“A Brief History of Goths”: From the Goths, to Gothic Literature, to Goth Music

The history of the word ‘Gothic,’” argues Dan Adams in the short, animated TED-Ed video above,” is embedded in thousands of years’ worth of countercultural movements.” It’s a provocative, if not entirely accurate, idea. We would hardly call an invading army of Germanic tribes a “counterculture.” In fact, when the Goths sacked Rome and deposed the Western Emperor, they did, at first, retain the dominant culture. But the Gothic has always referred to an oppositional force, a Dionysian counterweight to a rational, classical order.

We know the various versions: the Germanic instigators of the “Dark Ages,” early Christian architectural marvels, Romantic tales of terror and the supernatural, horror films, and gloomy, black-clad post punks and their moody teenage fans. Aside from obvious references like Bauhaus’ tongue-in-cheek ode, “Bela Lugosi’s Dead,” the connective tissue between all the uses of Gothic isn't especially evident. “What do fans of atmospheric post-punk music,” asks Adams, “have in common with ancient barbarians?” The answer: not much. But the story that joins them involves some strange convergences, all of them having to do with the idea of “darkness.”

Two significant figures in the evolution of the Gothic as a consciously-defined aesthetic were both art historians. The first, Giorgio Vasari---considered the first art historian---wrote biographies of great Renaissance artists, and first used the term Gothic to refer to medieval cathedrals, which he saw as barbarous next to the neoclassical revival of the 14th-16th centuries. (Vasari was also the first to use the term “Renaissance” to describe his own period.) Two hundred years after Vasari’s Lives, art historian, antiquarian, and Whig politician Horace Walpole appropriated the term Gothic to describe The Castle of Otranto, his 1765 novel that started a literary trend.

Walpole also used the term to refer to art of the distant past, particularly the ruins of castles and cathedrals, with an eye toward the supposedly exotic, menacing aspects (for Protestant English readers at least) of the Catholic church and Continental European nobility. But for him, the associations were positive, and constituted a kitschy escape from Enlightenment rationalism. We have Walpole to thank, in some sense, for ersatz celebrations like Renaissance Fairs and Medieval Times restaurants, and for later Gothic novels like Bram Stoker’s Dracula, Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein, and the weird tales of Edgar Allan Poe.

We can see that it’s a rather short leap from classic horror stories and films to the dark makeup, teased hair, fog machines, and swirling atmospherics of The Cure and Siouxsie Sioux. In the history of the Gothic, especially between Vasari and Walpole, the word moves from a term of abuse---describing art thought to be “crude and inferior”---to one that describes art forms considered mysterious, and darkly Romantic. For another take on the subject, see Pitchfork's  music-focused, animated, and  "surprisingly light-hearted" short, "A Brief History of Goth," above, a presentation on the subculture's rise, fall, and undead rise again.

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Josh Jones is a writer and musician based in Durham, NC. Follow him at @jdmagness

An Animated Introduction to Samuel Beckett, Absurdist Playwright, Novelist & Poet

Though he’s best known for his spare, absurdist tragicomedy, Waiting for Godot, playwright, poet, and novelist Samuel Beckett wrote what might be his most-quoted line at the end of The Unnamable, the third book in a hypnotic trilogy that begins with Molloy and continues with Malone Dies: "I can't go on, I'll go on."

These novels, and the original Godot, were all written in French, then translated into English by Beckett himself. But Beckett was an Irish writer, who---like his contemporary, hero, countryman, and almost-father-in-law James Joyce---lived most of his life in voluntary exile. Like Joyce, Beckett wrote about Irish characters, and his “theme,” noted a 1958 New York Times reviewer of The Unnamable, “is the very Irish one in this century: the identity of opposites.”

Nothing in Beckett encapsulates this idea more concisely than the seven-word concluding line of The Unnamable. It’s a sentence that sums up so much of Beckett—his elliptical aphorisms; his dry, acerbic wit; and his unwavering stare into the abyss. As one contemporary of his suggested, Beckett will remain relevant “as long as people still die.” His primary subject is indeed one of the few truly universal themes.

But to only think of Beckett as morbid is not to read Beckett or see his work performed. While he can be unrelentingly grim, he is also never not in control of the dry humor of his voice. In his animated School of Life introduction to Beckett above, Alain de Botton begins with an anecdote about Beckett at a much-anticipated cricket match. Observing the perfect weather, a companion of his remarked, “This is the sort of day that would make you glad to be alive.” To which Beckett replied, “I wouldn’t go as far as that.”

The story, de Botton, says, “nicely encompasses two aspects of Samuel Beckett: his famously bleak view of life, and his mordant sense of humor.” They are qualities that for Beckett have the status of philosophical principles—though the author himself had a very fraught, almost allergic, relationship to philosophy. He gave up teaching early in his career, as we learn in the video, because “he felt he could not teach to others what he did not know himself.” When a version of Waiting for Godot debuted in 1952, Beckett sent a note to be read in his place. He wrote, in part:

All I knew I showed. It's not much, but it's enough for me, by a wide margin. I'll even say that I would have been satisfied with less. As for wanting to find in all that a broader, loftier meaning to carry away from the performance, along with the program and the Eskimo pie, I cannot see the point of it. But it must be possible ...

The necessity of the pointless exercise; the richness in the poverty of existence—stripped of its pretense and grand, self-important narratives.... These ideas arise from “the themes of failure that so dominate his work,” says de Botton. Though Beckett resisted interpretation in his own writing, he wrote an early study of Marcel Proust that interpreted the French author’s work as a philosophy of life which rests “on the making and appreciation of art.” Given that this is a School of Life video, this interpretation becomes the favored way to read Beckett. There are many others. But as the title of a 1994 Samuel Beckett reader---I Can’t Go On, I’ll Go On—suggests, every approach to Beckett must somehow try to account for the stubborn intensity of his contradictions.

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Josh Jones is a writer and musician based in Durham, NC. Follow him at @jdmagness

Edward Gorey Illustrates H.G. Wells’ The War of the Worlds in His Inimitable Gothic Style (1960)

The story of malicious space aliens invading Earth has a resonance that knows no national boundaries. In fact, many modern versions make explicit the moral that only fighting off an existential threat from another planet could unify the inherently fractious human species. H.G. Wells' 1898 novel The War of the Worlds, in many ways the archetypal telling of the space-invaders tale, certainly proved compelling on both sides of the pond: though set in Wells' homeland of England, it made a lasting impact on American culture when Orson Welles produced a thoroughly localized version for radio, his infamous War of the Worlds Halloween 1938 broadcast. (Listen to it here.)

And so who better to illustrate a mid-2oth-century edition of the novel than Edward Gorey? He was born in and spent nearly all his life in America, but developed an artistic sensibility that struck its many appreciators as uncannily mid-Atlantic. His work continues to draw descriptions like "Victorian" and "gothic," surely underscored by his association with the British literature-adapting television show Mystery!, for whose title sequences he drew characters and settings, and the young-adult gothic mystery novels of Anglophile author John Bellairs. The Gorey-illustrated War of the Worlds came out in 1960 from Looking Glass Library, featuring his drawings not just at the top of each chapter but on its wraparound cover as well. Though out of print, you can find old copies for sale online.

Gorey had begun his career in the early 1950s at the art department of publisher Doubleday Anchor, creating book covers and occasionally interior illustrations. In addition to Bellairs' novels, he would also go on to put his artistic stamp on such literary classics as Bram Stoker's Dracula and T.S. Eliot's Old Possum's Book of Practical Cats, bringing to each his signature combination of whimsy and dread in just the right proportions. Given the inherent ominousness and threat of The War of the Worlds, Gorey's dark side comes to the fore as the story's long-legged terrors arrive and wreak havoc on Earth, only to fall victim to common disease.

Gorey's War of the Worlds illustrations also seem to draw some inspiration from the very first ones that accompanied the novel upon its initial publication as a Pearson's Magazine serial in 1897. You can compare and contrast them by browsing the high-resolution scans of the out-of-print 1960 Looking Glass Library War of the Worlds at this online exhibition at Loyola University Chicago Digital Special Collections, in partnership with the Edward Gorey Charitable Trust.

Though conceptually similar to the illustrations in Pearson's, drawn by an artist (usually of children's books) named Warwick Goble, they don't get into quite as much detail — but then, they don't have to. To evoke a complex mixture of fascinated anticipation and creeping fear, Gorey never needed more than an old house, a huddle of silhouettes, or a pair of eyes glowing in the darkness.

via Heavy Metal

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Based in Seoul, Colin Marshall writes and broadcasts on cities and culture. He’s at work on a book about Los Angeles, A Los Angeles Primer, the video series The City in Cinema, the crowdfunded journalism project Where Is the City of the Future?, and the Los Angeles Review of Books’ Korea Blog. Follow him on Twitter at @colinmarshall or on Facebook.

Franz Kafka’s Unfinished Novel, The Castle, Gets Turned Into an Album by Czech Musicians: Watch a Music Video for the Song, “The Grave”

If, for some unfathomable reason, author Franz Kafka should emerge from his grave to direct a music video, the result would most certainly resemble the one for "The Grave" by The Kafka Band, above.

The air of futility and social foreboding…

The chilly broken landscape, rendered in black and white…

Bikinis and bling…

(Kidding! Overcoats and haggard expressions.)

"The Grave" was directed by animator, Noro Holder, but the lyrics are credited to Kafka, drawn directly from his unfinished novel, The Castle. As the band’s name might imply, this is no fickle flirtation with the author’s sensibilities.

"The Grave" is actually part of a ten-song album inspired by The Castle. (Stream it on Spotify below.) As bandmate, author Jaroslav Rudiš, observed:

Kafka is often deemed as a dark author, yet we strive to challenge this cliché. The novel possesses plenty of black and absurd humour, which we reflected in some of our compositions.

The album led to a collaboration with Germany’s Theater Bremen on a theatrical adaptation that featured the music played live.

The moody woodcut-inspired visuals seen above come from a graphic novel adaptation of The Castle illustrated by Rudiš’ bandmate, Jaromír 99, in collaboration with David Zane Mairowitz, an American playwright who previously tackled Kafka’s The Trial

At the point where another group might decide to take a detour into sunnier territory---a pop romp through the oeuvre of Milan Kundera perhaps---the Kafka Band is doubling down on another coproduction with Theater Bremen, an adaptation of Kafka’s novel Amerika (or The Man Who Disappeared), slated to open this fall.

The Grave

I’m dreaming of

Being with you

Without interruption

On earth

There is no space

For our love

Not in the village

Not anywhere else.

Deep in the earth / around us only death / the living won’t find us.

I’m imagining a grave

Deep and tight

We hold each other

My face next to yours

Yours next to mine

Nobody will ever see us

On earth there is no space

For our love.

Deep in the earth / around us only death / the living won’t find us.

Watch the video for "Arrival," another track inspired by The Castle, with drawings by Jaromír 99 here.

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Ayun Halliday is an author, illustrator, and theater maker, soon to be appearing in a clown adaptation of Faust, inspired by the current administration and opening in New York City this June. Follow her @AyunHalliday.

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Every Poem in Baudelaire’s “Les Fleurs du Mal” Set to Music, Illustrated and Performed Live

Charles Baudelaire must be a joyful corpse indeed. His work has succeeded as few others’ have, to be so passionately alive 150 years after his death.

Theater Oobleck, a Chicago artistic collective dedicated to creating original affordable theatrical works, has spent the last eleven years assembling Baudelaire in a Box, a cantastoria cycle based on Les Fleurs du Mal.


Because he would be so irritated. Because he might be charmed

There is a touch of vaudeville and cabaret in Baudelaire. He tended to go big or go home. Home to his mother.

Because he invented the term “modernity” and even now no one quite knows what it means. Because he wrote a poetry of immersion perfectly suited to the transience and Now-ness of song and of the Ever-Moving scroll. Because we never had a proper goth phase. Sex and death! For all these reasons, and for the true one that remains just out of our grasp.

Each new installment features a line-up of musicians performing live adaptations of another 10 to 15 poems, as artist Dave Buchen’s painted illustrations slowly spool past on hand-turned “crankies.”

The resulting “proto music videos” are voluptuously intimate affairs, with plenty of time to reflect upon the original texts’ explicit sexuality, the gorgeous urban decay that so preoccupied one of Romantic poetry’s naughtiest boys.

The instruments and musical palate---klezmer, alt-country, antifolk---are befitting of the interpreters’ well honed downtown sensibilities. The lyrics are drunk on their dark imagery.

The entire project makes for the sort of extravagantly eccentric night out that might lead a young poet to lean close to his blind date, mid-show, to whisper “Wouldn’t it be agreeable to take a bath with me?” No word on whether that line worked for the poéte maudit, who reportedly issued such an invitation to a friend mid-sentence.

This August, Theater Oobleck intends to observe the sesquicentennial of Baudelaire’s death in grand style with a marathon performance of the complete Baudelaire in a Box, a three-day effort involving 50 artists and over 130 poems.

Allow a few past examples to set the mood:

The Offended Moon From Episode 9 of Baudelaire In A Box, "Unquenched." Composed and translated by David Costanza. Emmy Bean: vocal, Ronnie Kuller: accordion, T-Roy Martin trombone, David E. Smith: clarinet, Chris Schoen: vocal, Joey Spilberg: bass.

The Denial of St. Peter Composed, translated and performed by Sad Brad Smith, with Emmy Bean (hand percussion), Ronnie Kuller (accordion), T-Roy Martin (trombone), Chris Schoen (mandolin), and Joey Spilberg (bass).

The Drag Music composed by Ronnie Kuller, to Mickle Maher's translation of "L'Avertisseur" by Charles Baudelaire. Performed by: Emmy Bean (vocal, percussion), Angela James (vocal), Ronnie Kuller (piano, percussion), T-Roy Martin (vocal), Chris Schoen (vocal), David E. Smith (saxophone), and Joey Spilberg (bass).

The Hard(-est) Working Skeleton Music by Amy Warren, Performed by Nora O'Connor, with Addie Horan, Amalea Tshilds, Kate Douglas, James Becker and Ted Day.

The Possessed Written and performed by Jeff Dorchen.

You can listen to and purchase songs from Episodes 7 (the King of Rain) and 9 (Unquenched) on Bandcamp.

Some of the participating musicians have released their own albums featuring tracks of their Baudelaire-based tunes.

Theater Oobleck is raising funds for the upcoming Closed Casket: The Complete, Final, and Absolutely Last Baudelaire in a Box on Kickstarter, with music and prints and originals of Buchen’s work among the premiums at various pledge levels.

All images used with permission of artist Dave Buchen.

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Ayun Halliday is an author, illustrator, theater maker and the Chief Primatologist of the East Village Inky zine.  She will be appearing in a live excerpt from CB Goodman’s How to Kill an Elephant this Friday at Dixon Place in New York City. Follow her @AyunHalliday.

Hear a Reading of James Joyce’s Finnegans Wake Set to Music: Features 100+ Musicians and Readers from Across the World

In a post last year on an ambitious musical adaptation of Finnegans Wake, I noted that---when most in bafflement over the Irish writer’s final, seemingly uninterpretable, work---I turn to Anthony Burgess, who not only presumed to abridge the book, but wrote more lucid commentary than any other scholarly critic or writerly admirer of Joyce. In his study ReJoyce, Burgess described the novel—or whatever-you-call-it—as a “man-made mountain… as close to a work of nature as any artist ever got—massive, baffling, serving nothing but itself, suggesting a meaning but never quite yielding anything but a fraction of it, and yet (like a tree) desperately simple.”

Joyce did seem to aspire to omniscience and the power of godlike creation, to supplant the “old father, old artificer” he beseeches at the end of A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man. And if Finnegans Wake is a work of nature, it seems to me that we might approach it like naturalists, looking for its inner laws and mechanisms, performing dissections and mounting it, flayed open, on display boards. Or we might approach it like poets, painters, field recordists---like artists, in other words. We might leave its innards intact, and instead represent what it does to our minds when we confront its nigh-inscrutable ontology.

This latter approach is the one adopted by Waywords and Meansigns' latest release, which brings together recordings from over 100 artists from 15 different countries---some semi-famous, most thrillingly obscure. Joyce’s book, explains project director Derek Pyle, is “the kind of thing that demands creative approaches—from jazz and punk musicians to sound artists and modern composers, each person hears and performs the text in a way that’s totally unique and endlessly exciting.” We first commented on the endeavor two years ago, when it released 31 hours of unabridged Joyce interpretation. Last year's second edition greatly expanded on the singing, reading, and experimental noodling of and around Finnegans Wake.

The third edition continues what has becoming a very fine tradition, and perhaps one of the most appropriate responses to the novel in the 78 years since its publication. This release (streamable above, or on Archive.org) adds to the second edition a belated contribution from iconic bassist and songwriter Mike Watt (of The Minutemen, fIREHOSE, and solo fame) and “actor and ‘JoyceGeek” Adam Harvey. (And a Gumby-starring illustration, above, by punk rock cover artist Raymond Pettibon). The third unabridged collection of interpretative musical readings, further up, offers contributions from:

Mercury Rev veterans Jason Sebastian Russo and Paul Dillon, Joe Cassidy of Butterfly Child, Railroad Earth’s Tim Carbone and Lewis & Clarke’s Lou Rogai, psych-rockers Kinski, vocalist Phil Minton, poet S.A. Griffin, translator Krzysztof Bartnicki, “krautrock” pioneer Jean-Hervé Péron of faUSt, British fringe musician Neil Campbell, Martyn Bates of Eyeless in Gaza, Little Sparta with Sally Timms (Mekons) and Martin Billheimer, composer Seán Mac Erlaine, indietronica pioneer Schneider TM, and many more.

If something on that list doesn’t grab you, you may have stumbled into the wrong party. In any case, you’ll find hundreds other readings, songs, etc. to choose from in the expanding three-volume compilation. Or you can listen to it straight through, from the first edition, to the second, to the third. Like the book, this project celebrates, imitates, reflects, and refracts, Waywords and Meansigns admits entry at any point, and nearly always charms even as it perplexes. The fact that no one can really grasp the slippery nature of Finnegans Wake perhaps makes the book, and its best creative interpretations, all the more genuinely for everyone.

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Josh Jones is a writer and musician based in Durham, NC. Follow him at @jdmagness

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