Saturday, April 21, 2012

Dante and Goths

No, not the Germanic tribe that sacked Rome in 410. The international subculture associated with deathly makeup and suicide attempt/cutting in half of its members.

Last week I listened to two pieces by Nightwish: "Seven Days to the Wolves" and "Ghost Love," recommended to me by my brother. My reaction was complex, owing to some familiarity with the culture and dress of this subculture in high school. I'd strongly rejected this part of my past as shameful and a little evil. (I think to myself, after all the graces you had received by Sacraments and the holy lives of your turned to that?)

I had to admit, from the first chord, that I liked the music (especially of "Seven Days"), but I winced as I watched the fan-made videos. They were filled with japanime of thin and pale people with black wings, lolita costumes, blood-stained flowers, and bizarrely-used traditional symbols (e.g. crosses). The figures are seldom modest, usually physically enhanced, and always lonely and drawn in cool colors.

Nightwish's lyrics also flitted across the screen. I was ready for lyrics that matched the pictures: overly-dramatic, depressing, unchaste, abusive of good symbols. I was ready to hate it. I was ready for it to blacken my day. But look:
The wolves, my love, will come
Taking us home where dust once was a man
Is there life before a death?
Do we long too much?

Howl! Seven days to the wolves
Where will we be when they come?
Seven days to the poison
And a place in heaven
Time drawing near us
They come to take us

This is my church of choice
Last drinks and death in last sacrifice
For the rest, I have to say to you
I will dream like the god
(And suffer like all the dead children)

This is where heroes and cowards part ways
Light the fire, feast
Chase the ghosts, give in
Take the road less traveled by
Leave the city of fools
Turn every poet loose
The Ghosts of Paolo and Francesca Appear
to Dante and Virgil (1855)
Something is missing, clearly. But there is much that is valid and present.

How does this relate to Dante? In his Inferno, the circle just above hell houses the virtuous pagan philosophers, who walk about in a dim but tortureless existence, their only pain being their loss of the fulfillment. They had their eyes set on the highest mortal things--but not on God. The next level (the first circle of Hell) is home to the ghosts of lovers in hell for loving each other more than they loved God. They whirl around entwined for eternity, lamenting their mutual calamity. But the most interesting thing about these lovers is their surprising place in hell: it's the least punishing level! The good they have chosen over God is the next-best one: other people (not non-rational animals or inanimate objects like money or food).

Nightwish in concert. (Observe cellphones.)
How does this relate to Nightwish? This song, which I don't hate, is full of serious and meaningful imagery. Like ancient ones, this modern-day pagan writer understands that our time is VERY finite and that something awaits us--in fact, he even asks whether there is life before this next thing. He correctly identifies the most important things in this life: love, sacrifice, death, heaven, the end of time. C.S. Lewis had an incredible article about this.

Nightwish is also like Dante's lovers: he chooses other people (highlighted best in his other song) as his saviors and icons. Perceiving the human state he longs for depth of love and gift; perceiving no other object for this than others and himself he pours his attention into these beautiful, poetic beings. Doing this, he is better off than some Christians and post-Christians, who choose lesser goods (e.g. contentment, wealth).

Now I see why people dress like that, act like that, and create art like that. (It's St. Augustine: every desire is a desire for God, Confessions VII.) It's imperfect but it's not malicious, just as Dante laid out. Ultimately, listening to a Goth band increased my ability to bear charity to myself and neighbor. Wow!

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