with our southern friends, Rome conquered people, not space, and the Greeks, despite their philosophical brilliance, hardly left the shores of the Mediterranean, with the exception of Alexander of course. The Classic soul gazed adoringly on the European physical form in their statues but the art of the north is infused, always, with the restless wanderer and endless horizon of the landscape painting.

To take the great masters of European painting as an example, the individual depicted in a portrait will be a surrounded by a nothingness to create something which would have been alien to Chinese or Islamic artists. The landscape actively amplifies the natural and plays down the human, the town or village, to present a vastness the individual can disappear into.  No other people or civilization have been so fixated on the distant, and no other people has ever tried so desperately to enter the void.

The course of European painting is a story of the some of most creative geniuses in history in a war against form, in a battle to transcend the 2 dimensional and break through into 3-dimensional phase space.

 So much so in fact that as our civilization progressed painting made way for the great artistic form of western civilization, music. Classical music, as we call it today, is the landscape in audio form. No matter how great the masters of the portrait and landscape were they were, in the end, confined by the form itself. 

True to character the northern spirit wasn't satisfied and sought to express itself unbound by all material and physical constraints and so we get Beethoven, Elgar, Wagner and Mozart.  

 Music can't be seen or destroyed, it exists purely as a feeling in phase space, in the void, and it's there the Northern European soul feels at home. But the greats of classic music, Wagner or Beethoven, were expressing that feeling at its fullest and most mature, it's the lonely torment and angst of Hamlet, or MacBeth on the heath.

The actual category of art is irrelevant, they are all different modes of expressing our world feeling. 

In fact to categorize art in terms of universal boxes, music, literature, painting, is itself absurd because each is specific to the people who created it. So for example, Constable and Brahms have more in common with each other than either do with the painters and composers of Indian or Islamic culture.

 To reduce the expression of a civilization and its people to universal categories makes it nigh on impossible to understand the whole of the world picture.

Bach belongs closer to Titian than the Rolling Stones.

 When we think of Bach of course we also think of the Church or Cathedral and the organ. Which is a manipulation of air, yet even when Bach switched to strings he made the famous ''Air on  G-String''.

But I'd like to go back still earlier and dwell for a while this Christmas in the Gothic Cathedral. Like everything else we've come across so far the Gothic Cathedral is an architectural rebellion of physical constraints and even gravity.

 It reaches into the sky and it's worth remembering that heaven and sky are pretty much interchangeable words in northern European languages. Everything about the Gothic Cathedral speaks of overcoming the material constraints placed upon northern man in an effort to transcend limitations, the road to the satellite and the jumbo jet began here.

The answer to the question we see today of ''why do white people climb mountains'' is actually that's our primal state and drive, and it can be seen in all our cultural and philosophical expressions.

Inside the Medieval Cathedral the light comes through stain glass windows and into the cavernous and open space, but for me the most mystical aspect of all of this, and the complete antithesis of where we find ourselves in modernity, is the Gregorian chant.

 The chant is pure disembodied voice floating upward toward the eternal. The eerie echo is the voice bouncing against the hard, cold walls of the Cathedral, while at the same time filling up the space within.  

For me it feels like going back to a primal state and offloading a thousand years of civilizational baggage, of wars and revolutions and ideologies and economics. There's an immense power to it, it sits outside the number crunching rationality and nihilism of modernity, in fact, it embodies an anti-nihilism, it's pure belief.

And while we're here, what exactly was the point of the quest of the Holy Grail in European myth and Legend, was it the attainment of a prize, a material connection to God? or was it the quest itself and desire to wander and explore the unknown and unknowable to learn truths about ourselves?

But let us not forget the wider setting in which all of this takes place, which is the northern landscape itself, which in winter is often times as barren as any desert and deathly cold. The disembodied voice echos and carries itself across desolate hills and snow covered valleys into a far off horizon, limitless, and empty, for a soul who seeks always to explore and to overcome. And let us not forget, a land which in winter has more darkness than light, the nothing.

As the saying goes, we were born in it, moulded by it.

 When Beethoven ended his ninth symphony, the ode to joy, the orchestra ceased, instruments dimmed and the human voice burst through once again, the form of classical music was said to have been broken and the disembodied voice returned to express itself unhindered once again.

 For me, in an age when Europeans attempt to ''find themselves'' in foreign religions and alien cultures the Gregorian chant is a reminder of our own mysticism, it never really left us, this primal spirit, we just misplaced it for a while.

 And its with these thoughts I'll bid you all a very merry Christmas.

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