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The Numinous Genesis of Culture

[1]6,156 words

Oswald Spengler’s radical contribution to the philosophy of history was to observe that different Cultures and Civilizations are discrete life forms and that they all have a certain life-expectancy. The linear progression of history, from the Stone Age to the prevailing Western liberalism, is a myth. There is no single line of history running through all of humanity. Instead, Cultures are born, they grow to maturity, they age, and they die. The springtime of one high Culture is, for Spengler, contemporaneous with the springtime of another, not with other human societies that happen to be in existence at that time. The point can be clarified by analogy with the human organism. A child alive today is contemporaneous with a child who lived in Roman times in the sense that they share the same stage of development. It is the Destiny of both children to grow to adulthood, then to descend to senility and death. This Destiny may be thwarted by disease, violence, or hunger, so that the child never matures, but it remains the Destiny of the human organism to follow such a process of growth leading to death.

Within this process of growth, Spengler draws a distinction between two separate stages: the Culture and the Civilization. The Culture is indicative of the youthful energetic phase, and transforms the symbolic imperatives of its genesis into high art and technical innovations suited to its worldview. Inevitably, these high forms begin to turn stale and the Civilizational phase then begins to kick in. Civilization grows logically from Culture, and it represents a move to a more urban lifestyle where novelty and cosmopolitanism become sought after. Spengler identified the high point of Western Culture as being the Baroque, and the supreme artistic forms that expressed the essence of that Culture as counterpoint and oil painting. Since that peak we have moved to the democratic stage of Civilization’s unfolding. Spengler is clear that this stage is dominated by the power of money. It is also associated with the rise of rationalism, identified in the Western Culture with the Age of Enlightenment. In this democratic stage, cities grow and folk traditions die out. Intellectual innovation becomes valued whilst religion disappears. The Cultural forms that surround us at the present time have decayed and degenerated due to the inner logic of organic growth and decline, so that we have only fads, fashions, and opinions masquerading as Culture.

This form of plutocratic democracy can only exist for so long, as it soon exhausts itself in its restive search for novelty and change. Ultimately everyone becomes bored with the shallow machinations of this type of society and there begins to arise a yearning for something deeper and more meaningful, a harkening to the call of the blood:

There wakes at last a deep yearning for all old and worthy tradition that still lingers alive. Men are tired to disgust of money-economy. They hope for salvation from somewhere or other, for some true ideal of honour and chivalry, of inward nobility, of unselfishness and duty. And now dawns the time when the form-filled powers of the blood, which the rationalism of the Megalopolis has suppressed, reawaken in the depths.[1]

This represents the beginning of the Caesarist age. This age arises from the democracies but supersedes them. It is characterized by an expansive Imperialist urge to impose its worldview on as wide a field as possible. The inner development of the Cultural life has already reached full maturity, so there will be no significant developments in that respect. The yearning for something more meaningful is satisfied by returning to earlier forms of the Culture that preceded the democratic age. These forms are no longer capable of development but through a reengagement with them the population of the Imperial Civilization is once more able to regain a sense of nobility and the connection with the numinous that had been lost.

Spengler refers to this return to earlier forms as a “Second Religiousness.” The earlier religious impulses are now ossified but they still provide sufficient inspiration to give impetus to the Imperium, as they are at least paradigmatically superior to the reign of money and triviality. In this particular phase we can see a plethora of new cults emerging as people gradually lose faith with the democratic money age, and look for something more perennial:

We have in the European-American world of today the occultist and theosophist fraud, the American Christian Science, the untrue Buddhism of drawing rooms, the religious arts-and-crafts business (brisker in Germany than even in England) that caters for groups and cults of Gothic or late-Classical or Taoist sentiment. Everywhere it is just a toying with myths that no one really believes, a tasting of cults that it is hoped might fill the inner void. Materialism is shallow and honest, mock-religion shallow and dishonest. But the fact that the latter is possible at all foreshadows a new and genuine spirit of seeking that declares itself, first quietly, but soon emphatically and openly, in the civilized waking-consciousness.[2]

When the Imperial phase has run its course then it means that that particular culture has finished. The populations living within the boundaries of the defunct Empire are overrun by the barbarians and return to an ahistorical peasantry. This peasantry will subsist in a manner befitting all peasantries and will have nothing to offer to history. But within this peasantry there will necessarily arise a need to understand and articulate the presence of the Numen:

He feels about him an almost indescribable alien life of unknown powers, and traces the origin of these effects to “numina,” to the Other, inasmuch as this Other also possesses Life. . . . Now it is important to observe how the consciousness of each Culture intellectually condenses its primary “numina.” It imposes significant words—names—on them and thereby conjures (seizes or bounds) them. By virtue of the Name they are subject to the intellectual power of the man who possesses the Name. The pronouncement of the right name (in physics, the right concept) is an incantation.[3]

This longing for some form of higher expression, some meaningful articulation of enduring ideals, finds an outlet in the proliferation of new religiosities and cults. From this matrix of mystical yearning may grow the shoots of a new Culture that will have its own particular world view and life-expectancy. From this perception of the Numen a new Cultural form can be born and, thus, the cycle of birth, growth, and death may begin again in a new vehicle.

Spengler’s conception of history has drawn criticism from all sides. Many critics have questioned the element of inevitability that is inherent in Spengler’s model. Theodor Adorno denied that it was historically necessary to follow the pattern that Spengler described, and he saw Spengler as an advocate for the decline he depicted. For Adorno, a key intellectual influence for the forces of the New Left, Spengler is complicit in the historical processes that he describes because he refuses to accept that historical unfolding can be altered. According to Spengler’s model the lifespan of a Culture is determined by the imperative of internal logic and by its having a limited duration. For Spengler, this life-cycle cannot possibly be extended any more than the life of a human can be extended to 300 years. As he famously wrote, “optimism is cowardice.”[4] Adorno refuses to accept the idea that there is an unavoidable decline that cannot be halted. Due to his abhorrence of the Caesarism of Hitler, Adorno claims that the Imperial phase of the West is, in fact, a willed descent into barbarity and oppression. Adorno maintains that Cultures of the past died out because they were based on exploitation, and therefore lacked equilibrium.[5] With the possibility of Communism offered by Marx it was no longer necessary to succumb to the forces described by Spengler:

In a world of brutal and oppressed life, decadence becomes the refuge of a potentially better life by renouncing its allegiance to this one and to its culture, its crudeness, and its sublimity. The powerless, who at Spengler’s command, are to be thrown aside and annihilated by history, are the negative embodiment within the negativity of this culture of everything which promises, however feebly, to break the dictatorship of culture and put an end to the horror of pre-history. In their protest lies the only hope that fate and power will not have the last word. What can oppose the decline of the west is not a resurrected culture but the utopia that is silently contained in the image of its decline.[6]

Perhaps Adorno has a point. After all, the refuge of decadence has been manifested most ably throughout the former Cultures of the West by his followers, even if there is no sign yet of utopia. For Spengler, however, such diversions are all too predictable at this stage of Cultural decline. The existence of decadence, Communism, or other intellectual fads is something that might be supported or opposed, but it is not something that can affect the broader flow of history:

Whether these doctrines are “true” or “false” is—we must reiterate and emphasize—a question without meaning for political history. The refutation of, say, Marxism belongs to the realm of academic dissertation and public debates, in which everyone is always right and his opponent always wrong. . . . The power that these abstract ideals possess, however, scarcely extends in time beyond the two centuries that belong to party politics, and their end comes not from refutation but from boredom. . . . Belief in program was the mark and the glory of our grandfathers—in our grandsons it will be a proof of provincialism. In its place is developing even now the seed of a new resigned piety, sprung from tortured conscience and spiritual hunger, whose task will be to found a new Hither-side (Dies-seits) that looks for secrets instead of steel-bright concepts and in the end will find them in the deeps of the “Second Religiousness.”[7]

Whilst Adorno abhors Spengler’s “universal structure” and denies the applicability of its prognosis to the twentieth century West, his own New Left formulation relies on the historical inevitability of Marx, and the particular model of history he promulgated—a model based on universal applicability. Adorno’s critique of Spengler seems overly influenced by the particular phase of the cycle that he was living through, and is perhaps tainted with the optimistic cowardice common to utopians everywhere.

Another thinker who denies the inevitability of Spengler’s model comes from the opposite end of the political spectrum to Adorno. In his introduction to Yockey’s Imperium,[8] Willis Carto argued that the ultimate decline of the West can be avoided due to the unique technological situation available to the West at that time. Specifically, writing at the dawn of the space age, Carto suggests that space exploration could fulfil the expansive imperative of the Caesarist phase without resulting in the debilitating mixture of races that follows Imperialism. For Carto, it is this racial mixing that provides the organic cause for the decline of a Culture. All Cultures conclude with a universalist, Imperialist phase due to the inner logic of their life-form. This, Carto accepts, cannot and need not be avoided. But, with the advent of space travel, it should be possible to fulfil the inner need for Faustian exploration whilst avoiding the miscegenous downfall of all previous Cultures. Carto sees the Destiny of Western Man lying in space colonization and the creation of an inter-stellar Imperium.

It is an ingenious response to Spengler’s pessimism as it acknowledges the necessity of the historical processes identified by Spengler yet seeks to align them to a transcendent goal, befitting the urge towards infinite space identified with the Faustian spirit. But no one writing in 1960 could have foreseen the limited future that space exploration was to have. Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey, released in 1968 gave a sober prediction of intelligent, conscious, computers controlling a manned flight to Saturn. This scenario was based on the best technological predictions available at the time and now looks unbelievably over-optimistic. The further we travel along the final arc of our Western Culture, the more accurate Spengler’s pessimism appears.

Unlike Adorno’s critique of Spengler, Carto shared many of Spengler’s basic assumptions and hoped to participate in implementing the next phase of the cycle. From our perspective it seems less and less likely that there is a future for our Culture. Is there no room for hope?

There is some uncertainty about the particular phase of the cycle we are living through. In the middle part of the twentieth century it seemed clear that the Caesarist age was with us, as various European leaders superseded their democratic systems with new regimes founded on pre-democratic ideals. The American hegemony obtaining since 1945 can either be seen as the cessation of the Caesarist imperative, or its deeper fulfilment in the global spread of Western ideas. The latter interpretation, if it is correct, would undermine Spengler’s model as it would demonstrate the achievement of Imperium through the power of money, rather than through the transcendence of money values. Certainly, Yockey saw 1945 as representing the beginning of pseudomorphosis, a sort of sickness causing the Cultural organism to fall out of sync with its Destiny. For Yockey, this sickness was due to the Culture distortion imposed by the Jewish elites in America who have taken over that country and now rule it for their own ends. Spengler had described historical pseudomorphosis as the imposition of an older Cultural form on a younger, and more vital, form.

If we accept that the Global world order gathering pace under the (distorted) American banner is, in fact, a pseudomorphic distortion of the Destiny of the West then we are faced with two possible scenarios: the first is that the Caesarist phase has been thwarted, in which case the Culture is already dead, and there can be no possibility of Cultural renewal; the second is that the Global World Order is just an extension of the democratic money period, that the Caesarism of the 1930s was premature, and that we are yet to begin the authentic Imperium phase of our Culture. Thus, we are either entering an ahistorical descent into peasantry or we are awaiting an Imperial renewal of earlier forms.

The interesting thing is that, in either of those scenarios, we are living at a time in which we would expect to see the beginnings of new yearnings towards the numinous. Before considering the possibility of such new numinous forms emerging, it will be helpful to sketch a brief outline of the arc of development of Western artistic Culture. The intention is simply to identify the internal logic of the West’s decline.

The Council of Trent (1545–1563) played an important role in the development of Western music. At this ecclesiastical conference the question of counterpoint in music was discussed. The issue was controversial because it was felt by some that counterpoint was being deployed for mere ornamentation, for entertainment value. Whereas plainsong allowed for complete clarity in singing lines of scripture, counterpoint tended (so the argument went) to obscure the text by employing elaborate musical techniques that demanded adulation in their own right. The music was meant to be a mere vehicle for the praise of God. Legend has it that the composer Palestrina persuaded the Council of the merits of counterpoint by composing a mass which utilized that technique so beautifully that they accepted its application as an art suitable for worship.

Counterpoint became the emblem of the Culture of the West. For Spengler, the fundamental symbolic formulation for the West’s mode of apprehension was the yearning for infinite space. Counterpoint was the perfect way of expressing this yearning: “The symbolism of counterpoint belongs to extension and through polyphony signifies infinite space.”[9] This characteristically Western form of expression developed into the form of the sonata, and its voice became that of the stringed instruments:

The theme of the fugue “is,” that of the new sonata-movement “becomes,” and the issue of its working out is in the one case a picture, in the other a drama. Instead of a series of pictures we get a cyclic succession, and the real source of this tone-language was in the possibilities, realized at last, of our deepest and most intimate kind of music—the music of the strings. Certain it is that the violin is the noblest of all instruments that the Faustian soul has imagined and trained for the expression of its last secrets, and certain it is, too, that it is in string quartets and violin sonatas that it has experienced its most transcendent and most holy moments of full illumination. Here, in chamber-music, Western art as a whole reaches its highest point.[10]

What has happened at this point in the Culture’s development is that music has become a thing in itself. It is no longer used as an appendage to other art or religious forms, it becomes instead the foremost form of expression in its own right. Whereas the Classical Culture’s primary symbol was the body, representing a conceptual world view based on a feeling for solidity and best expressed through sculpture, the Western primary symbol is infinite space, the furthest horizon, and it finds its supreme expression through the polyphonic music of the strings.

The creation of the sonata form was also accompanied by further developments in Western Culture. In particular, the novel reached a certain peak of formulation at around the same time as the sonata, and both forms share structural similarities. In a formulaic sonata the first subject is presented in the home key which then bridges to a second subject in a different key. The two subjects are developed before both are finally resolved by returning to the initial home key. This schema of unity disrupted by conflict which is then resolved into further unity underlies most classic novels and could be said to represent the form of the novel. In fact, it is a structure underlying the hero myths and sagas that accompanied the birth of the Culture, so it can be seen that, in this sense, the sonata and the novel are the ultimate crystallization of the underlying myths of our Culture.

With the achievement of these forms there is nowhere else for Culture to go. From its inception the Culture has been developing the forms of its expression apposite to its specific apprehension of the numinous. From the earliest sagas, through the medieval morality plays and mummer plays, to the grandiloquence of Elizabethan theatre, and finally to the privately consumed, and individually wrought form of the novel, the Culture has travelled from a shared experience of numinous heroism to the private contemplation of personal psychology. A similar trajectory is followed in the field of music: from the heroic Anglo-Saxon poetry (which would have been accompanied by the heorp, a stringed instrument), through the ritualized church music of medieval times, to the polyphony and chamber music of the eighteenth century, and then on to the absolute music that sought expression purely in its own terms, concluding with the sterile experimentalism of the twentieth century.

For Yockey, and others, the artistic degradations of the twentieth century were a consequence of Culture distortion. In particular, Yockey referred to the revolution of 1933, which saw the full augmentation of Jewish power under Roosevelt in America. Following Yockey’s model, the Jewish takeover of power in America led to the hegemony of Jewish influence in the arts and created the possibility for the spread of those ideas peculiar to the Jewish mindset: the atonality of Schoenberg, the development of minimalism by Reich, etc. It is undoubtedly certain that the rise of Jewish power in America has led to an exacerbation of artistic forces that are antithetical to the ethos of the West, but it is still the case that the Culture of the West was already set on course for much of the individualism and triviality that is nowadays often dismissed as “Jewish.” The real problem with the idea of Culture distortion is that it tends to downplay the importance of the real arc of Western Cultural development by fixating on those elements that are foreign to it, and thereby failing to acknowledge that Western Culture was already declining without the influence of Jews. The danger here is that, whilst playing cherchez le juif, we tend to hark back to older and more fulfilling Cultural forms, but forms whose force has already been spent. In doing so, we risk replacing one species of pseudomorphosis with another. This is so because the tendency is to return to the shells of previous Cultural forms, shells no longer animated by the numinous force that made them powerful to begin with.

We have already seen that the genesis of Culture, as well as the second religiousness, is animated by the perception of the numinous. The numen is the presiding god of a particular place. The word is related to the Latin nuere, nod, and to the Greek neuein, incline the head, indicating an assent or command. Thus, the word indicates the effects of the power of the deity. If we are to begin to look for signs of incipient Cultural stirrings beneath the surface of what passes for artistic endeavor nowadays, it will be necessary to seek out those currents that transmit something of the numinous, or that pay worship to the presiding deity. In looking for such signs it is important to remember that the numinous is concerned with the awe-inspiring, and as such it is unrelated to forms which might seek to pay lip service to existing religious structures. Artistic forms capable of embodying the numinous will often be shocking and unexpected. Many readers will disagree with the observations concerning numinous Culture that follow, and will dismiss them out of hand. But it is to be hoped that the presiding deity of our Culture is still able to transcend the expectations of conservative taste.

In the following I will firstly be contrasting seemingly similar outward forms and noting the essential difference between them; secondly comparing apparently distinct forms and noting the essential similarity; and thirdly noting how a particular work illustrates the difference between the Second Religiousness and the birthing of an entirely new Culture. The purpose of these contrasts is to locate the centrality of the numinous in the genesis of Culture.

To begin at the opposite end of the artistic spectrum from the numinous, the Sensation exhibition, held at the Royal Academy of Arts in 1997, showcased the collection of Charles Saatchi and offered a useful index of everything that is wrong with contemporary art. Sensation was primarily a showcase for the more conceptually minded artists such as Damien Hurst and Tracey Emin. But it lodged itself in the public consciousness due to the inclusion of a work of acrylic on canvas by the painter Marcus Harvey. Myra was a portrait of the so-called moors murderer, Myra Hindley, based on the legendary police photograph taken after her arrest. This large painting employs a sort of pointillist style and gains its notoriety due to the fact that the paint is applied using the handprints of small children. One viewer was moved to smuggle in and throw paint onto the picture when he viewed it. Despite the assertions of Norman Rosenthal in the exhibition catalogue that the purpose of art is “to conquer territory that hitherto has been taboo,”[11] Sensation neither broke taboos nor conquered new territory; nor did it have a moment’s thought for the numinous. In fact, after the vandalism of the Myra painting, the area around the picture was roped off and a security guard was employed to stand protectively next to it. This only served to emphasize the feeling that this sort of art aggrandizes its own sense of importance to such an extent that we are meant to worship it, rather than allowing it to be a bridge to a true object of reverence.

The esoteric precursor to Myra can be found in the strange quasi-manifesto of COUM Transmissions, Annihilating Reality, written by Genesis P-Orridge and Peter Christopherson. This document is concerned with questioning, not so much what constitutes art, but whether art should be seen to transcend legal and social taboos, and contextual legitimacy. In particular, they contrast certain avant garde artistic provocations with criminal, or socially unacceptable, activities and ask where the sanctification of a work as “art” comes from. They suggest that many artists share similar impulses with criminals, and indeed similarity of forms of expression with them in certain cases. The piece uses a large number of quotations and short, often disconnected, paragraphs titled either “hearsay” or “heresy,” as well as a large number of illustrations to demonstrate its point. But the most controversial part, which led to media condemnation,[12] concerns the idea that the photographs taken by Ian Brady on Saddleworth Moor, which have a secret meaning for him due to his knowledge of the burial sites of his child victims, might be considered a form of performance art:

Hearsay: Ian Brady and Myra Hindley photographed landscapes on the Moors in England where they had buried children after sexually assaulting and killing them. Landscapes that only have meaning when perceived through their eyes. Art is perception of the moment. Action. Conscious. Brady as conceptual performer?[13]

The example of the Moors Murderers is a distasteful one, to say the very least, but it was no doubt intended to make the point in extremis. The more sober question the article poses concerns what the essential element of artistic creation is, and whether it requires prior or retrospective endorsement by some establishment to gain legitimacy.

Whilst one of the purposes of Annihilating Reality was to puncture the pretensions of the art establishment, it nonetheless made some important points. The manifesto states, “performance art is probably the Shaman, Mystic, Lunatic, Buddha, visionary of contemporary times, in a post-religious era a crucial and responsible function best kept away from dealers who are the Pardoners of our culture.”[14]

It is this realization that distinguishes the article from mere provocation. The common element that P-Orridge and Christopherson move towards in Annihilating Reality is a perception of the present moment as a consciously lived experience. Whilst art can create this heightened sense of awareness, so can crime. By identifying the distinguishing merit of art with this heightened, Mystic awareness, P-Orridge and Christopherson set the ground for their subsequent experiments with Thee Temple Ov Psychick Youth, Chaos Magick, and other projects. The important thing to note is that, from an early stage, they were perceiving their own art projects as being set within a context of mystical consciousness; a nebulous idea, perhaps, but indicative of an experimental praxis allied to the numinous.

Despite the apparent similarity of using the shocking subject matter of the moors murderers, Harvey’s painting is firmly located within the context of the art establishment and employs notoriety in order to extend its meaning as art; whilst the praxis suggested in Annihilating Reality seeks to subvert the very notion of “art” as a category by noting its arbitrariness, and by isolating the point of numinous apprehension as the nexus of its operation.

Within the field of music there is often no synergy whatsoever between different genres, and this is particularly the case when considering “classical” music in relation to “popular” music. As discussed earlier, the Western musical tradition, according to Spengler, reached its apex with the sonata form. Its subsequent development, particularly through the twentieth century, is problematic. The twelve tone system of Schoenberg; the serialism of Boulez; the elaborate experimentalism of Stockhausen; all, to different degrees, speak of either the decline of the tradition or its distortion; probably both. Nonetheless, adherents of the Western tradition seek to protect and segregate classical music from the degenerate forces of more popular forms; this, despite the evident degeneracy of the classical form itself. If we are to seek the essential spirit that lies within music we will begin to transcend the barrier between “classical” and “popular” that has now become obsolete.

Giacinto Scelsi [2] was a reclusive Italian composer who was initially interested in the twelve tone system and other early twentieth century experimentations. Following a personal crisis he changed direction and became concerned with exploring the musical possibilities inherent in a single note, and he saw this project as being a deeply mystical one. This dates from his 1959 composition, Four Pieces on a Single Note. What he sought to do in this work, and subsequently, was to open out the tonal and timbral textures of a single note and to explore the range of sonic possibilities that could be found with it. This compositional praxis bears similarity with the chanting of Tibetan monks who elaborate on a single tone with simple instrumentation.

In works such as Anahit and Uaxuctum (subtitled The Legend of the Maya City, Destroyed by Themselves for Religious Reasons), Scelsi’s music achieved a simultaneous sense of accessibility and arcane depth. The graceful majesty of the sustained tones is underpinned by being surrounded by a restive instrumental accompaniment. It is music that resembles sunlight on a still pond; a singular impression formed by a constantly fluctuating surface. It is also music that is somewhat terrifying, evoking a sense of cosmic space and emptiness. In this sense it is similar to Ligetti’s Atmosphères, which also provokes a sense of awe. Scelsi’s music avoids the alienating and unappealing elements of atonality, and instead brings together a rich and unique tonal sensibility within a framework guided by his interest in mysticism.

Scelsi’s 1969 piece, Konx Om Pax, is in three movements and is subtitled Three aspects of Sound: as the first motion of the immutable; as creative force; as the syllable Om (the Buddhists’ sacred syllable). In the third movement the orchestra is joined by the chorus repeating the sacred syllable “Om.” Like much of Scelsi’s oeuvre, the music is superficially repetitive, but the repetition is never straightforward; the theme develops and progresses but never strays from its obsessively focused theme. The title Konx Om Pax refers to the word “peace” in three different languages, and is also the title of a book by the occultist Aleister Crowley. Knox Om Pax provides a link between Scelsi and some of the post-punk experimentalism that took place a decade or so after its composition.

The album, Nature Unveiled by Current 93, contains two long tracks that bear a great deal of similarity with Scelsi’s music. “Ach Golgotha (Maldoror is Dead)” is partly based on a looped tape recording of Crowley chanting “Aum,” and in this it is directly linked to Scelsi’s Konx Om Pax. But far deeper than this, it is apparent that the sonic landscape presented in “Ach Golgotha (Maldoror is Dead)” is attempting to express a certain state of mind, or being, that segues entirely with what Scelsi was trying to achieve. Certainly, “Ach Golgotha (Maldoror is Dead)” is possibly one of the most terrifying sound recordings ever made. It is somewhat repetitive but, again, it has nothing in common with serialism. In fact, a distinguishing feature of both Scelsi’s and Current 93’s music is that it is clearly articulated with a great deal of emotional resonance; it has nothing in common with the arid intellectual elitism of atonality. Listening to both “Ach Golgotha (Maldoror is Dead),” one perceives that both pieces are attempting to manifest a sense of the numinously awe-inspiring character of sacred sound. That they both turned to prior religious forms in order to do so is not really the point. Both pieces transcend their source material and point towards new musical forms.

In literature, some of the plays of Peter Shaffer deal with a renewed sense of numinous apprehension, most notably Equus [3] which, incidentally, was the inspiration for the Current 93 song “Hooves.” In this play a young boy, Alan Strang, is referred to a psychiatrist, Martin Dysart, after he has blinded six horses with a metal spike. The play depicts the psychiatrist’s efforts to get to the underlying motive beneath Alan’s gruesome act. As we learn more about Alan’s background it becomes apparent that, through a complex mix of Christian guilt and sexual immaturity, he has come to create a personal religion for himself. The root cause of this can be traced back to when he was a young child and was once taken for a ride on a horse by a stranger on a beach. For a few moments he was able to experience genuine freedom and exhilaration, and an escape from the repressive atmosphere created by his parents. Dysart learns that when Alan first saw this horse he was able to converse with it in his mind. The horse is called Equus, and he lives in all horses; he is the divinity of horses. From this moment on, Alan carries out rites and observances to Equus in secret, culminating in the psychotic blinding of the six horses in an act of defiance of divine omniscience.

As Dysart learns more about Alan he comes to understand that Alan has experienced a numinous relationship with his new god, albeit manifested through psychosis. Dysart becomes jealous of his patient as he realizes that his own life is a suburban charade, lacking in the conviction that Alan’s instinctive worship is able to manifest spontaneously:

I sit looking at pages of centaurs trampling the soil of Argos—and outside my window he is trying to become one, in a Hampshire field! . . . I watch that woman [Dysart’s wife] knitting, night after night—a woman I haven’t kissed in six years—and he stands in the dark for an hour, sucking the sweat off his God’s hairy cheek! (Pause) Then in the morning, I put away my books on the cultural shelf, close up the kodachrome snaps of Mount Olympus, touch my reproduction statue of Dionysus for luck-and go off to hospital to treat him for insanity. Do you see?[15]

Dysart becomes troubled by the idea of trying to cure Alan because he recognizes that to do so will rob Alan of his worship, as well as his psychosis. At the play’s conclusion, Dysart delivers a valedictory soliloquy to Alan:

Passion, you see, can be destroyed by a doctor. It cannot be created. You won’t gallop any more, Alan. Horses will be quite safe. You’ll save your money every week, till you can change that scooter for a car, you’ll slip round to the Betting Shop and put the odd fifty P on the gee-gees, quite forgetting that they were ever anything more to you than bearers of little profits or little losses. You will, however, be without pain. More or less completely without pain.[16]

Equus depicts the distance that lies between the adherents of the Second Religiousness and the creators of new, numinous Cultures. Dysart is grasping at long since spent forms whilst Alan is birthing new forms in blood. Even Dysart’s name points to his location in the late Civilizational phase (Dysart = Dys-art, i.e., bad art). Alan’s personal religion is doomed to be cured out of existence, but he has nonetheless lived for a time with the numinous, in all its beauty and horror.

If we accept that Spengler was right; if we accept that the future holds for us only decline, whether in the end of our Civilization or in the last hurrah of the Second Religiousness of the Imperium; then we still need not despair. Optimism is cowardice, but only if it hopes for the renewal of what has passed. New Cultures are birthed in the apprehension of the numinous; they are the effects of the surfeit of power of particular gods. If we wish to aggrandize ourselves and assume that we have a stake in Culture, that we can influence Culture in some way, then we can only do so by seeking out expressions of the numinous in Culture, and by encouraging their earthing. In this way we are able to hear the music of our god. An Imperium, or a new Culture, may not occur in our lifetimes; this looks increasingly likely. But if we pay attention to the numinous and revere it in all its forms then we are already placing ourselves out of time, beyond the limitations of the vulgar money age, and participating in the seeding of a new, numinous Culture.


[1] Oswald Spengler, The Decline of the West (New York: The Modern Library, 1962), 396.

[2] Ibid., 347.

[3] Ibid., 200.

[4] Oswald Spengler, Man and Technics (European Books Society, 1992), 72.

[5] Theodor W. Adorno, Prisms (Cambridge, Mass.: MIT Press, 1981), 71.

[6] Ibid., 72.

[7] Spengler, The Decline of the West, 389-91.

[8] Ulick Varange (Francis Parker Yockey), Imperium (Sausalito, Cal.: Noontide Press, 1962).

[9] Spengler, The Decline of the West, 119.

[10] Ibid., 120.

[11] Norman Rosenthal, et al., Sensation: Young British Artists from the Saatchi Collection (London: Thames and Hudson, 1997), 11.

[12] Simon Ford, Wreckers of Civilisation: The Story of COUM Transmissions & Throbbing Gristle (London: Black Dog Publishing, 1999).

[13] Genesis P-Orridge and Peter Christopherson, “Annihilating Reality,” Studio International, July/August 1976, 44–48.

[14] Ibid.

[15] Peter Shaffer, Equus (New York: Samuel French, 1973), 50.

[16] Ibid., 69.