Contemplating Death Metal: Cannibal Corpse as Memento Mori

One day, as I was walking down the street listening to death metal grinding through my earbuds, I began contemplating the appeal of immersing oneself in such dark subject matters. I’ve loved metal since I was a 10-year-old kid whose parents got divorced. My question at the moment was: Why did I turn to darkness for comfort amid my pain?

You might think when one is suffering emotionally, that person would prefer to forget her suffering and choose an artistically light response to the world instead. But that wasn’t the case for either my middle school friends or me. We immersed ourselves in horror – through the books we read, the movies we watched, and the music we listened to. Stephen King was our favorite author, A Nightmare on Elm Street our favorite film, and Slayer was our favorite band. We lived for death… at least in our art, and at that outer rim of childhood’s plateau, we invented play-worlds for ourselves as enmeshed in hell and fear as the art we consumed.

Now, the question I’m wondering is – Why would children embrace destruction so completely at the first sign of being exposed to this world’s greater suffering? My answer lies in a traditional form of artistic expression: Memento Mori.

Memento Mori is defined as a Latin phrase meaning: remember you must die. In the European artistic tradition, it is often portrayed by the contemplation of a skull reminding the viewer of death, an image not inconsistent with the artwork on the heavy metal tee shirts I wore to school every day as a young teen. At one point in time, there must have been perceived a great need for Memento Mori for it to have been elevated to such an important status in medieval and Renaissance art. I would like to make the claim it’s the same individual and cultural needs for Memento Mori that drove my own middle school love of horror movies and death metal.

“Remembering death” consistently reminds one that she must embrace life immediately rather than wait for the future. She must take advantage of the moment rather than hope for something better to come. She must live for today rather than tomorrow. For, tomorrow may never arrive. If that last turn of phrase sounds at all familiar, it’s because it’s a variation on the tail end of the ancient Epicurean dictum to “eat, drink, and be merry. For, tomorrow, you may die.” Along with Nietzsche’s claim that “God is dead”, this short, pithy statement is one of the most misunderstood and misrepresented phrases in the history of philosophy.

The notion that tomorrow you may die is not an exhortation to hedonism as contemporary culture so often wishes to impart. Rather, it is a potential reality to ponder and meditate upon. If today truly is your last day on earth, how would you prefer to spend it – obliterated on substances or caring for the people and things you cherish most? Would you rather be alone and destitute in your final hours, or would you prefer to live your last moments rich with family and friends as a loving and compassionate human being? The choice is yours. You don’t know the future. Today could be your last day on earth.

Memento Mori serves the same purpose. By contemplating death, the viewer is reminded she is alive only for the moment. Nothing is guaranteed in this life… other than the certainty of an eventual death. With the remembrance of this certainty of death, the viewer of Memento Mori desires the impermanence of life rather than the permanence of death. The viewer of Memento Mori strives to live today rather than seek solace in a world that may never come. This is the same insight the lyrics and intensity of a band like Cannibal Corpse provide the listener.

With album titles like Tomb of the Mutilated and Butchered at Birth, Cannibal Corpse’s world is nothing but a monument to the gruesomeness of death. The first track on their first album, Shredded Humans, paints a vivid picture of a head-on car collision. Describing in graphic detail everything from the father’s head becoming part of the dashboard to the mother’s intestines stretched across the road, these lyrics are an examination of everyday gore. However, the twist in this song is that this was not necessarily an “accident”. The words leave open the possibility that the driver who veered across the center line intended to kill this “family of five on their way home.”

Of course, this sounds like the cartoonish plot of a seventies splatter film, and many of those now-classic films might serve the same function as Cannibal Corpse’s music. In this instance, the appeal might be more than simply imagining vivid gore on the open road. Cannibal Corpse’s lyrics can cause the listener to wonder whether this same event may not take place in her life. This can shock the listener out of the stupor of taking the everyday for granted. It can cause the listener to wonder if she should perhaps take more care of the fragility of this life she has been blessed with.

The excessive violence of a track like Hammer Smashed Face is no exception. In this track, the narrator consistently describes his victim as “You”. You are the one the narrator feels “like killing”. You are the one whose “fucking head” will get smashed in “until brains seep”. And you are the one who will feel the sledge pound “down on your forehead”.

This violence mimics the death of a cow in a slaughterhouse. It dehumanizes the listener’s presence. It requires the listener to envision herself as the object of violence rather than as the subject of action. This reification causes the listener to experience something like the Kantian “sublime” as the sense of individual subjectivity rushes back in to fill the void at the song’s end. I am not an object, the listener’s mind screams. I am a human being.

This, too, provides a sense of Memento Mori. For, death itself is the eternal objectification. Your subjectivity has disappeared. What is left is nothing more than a body, a slab of meat to be buried or burnt. You have vanished. Your body remains to be tortured in a Cannibal Corpse song like I Cum Blood no differently than if your subjectivity were still present. However, the speaker of Cannibal Corpse’s lyrics never saw you as a subject. You were always only a slab of flesh waiting to be violated.

This perpetual violation of the body reminds the speaker she is more than a body. The revulsion and disgust felt at being referred to as A Skull Full of Maggots forces the listener to cry out she is alive. She is more than the meat Cannibal Corpse’s speaker sees her as. She is a human being who could be dead tomorrow, waiting only to be dug up and have her body tormented by another speaker from a different Cannibal Corpse song. This forces the listener to embrace her subjective existence today rather than put off a direct recognition of the self until tomorrow. For, if Cannibal Corpse has their way, tomorrow may never come.

Of course, one could make the claim that none of this violence is evidence of Memento Mori, that Cannibal Corpse’s lyrics are nothing more than adolescent fantasies. They serve no higher purpose. They have no meaning behind them. In response to this critique, I ask only that you look once more at my middle school friends and me to determine the purpose this sort of theatrical violence served for us.

We were leaving the womb of youth, afraid of the unknown, afraid of both the world bearing down upon us and the feelings bubbling up inside of us. We were afraid for the future, and we were terrified of our emotions. In the face of all this, we began acting out against our parents, schools, and peers. We had no choice but to define ourselves in reaction to the hostile world we were entering, and in the early 1990s, we chose death metal as the soundtrack for this rebellion against everything expected of us. Where does Memento Mori fit into all this fear and anger?

Memento Mori was developed as an artistic discipline in Europe during the medieval period, a time when the entire population faced something like the fears of adolescence. Under the banner of religion, the unknown lay at every citizen’s doorstep. Ruled by warlords and children, the stability of the region was in constant flux. With the simultaneous risks of either invasion or disease, terror lurked around every corner. The monuments to death provided by Memento Mori allowed the populace both to vent their fears and to band together in the face of the unknown.

One could just as easily say the consistent reminder of death was a ploy by the church to force the population deeper into religion’s embrace. However, even if this motivation existed for the artworks’ patrons, the psychological effects of the art itself doesn’t change. Even if the goal is to terrify the populace into subservience, the experience of the Kantian “sublime” still exists for the citizen who sees her subjective experience leech away in the face of the contemplation of a dead man’s skull, only to have that same subjective experience reappear with greater force upon the realization that death has yet to arrive.

Cannibal Corpse provided the same bulwark for my middle school friends and me. By listening to the gruesome lyrics of a Cannibal Corpse song, we could look death in the face and tell it we weren’t afraid. In this way, we could tell the entire world we had nothing to fear. For, there is nothing more terrifying than the constant reality of death. By sharing the listening experience with our peers, we could stand against these terrors and recognize that together we were alive. Together, our individual, subjective existences were safe against the horrors of a serial killer or Necropedophile from one of Cannibal Corpse’s songs. We could relish our subjective existences. For, our shared artistic experience insulated us from the vagaries of the objective world beyond our control.

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