Posts

Religion, Stigmata, and History

Dr. Gabor Klaniczay has illuminated many of the issues related to stigmata in the nineteenth and twentieth century, focusing on Italy—which seems especially susceptible to miracles of all kinds—and on both Catholic and Protestant commentary on the nature and significance of stigmata. Careful to acknowledge contrary opinions and claims, he also explains that Catholic doctors were inclined to credit stigmatics and their wounds as proof of the supernatural, while Protestant doctors were more critical and prone to deny this significance, attributing the conditions to psycho-somatic conditions or fraud.

The nineteenth- and twentieth-century debates on these issues animated people of faith, religious leaders and medical practitioners as well, and the debates took place in a context that historians have described as increasingly secular, as the Enlightenment, the so-called Age of Reason, proceeded into the nineteenth century. Amidst the pattern of secularization, historians such as Michel de Certeau have also noted the localized energies of Catholic revivals and their social context in which mystical experience met political motivations and religious authorities.

As this description of a long historical moment may suggest, signs of sanctity remain contested; their significance seems always slightly more open to interpretation, diagnosis, even narrative than we would imagine or than some would hope. This openness or over-abundance of potential significance has a long history, and if we follow it carefully, some of its main threads emerge as early as the 1300s when nuns’ bodies were opened, after death (post-mortem), to assess their internal anatomy for potential signs of sanctity. The context was canonization in which these bodily phenomena were used as evidence. For example, Chiara of Montefalco (1268-1308) was an Augustinian nun; and when she died, her sisters dissected her corpse and found, in her heart, a small cross, a lance, a crown of thorns, and other instruments of the passion of Christ, and in her gall bladder, three stones. Her sisters “saw” these signs as signs of her sanctity, while a local Franciscan argued they had placed the items there in the course of the autopsy. The argument was not resolved; it resurfaced again when a publisher in the 1650s printed images of Chiara’s heart, woodcuts featuring the anatomical abnormalities. Inquisitors, operating under the constraints and concerns of the Counter Reformation, were worried that the images like the abnormalities were not “authentic” (Bouley). But the concern, as Bradford Bouley has explained, was different in the 1650s because the medical tradition by that time had embraced the work of Galen, including his anatomical studies, which were clearly evoked in the arguments about the inauthenticity of Chiara’s cardiac abnormalities.

Dr. Gabor Klaniczay has illuminated many of the issues related to stigmata in the nineteenth and twentieth century, focusing on Italy—which seems especially susceptible to miracles of all kinds—and on both Catholic and Protestant commentary on the nature and significance of stigmata. Careful to acknowledge contrary opinions and claims, he also explains that Catholic doctors were inclined to credit stigmatics and their wounds as proof of the supernatural, while Protestant doctors were more critical and prone to deny this significance, attributing the conditions to psycho-somatic conditions or fraud.  

The nineteenth- and twentieth-century debates on these issues animated people of faith, religious leaders and medical practitioners as well, and the debates took place in a context that historians have described as increasingly secular, as the Enlightenment, the so-called Age of Reason, proceeded into the nineteenth century. Amidst the pattern of secularization, historians such as Michel de Certeau have also noted the localized energies of Catholic revivals and their social context in which mystical experience met political motivations and religious authorities.  

As this description of a long historical moment may suggest, signs of sanctity remain contested; their significance seems always slightly more open to interpretation, diagnosis, even narrative than we would imagine or than some would hope. This openness or over-abundance of potential significance has a long history, and if we follow it carefully, some of its main threads emerge as early as the 1300s when nuns’ bodies were opened, after death (post-mortem), to assess their internal anatomy for potential signs of sanctity. The context was canonization in which these bodily phenomena were used as evidence. For example, Chiara of Montefalco (1268-1308) was an Augustinian nun; and when she died, her sisters dissected her corpse and found, in her heart, a small cross, a lance, a crown of thorns, and other instruments of the passion of Christ, and in her gall bladder, three stones. Her sisters “saw” these signs as signs of her sanctity, while a local Franciscan argued they had placed the items there in the course of the autopsy. The argument was not resolved; it resurfaced again when a publisher in the 1650s printed images of Chiara’s heart, woodcuts featuring the anatomical abnormalities. Inquisitors, operating under the constraints and concerns of the Counter Reformation, were worried that the images like the abnormalities were not “authentic” (Bouley). But the concern, as Bradford Bouley has explained, was different in the 1650s because the medical tradition by that time had embraced the work of Galen, including his anatomical studies, which were clearly evoked in the arguments about the inauthenticity of Chiara’s cardiac abnormalities.  

St. Clare of Montefalco Receiving the Cross in Her Heart, detail of a fresco from about 1333. Montefalco, Capella di Santa Croce in Santa Chiara da Montefalco

As a particularly dramatic account in the early history of signs and sanctity, this episode highlights the importance of context, for we see how the local context of Chiara served to establish claims to sanctity in the early 1300s and how the more extensive context of the Counter Reformation generated an overlapping but ultimately different set of debates about those same signs in the 1650s. The case of Chiara also invites us to reflect on the entanglement of religion and medicine, a thread in this longer history that persists even to today. As Dr. Klaniczay discussed at the end of his interview, the stigmata of Padre Pio were studied and debated within the Church, amidst local and more extensive concerns, and they involved the testimony of medical practitioners, especially in this case, a pharmacist.  

In earlier cases where bodily signs of sanctity were being established and evaluated, it became routine for medical practitioners to participate. This thread began to materialize, as it were, in the discussions of signs that potentially fell into the category of “supernatural” or beyond nature rather than anatomical abnormalities that were considered contrary to nature, mistakes of nature or abnormalities that happened once in a blue moon, such as hermaphroditic anatomies. Physicians and anatomists were supposed to be expert in the latter. The most robust period of development for this taxonomy and for the evaluation of signs of sanctity was probably the Counter Reformation era, which may be said to begin with the formation of the Council of Trent (1545-1563). As Bouley acknowledges, in its first 100 years, ca. 1550-1650, the Counter-Reform Catholic church ordered the posthumous examination of almost every prospective saint. Examinations required medical professionals to evaluate anatomical abnormalities—effectively categorize them as either supernaturam or contra naturam—and these included unusual anatomy, miraculous incorruption (the corpse’s perceived lack of decay), and evidence of extreme asceticism (Bouley 2-3). These examinations developed formal practices, empirical understandings of the body, standards of evidence, and other technical formulations that granted legitimacy to the proceedings. Indeed, postmortems of Church officials became routine by the 1700s. The Catholic church, to borrow Bouley’s phrase, formed an alliance with anatomical studies; and all subsequent promoters and detractors relied on it as they argued about the significance of stigmata and other bodily phenomena in holy bodies.

One additional thread that you might investigate in this long history is gender, for female bodies were central to it. In addition to general resources, some of the works listed below use the lens of gender to discover unusual and expected details and contours of this history. Katharine Park and Gianna Pomata, in the sources listed below, reflect on how the practices of autopsy and the holy bodies of women perpetuated or disrupted gendered ideas about sanctity and hierarchies of authority, evidence, and saints. Continuing this line of inquiry, Bouley explains that postmortems during the Counter Reformation inscribed a conservative gender hierarchy, establishing the Church’s authority in opposition to feminine weakness—holy women, who had adopted a masculine set of markers in their public life, were overtly sexualized and feminized after death in a process that subordinated them more effectively to eccelsiastical authority. Male bodies, Bouley continues, were made asexual and hypermasculine after death. Anatomy was designed, quite literally, to fit one’s destiny.


Resources:

Elisa Andretta, “Anatomie du Venerable dans la Rome de la Contre-reforme. Les autopsies d’Ignace de Loyola et de Philippe Neri,” in Conflicting Duties: Science,

Medicine and Relgion in Rome, 1550-1750 (Warburg Institute, 2009), 255-280.

Bradford Bouley, Pious Postmortems: Anatomy, Sanctity, and the Catholic Church in Early Modern Europe (University of Pennsylvania Press, 2017).

Piero Camporesi, The Incorruptible Flesh: Bodily Mutation and Mortification in Religion and Folklore, trans. Tania Croft-Murray (Cambridge University Press, 1988).

Jacalyn Duffin, Medical Miracles: Doctors, Saints, and Healing in the Modern World (Oxford University Press, 2009).

Katharine Park, Secrets of Women: Gender, Generation, and the Origins of Human Dissection (Zone Books, 2006).

Gianna Pomota, “Malpighi and the Holy Body: Medical Experts and Miraculous Evidence in Seventeenth-Century Italy” in Renaissance Studies 21, no. 4 (2007): 568-586.

Protected: Doctors and Stigmatics in the 19th and 20th centuries (classroom edit)

This content is password protected. To view it please enter your password below:

Doctors and Stigmatics in the 19th and 20th centuries

Stigmata are a special kind of miraculous event. They involve the physical manifestation of Jesus’ wounds as depicted in the Bible Gospels. Though many people in history have claimed to bear these marks, they have also been used as proof of the existence of God or to build legitimacy for a religious community. Those who have studied stigmata include investigators from the Catholic Church, religious skeptics, and medical professionals.

This week’s podcast with Gabor Klaniczay focuses on the final group, doctors. In his research on stigmata during the 19th and 20th century in Europe, Klaniczay analyzes how the medical discourse has tried to establish authenticity for stigmata cases. Discourses differed based on religious affiliation with Catholic doctors were more prone to credit them as proof of the supernatural, while Protestants ones were more skeptical, often trying to attribute them to hysteria, self-suggestion, or plain forgery.

Throughout the interview, Klaniczay refers to the social context in which stigmata occurred, as in the cases of Louise Lateau in 19th century Belgium and France, and Padre Pio in 20th century Italy. The first corresponded with a time of intense social change and secularization during the Franco-Prussian War and the Paris Commune, while the second found correspondences with World War I and major processes in Italian politics. In this way, Klaniczay’s approach reflects Jesuit historian Michel de Certeau’s  research on the 17th century Loudun Possessions: miraculous or mystical events are the language in which the symptoms of social change take form.

This podcast was recorded and produced in the context of the 17th Annual Conference of the European Association for the Study of Religions (EASR), “Religion – Continuations and Disruptions” held in Tartu, June 25 to June 29, 2019. We kindly thank the EASR Committee and the University of Tartu scientific committee, organising team, and volunteers for the support provided during this process.

 

 

You can download this interview, and subscribe to receive our weekly podcast, on iTunes. If you enjoyed it, please take a moment to rate us. And remember, you can use our Amazon.co.ukAmazon.com, or Amazon.ca links to support us at no additional cost when buying academic texts, sardines, popcorn, and more.


Doctors and Stigmatics in the 19th and 20th Centuries

 

Podcast with Gábor Klaniczay (18 November 2019).

Interviewed by Sidney Castillo

Transcribed by Helen Bradstock.

Audio and transcript available at:

Download a PDF of this transcript here.

Sidney Castillo (SC): Well, here we are again at the Religious Studies Project Podcast. It’s the fifth and last day of the EASR conference 2019, in Tartu Estonia. And now I am here with Gábor Klaniczay from Central European University. Gábor – it’s very nice to have you here.

Gábor Klaniczay (GK): I’m pleased to be here, too. Thank you for interviewing me.

SC: Thank you for joining us. Would you be so kind as to introduce yourself, please?

GK: OK. So I’m a university professor at the Central European University in the department of Medieval Studies. I’m dealing mostly with medieval religious history, late medieval Christianity. That’s my field of expertise. Within that, the problem of the cult of saints, popular religion, witchcraft, beliefs. And also another aspect of my research is, a little bit, to situate central European religious culture in the whole European or even broader context.

SC: Excellent. Now your talk in the conference, at the EASR, has been about miraculous stigmata in the 19th and 20th century. Could you speak a little bit about that, please?

GK: Yes, well that shows that I’m not only dealing with a medieval things! Actually, I’m also very much in favour of historians dealing with the results of neighbouring disciplines. And there is interdisciplinary research, where I’m actually dealing with history but also anthropology, religious studies, psychology. A lot of these things are necessary for understanding phenomena like miracles or stigmata or something – the relationship to the supernatural. There is also one other type of inter-disciplinarity which is not very much practised, and that is that medievalists should know the results of modernists and vice-versa. So, on the one hand, one says that history is, of course a long train of traditions and one should know about this. But everybody specialised in one’s own age and says “Oh that’s modern. That’s no more my field of expertise.” And I think this is wrong – especially if one deals with phenomena which are basically very similar. So an individual’s relationship to miracle and to the supernatural experience, that has something very common and it’s not by chance that modern people are reaching back to the prophets or the Bible or ancient church fathers. So one cannot, of course, put an equality sign to the experiences. One has to know its historical context and one should not be anachronistic. On the other hand, religious history has to deal with the longue durée. So this is how I started to deal with medieval miracle belief and, within that, a special type of miracle: the stigmata. The stigmata which is a bodily miracle, the most famous initial miracle. Not the first one. But actually the start of the cult of stigmata was with St Francis of Assisi, the thirteenth century saint – a major medieval saint and founder of the Franciscan order – who had a vision in 1227, and got stigmatised . . . at least this is what we got to know after his death in 1227. Actually it happened before his death – two years before his death, as his legend writer, Thomas of Celano, says – during a vision where a seraph, a crucified man, appeared to him in the air, when he was in hermitage. And after this experience the result was that the wounds of stigmata, Christ’s wounds, appeared on his body. And this was discovered after his death. Now this is stigmata. And many Franciscans maintain that this is the only unique example where a human being becomes like Christ. St Francis was venerated like another Christ, an alter Christus, and the stigmata were actually signs of his being so important and working as much for the redemption of humanity as Christ – or almost as much – in the middle ages (5:00). Now other saintly persons, or other religious persons, men and women – mostly women, by the way – were also claiming to have stigmata, like St Francis. And this was a very long-term history, which started in the middle ages. In the middle ages there was another very famous stigmatic woman, Catherine of Siena, who belonged to the Dominican Order. And her stigmata appeared also during a vision, but did not appear visibly on her body because she wanted them to be invisible; not to pretend that she had that high honour. She wanted only the pain. She wanted the experience. And then there were up-to-the-present stigmatics. And my paper here was about 19th and 20th century stigmatics. And the topic that I was dealing with was actually how medical experts, physicians, related to this miracle.

SC: Right.

GK: Because this miracle was very special, in the sense that the stigmatics have these wounds in their bodies, sometimes for year, sometimes for decades. These wounds bleed periodically. These wounds do not get infected. So this is very special type of bodily miracle. And the religious people – mostly Catholics, because this is a Catholic type miracle – are taking it as a very important proof for the existence of God: that such a God can work such wonders in the human body on earth, which cannot be explained rationally, by scientific or medical or other thought. And of course, doctors were challenged, and wanted to examine, and there was a lot of criticism and disbelief, and there were very interesting cases, debates. And I was presenting some of these cases.

SC: That’s really interesting. And I think you gave a very broad description of how stigmatics happen from the middle ages towards modernity. Just thinking about what Michel de Certeau said about how mystical phenomena corresponds to the social contexts – what is happening in those centuries – and particularly the 16th and 17th century were very prominent for many, many mystics. I don’t about stigmata?

GK: There were also stigmata. But some of these mystics have stigmata.

SC: How can we understand the social contexts of the 19th/20th century to explain the stigmata?

GK: Well, one very important social context is that the 19th and 20th centuries are centuries of secularisation. Also after the French Revolution, Napoleon for example, dissolved many religious orders. And there was- against the Enlightenment, and against the rational thinking which wanted to sort-of make the disenchantment of the world, as Max Weber said, happen – well, there was a re-enchantment. In the 19th century there was a Catholic revival. Chateaubriand, the Génie, The Genius of Christianity, and many other movements. And the church, and certain popes, were very strongly fighting against the separation of Church and state. And also there were certain social classes which were in support for that. In France there was a royalist movement. But also the churches’ positions in Italy, for example, which was a place where many of these prophets and stigmatics came. . . . Italy was living, at that moment, the unification, or Risorgimento (10:00). And at the same time there were a lot of resistances of local vested interests of churches, and a lot of contrast also between Rome and the Vatican, and the southern region or northern region. So each time there was a conflict situation. And in some conflict situations the church had its own policies. And one of the policies was indeed to bring proofs for the existence of God, with very spectacular miracles. The most spectacular miracles were visions like La Salette in the 19th century- or Lourdes. These were the appearances of the Virgin Mary – Marian miracles. But there were other miracles also related to the Sacred Heart the Sacré Coeur. And besides these visionaries there were these living saints, the stigmatics, who had new revelations. So one of the stigmatics, for example, that I was speaking about was living in Northern Germany. Now, Northern Germany was a place were already big contrasts were there between the Protestants and Catholics. Catholics were in the minority in Northern Germany, in Westphalia. But they were there. And now secularisation brought another thing in. So there was an Augustinian nun, called Anna Katharina Emmerick, who had these bleeding wounds, these stigmata and also the crown of thorns. At least, she had the vision where Jesus was placing the crown of thorns on her head. And they were regularly bleeding, the place of the crown of thorns. And later, bleeding wounds also appeared on her hands and also a cross on the chest. And then a debate started. And this was an interesting case. Because it belonged to Prussia. Prussia was a secularised and Protestant monarchy with a lot of important scientists, among them medical scientists. And they formed a commission to examine these things. Some were saying, “Oh, this was just self-inflicted wounds.” Others said that the spiritual advisors were using her as a kind of medium, were telling her that her headache was actually from the crown of thorns, and were influencing her. And indeed that was a 19th century thing, this medium related to Mesmer, and mesmerism, and magnetism. Now all kinds of explanations came up, but at the same time there was also a very famous romantic poet, Clemens Brentano, listening to her and writing down her visions as new revelations. And these visionaries were telling an alternative history of what happened to Jesus, and the Bible, or details. And the collected works of Clemens Brentano are the visions of Anna Katharina Emmerick. He didn’t even . . . he couldn’t even publish the whole thing during his life. He died and his brother continued to publish it. So, this is the social context and the role of religion in 19th century. And of course we can go on. Let me just switch to the end of the 19th century, to the 1870s. It was the moment of the French commune, it was the French and German War, the defeat of France. And in France and in Belgium there were a lot of prophets. So first prophesying the death of Napoleon III – he did indeed die! But such prophesies are not very difficult, to say that somebody will die at some point. But also they wanted to bring back, after the commune, monarchy to France. There was a candidate, Chambord. So these were actually the questions. And there was a stigmatic called Louise Lateau in France, and also another stigmatic, Palma Mattarelli in Italy(15:00). And these stigmatics were also related to an Ecclesiastic kind of . . . . There was an informal network within the Church, which still exists today, that there is the official Church and then there is a grassroots level contact among the charismatics, who are cultivating supernatural phenomena. Today it is Medjugorje, and all these things. In the 19th century the stigmatics were there. And there were some doctors . . . there was a doctor that I was talking about. He was from Clermont-Ferrand. He was a royalist, a doctor, a professional, called Antoine Amber Gourbert. But he went to the stigmatics to explain that these phenomena are indeed unexplainable. And he, as a doctor, says, “I know about everything about dermatology, everything about all kinds of illnesses, speaking about it as a rational explanation. But it is wrong! These explanations are unfounded.” And actually, he was publishing books just to support the stigmatics. So that’s the interesting thing. That besides the doctors who wanted to have doubts in the stigmatics, there was a group of believer doctors who wanted to defend the stigmatics with the argument that these phenomena are actually beyond our capacities of explanation. This is why it is coming from God. And it is true that many phenomena are impossible to explain. So today the TV shows X Files, for example. Today’s supernatural beliefs are related to UFOs or other things. But the riddles of nature are indeed a good point where belief, and belief in the supernatural, starts. And stigmata is a long tradition, and this is also a riddle. So in many cases, in the first place, what I want to say is that these persons are truly religious persons. And persons who really concentrate on the suffering of Christ, and want to understand with great compassion the suffering of Christ. And even acting on . . . . So most of the stigmata appear in Holy Week, when Christ is . . . so before Easter. And on Holy Friday, mostly. And many of these stigmatics are acting out, on Holy Fridays, the crucifixion. So just like a mystery play. And their wounds start to bleed on Fridays. That’s a very particular thing, just in memory of Christ. And at the same time, they think that they are suffering the same way as Christ for redeeming humanity from its sins. So helping humanity. So it is a kind-of psychological disposition which is also becoming a bodily disposition. So many things are psychosomatic, certainly. And in some cases it’s clear that there is fraud in it, and they are . . . but in other cases it is difficult to say. And these persons are also having very sincere mystical texts and dimensions. So it’s a very complicated thing. You mentioned Michel de Certeau, for example.

SC: I was going to ask you about that, yes the Loudun possessions.

GK: Yes. Well there is a stigmata… not stigmata but actually Jeanne des Anges also had some wounds, which were actually stigmata from the devil. She was showing it in the royal court and it was there. She had also a very complicated personality. So Michel de Certeau could analyse that this is a very strange and very complex psychological phenomenon when one lives religious experience to that point.

SC: He would say, “These eyes have seen. These hands have touched” . . .

GK: Yes.

SC: Kind-of providing a factual experience towards the stigmata (20:00). One of the things I wanted to ask as well is . . . and you mentioned this in your presentation, that there was Catholic doctors that were giving confirmation that it was in fact a miraculous event and therefore it cannot be explained. But you also mentioned that there were Protestant doctors that were more incisive towards desecrating this phenomenon. So will you elaborate more on that divide within the same medical discourse: how this was different?

GK: Yes. Well basically, yes, as you said, it’s not by chance that Protestant doctors . . . . One Protestant doctor was, for example, one of the critics of this 19th-century stigmatic, Louise Lateau. Louise Lateau, who lived in the second half of the 19th century in a small Belgian village, and got stigmata at the age of eighteen. And a big medical debate started. And while the Catholic doctors were describing her stigmata and then a very famous authority, Rudolf Virchow – from Germany, from Berlin, a Protestant doctor – was writing a long study, Uber Wunder, On the Miracle. And the Protestants were . . . they did not deny a miracle absolutely. But they denied this type of massive production of miracles that the Catholics have been relating to the saints and to the stigmatics. So they were more for a rational explanation of these phenomena, saying that if one does not have the explanation yet, one should not immediately say it is a miracle. But one can sort-of explore it further. So there was a Protestant discourse which was more rationalistic. But that does not mean that they were refusing miracles on the whole. So they were reaching back to St Augustine, who also said that, actually, the small miracles are just to convince the disbelievers. But the only two big miracles are the creation of the world and the resurrection of Christ. And these are actually the big miracles. And the rest is just . . . it can be explained rationally, just as well. Also the Protestants . . . the 19th century polemics on miracles were a good field for continuing this debate. But actually the debate started already in Luther’s time. And the Protestantism refused a lot of the things in Catholic beliefs, among them the cult of the saints, and the cult of the relics, as something which they labelled superstition. And there was a long set of debates related to that. So one good authority who examined this in England, for example, was Keith Thomas, Religion and the Decline of Magic. A big monograph, where he pointed out how Protestantism was kind-of refusing what they considered to be the magic of the medieval church, and wanted to bring in more rational arguments.

SC: Excellent. Well we are almost out of time, but if you could give us some further remarks about your presentation, I think that will be a good way to wrap it up.

GK: Yes. So I told many things already which were in my presentation. One thing I haven’t mentioned yet, that I added, was the famous 20th century stigmatic Padre Pio. Padre Pio, who was a Capuchin friar in South Italy, who was stigmatised in 1918. That was also a typical historical moment – a moment of the First World War, with a lot of horrible experiences that European people and Italians also went through (25:00). And the stigmata was also interestingly related to the South Italian situation and history. There were strong clashes between a triumphant Socialist movement and the Catholic Church. Padre Pio himself was also an interesting individual. He was an ailing person with a lot of illnesses. That’s why he was exempt, he was drafted as a soldier but was exempt from military service because of his illnesses. And he became a friar in a very remote Capuchin convent in San Giovanni Rotondo– a place where a lot of miracles happened because it was just behind the Monte Gargano where the famous miracles of Saint Michael the archangel came. So Italy, in general, was very favourable to miracles. And the old places where miracles used to happen made it kind-of common knowledge that miracles do happen. And this is how the stigmata came out from Padre Pio. And the story itself is a very interesting story. Because from the point of view of medical debates, his stigmata were very debated. They were debated. Because a pharmacist denounced him, saying that he had some iodine tinctures to disinfect his wounds. And some doctors accused him that this was actually to perpetuate the wounds which could have happened out of illness or other reasons. Because, for stigmata, it’s very important that the stigmata should happen by divine intervention, not by self-infliction. That can also have devotional background, but it is not a miracle. So stigmata should be miraculous. And then the debate started and there was a long inquisition, an examination of Padre Pio with all the witnesses and everything. And there was a very important Catholic person, a Franciscan friar, Agostino Gemelli, who later was the founder of the Milan University, the Catholic University, and he was very . . . he had many doubts. He was also not only a Franciscan friar, but also a psychiatrist and a doctor. And he thought that Padre Pio was doing a fraud. But other supporters of Padre Pio were defending him. And there was a long, long debate. He was sentenced to isolation for ten years and also that he should not have – because he was also a pre-consecrated priest, Padre Pio – but he should not confess and give public sermons. He gave the public sermons with stigmatic hands, like Christ, so that was very impressive. But some others said that this is just a fraud. But then in the 1930s he was a pardoned. And then his cult was starting in his life. And actually, he lived with those stigmata for fifty years. And he had some very poplar actions. He built a huge hospital in San Giovanni Rotondo, in a very, very background region, where he was really bringing a lot of good things to his surroundings. And he was later on very much venerated by some popes like Pope Giovanni, John Paul II – the Polish Pope, who was doing pilgrimage to him already, from Poland, from the 1940s. And when he became Pope, one of his aims was to canonise Padre Pio – which he did, actually. So he started the veneration of Padre Pio. And now, Padre Pio is the most popular saint. He is a kind-of saint of the people (30:00). And the notion was also that the people wanted him to become a saint, and the Church – the high priests – resisted for a while. But then they gave in, and now they have canonised him.

SC: Now he is part of the institutionality.

GK: Yes. But there are some others still have doubts. So in any case, he’s one of the most remarkable saints of the twentieth century. And all his life course is related to 20th century Italian history. And there are very good books on him. There is one good Italian historian Sergio Luzzatto who wrote a wonderful monograph on him, where he’s portrayed Padre Pio really as somebody who represents 20th century Italian history – with all its contradictions.

SC: Very, very interesting. I think it’s like all the mystical phenomena are related to society, in one way or the other.

GK: Yes, certainly.

SC: I think that’s a very good take-away for our interview. We thank you once again, Professor Klaniczay, for being here on the Religious Studies Project and we hope you’ll come here again, soon.

GK: Yes OK. Thank you very much.

SC: Thank you very much.

 

All transcriptions for THE RELIGIOUS STUDIES PROJECT are currently produced by volunteers. If you spot any errors in this transcription, please let us know at editors@religiousstudiesproject.com. If you would be willing to help with these efforts, or know of any sources of funding for the broader transcription project, please get in touch. Thanks for reading.

This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution- NonCommercial- NoDerivs 3.0 Unported License. The views expressed in podcasts are the views of the individual contributors, and do not necessarily reflect the views of THE RELIGIOUS STUDIES PROJECT or the British Association for the Study of Religions.

Drone Metal Mysticism

In this interview, Owen Coggins joins us to talk about the use of religious (and sacrilegious) language and imagery in Drone Metal, a genre which stretches metal to low, slow, repetitive extremes. Drawing on the work of Michel de Certeau, he tells David Robertson that the prevalence of language relating to mysticism and “spiritual experience” may be due to the genre’s focus on the physicality of the musical experience. Expanding out to discuss other forms of popular music which exhibit these modes of engagement, the conversation moves to consider how this case-study might open up new ways to engage with religious ideas in popular culture, and in other practices involving extreme states of bodily consciousness.

This interview was recorded at the Open University’s Contemporary Religion in Historical Perspective: Publics and Performances conference in Milton Keynes, Feb 19-21 2018.

You can download this interview, and subscribe to receive our weekly podcast, on iTunes. If you enjoyed it, please take a moment to rate us. And remember, you can use our Amazon.co.ukAmazon.com, or Amazon.ca links to support us at no additional cost when buying academic texts, Sainsbury’s finest porridge, Doublemint gum, and more

A transcription of this interview is also available, and has been pasted below.

Drone Metal Mysticism

Podcast with Owen Coggins (16 April 2018).

Interviewed by David G. Robertson.

Transcribed by Helen Bradstock.

Transcript available at: Coggins – Drone Metal Mysticism 1.1

David Robertson (DR): I’m here in Sunny Milton Keynes for the Open University’s Contemporary Religion in Historical Perspective Conference where I’m lucky enough to be joined, today, by Owen Coggins, who is an Honorary Associate of the Religious Studies Department here.

Owen Coggins (OC): Hello

DR: Welcome to the Religious Studies Project. We’ve been talking about this interview for quite some time. But we’ve finally managed to get it organised – luckily, just as your book comes out! Let’s start, then with drone metal. What is it that we’re talking about here?

OC: OK. I guess I often describe it as an extreme form of heavy metal that’s characterised by extremes of repetition; distortion; extension; tracks that go on for thirty minutes or forty-five minutes – I went to a concert that was three hours long – and feedback and other kinds of sonic characteristics. But it’s also characterised in the sort of discourse that surrounds it that’s produced by musicians but also by audiences – lots of talk about mysticism and ritual and religious experience and transcendence and so on. And so that was the starting point for me wanting to investigate it for my PhD research.

DR: Now this isn’t the first kind of study we’ve had of religious imagery . . . . Well let’s start with metal, particularly. There’s a long history of fairly obvious religious imagery . . .

OC: Yes, and so I think from Black Sabbath – who are often understood as the originary starting point of heavy metal – and you’ve obviously got kind-of crucifixes and press photos taken in graveyards, and accusations about Satanism and various kind of imagined occult practices. And I think that a real interest in the power of religion and its symbols – and perhaps new or sometimes oppositional repositioning of that kind of symbolism, images and languages and even sounds – has, I think, been a really important part of metal from its beginnings. I think, perhaps what seems to me to be slightly different about this particular form – certainly in the way that academics have approached it – is that religion in metal has often been kind-of approached through the lens of Christianity and metal, whether that’s Christian heavy metal itself, or a discourse of anti-Christian sentiment in metal – burning down churches in Norwegian black metal, and so on – and more recently, sort-of more focus on various other sections of Satanism and paganism in metal. But it’s often kind-of approached in terms of a religious tradition and metal, whereas what I was really interested in is the sort of bricolage and sometimes kind-of orientalist appropriation and redeployment of a really vast range of different kinds of religious symbols and sounds, in this particular form of music.

DR: Now the use of religious imagery in metal, particularly – it’s a very deliberately transgressive kind of discourse. Although obviously it varies how serious they are. That’s not entirely what we find with drone, is it?

OC: I think the issue of seriousness is quite an interesting one. And I think humour in metal is often misunderstood as perhaps one optional counterpoint to seriousness. And so I think that’s an interesting way to look at these things. Because, in some ways, there are things which are done very, very seriously which are at the same time completely ludicrous and absurd. And one example is the classic 1996 record by Sleep which has two alternate titles: “Jerusalem” – which references these ideas of the Holy land, pilgrimage – and also “Dopesmoker”. So “Dopesmoker” and “Jerusalem” are two alternative titles for this one single, hour-long dirge classic of stoner metal riffs. And it’s often kind-of referenced by listeners in terms of the lyrics being simultaneously ultra-serious and completely ridiculous at the same time. And I think, that is an interesting way to think about how some of these symbols might be mobilised and ideas might be responded to, which in the book I talk a little bit about and the idea of “listening as if “. And I think, in some ways, drone metal allows . . . in the ways that audiences talk about it, are going to concerts or listening to recordings as if they are ritual, as if they are mystical, as if they are somehow related in an ambivalent way to religion. And that kind of language sometimes shifts around. So the record I mentioned is often described – even in the space of a short 500 word review for example – as like a pilgrimage, or as a pilgrimage, as a sonic pilgrimage, as sounding like the music that pilgrims might listen to at the end of the pilgrimage. And so I think this kind of ambivalence that I talk about as “listening as if” it’s ritualist, allows people to explore and investigate a kind of imagined religiosity without having to necessarily commit to certain kind of identity statements or dogmas or beliefs. And I think that’s part of where the power lies. And I think that also is part of the real value of music in this kind of exploration. Because it affords a sort of imaginative space for people to sort-of explore that.

DR: And that’s something that’s not unique to music, of course. That kind of mode is familiar in other forms of art that have got . . . there are visual artists and painters who specifically design their work to be experienced in these kind of contexts. You made a nice distinction in the book about different modes of engaging with . . . Certain kinds of music are engaged with in a different way and I think you’d distinguish like your pop and rock, the mainstream musical forms, that there’s a different register of engagement with it.

OC: Yes, I think that was really . . . I mean, I don’t really want to make big claims about the specialness of drone metal against other forms of music. But this was really responding to the ways that my research participants talked about it. And there was often a very . . . listeners often made a very strong distinction between drone metal and other forms of music. And often even drone metal and other forms of metal. Just in . . . partly because of the sort-of abstract nature of this very droning dirge-like music and the practicalities, such as how long the tracks last. The real interest in vinyl as kind-of recreating a separate space and time in which to listen. Often people preferred to listen on vinyl rather than digital formats because it created a certain kind of special space and time through which to listen. And I think that really spoke to the construction of ideas about ritual and mysticism: that there was a deliberate attempt to separate drone metal in space and time, but also conceptually as something kind-of set apart. And obviously, there’s an implied construction of the sacred in there.

DR: Yes, that notion of specialness is something that I’ve actually come across in a few places. And it’s quite interesting when you . . . even for students talking about the study of religion – they want it to be something a bit set apart. Even the discourse itself is something separate. Yes, I like that you mentioned the material culture, and there’s a number of interesting intersections here. I mean the vinyl aspect of it is one we’ve already talked about, but there’s also, you know, a particular aesthetic that goes along with particularly drone metal. But we also have material culture in terms of sensory experience.

OC: Yes, and I think, firstly, it was great to speak to people about this certainly quite extreme form of music, and read thousands of reviews and things, just because of the creative and unusual ways that people talked about it. And that was one of the ways that came up a lot was people talking about going to concerts and the air becoming solid, or having a real, physical bodily experience of the sound. And so I thought material culture was actually a really helpful way to think about that. Because it was almost like sound becoming physically mobilised for people, or them kind of engaging with sound in a very physical way. And I think that was an interesting way to think also about mysticism in terms of the ways that people kind-of use, or interpret, or operate on a particular kind of tradition – in this case heavy metal, I suppose, as well as the surrounding discourses about transcendental experience and mysticism and so on – that it was almost a kind of a way to experience sound as sound, or what sound itself sounds like, or what sound itself “feels” like, as some participants put it. Which, I think, connects up to other aspects of the aesthetic in other quite interesting ways, such as the interest with black letter or Fraktur typography, like the sort of gothic script that’s familiar in a lot of metal cultures as well as drone metal. And what I loved about that was it’s a real visual manifestation of the distortion and amplification of a sign that’s so important in the sonic characteristics of the music.

DR: I found that really interesting: the idea of the sort-of fetishisation of amplification. That is noticeably different than most other forms, even mainstream rock and metal where there’s much more concern on the drum kit or the guitars, rather than in drone where it’s the amplification particularly. And what I found interesting, having been a rock musician, was that when you started talking about this, I was thinking, “Well the first stage of amplification you need in rock is that you have to be louder than the drums. Because you have to play the drums loud to make them sound good! So there’s a level of amplification you need, to get your guitar to there, for your band to sound like a rock band, right? But in drone, that bit becomes the bit that’s of interest. And you go up a whole other level, so that it’s the amplification itself that becomes the act. It’s no longer something that you’re doing in order to get to point A, it becomes point A itself.

OC: Yes, I think I’ve suggested that this is the first or, at least, the only musical culture that I know of where the most important musical instrument, broadly conceived, is the amplifier rather than the guitar or, as you say, anything else that’s being amplified. Although, interestingly, there is a real focus on amplification and speakers in dub reggae and certain forms of electronic dance music, which I also discuss. Because those forms of music have also attracted really quite sort-of prevalent discourses of religious experience and mysticism. But yes, definitely, the amplification . . . sort-of amplification of amplification is the thing that’s really at issue. And I think that’s an interesting way to think about that is that it’s about an interrogation of transmission itself. And amplifying kind-of symbols themselves in order to kind of investigate what their possibilities are rather than, for example, to kind-of communicate particular kinds of musical semantics or structures.

DG: Yes, you mentioned dance music- I immediately pictured the front of “3am Eternal”, by The KLF, where it’s an altar and the sides of the altar are huge amplifiers. Of course The KLF were enormously influenced by situationist theory and the kind of post-hippy, kind-of early cybernetic idealism – you know, Tim Leary and those people. And they were very sort-of consciously creating a temporary autonomous zone. But they were using a lot of religious imagery in doing it. Even the idea of time, you know – so it’s 3am, but it’s 3am eternal. They have a lot of these similar kind-of languages.

OC: And I think that the idea of drone itself is very much about . . . or it affords ways of talking about time which kind-of do similar things. They’re physically and bodily experienced in a particular moment, but they open out onto those kind-of ideas about archaic experience and forms of social organisation. And so, in one of the chapters of the book I talk about those: the ways that audiences talk about drone metal being kind of about elsewhere, and drone metal being given access to these elsewheres. People discuss being transported to outer space or to kind-of imagined empty deserts and so on. And I think that’s a really powerful and important way that people respond to it. Not to say that there’s anything inherently connected in the music, but just that those are conventional ways of talking about the music which have sprung up around it, which seem to have a certain validity for people who are communicating about their engagement in this music.

DR: Nonetheless, I found that really interesting. And we really are thinking about utopias – in the original sense of the word – of nowhere, of places that are idealisations or imagined spaces, in some sense, that there’s almost an attempt to achieve through these kind of trancian and drone ideas.

OC: Yes, and I think in dub, and psy-trance, and in drone metal which, as I said, there are different kinds of utopias. And I think you can also, working backwards from there, think about the reasons why there’s such a strong impulse to try and construct these utopias in a very kind of temporary way – just over the course of half an hour recording, or an hour or so of a live concert. So, for example, for dub, in terms of a black Atlantic diaspora wanting to kind-of construct certain ideas about an Afro-centric religion, for example. And I think, perhaps, for drone metal it’s interesting to speculate about what the construction of utopias might say about the social situation of audiences . . . as a response to alienation and disenchantment.

DR: And interestingly as well, almost pre-modern – despite the fetishisation of technology. There’s a lot of wildernesses and distant places. It’s almost away from modernity.

OC: Yes, there was an interesting example when one of the best-known drone metal bands, Sunn O))), performed at the Royal Festival Hall a couple of years ago. The support act was a group from Russia called Phurpa who’ve supported Sunn O))) on a number of occasions, who style themselves as supporting authentic Bon Tibetan traditional chanting. And so when you see these two things juxtaposed, the Tibetan Bon ritual – where there’s bowls of incense and figures in black robes doing vocal chanting – and then you go out and have your glass of wine at the break time and then you go back and there’s a very similar performance with the Sunn O))) band members in their black robes . . . . But it’s a very kind-of consciously up-dated version of this, with these extremes of amplification, but sonically quite a similar palette, I suppose, they’re working with. And I think that’s a very deliberate association that they’re trying to make with a certain kind of imagined archaic ritual.

DR: Let me give you a deliberately provocative question. So we’ve got a kind-of sense of sacredness or specialness, or temporary autonomous zone – however we want to put it – and we have quasi-religious musical forms: which comes first? You know, in which direction is the movement? Or is it mutually reinforced?

OC: Yes, I think it’s a good question and it’s one that I’ve tried very hard to skip!

DR: (Laughs) I said it was deliberately provocative.

OC: But in order to skip it, to focus instead on trying to . . . . Put it this way, there was a lot of claims about – in my interviews and in reviews about this sort of music – that drone metal really does hark back to ancient – in quotes – “tribal religious forms”, and so on. And I think this is kind-of deliberately played-on by some musicians. And it’s certainly picked-up-on by parts of the audience. But my interest wasn’t so much kind-of proving or disproving whether this really, genuinely had ancient connections to these kind of religions. And in the same way that the group performing the Tibetan ritual music that I mentioned – I’m not so interested in the historical accuracy of their early music production. What’s more interesting to me is how those ideas are mobilised, and why people find them important, and to draw on that. And I think, in part, it’s to make an authority claim. Or to recognise and, after the fact, legitimate something that they felt was quite a powerful engagement. And then, in order to kind of situate that for themselves and the listening community, to sort of connect it to these older imagined forms.

DR: Tell us, then, about how this relates to mysticism – and this is a large part of the book, obviously. I mean, I presume we’re building from the kind-of idea that this is music which is deliberately experienced rather than passively heard?

OC: Yes. So, following on from what we’ve been discussing, there’s also quite a strong discourse of perennialism that you find in Aldous Huxley and so on, in the way that people talk about it – that it’s accessing this kind-of universal underlying form of religious experience. Now that, to me . . . there are some troubling consequences of that idea, that just erases all specific differences. And there are some issues with a kind of orientalist grabbing of bits and pieces from all religions and kind of presenting them as if they were referring to a similar thing. So, for me, what was really valuable in trying to understand these kind of discourses of mysticism and ritual – given that so many people who are coming from different kind of backgrounds and so on are using words that are notoriously difficult to pin down, such as “it was a spiritual experience”, or “this music is mystical” in some way – for me, it was really valuable to look to the work of Michel de Certeau. He both kind-of provides a really valuable way to look at the uses that audiences make of texts in popular culture, and also his work on mysticism. And so this approach to mysticism: instead of trying to look behind the texts for this unitive experience, which the scholar imagines is the same behind all of these instantiations, Michel de Certeau, by contrast, wants to look at the texts which are designated mystical and then identify certain procedures, or gestures, or operations on an inherited language that take place in these texts. So, for me, that was really valuable – for a start because it kind of resolves, or displaces, a kind of division between text and experience which has been quite influential – and quite problematically so, in my view – in the 20th century study of mysticism, where mystical experiences are “ineffable”, they’re “indescribable” and then you have texts which sort-of fail nobly to describe them. So the problem with that is that the experience that’s suggested as being the same – there’s not really any evidence for that. And then the actual kinds of differences in texts are just attributed to the cultural differences in which these same experiences take place. Michel de Certeau, by contrast, allows us to look at the particular mechanics and moves and gestures that take place in these texts. So, for example, talking about how a language of the body emerges in the mystical texts – or texts designated mystical in the 16th or 17th centuries – how they’re interested in the materiality of signifiers. And how mystics are seen by themselves as ultra-orthodox, but by outsiders as heretical in some way, for their treatment of their inherited tradition. And so I think there was a number of these kind-of gestures that de Certeau identified in mystical texts, that I also observed in not only the ways that audiences spoke about their engagement with drone metal, but also in the sound itself. So we had similar . . . in the ways that people talked about going to concerts, you find these very similar and familiar gestures of talking about mysticism and ritual. But I also thought it was quite a good description of what drone metal does to the tradition of heavy metal. So it, for example, takes on lots of signifiers from Black Sabbath but kind-of over-extends them, and pushes them to their breaking point. So, for example, the Sleep album I mentioned earlier was described memorably by Julian Cope in a review, as if a bunch of California teenagers had found Black Sabbath’s first four albums in the desert and started a religion, based on it.

DR: I love that, yes.

OC: And so you can see that just even in the sound. It’s almost like taking a Black Sabbath song and extending it for an hour – sort-of almost pushing it to its limits. And I think this almost fits with de Certeau’s idea of mysticism as an operation, or a performance, in a text which does something to an inherited tradition.

DR: So using drone metal, then, are you using it . . . . You’re not so much using it as an example of mysticism, but as an example of how the language of mysticism is operated. Am I understanding . . ?

OC: Yes.

DR: And does that have ramifications for other . . . like, more widely for how we talk and think about mysticism?

OC: Yes, I think so. I think that it helps to avoid some of the pitfalls of mysticism which it has – as we’ve described before – about conjuring this sort-of fiction of an essentialist, universalist experience, which actually relies on particular ideas about subjectivity which are rooted in a Western academic episteme, I suppose. And I think that’s particularly important in our contemporary political moment where we hear references to the 20th century study of mysticism growingly in political discourse. So, for example, Steve Bannon and Richard Spencer making mention of Julius Evola. And that’s a very, very problematic imagination or depiction or mobilisation of ideas about mysticism: Evola kind-of wanting to forward – as he described it – “a racism of body souls and spirit”, and his sort-of involvement in the school of Fascist mysticism. So I think these ideas can certainly be taken in some very troubling ways. And I think, at root, they’re often based on a kind of essentialism and universalism which can be found in relatively benign forms in ideas of Huxley and Eliade and others. But I think de Certeau gives a much more both ethically and epistemologically-grounded way of approaching mysticism. In addition to saying, “If we look at the mechanics of what happens in the texts which are called mystical, then that’s actually a much more empirically-based way to look at mysticism than kind-of imagining these kind-of supposedly pure visionary experiences.”

DR: Great. So what’s next for you? Where do you take this next?

OC: Good question. I’m really interested in – as I start to talk about in the final chapter – how this kind-of relates to anthropological ideas about ritual, and how that might be connected to ideas about the connection between music and various forms of social structure and imagining social structure. So Jacques Attali’s ideas about noise, for example, which I think, given that this form of music is very much about distortion and feedback and noise, I think there’s maybe some interesting connections that can be made with ideas; Mary Douglas, for example, about the importance of dirt and the positioning of those things in ritual. I’m also really interested in wading into debates about heavy metal and mental health. And it’s often been associated with delinquency, both in popular media moral panics, as well as a certain kind of academic literature.

DR: Except, in fact, heavy metal fans are statistically happier and healthier than the norm, I believe – according to a recent survey!

OC: Yes, well I think you’ve got to take all of these things with a pinch of salt. I think that’s perhaps why it’s so interesting. Because I think the debate is so polarised. But I’d actually kind-of want to make room for the fact that maybe some kinds of music can be good for you, and other kinds of music can be bad for you, and maybe the debate’s a bit more nuanced and complex than some of these polemic positions have suggested.

DR: We love nuance, here at the Religious Studies Project, so thank you for taking part!

OC: Thanks for inviting me. It’s been very interesting.

DR: And before we go, I just want to remind the listener to rock hard, rock heavy and rock lobster!

.Citation Info: Coggins, Owen and David G. Robertson. 2018. “’Drone Metal Mysticism”, The Religious Studies Project (Podcast Transcript). 16 April 2018. Transcribed by Helen Bradstock. Version 1.1, 10 April 2018. Available at: https://www.religiousstudiesproject.com/podcast/drone-metal-mysticism/

If you spot any errors in this transcription, please let us know at editors@religiousstudiesproject.com. If you would be willing to help with transcribing the Religious Studies Project archive, or know of any sources of funding for the broader transcription project, please get in touch. Thanks for reading.

This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution- NonCommercial- NoDerivs 3.0 Unported License. The views expressed in podcasts are the views of the individual contributors, and do not necessarily reflect the views of THE RELIGIOUS STUDIES PROJECT or the British Association for the Study of Religions.

Musical Secrets and Mystical Language

It’s often remarked, in response to instances of powerful communion or emotional engagement through sound, that music is ‘a universal language.’ The phrase is pretty vague, and it’s demonstrably inaccurate in most ways you could interpret it. There’s nothing universal about music’s effects (what sounds ‘sad’ here might suggest ‘morning’ or ‘high social status’ somewhere else; I find death metal to be relaxing while driving, though I’m aware that not everyone in the car agrees). And music most definitely isn’t language. Rather, as M.J.M. Hoondert hints in his RSP podcast, part of its power lies precisely in an irresolvable tension in relation to language.

There can be few areas where music’s nonverbal power is drawn on more profoundly than when concerned with death and the (secular?) sacred, the areas with which Hoondert’s research on contemporary requiem is closely concerned. Such requiems may well involve verbal texts, such as poems, liturgical texts altered for new purposes, or stanzas of hiphop or haiku. But, as Hoondert points out, the key issue is how the music can mobilize, transform or even subvert the apparent verbal meanings. He observes that, at their best, these musical ways of stirring up words can prompt deeply felt emotions, while helping us to process, interpret or otherwise deal with those responses in consolation or catharsis.

In my own participatory research with audiences of drone metal (an extremely repetitive, extended, amplified and distorted form of heavy metal music), I’ve also been examining how musical experience and language meet (or don’t), particularly with respect to terms like mysticism, ritual and the sacred. I agree with Hoondert that ethnographic work is necessary in dealing with questions of how ritual and the sacred are imagined by people who wish to avoid the authoritarian implications they perceive to be related to ‘religion.’ In secular requiem performances and in metal audiences alike, listeners instead seek a way of understanding and practicing ritual which, as Hoondert suggests, ‘avoids the institutionalized context but refers to the way people deal with those complex questions of life and death.’

Participants in drone metal music are also involved in creating transient but extraordinary sacred spaces through musical rituals. This occurs in private practices developed to enhance the specialness of listening to vinyl records, and in attending live performances where elements described as ritualistic (smoke, incense, darkness, animal skulls and other weird paraphernalia) supplement the overwhelmingly amplified, distorted repetitive sound in creating an atmosphere which is powerful precisely because of its strangeness and opaque resistance to easy explanation. The music is often described with terms such as violence, aggression, pain and suffering, but it is these markers of extremity which allow a sense of catharsis, dark spirituality and even healing according to listeners. Drone metal, then, addresses deep issues of importance in rather different musical and conceptual registers to Hoondert’s requiem composers and audiences. But in exploring the sacred in music, each are equally concerned with profound themes whose impact for many will elude language.

In fact, most reports of drone metal are prefaced with what I call ‘ineffability disclaimers.’ Listeners first describe the music as indescribable, and then go on to offer articulate, creative, and often elaborate descriptions. And while much of my research has involved analysing and writing about these verbal evocations of mysticism, transcendence and spirituality, it’s important to remember this stated distance between what music can do to us and how we can talk about it. As Hoondert puts it, in considering what attendees might seek and find at requiem concerts:

Through the music they find some what I call ‘musical knowledge’ about the meaning of life and death, and that’s not a kind of knowledge which you can verbalize in a dogma or doctrine, but it’s a kind of consoling knowledge that you find for a moment in the music, and perhaps then it’s gone again.

Music and a powerful but ambivalent religiosity are further intertwined in the ways that mysticism has been understood in the study of religions. Freud linked the two in a 1929 letter to Romain Rolland, writing that ‘mysticism is as impenetrable to me as music’ (Freud quoted in Certeau, 1992, p. 12); William James uses the twin metaphors of musical listener and lover in order to explain the incompetence of language in communicating mystical feeling (W. James, 1982, p. 380); and Evelyn Underhill argued that in using ‘suggestive and allusive language the mystical artist often approaches the methods of music’ in order to enchant the reader/listener (Underhill, 1980, p. 408). Michel de Certeau further explores this connection (himself writing in characteristically suggestive and allusive style), drawing comparison between the reading of mystical texts, and the embodied and interpretative practice of playing music (1986, p. 83; 1992, p. 22), and describing the evocative paradoxes of mystical language as ‘musical secrets’ (1986, p. 99).

So, in claiming that music is a universal language, people might at least be indirectly suggesting something about the power of ambiguity: perhaps that music appears to be able to do things we wish that language could? It brings to mind another commonly heard aphorism, variously ascribed (ambivalently!) to Frank Zappa, Elvis Costello, Thelonious Monk and others: that writing about music is like dancing about architecture. That might be fair, but it certainly doesn’t mean it’s not worth doing. In acknowledging that strange productive tension between incommensurate modes of expression and experience, we might find ways of understanding the consoling, ritualistic, and sometimes sacred power of music.

Endnotes

Certeau, M. d. (1986) Heterologies: Discourse on the Other (trans. B. Massumi), Minneapolis, University of Minnesota Press.

Certeau, M. d. (1992b) ‘Mysticism’ (trans. M. Brammer), Diacritics, vol. 22, no. 2, pp. 11-25.

James, W. (1982 [1902]) The Varieties of Religious Experience: A Study in Human Nature, New York and London, Penguin Books.

Underhill, E. (1980) ‘The Essentials of Mysticism’, in Woods, R. (ed.) Understanding Mysticism, Garden City, Doubleday, pp. 400-15.

 

Podcasts

Religion, Stigmata, and History

Dr. Gabor Klaniczay has illuminated many of the issues related to stigmata in the nineteenth and twentieth century, focusing on Italy—which seems especially susceptible to miracles of all kinds—and on both Catholic and Protestant commentary on the nature and significance of stigmata. Careful to acknowledge contrary opinions and claims, he also explains that Catholic doctors were inclined to credit stigmatics and their wounds as proof of the supernatural, while Protestant doctors were more critical and prone to deny this significance, attributing the conditions to psycho-somatic conditions or fraud.

The nineteenth- and twentieth-century debates on these issues animated people of faith, religious leaders and medical practitioners as well, and the debates took place in a context that historians have described as increasingly secular, as the Enlightenment, the so-called Age of Reason, proceeded into the nineteenth century. Amidst the pattern of secularization, historians such as Michel de Certeau have also noted the localized energies of Catholic revivals and their social context in which mystical experience met political motivations and religious authorities.

As this description of a long historical moment may suggest, signs of sanctity remain contested; their significance seems always slightly more open to interpretation, diagnosis, even narrative than we would imagine or than some would hope. This openness or over-abundance of potential significance has a long history, and if we follow it carefully, some of its main threads emerge as early as the 1300s when nuns’ bodies were opened, after death (post-mortem), to assess their internal anatomy for potential signs of sanctity. The context was canonization in which these bodily phenomena were used as evidence. For example, Chiara of Montefalco (1268-1308) was an Augustinian nun; and when she died, her sisters dissected her corpse and found, in her heart, a small cross, a lance, a crown of thorns, and other instruments of the passion of Christ, and in her gall bladder, three stones. Her sisters “saw” these signs as signs of her sanctity, while a local Franciscan argued they had placed the items there in the course of the autopsy. The argument was not resolved; it resurfaced again when a publisher in the 1650s printed images of Chiara’s heart, woodcuts featuring the anatomical abnormalities. Inquisitors, operating under the constraints and concerns of the Counter Reformation, were worried that the images like the abnormalities were not “authentic” (Bouley). But the concern, as Bradford Bouley has explained, was different in the 1650s because the medical tradition by that time had embraced the work of Galen, including his anatomical studies, which were clearly evoked in the arguments about the inauthenticity of Chiara’s cardiac abnormalities.

Dr. Gabor Klaniczay has illuminated many of the issues related to stigmata in the nineteenth and twentieth century, focusing on Italy—which seems especially susceptible to miracles of all kinds—and on both Catholic and Protestant commentary on the nature and significance of stigmata. Careful to acknowledge contrary opinions and claims, he also explains that Catholic doctors were inclined to credit stigmatics and their wounds as proof of the supernatural, while Protestant doctors were more critical and prone to deny this significance, attributing the conditions to psycho-somatic conditions or fraud.  

The nineteenth- and twentieth-century debates on these issues animated people of faith, religious leaders and medical practitioners as well, and the debates took place in a context that historians have described as increasingly secular, as the Enlightenment, the so-called Age of Reason, proceeded into the nineteenth century. Amidst the pattern of secularization, historians such as Michel de Certeau have also noted the localized energies of Catholic revivals and their social context in which mystical experience met political motivations and religious authorities.  

As this description of a long historical moment may suggest, signs of sanctity remain contested; their significance seems always slightly more open to interpretation, diagnosis, even narrative than we would imagine or than some would hope. This openness or over-abundance of potential significance has a long history, and if we follow it carefully, some of its main threads emerge as early as the 1300s when nuns’ bodies were opened, after death (post-mortem), to assess their internal anatomy for potential signs of sanctity. The context was canonization in which these bodily phenomena were used as evidence. For example, Chiara of Montefalco (1268-1308) was an Augustinian nun; and when she died, her sisters dissected her corpse and found, in her heart, a small cross, a lance, a crown of thorns, and other instruments of the passion of Christ, and in her gall bladder, three stones. Her sisters “saw” these signs as signs of her sanctity, while a local Franciscan argued they had placed the items there in the course of the autopsy. The argument was not resolved; it resurfaced again when a publisher in the 1650s printed images of Chiara’s heart, woodcuts featuring the anatomical abnormalities. Inquisitors, operating under the constraints and concerns of the Counter Reformation, were worried that the images like the abnormalities were not “authentic” (Bouley). But the concern, as Bradford Bouley has explained, was different in the 1650s because the medical tradition by that time had embraced the work of Galen, including his anatomical studies, which were clearly evoked in the arguments about the inauthenticity of Chiara’s cardiac abnormalities.  

St. Clare of Montefalco Receiving the Cross in Her Heart, detail of a fresco from about 1333. Montefalco, Capella di Santa Croce in Santa Chiara da Montefalco

As a particularly dramatic account in the early history of signs and sanctity, this episode highlights the importance of context, for we see how the local context of Chiara served to establish claims to sanctity in the early 1300s and how the more extensive context of the Counter Reformation generated an overlapping but ultimately different set of debates about those same signs in the 1650s. The case of Chiara also invites us to reflect on the entanglement of religion and medicine, a thread in this longer history that persists even to today. As Dr. Klaniczay discussed at the end of his interview, the stigmata of Padre Pio were studied and debated within the Church, amidst local and more extensive concerns, and they involved the testimony of medical practitioners, especially in this case, a pharmacist.  

In earlier cases where bodily signs of sanctity were being established and evaluated, it became routine for medical practitioners to participate. This thread began to materialize, as it were, in the discussions of signs that potentially fell into the category of “supernatural” or beyond nature rather than anatomical abnormalities that were considered contrary to nature, mistakes of nature or abnormalities that happened once in a blue moon, such as hermaphroditic anatomies. Physicians and anatomists were supposed to be expert in the latter. The most robust period of development for this taxonomy and for the evaluation of signs of sanctity was probably the Counter Reformation era, which may be said to begin with the formation of the Council of Trent (1545-1563). As Bouley acknowledges, in its first 100 years, ca. 1550-1650, the Counter-Reform Catholic church ordered the posthumous examination of almost every prospective saint. Examinations required medical professionals to evaluate anatomical abnormalities—effectively categorize them as either supernaturam or contra naturam—and these included unusual anatomy, miraculous incorruption (the corpse’s perceived lack of decay), and evidence of extreme asceticism (Bouley 2-3). These examinations developed formal practices, empirical understandings of the body, standards of evidence, and other technical formulations that granted legitimacy to the proceedings. Indeed, postmortems of Church officials became routine by the 1700s. The Catholic church, to borrow Bouley’s phrase, formed an alliance with anatomical studies; and all subsequent promoters and detractors relied on it as they argued about the significance of stigmata and other bodily phenomena in holy bodies.

One additional thread that you might investigate in this long history is gender, for female bodies were central to it. In addition to general resources, some of the works listed below use the lens of gender to discover unusual and expected details and contours of this history. Katharine Park and Gianna Pomata, in the sources listed below, reflect on how the practices of autopsy and the holy bodies of women perpetuated or disrupted gendered ideas about sanctity and hierarchies of authority, evidence, and saints. Continuing this line of inquiry, Bouley explains that postmortems during the Counter Reformation inscribed a conservative gender hierarchy, establishing the Church’s authority in opposition to feminine weakness—holy women, who had adopted a masculine set of markers in their public life, were overtly sexualized and feminized after death in a process that subordinated them more effectively to eccelsiastical authority. Male bodies, Bouley continues, were made asexual and hypermasculine after death. Anatomy was designed, quite literally, to fit one’s destiny.


Resources:

Elisa Andretta, “Anatomie du Venerable dans la Rome de la Contre-reforme. Les autopsies d’Ignace de Loyola et de Philippe Neri,” in Conflicting Duties: Science,

Medicine and Relgion in Rome, 1550-1750 (Warburg Institute, 2009), 255-280.

Bradford Bouley, Pious Postmortems: Anatomy, Sanctity, and the Catholic Church in Early Modern Europe (University of Pennsylvania Press, 2017).

Piero Camporesi, The Incorruptible Flesh: Bodily Mutation and Mortification in Religion and Folklore, trans. Tania Croft-Murray (Cambridge University Press, 1988).

Jacalyn Duffin, Medical Miracles: Doctors, Saints, and Healing in the Modern World (Oxford University Press, 2009).

Katharine Park, Secrets of Women: Gender, Generation, and the Origins of Human Dissection (Zone Books, 2006).

Gianna Pomota, “Malpighi and the Holy Body: Medical Experts and Miraculous Evidence in Seventeenth-Century Italy” in Renaissance Studies 21, no. 4 (2007): 568-586.

Protected: Doctors and Stigmatics in the 19th and 20th centuries (classroom edit)

This content is password protected. To view it please enter your password below:

Doctors and Stigmatics in the 19th and 20th centuries

Stigmata are a special kind of miraculous event. They involve the physical manifestation of Jesus’ wounds as depicted in the Bible Gospels. Though many people in history have claimed to bear these marks, they have also been used as proof of the existence of God or to build legitimacy for a religious community. Those who have studied stigmata include investigators from the Catholic Church, religious skeptics, and medical professionals.

This week’s podcast with Gabor Klaniczay focuses on the final group, doctors. In his research on stigmata during the 19th and 20th century in Europe, Klaniczay analyzes how the medical discourse has tried to establish authenticity for stigmata cases. Discourses differed based on religious affiliation with Catholic doctors were more prone to credit them as proof of the supernatural, while Protestants ones were more skeptical, often trying to attribute them to hysteria, self-suggestion, or plain forgery.

Throughout the interview, Klaniczay refers to the social context in which stigmata occurred, as in the cases of Louise Lateau in 19th century Belgium and France, and Padre Pio in 20th century Italy. The first corresponded with a time of intense social change and secularization during the Franco-Prussian War and the Paris Commune, while the second found correspondences with World War I and major processes in Italian politics. In this way, Klaniczay’s approach reflects Jesuit historian Michel de Certeau’s  research on the 17th century Loudun Possessions: miraculous or mystical events are the language in which the symptoms of social change take form.

This podcast was recorded and produced in the context of the 17th Annual Conference of the European Association for the Study of Religions (EASR), “Religion – Continuations and Disruptions” held in Tartu, June 25 to June 29, 2019. We kindly thank the EASR Committee and the University of Tartu scientific committee, organising team, and volunteers for the support provided during this process.

 

 

You can download this interview, and subscribe to receive our weekly podcast, on iTunes. If you enjoyed it, please take a moment to rate us. And remember, you can use our Amazon.co.ukAmazon.com, or Amazon.ca links to support us at no additional cost when buying academic texts, sardines, popcorn, and more.


Doctors and Stigmatics in the 19th and 20th Centuries

 

Podcast with Gábor Klaniczay (18 November 2019).

Interviewed by Sidney Castillo

Transcribed by Helen Bradstock.

Audio and transcript available at:

Download a PDF of this transcript here.

Sidney Castillo (SC): Well, here we are again at the Religious Studies Project Podcast. It’s the fifth and last day of the EASR conference 2019, in Tartu Estonia. And now I am here with Gábor Klaniczay from Central European University. Gábor – it’s very nice to have you here.

Gábor Klaniczay (GK): I’m pleased to be here, too. Thank you for interviewing me.

SC: Thank you for joining us. Would you be so kind as to introduce yourself, please?

GK: OK. So I’m a university professor at the Central European University in the department of Medieval Studies. I’m dealing mostly with medieval religious history, late medieval Christianity. That’s my field of expertise. Within that, the problem of the cult of saints, popular religion, witchcraft, beliefs. And also another aspect of my research is, a little bit, to situate central European religious culture in the whole European or even broader context.

SC: Excellent. Now your talk in the conference, at the EASR, has been about miraculous stigmata in the 19th and 20th century. Could you speak a little bit about that, please?

GK: Yes, well that shows that I’m not only dealing with a medieval things! Actually, I’m also very much in favour of historians dealing with the results of neighbouring disciplines. And there is interdisciplinary research, where I’m actually dealing with history but also anthropology, religious studies, psychology. A lot of these things are necessary for understanding phenomena like miracles or stigmata or something – the relationship to the supernatural. There is also one other type of inter-disciplinarity which is not very much practised, and that is that medievalists should know the results of modernists and vice-versa. So, on the one hand, one says that history is, of course a long train of traditions and one should know about this. But everybody specialised in one’s own age and says “Oh that’s modern. That’s no more my field of expertise.” And I think this is wrong – especially if one deals with phenomena which are basically very similar. So an individual’s relationship to miracle and to the supernatural experience, that has something very common and it’s not by chance that modern people are reaching back to the prophets or the Bible or ancient church fathers. So one cannot, of course, put an equality sign to the experiences. One has to know its historical context and one should not be anachronistic. On the other hand, religious history has to deal with the longue durée. So this is how I started to deal with medieval miracle belief and, within that, a special type of miracle: the stigmata. The stigmata which is a bodily miracle, the most famous initial miracle. Not the first one. But actually the start of the cult of stigmata was with St Francis of Assisi, the thirteenth century saint – a major medieval saint and founder of the Franciscan order – who had a vision in 1227, and got stigmatised . . . at least this is what we got to know after his death in 1227. Actually it happened before his death – two years before his death, as his legend writer, Thomas of Celano, says – during a vision where a seraph, a crucified man, appeared to him in the air, when he was in hermitage. And after this experience the result was that the wounds of stigmata, Christ’s wounds, appeared on his body. And this was discovered after his death. Now this is stigmata. And many Franciscans maintain that this is the only unique example where a human being becomes like Christ. St Francis was venerated like another Christ, an alter Christus, and the stigmata were actually signs of his being so important and working as much for the redemption of humanity as Christ – or almost as much – in the middle ages (5:00). Now other saintly persons, or other religious persons, men and women – mostly women, by the way – were also claiming to have stigmata, like St Francis. And this was a very long-term history, which started in the middle ages. In the middle ages there was another very famous stigmatic woman, Catherine of Siena, who belonged to the Dominican Order. And her stigmata appeared also during a vision, but did not appear visibly on her body because she wanted them to be invisible; not to pretend that she had that high honour. She wanted only the pain. She wanted the experience. And then there were up-to-the-present stigmatics. And my paper here was about 19th and 20th century stigmatics. And the topic that I was dealing with was actually how medical experts, physicians, related to this miracle.

SC: Right.

GK: Because this miracle was very special, in the sense that the stigmatics have these wounds in their bodies, sometimes for year, sometimes for decades. These wounds bleed periodically. These wounds do not get infected. So this is very special type of bodily miracle. And the religious people – mostly Catholics, because this is a Catholic type miracle – are taking it as a very important proof for the existence of God: that such a God can work such wonders in the human body on earth, which cannot be explained rationally, by scientific or medical or other thought. And of course, doctors were challenged, and wanted to examine, and there was a lot of criticism and disbelief, and there were very interesting cases, debates. And I was presenting some of these cases.

SC: That’s really interesting. And I think you gave a very broad description of how stigmatics happen from the middle ages towards modernity. Just thinking about what Michel de Certeau said about how mystical phenomena corresponds to the social contexts – what is happening in those centuries – and particularly the 16th and 17th century were very prominent for many, many mystics. I don’t about stigmata?

GK: There were also stigmata. But some of these mystics have stigmata.

SC: How can we understand the social contexts of the 19th/20th century to explain the stigmata?

GK: Well, one very important social context is that the 19th and 20th centuries are centuries of secularisation. Also after the French Revolution, Napoleon for example, dissolved many religious orders. And there was- against the Enlightenment, and against the rational thinking which wanted to sort-of make the disenchantment of the world, as Max Weber said, happen – well, there was a re-enchantment. In the 19th century there was a Catholic revival. Chateaubriand, the Génie, The Genius of Christianity, and many other movements. And the church, and certain popes, were very strongly fighting against the separation of Church and state. And also there were certain social classes which were in support for that. In France there was a royalist movement. But also the churches’ positions in Italy, for example, which was a place where many of these prophets and stigmatics came. . . . Italy was living, at that moment, the unification, or Risorgimento (10:00). And at the same time there were a lot of resistances of local vested interests of churches, and a lot of contrast also between Rome and the Vatican, and the southern region or northern region. So each time there was a conflict situation. And in some conflict situations the church had its own policies. And one of the policies was indeed to bring proofs for the existence of God, with very spectacular miracles. The most spectacular miracles were visions like La Salette in the 19th century- or Lourdes. These were the appearances of the Virgin Mary – Marian miracles. But there were other miracles also related to the Sacred Heart the Sacré Coeur. And besides these visionaries there were these living saints, the stigmatics, who had new revelations. So one of the stigmatics, for example, that I was speaking about was living in Northern Germany. Now, Northern Germany was a place were already big contrasts were there between the Protestants and Catholics. Catholics were in the minority in Northern Germany, in Westphalia. But they were there. And now secularisation brought another thing in. So there was an Augustinian nun, called Anna Katharina Emmerick, who had these bleeding wounds, these stigmata and also the crown of thorns. At least, she had the vision where Jesus was placing the crown of thorns on her head. And they were regularly bleeding, the place of the crown of thorns. And later, bleeding wounds also appeared on her hands and also a cross on the chest. And then a debate started. And this was an interesting case. Because it belonged to Prussia. Prussia was a secularised and Protestant monarchy with a lot of important scientists, among them medical scientists. And they formed a commission to examine these things. Some were saying, “Oh, this was just self-inflicted wounds.” Others said that the spiritual advisors were using her as a kind of medium, were telling her that her headache was actually from the crown of thorns, and were influencing her. And indeed that was a 19th century thing, this medium related to Mesmer, and mesmerism, and magnetism. Now all kinds of explanations came up, but at the same time there was also a very famous romantic poet, Clemens Brentano, listening to her and writing down her visions as new revelations. And these visionaries were telling an alternative history of what happened to Jesus, and the Bible, or details. And the collected works of Clemens Brentano are the visions of Anna Katharina Emmerick. He didn’t even . . . he couldn’t even publish the whole thing during his life. He died and his brother continued to publish it. So, this is the social context and the role of religion in 19th century. And of course we can go on. Let me just switch to the end of the 19th century, to the 1870s. It was the moment of the French commune, it was the French and German War, the defeat of France. And in France and in Belgium there were a lot of prophets. So first prophesying the death of Napoleon III – he did indeed die! But such prophesies are not very difficult, to say that somebody will die at some point. But also they wanted to bring back, after the commune, monarchy to France. There was a candidate, Chambord. So these were actually the questions. And there was a stigmatic called Louise Lateau in France, and also another stigmatic, Palma Mattarelli in Italy(15:00). And these stigmatics were also related to an Ecclesiastic kind of . . . . There was an informal network within the Church, which still exists today, that there is the official Church and then there is a grassroots level contact among the charismatics, who are cultivating supernatural phenomena. Today it is Medjugorje, and all these things. In the 19th century the stigmatics were there. And there were some doctors . . . there was a doctor that I was talking about. He was from Clermont-Ferrand. He was a royalist, a doctor, a professional, called Antoine Amber Gourbert. But he went to the stigmatics to explain that these phenomena are indeed unexplainable. And he, as a doctor, says, “I know about everything about dermatology, everything about all kinds of illnesses, speaking about it as a rational explanation. But it is wrong! These explanations are unfounded.” And actually, he was publishing books just to support the stigmatics. So that’s the interesting thing. That besides the doctors who wanted to have doubts in the stigmatics, there was a group of believer doctors who wanted to defend the stigmatics with the argument that these phenomena are actually beyond our capacities of explanation. This is why it is coming from God. And it is true that many phenomena are impossible to explain. So today the TV shows X Files, for example. Today’s supernatural beliefs are related to UFOs or other things. But the riddles of nature are indeed a good point where belief, and belief in the supernatural, starts. And stigmata is a long tradition, and this is also a riddle. So in many cases, in the first place, what I want to say is that these persons are truly religious persons. And persons who really concentrate on the suffering of Christ, and want to understand with great compassion the suffering of Christ. And even acting on . . . . So most of the stigmata appear in Holy Week, when Christ is . . . so before Easter. And on Holy Friday, mostly. And many of these stigmatics are acting out, on Holy Fridays, the crucifixion. So just like a mystery play. And their wounds start to bleed on Fridays. That’s a very particular thing, just in memory of Christ. And at the same time, they think that they are suffering the same way as Christ for redeeming humanity from its sins. So helping humanity. So it is a kind-of psychological disposition which is also becoming a bodily disposition. So many things are psychosomatic, certainly. And in some cases it’s clear that there is fraud in it, and they are . . . but in other cases it is difficult to say. And these persons are also having very sincere mystical texts and dimensions. So it’s a very complicated thing. You mentioned Michel de Certeau, for example.

SC: I was going to ask you about that, yes the Loudun possessions.

GK: Yes. Well there is a stigmata… not stigmata but actually Jeanne des Anges also had some wounds, which were actually stigmata from the devil. She was showing it in the royal court and it was there. She had also a very complicated personality. So Michel de Certeau could analyse that this is a very strange and very complex psychological phenomenon when one lives religious experience to that point.

SC: He would say, “These eyes have seen. These hands have touched” . . .

GK: Yes.

SC: Kind-of providing a factual experience towards the stigmata (20:00). One of the things I wanted to ask as well is . . . and you mentioned this in your presentation, that there was Catholic doctors that were giving confirmation that it was in fact a miraculous event and therefore it cannot be explained. But you also mentioned that there were Protestant doctors that were more incisive towards desecrating this phenomenon. So will you elaborate more on that divide within the same medical discourse: how this was different?

GK: Yes. Well basically, yes, as you said, it’s not by chance that Protestant doctors . . . . One Protestant doctor was, for example, one of the critics of this 19th-century stigmatic, Louise Lateau. Louise Lateau, who lived in the second half of the 19th century in a small Belgian village, and got stigmata at the age of eighteen. And a big medical debate started. And while the Catholic doctors were describing her stigmata and then a very famous authority, Rudolf Virchow – from Germany, from Berlin, a Protestant doctor – was writing a long study, Uber Wunder, On the Miracle. And the Protestants were . . . they did not deny a miracle absolutely. But they denied this type of massive production of miracles that the Catholics have been relating to the saints and to the stigmatics. So they were more for a rational explanation of these phenomena, saying that if one does not have the explanation yet, one should not immediately say it is a miracle. But one can sort-of explore it further. So there was a Protestant discourse which was more rationalistic. But that does not mean that they were refusing miracles on the whole. So they were reaching back to St Augustine, who also said that, actually, the small miracles are just to convince the disbelievers. But the only two big miracles are the creation of the world and the resurrection of Christ. And these are actually the big miracles. And the rest is just . . . it can be explained rationally, just as well. Also the Protestants . . . the 19th century polemics on miracles were a good field for continuing this debate. But actually the debate started already in Luther’s time. And the Protestantism refused a lot of the things in Catholic beliefs, among them the cult of the saints, and the cult of the relics, as something which they labelled superstition. And there was a long set of debates related to that. So one good authority who examined this in England, for example, was Keith Thomas, Religion and the Decline of Magic. A big monograph, where he pointed out how Protestantism was kind-of refusing what they considered to be the magic of the medieval church, and wanted to bring in more rational arguments.

SC: Excellent. Well we are almost out of time, but if you could give us some further remarks about your presentation, I think that will be a good way to wrap it up.

GK: Yes. So I told many things already which were in my presentation. One thing I haven’t mentioned yet, that I added, was the famous 20th century stigmatic Padre Pio. Padre Pio, who was a Capuchin friar in South Italy, who was stigmatised in 1918. That was also a typical historical moment – a moment of the First World War, with a lot of horrible experiences that European people and Italians also went through (25:00). And the stigmata was also interestingly related to the South Italian situation and history. There were strong clashes between a triumphant Socialist movement and the Catholic Church. Padre Pio himself was also an interesting individual. He was an ailing person with a lot of illnesses. That’s why he was exempt, he was drafted as a soldier but was exempt from military service because of his illnesses. And he became a friar in a very remote Capuchin convent in San Giovanni Rotondo– a place where a lot of miracles happened because it was just behind the Monte Gargano where the famous miracles of Saint Michael the archangel came. So Italy, in general, was very favourable to miracles. And the old places where miracles used to happen made it kind-of common knowledge that miracles do happen. And this is how the stigmata came out from Padre Pio. And the story itself is a very interesting story. Because from the point of view of medical debates, his stigmata were very debated. They were debated. Because a pharmacist denounced him, saying that he had some iodine tinctures to disinfect his wounds. And some doctors accused him that this was actually to perpetuate the wounds which could have happened out of illness or other reasons. Because, for stigmata, it’s very important that the stigmata should happen by divine intervention, not by self-infliction. That can also have devotional background, but it is not a miracle. So stigmata should be miraculous. And then the debate started and there was a long inquisition, an examination of Padre Pio with all the witnesses and everything. And there was a very important Catholic person, a Franciscan friar, Agostino Gemelli, who later was the founder of the Milan University, the Catholic University, and he was very . . . he had many doubts. He was also not only a Franciscan friar, but also a psychiatrist and a doctor. And he thought that Padre Pio was doing a fraud. But other supporters of Padre Pio were defending him. And there was a long, long debate. He was sentenced to isolation for ten years and also that he should not have – because he was also a pre-consecrated priest, Padre Pio – but he should not confess and give public sermons. He gave the public sermons with stigmatic hands, like Christ, so that was very impressive. But some others said that this is just a fraud. But then in the 1930s he was a pardoned. And then his cult was starting in his life. And actually, he lived with those stigmata for fifty years. And he had some very poplar actions. He built a huge hospital in San Giovanni Rotondo, in a very, very background region, where he was really bringing a lot of good things to his surroundings. And he was later on very much venerated by some popes like Pope Giovanni, John Paul II – the Polish Pope, who was doing pilgrimage to him already, from Poland, from the 1940s. And when he became Pope, one of his aims was to canonise Padre Pio – which he did, actually. So he started the veneration of Padre Pio. And now, Padre Pio is the most popular saint. He is a kind-of saint of the people (30:00). And the notion was also that the people wanted him to become a saint, and the Church – the high priests – resisted for a while. But then they gave in, and now they have canonised him.

SC: Now he is part of the institutionality.

GK: Yes. But there are some others still have doubts. So in any case, he’s one of the most remarkable saints of the twentieth century. And all his life course is related to 20th century Italian history. And there are very good books on him. There is one good Italian historian Sergio Luzzatto who wrote a wonderful monograph on him, where he’s portrayed Padre Pio really as somebody who represents 20th century Italian history – with all its contradictions.

SC: Very, very interesting. I think it’s like all the mystical phenomena are related to society, in one way or the other.

GK: Yes, certainly.

SC: I think that’s a very good take-away for our interview. We thank you once again, Professor Klaniczay, for being here on the Religious Studies Project and we hope you’ll come here again, soon.

GK: Yes OK. Thank you very much.

SC: Thank you very much.

 

All transcriptions for THE RELIGIOUS STUDIES PROJECT are currently produced by volunteers. If you spot any errors in this transcription, please let us know at editors@religiousstudiesproject.com. If you would be willing to help with these efforts, or know of any sources of funding for the broader transcription project, please get in touch. Thanks for reading.

This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution- NonCommercial- NoDerivs 3.0 Unported License. The views expressed in podcasts are the views of the individual contributors, and do not necessarily reflect the views of THE RELIGIOUS STUDIES PROJECT or the British Association for the Study of Religions.

Drone Metal Mysticism

In this interview, Owen Coggins joins us to talk about the use of religious (and sacrilegious) language and imagery in Drone Metal, a genre which stretches metal to low, slow, repetitive extremes. Drawing on the work of Michel de Certeau, he tells David Robertson that the prevalence of language relating to mysticism and “spiritual experience” may be due to the genre’s focus on the physicality of the musical experience. Expanding out to discuss other forms of popular music which exhibit these modes of engagement, the conversation moves to consider how this case-study might open up new ways to engage with religious ideas in popular culture, and in other practices involving extreme states of bodily consciousness.

This interview was recorded at the Open University’s Contemporary Religion in Historical Perspective: Publics and Performances conference in Milton Keynes, Feb 19-21 2018.

You can download this interview, and subscribe to receive our weekly podcast, on iTunes. If you enjoyed it, please take a moment to rate us. And remember, you can use our Amazon.co.ukAmazon.com, or Amazon.ca links to support us at no additional cost when buying academic texts, Sainsbury’s finest porridge, Doublemint gum, and more

A transcription of this interview is also available, and has been pasted below.

Drone Metal Mysticism

Podcast with Owen Coggins (16 April 2018).

Interviewed by David G. Robertson.

Transcribed by Helen Bradstock.

Transcript available at: Coggins – Drone Metal Mysticism 1.1

David Robertson (DR): I’m here in Sunny Milton Keynes for the Open University’s Contemporary Religion in Historical Perspective Conference where I’m lucky enough to be joined, today, by Owen Coggins, who is an Honorary Associate of the Religious Studies Department here.

Owen Coggins (OC): Hello

DR: Welcome to the Religious Studies Project. We’ve been talking about this interview for quite some time. But we’ve finally managed to get it organised – luckily, just as your book comes out! Let’s start, then with drone metal. What is it that we’re talking about here?

OC: OK. I guess I often describe it as an extreme form of heavy metal that’s characterised by extremes of repetition; distortion; extension; tracks that go on for thirty minutes or forty-five minutes – I went to a concert that was three hours long – and feedback and other kinds of sonic characteristics. But it’s also characterised in the sort of discourse that surrounds it that’s produced by musicians but also by audiences – lots of talk about mysticism and ritual and religious experience and transcendence and so on. And so that was the starting point for me wanting to investigate it for my PhD research.

DR: Now this isn’t the first kind of study we’ve had of religious imagery . . . . Well let’s start with metal, particularly. There’s a long history of fairly obvious religious imagery . . .

OC: Yes, and so I think from Black Sabbath – who are often understood as the originary starting point of heavy metal – and you’ve obviously got kind-of crucifixes and press photos taken in graveyards, and accusations about Satanism and various kind of imagined occult practices. And I think that a real interest in the power of religion and its symbols – and perhaps new or sometimes oppositional repositioning of that kind of symbolism, images and languages and even sounds – has, I think, been a really important part of metal from its beginnings. I think, perhaps what seems to me to be slightly different about this particular form – certainly in the way that academics have approached it – is that religion in metal has often been kind-of approached through the lens of Christianity and metal, whether that’s Christian heavy metal itself, or a discourse of anti-Christian sentiment in metal – burning down churches in Norwegian black metal, and so on – and more recently, sort-of more focus on various other sections of Satanism and paganism in metal. But it’s often kind-of approached in terms of a religious tradition and metal, whereas what I was really interested in is the sort of bricolage and sometimes kind-of orientalist appropriation and redeployment of a really vast range of different kinds of religious symbols and sounds, in this particular form of music.

DR: Now the use of religious imagery in metal, particularly – it’s a very deliberately transgressive kind of discourse. Although obviously it varies how serious they are. That’s not entirely what we find with drone, is it?

OC: I think the issue of seriousness is quite an interesting one. And I think humour in metal is often misunderstood as perhaps one optional counterpoint to seriousness. And so I think that’s an interesting way to look at these things. Because, in some ways, there are things which are done very, very seriously which are at the same time completely ludicrous and absurd. And one example is the classic 1996 record by Sleep which has two alternate titles: “Jerusalem” – which references these ideas of the Holy land, pilgrimage – and also “Dopesmoker”. So “Dopesmoker” and “Jerusalem” are two alternative titles for this one single, hour-long dirge classic of stoner metal riffs. And it’s often kind-of referenced by listeners in terms of the lyrics being simultaneously ultra-serious and completely ridiculous at the same time. And I think, that is an interesting way to think about how some of these symbols might be mobilised and ideas might be responded to, which in the book I talk a little bit about and the idea of “listening as if “. And I think, in some ways, drone metal allows . . . in the ways that audiences talk about it, are going to concerts or listening to recordings as if they are ritual, as if they are mystical, as if they are somehow related in an ambivalent way to religion. And that kind of language sometimes shifts around. So the record I mentioned is often described – even in the space of a short 500 word review for example – as like a pilgrimage, or as a pilgrimage, as a sonic pilgrimage, as sounding like the music that pilgrims might listen to at the end of the pilgrimage. And so I think this kind of ambivalence that I talk about as “listening as if” it’s ritualist, allows people to explore and investigate a kind of imagined religiosity without having to necessarily commit to certain kind of identity statements or dogmas or beliefs. And I think that’s part of where the power lies. And I think that also is part of the real value of music in this kind of exploration. Because it affords a sort of imaginative space for people to sort-of explore that.

DR: And that’s something that’s not unique to music, of course. That kind of mode is familiar in other forms of art that have got . . . there are visual artists and painters who specifically design their work to be experienced in these kind of contexts. You made a nice distinction in the book about different modes of engaging with . . . Certain kinds of music are engaged with in a different way and I think you’d distinguish like your pop and rock, the mainstream musical forms, that there’s a different register of engagement with it.

OC: Yes, I think that was really . . . I mean, I don’t really want to make big claims about the specialness of drone metal against other forms of music. But this was really responding to the ways that my research participants talked about it. And there was often a very . . . listeners often made a very strong distinction between drone metal and other forms of music. And often even drone metal and other forms of metal. Just in . . . partly because of the sort-of abstract nature of this very droning dirge-like music and the practicalities, such as how long the tracks last. The real interest in vinyl as kind-of recreating a separate space and time in which to listen. Often people preferred to listen on vinyl rather than digital formats because it created a certain kind of special space and time through which to listen. And I think that really spoke to the construction of ideas about ritual and mysticism: that there was a deliberate attempt to separate drone metal in space and time, but also conceptually as something kind-of set apart. And obviously, there’s an implied construction of the sacred in there.

DR: Yes, that notion of specialness is something that I’ve actually come across in a few places. And it’s quite interesting when you . . . even for students talking about the study of religion – they want it to be something a bit set apart. Even the discourse itself is something separate. Yes, I like that you mentioned the material culture, and there’s a number of interesting intersections here. I mean the vinyl aspect of it is one we’ve already talked about, but there’s also, you know, a particular aesthetic that goes along with particularly drone metal. But we also have material culture in terms of sensory experience.

OC: Yes, and I think, firstly, it was great to speak to people about this certainly quite extreme form of music, and read thousands of reviews and things, just because of the creative and unusual ways that people talked about it. And that was one of the ways that came up a lot was people talking about going to concerts and the air becoming solid, or having a real, physical bodily experience of the sound. And so I thought material culture was actually a really helpful way to think about that. Because it was almost like sound becoming physically mobilised for people, or them kind of engaging with sound in a very physical way. And I think that was an interesting way to think also about mysticism in terms of the ways that people kind-of use, or interpret, or operate on a particular kind of tradition – in this case heavy metal, I suppose, as well as the surrounding discourses about transcendental experience and mysticism and so on – that it was almost a kind of a way to experience sound as sound, or what sound itself sounds like, or what sound itself “feels” like, as some participants put it. Which, I think, connects up to other aspects of the aesthetic in other quite interesting ways, such as the interest with black letter or Fraktur typography, like the sort of gothic script that’s familiar in a lot of metal cultures as well as drone metal. And what I loved about that was it’s a real visual manifestation of the distortion and amplification of a sign that’s so important in the sonic characteristics of the music.

DR: I found that really interesting: the idea of the sort-of fetishisation of amplification. That is noticeably different than most other forms, even mainstream rock and metal where there’s much more concern on the drum kit or the guitars, rather than in drone where it’s the amplification particularly. And what I found interesting, having been a rock musician, was that when you started talking about this, I was thinking, “Well the first stage of amplification you need in rock is that you have to be louder than the drums. Because you have to play the drums loud to make them sound good! So there’s a level of amplification you need, to get your guitar to there, for your band to sound like a rock band, right? But in drone, that bit becomes the bit that’s of interest. And you go up a whole other level, so that it’s the amplification itself that becomes the act. It’s no longer something that you’re doing in order to get to point A, it becomes point A itself.

OC: Yes, I think I’ve suggested that this is the first or, at least, the only musical culture that I know of where the most important musical instrument, broadly conceived, is the amplifier rather than the guitar or, as you say, anything else that’s being amplified. Although, interestingly, there is a real focus on amplification and speakers in dub reggae and certain forms of electronic dance music, which I also discuss. Because those forms of music have also attracted really quite sort-of prevalent discourses of religious experience and mysticism. But yes, definitely, the amplification . . . sort-of amplification of amplification is the thing that’s really at issue. And I think that’s an interesting way to think about that is that it’s about an interrogation of transmission itself. And amplifying kind-of symbols themselves in order to kind of investigate what their possibilities are rather than, for example, to kind-of communicate particular kinds of musical semantics or structures.

DG: Yes, you mentioned dance music- I immediately pictured the front of “3am Eternal”, by The KLF, where it’s an altar and the sides of the altar are huge amplifiers. Of course The KLF were enormously influenced by situationist theory and the kind of post-hippy, kind-of early cybernetic idealism – you know, Tim Leary and those people. And they were very sort-of consciously creating a temporary autonomous zone. But they were using a lot of religious imagery in doing it. Even the idea of time, you know – so it’s 3am, but it’s 3am eternal. They have a lot of these similar kind-of languages.

OC: And I think that the idea of drone itself is very much about . . . or it affords ways of talking about time which kind-of do similar things. They’re physically and bodily experienced in a particular moment, but they open out onto those kind-of ideas about archaic experience and forms of social organisation. And so, in one of the chapters of the book I talk about those: the ways that audiences talk about drone metal being kind of about elsewhere, and drone metal being given access to these elsewheres. People discuss being transported to outer space or to kind-of imagined empty deserts and so on. And I think that’s a really powerful and important way that people respond to it. Not to say that there’s anything inherently connected in the music, but just that those are conventional ways of talking about the music which have sprung up around it, which seem to have a certain validity for people who are communicating about their engagement in this music.

DR: Nonetheless, I found that really interesting. And we really are thinking about utopias – in the original sense of the word – of nowhere, of places that are idealisations or imagined spaces, in some sense, that there’s almost an attempt to achieve through these kind of trancian and drone ideas.

OC: Yes, and I think in dub, and psy-trance, and in drone metal which, as I said, there are different kinds of utopias. And I think you can also, working backwards from there, think about the reasons why there’s such a strong impulse to try and construct these utopias in a very kind of temporary way – just over the course of half an hour recording, or an hour or so of a live concert. So, for example, for dub, in terms of a black Atlantic diaspora wanting to kind-of construct certain ideas about an Afro-centric religion, for example. And I think, perhaps, for drone metal it’s interesting to speculate about what the construction of utopias might say about the social situation of audiences . . . as a response to alienation and disenchantment.

DR: And interestingly as well, almost pre-modern – despite the fetishisation of technology. There’s a lot of wildernesses and distant places. It’s almost away from modernity.

OC: Yes, there was an interesting example when one of the best-known drone metal bands, Sunn O))), performed at the Royal Festival Hall a couple of years ago. The support act was a group from Russia called Phurpa who’ve supported Sunn O))) on a number of occasions, who style themselves as supporting authentic Bon Tibetan traditional chanting. And so when you see these two things juxtaposed, the Tibetan Bon ritual – where there’s bowls of incense and figures in black robes doing vocal chanting – and then you go out and have your glass of wine at the break time and then you go back and there’s a very similar performance with the Sunn O))) band members in their black robes . . . . But it’s a very kind-of consciously up-dated version of this, with these extremes of amplification, but sonically quite a similar palette, I suppose, they’re working with. And I think that’s a very deliberate association that they’re trying to make with a certain kind of imagined archaic ritual.

DR: Let me give you a deliberately provocative question. So we’ve got a kind-of sense of sacredness or specialness, or temporary autonomous zone – however we want to put it – and we have quasi-religious musical forms: which comes first? You know, in which direction is the movement? Or is it mutually reinforced?

OC: Yes, I think it’s a good question and it’s one that I’ve tried very hard to skip!

DR: (Laughs) I said it was deliberately provocative.

OC: But in order to skip it, to focus instead on trying to . . . . Put it this way, there was a lot of claims about – in my interviews and in reviews about this sort of music – that drone metal really does hark back to ancient – in quotes – “tribal religious forms”, and so on. And I think this is kind-of deliberately played-on by some musicians. And it’s certainly picked-up-on by parts of the audience. But my interest wasn’t so much kind-of proving or disproving whether this really, genuinely had ancient connections to these kind of religions. And in the same way that the group performing the Tibetan ritual music that I mentioned – I’m not so interested in the historical accuracy of their early music production. What’s more interesting to me is how those ideas are mobilised, and why people find them important, and to draw on that. And I think, in part, it’s to make an authority claim. Or to recognise and, after the fact, legitimate something that they felt was quite a powerful engagement. And then, in order to kind of situate that for themselves and the listening community, to sort of connect it to these older imagined forms.

DR: Tell us, then, about how this relates to mysticism – and this is a large part of the book, obviously. I mean, I presume we’re building from the kind-of idea that this is music which is deliberately experienced rather than passively heard?

OC: Yes. So, following on from what we’ve been discussing, there’s also quite a strong discourse of perennialism that you find in Aldous Huxley and so on, in the way that people talk about it – that it’s accessing this kind-of universal underlying form of religious experience. Now that, to me . . . there are some troubling consequences of that idea, that just erases all specific differences. And there are some issues with a kind of orientalist grabbing of bits and pieces from all religions and kind of presenting them as if they were referring to a similar thing. So, for me, what was really valuable in trying to understand these kind of discourses of mysticism and ritual – given that so many people who are coming from different kind of backgrounds and so on are using words that are notoriously difficult to pin down, such as “it was a spiritual experience”, or “this music is mystical” in some way – for me, it was really valuable to look to the work of Michel de Certeau. He both kind-of provides a really valuable way to look at the uses that audiences make of texts in popular culture, and also his work on mysticism. And so this approach to mysticism: instead of trying to look behind the texts for this unitive experience, which the scholar imagines is the same behind all of these instantiations, Michel de Certeau, by contrast, wants to look at the texts which are designated mystical and then identify certain procedures, or gestures, or operations on an inherited language that take place in these texts. So, for me, that was really valuable – for a start because it kind of resolves, or displaces, a kind of division between text and experience which has been quite influential – and quite problematically so, in my view – in the 20th century study of mysticism, where mystical experiences are “ineffable”, they’re “indescribable” and then you have texts which sort-of fail nobly to describe them. So the problem with that is that the experience that’s suggested as being the same – there’s not really any evidence for that. And then the actual kinds of differences in texts are just attributed to the cultural differences in which these same experiences take place. Michel de Certeau, by contrast, allows us to look at the particular mechanics and moves and gestures that take place in these texts. So, for example, talking about how a language of the body emerges in the mystical texts – or texts designated mystical in the 16th or 17th centuries – how they’re interested in the materiality of signifiers. And how mystics are seen by themselves as ultra-orthodox, but by outsiders as heretical in some way, for their treatment of their inherited tradition. And so I think there was a number of these kind-of gestures that de Certeau identified in mystical texts, that I also observed in not only the ways that audiences spoke about their engagement with drone metal, but also in the sound itself. So we had similar . . . in the ways that people talked about going to concerts, you find these very similar and familiar gestures of talking about mysticism and ritual. But I also thought it was quite a good description of what drone metal does to the tradition of heavy metal. So it, for example, takes on lots of signifiers from Black Sabbath but kind-of over-extends them, and pushes them to their breaking point. So, for example, the Sleep album I mentioned earlier was described memorably by Julian Cope in a review, as if a bunch of California teenagers had found Black Sabbath’s first four albums in the desert and started a religion, based on it.

DR: I love that, yes.

OC: And so you can see that just even in the sound. It’s almost like taking a Black Sabbath song and extending it for an hour – sort-of almost pushing it to its limits. And I think this almost fits with de Certeau’s idea of mysticism as an operation, or a performance, in a text which does something to an inherited tradition.

DR: So using drone metal, then, are you using it . . . . You’re not so much using it as an example of mysticism, but as an example of how the language of mysticism is operated. Am I understanding . . ?

OC: Yes.

DR: And does that have ramifications for other . . . like, more widely for how we talk and think about mysticism?

OC: Yes, I think so. I think that it helps to avoid some of the pitfalls of mysticism which it has – as we’ve described before – about conjuring this sort-of fiction of an essentialist, universalist experience, which actually relies on particular ideas about subjectivity which are rooted in a Western academic episteme, I suppose. And I think that’s particularly important in our contemporary political moment where we hear references to the 20th century study of mysticism growingly in political discourse. So, for example, Steve Bannon and Richard Spencer making mention of Julius Evola. And that’s a very, very problematic imagination or depiction or mobilisation of ideas about mysticism: Evola kind-of wanting to forward – as he described it – “a racism of body souls and spirit”, and his sort-of involvement in the school of Fascist mysticism. So I think these ideas can certainly be taken in some very troubling ways. And I think, at root, they’re often based on a kind of essentialism and universalism which can be found in relatively benign forms in ideas of Huxley and Eliade and others. But I think de Certeau gives a much more both ethically and epistemologically-grounded way of approaching mysticism. In addition to saying, “If we look at the mechanics of what happens in the texts which are called mystical, then that’s actually a much more empirically-based way to look at mysticism than kind-of imagining these kind-of supposedly pure visionary experiences.”

DR: Great. So what’s next for you? Where do you take this next?

OC: Good question. I’m really interested in – as I start to talk about in the final chapter – how this kind-of relates to anthropological ideas about ritual, and how that might be connected to ideas about the connection between music and various forms of social structure and imagining social structure. So Jacques Attali’s ideas about noise, for example, which I think, given that this form of music is very much about distortion and feedback and noise, I think there’s maybe some interesting connections that can be made with ideas; Mary Douglas, for example, about the importance of dirt and the positioning of those things in ritual. I’m also really interested in wading into debates about heavy metal and mental health. And it’s often been associated with delinquency, both in popular media moral panics, as well as a certain kind of academic literature.

DR: Except, in fact, heavy metal fans are statistically happier and healthier than the norm, I believe – according to a recent survey!

OC: Yes, well I think you’ve got to take all of these things with a pinch of salt. I think that’s perhaps why it’s so interesting. Because I think the debate is so polarised. But I’d actually kind-of want to make room for the fact that maybe some kinds of music can be good for you, and other kinds of music can be bad for you, and maybe the debate’s a bit more nuanced and complex than some of these polemic positions have suggested.

DR: We love nuance, here at the Religious Studies Project, so thank you for taking part!

OC: Thanks for inviting me. It’s been very interesting.

DR: And before we go, I just want to remind the listener to rock hard, rock heavy and rock lobster!

.Citation Info: Coggins, Owen and David G. Robertson. 2018. “’Drone Metal Mysticism”, The Religious Studies Project (Podcast Transcript). 16 April 2018. Transcribed by Helen Bradstock. Version 1.1, 10 April 2018. Available at: https://www.religiousstudiesproject.com/podcast/drone-metal-mysticism/

If you spot any errors in this transcription, please let us know at editors@religiousstudiesproject.com. If you would be willing to help with transcribing the Religious Studies Project archive, or know of any sources of funding for the broader transcription project, please get in touch. Thanks for reading.

This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution- NonCommercial- NoDerivs 3.0 Unported License. The views expressed in podcasts are the views of the individual contributors, and do not necessarily reflect the views of THE RELIGIOUS STUDIES PROJECT or the British Association for the Study of Religions.

Musical Secrets and Mystical Language

It’s often remarked, in response to instances of powerful communion or emotional engagement through sound, that music is ‘a universal language.’ The phrase is pretty vague, and it’s demonstrably inaccurate in most ways you could interpret it. There’s nothing universal about music’s effects (what sounds ‘sad’ here might suggest ‘morning’ or ‘high social status’ somewhere else; I find death metal to be relaxing while driving, though I’m aware that not everyone in the car agrees). And music most definitely isn’t language. Rather, as M.J.M. Hoondert hints in his RSP podcast, part of its power lies precisely in an irresolvable tension in relation to language.

There can be few areas where music’s nonverbal power is drawn on more profoundly than when concerned with death and the (secular?) sacred, the areas with which Hoondert’s research on contemporary requiem is closely concerned. Such requiems may well involve verbal texts, such as poems, liturgical texts altered for new purposes, or stanzas of hiphop or haiku. But, as Hoondert points out, the key issue is how the music can mobilize, transform or even subvert the apparent verbal meanings. He observes that, at their best, these musical ways of stirring up words can prompt deeply felt emotions, while helping us to process, interpret or otherwise deal with those responses in consolation or catharsis.

In my own participatory research with audiences of drone metal (an extremely repetitive, extended, amplified and distorted form of heavy metal music), I’ve also been examining how musical experience and language meet (or don’t), particularly with respect to terms like mysticism, ritual and the sacred. I agree with Hoondert that ethnographic work is necessary in dealing with questions of how ritual and the sacred are imagined by people who wish to avoid the authoritarian implications they perceive to be related to ‘religion.’ In secular requiem performances and in metal audiences alike, listeners instead seek a way of understanding and practicing ritual which, as Hoondert suggests, ‘avoids the institutionalized context but refers to the way people deal with those complex questions of life and death.’

Participants in drone metal music are also involved in creating transient but extraordinary sacred spaces through musical rituals. This occurs in private practices developed to enhance the specialness of listening to vinyl records, and in attending live performances where elements described as ritualistic (smoke, incense, darkness, animal skulls and other weird paraphernalia) supplement the overwhelmingly amplified, distorted repetitive sound in creating an atmosphere which is powerful precisely because of its strangeness and opaque resistance to easy explanation. The music is often described with terms such as violence, aggression, pain and suffering, but it is these markers of extremity which allow a sense of catharsis, dark spirituality and even healing according to listeners. Drone metal, then, addresses deep issues of importance in rather different musical and conceptual registers to Hoondert’s requiem composers and audiences. But in exploring the sacred in music, each are equally concerned with profound themes whose impact for many will elude language.

In fact, most reports of drone metal are prefaced with what I call ‘ineffability disclaimers.’ Listeners first describe the music as indescribable, and then go on to offer articulate, creative, and often elaborate descriptions. And while much of my research has involved analysing and writing about these verbal evocations of mysticism, transcendence and spirituality, it’s important to remember this stated distance between what music can do to us and how we can talk about it. As Hoondert puts it, in considering what attendees might seek and find at requiem concerts:

Through the music they find some what I call ‘musical knowledge’ about the meaning of life and death, and that’s not a kind of knowledge which you can verbalize in a dogma or doctrine, but it’s a kind of consoling knowledge that you find for a moment in the music, and perhaps then it’s gone again.

Music and a powerful but ambivalent religiosity are further intertwined in the ways that mysticism has been understood in the study of religions. Freud linked the two in a 1929 letter to Romain Rolland, writing that ‘mysticism is as impenetrable to me as music’ (Freud quoted in Certeau, 1992, p. 12); William James uses the twin metaphors of musical listener and lover in order to explain the incompetence of language in communicating mystical feeling (W. James, 1982, p. 380); and Evelyn Underhill argued that in using ‘suggestive and allusive language the mystical artist often approaches the methods of music’ in order to enchant the reader/listener (Underhill, 1980, p. 408). Michel de Certeau further explores this connection (himself writing in characteristically suggestive and allusive style), drawing comparison between the reading of mystical texts, and the embodied and interpretative practice of playing music (1986, p. 83; 1992, p. 22), and describing the evocative paradoxes of mystical language as ‘musical secrets’ (1986, p. 99).

So, in claiming that music is a universal language, people might at least be indirectly suggesting something about the power of ambiguity: perhaps that music appears to be able to do things we wish that language could? It brings to mind another commonly heard aphorism, variously ascribed (ambivalently!) to Frank Zappa, Elvis Costello, Thelonious Monk and others: that writing about music is like dancing about architecture. That might be fair, but it certainly doesn’t mean it’s not worth doing. In acknowledging that strange productive tension between incommensurate modes of expression and experience, we might find ways of understanding the consoling, ritualistic, and sometimes sacred power of music.

Endnotes

Certeau, M. d. (1986) Heterologies: Discourse on the Other (trans. B. Massumi), Minneapolis, University of Minnesota Press.

Certeau, M. d. (1992b) ‘Mysticism’ (trans. M. Brammer), Diacritics, vol. 22, no. 2, pp. 11-25.

James, W. (1982 [1902]) The Varieties of Religious Experience: A Study in Human Nature, New York and London, Penguin Books.

Underhill, E. (1980) ‘The Essentials of Mysticism’, in Woods, R. (ed.) Understanding Mysticism, Garden City, Doubleday, pp. 400-15.