The Angel of History: An Unexpected Encounter In the Middle of Long Island

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“Over the Town,” Marc Chagall (1918).  Oil on canvas, 17.8 X 22 inches.  Tretyakov Gallery, Moscow, Russia.

Once upon a time my wife Sharon and I were having pizza at a small but crowded restaurant, which sat between King Kullen and a Genovese Drug Store near our home in Miller Place, NY. The name of the pizzeria has long since faded from memory. However, I remember it was a sunny spring afternoon when we decided to drop in for a slice before picking up groceries and sundries. In a word, it was a pretty normal day.

As for the pizzeria, it was bustling like usual. Families and couples abounded, placing their orders and folding their slices, as everyone enjoyed their food and one another’s company. Despite the crowd, Sharon and I secured a booth in the middle of the premises, which were no more than a hold-in-the-wall. As we began to indulge ourselves a tiny woman with gentle eyes and an East European accent asked if she could sit with us. “May I join you?” she asked plaintively. Seeing that there was no place else for her we said “Oh, sure,” gesturing for her to sit as Sharon slid over a little to make room for our unexpected guest.

The woman was pleasant and asked us both about our backgrounds. She really liked the couple that Sharon and I made, she said. However, what peaked her interest was finding out that I was in the philosophy doctoral program at Stony Brook. “What are you studying? Are you working on your dissertation?” she asked with obvious interest. I said “Yes” and gave her a summary of my work on the “poetic experience,” in particular my phenomenological analysis of poetry as an integral part of the human experience. “Who are you reading?” she asked further. “Oh, you know,” I said, trying not to sound too pompous or boring, “Merleau-Ponty, Heidegger, Dufrenne, people like that.”

“You know, I studied philosophy once,” she said as I noticed that her toes barely touched the floor. “I was a student in Germany a longtime ago.” She then told me this remarkable story of having been one of Karl Jasper’s students during the 1930s at Heidelberg University. At the time, the author of The Origin and Goal of History was being driven out by Heidegger, “a Nazi sympathizer,” whom the woman at our table also said she knew as she took a small bite of her regular slice. She then recounted her professor’s “last lecture,” when the students were aware that their revered teacher was being forced out of the university and into exile because of his “Jewish wife.” “All of us were stomping our feet at the end of his lecture,” she recalled with a mix of nostalgia and lingering outrage at what Heidegger “did to his friend.”

At this point I don’t remember what the tiny woman with the East European accent said about the author of Being and Time, but I do recollect that it was less than flattering and that she wanted me to “forget about him” and instead find a place for Jaspers in my work. I listened sympathetically. Unfortunately, at the same time I was committing myself to reading more Jaspers, I knew that he never wrote about poetry or art, as did his disloyal colleague.

In the end, I could only feel genuine amazement at what I heard from our unexpected guest on this beautiful spring day in 1996. For a philosophy student, Jaspers and Heidegger were mythic figures. So, to meet someone who actually knew them both and attended their lectures was nothing short of astounding! As for who this woman was who shared our table for a slice of pizza, she said her name was “Vera Dunham” and that before her retirement she “taught Russian literature.”

jaspers and wife

Karl JASPERS, German psychologist and philosopher, at home with his wife.  SWITZERLAND. Basel. 1968.  Photographer: Thomas Hoepker

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“My Name Is God (I Hate You)”: Southern Nihilism and Metal in an A-Moral America

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Photo credit: David Martínez

When I visited New Orleans for my first extended stay during the fall of 2009, I happened upon the Louisiana Music Factory as I wandered the streets of the Quarter. Located at Frenchmen and Decatur, not too far away from the banks of the Mississippi River, the Factory is a haven for local music aficionados, replete with just about everything you can think of that’s related to the Big Easy. As I browsed the downstairs bins I came across a section labeled “NOLA Metal.”

Intrigued by the band names I saw but did not recognize I asked one of the guys working the counter if I could listen to something. I had noticed some CD players set up for customer listening. He said, “Sure. What do you wanna hear?” I said, “I’m interested in some of the bands in the metal section. I don’t know any of them.” “For reals?” the twenty-something year old man responded. “Well, come on over and I’ll tell you about them.”

It was at this point that I was initiated into a world of music I was previously unaware. New Orleans was much more than Dixieland jazz and Louis Armstrong. It was home to a subterranean world of doom and swampy sarcasm, as set to word and music by Goatwhore, Soilent Green, Graveyard Rodeo, Crowbar, and Kingdom of Sorrow. Head and shoulders above the rest, according to my guide into the sludge of screaming vocals and distorted guitars, was EYEHATEGOD, with Goatwhore a close second. However, when my guide said the name “Eyehategod,” he let out a sigh, as if the very name was worthy of reference.

Being sensitive to the passionate responses to the music the people I meet adore, I immediately—albeit randomly—selected an EHG disc from the bin. What I wound up taking home with me was the band’s 2000 release, Confederacy of Ruined Lives. Ever since, I’ve been listening and pondering the appeal of a form of music that is so aggressively cynical and sacrilegious. The fact that Eyehategod emerged in a place as conservative as Louisiana, as opposed to Los Angeles or New York, fascinated me all the more.

When listening to any given song, the words are consistently unintelligible. In fact, I often wonder if there are any lyrics, as Mike IX Williams shouts, growls, and shrieks his way through tune after tune. On the other hand, the song titles are evocative of a world filled with decadence, corruption, and political decay. “Left to Starve,” “Take As Needed for Pain,” “Methamphetamine,” and “New Orleans Is the New Vietnam” signify a derisive outlook on the world in which this music embodies an obnoxiousness qua social and political satire that I haven’t seen since The Dead Kennedys or Circle Jerks.

For me, Eyehategod is less about being anti-Christian or blasphemous and more about unleashing the frustration of a world built on the religious hypocrisy of powerful men. Eyehategod speaks, or rather rages on behalf of the powerless and disenfranchised. The junky, the dropout, the ex-con, and the people whose lives they destroy—the ones who by definition are denied any chance at the so-called American Dream, a dream reserved for the wealthy and well-connected. “In the Name of Suffering,” as one song title proclaims, because suffering is all some people have to their name.

When I finally saw Eyehategod perform live for the first time at Club Red in Mesa, Arizona on Saturday, November 8, 2014, I was amazed by the intensity of the audience’s connection with what was happening on stage. The band was tight and performed as a single organism bound with the wrath instigated by an absurd world. Eyehategod is a shout against religious conformity, self-righteousness, and the lethargy of an indifferent society. Eyehategod because God—the one wrapped in the flag and forgotten after church—hates me!