The Hallowed Halls of Academia (Deadford Avenue Mix) by Ursprung Collective
You’re gonna miss me when I’m gone.
So I’m leaving you this song
because our memories aren’t real.
They’re nothing solid to feel.
And all our lies and truths and joys and pains
will all seem beautiful once again.
You’re gonna wonder where I’ve gone,
crying to hope to come along.
But you can’t follow me here, my dear.
So when you close your eyes my words are near.
And though your world will forget about me
within this song I’ll still be seen.
You must forgive me;
I got carried away.
You must forget me
as you’re carried away.
I’m gonna miss you when you’re gone.
‘Cause nothing stays around here long.
And someday you will write
a song for someone else’s night.
And when you do, please let them know
there’s nowhere else for us to go.
In the opening sequence of Sylvester Stallone’s 1986 film Cobra, images flash back and forth between a lone biker riding out before a rising sun and the eerie clanking of grisly, subterranean axes. Soon, the watcher bears witness to that lone biker, with a shotgun in hand, taking over a supermarket, an everyday aspect of American life. Supermarkets provide the United States with sustenance, and in this nightmarish landscape, they’re in danger.
Stallone’s character, Marion Cobretti (aka Cobra), a cop working through the LAPD’s fictitious “Zombie Squad” and thus functioning on the outskirts of the law himself, confronts this self-proclaimed “hero” of the New Order. Informing the “hero” that he is merely a disease to which Cobra himself is the cure, Cobra coldly guns down the lone biker to media disapproval only to discover this criminal is one among many of an army of cancerous tumors plaguing the city of Los Angeles. This infernal body of disease is eventually revealed to have a head of sorts, a maniac serial killer known throughout the movie only by the vicious derivative of Richard Ramirez’s real life media moniker of “Night Stalker”, the name “Night Slasher”.
Panned by critics upon its initial release for derivative storytelling, Cobra, possibly by fusing Hollywood genres as disparate as action and horror, has turned into a cult classic. But even more than its formal structure, this film has a certain je ne se quoi lurking beneath its surface that allows it to resonate with the primal feelings of its audience. To give voice to and better understand this je ne sais quoi itself, we must delve into the deeper meaning of Cobra’s plot where we will discover how it is the very precariousness of today’s social order itself that allows this film to resonate so clearly with its many fans. Moreover, it is this tuning into the horrifying sounds always bubbling beneath the surface of any great society that makes this action extravaganza a story worth telling.
The heart of Cobra’s action revolves around a burgeoning war between Cobra, as a representative of social order and justice, and a nascent New Order. Cobra’s New Order (first mentioned by the supermarket terrorist), as described by Wikipedia, is “a supremacist group of social Darwinist radicals that despise modern society and believe in killing the weak, leaving only the strongest and smartest to rule the world.”
This statement gives voice to Cobra’s overall moral compass. In the eyes of the New Order, our decrepit “modern society” allows the weak to flourish. Now, from a Christian moral standpoint, this is actually a “good” thing. For, Jesus Himself says “the meek shall inherit the earth”. Thus, continuing our journey through this world of morality, we must recognize Cobra’s New Order as a satanic force. This gives Cobra’s story a religious core. For, although Cobra himself functions on the outskirts of law and order, his goal is to protect the “weak” from the self-perceived “strong”. Whether those “strong” are so in objective fact or merely subjective opinion isn’t at issue. What remains is that Cobra is a “shepherd” protecting his “flock”. That flock being the entire city of Los Angeles, perhaps the entire United States, and by extension, perhaps, even the entire world.
The New Order being birthed in Los Angeles’s subterranean underbelly has the power to potentially reach anybody anywhere with its random acts of violence. Any one of us could be Ingrid Knudson, Cobra’s female protagonist hunted by the New Order for no apparent reason other than that she saw their leader, the Night Slasher himself, standing beside a broken down car earlier in the day she was first attacked. This chance encounter turned the devil’s gaze upon her. However, reason itself is a chimera in the New Order’s world. The New Order doesn’t need a reason to hunt anybody. Unlike in Cobra’s system of moral merit where the weak get special privilege to receive protection from the strong, the New Order alone determine who should survive. They have determined Ingrid Knudson to be weak and, therefore, not fit to live. Just as they determined the same for the citizens who happened to be shopping at that supermarket when the lone gunman entered. Just as they determine the same for all the Night Slasher’s hapless victims.
The social Darwinism espoused by the New Order wouldn’t be so terrifying if it weren’t the case that on some level many of us believe the New Order’s system to be “true”. We’re all the weak. There’s no such thing, in the world we inhabit, as the strong. We’re all potential victims of the circumstances of natural disease, and as Marion Cobretti himself says, that’s precisely what crime is: a disease. Like with any virus, it has no brain, no mind, no intention. None of us are immune to its vicissitudes. It might attack any one of us at any point in time. Perhaps, the most terrifying aspect of crime itself is its inherent randomness. There are certainly motivated crimes, but for many of us (whether it’s a result of breaking and entering, aggravated assault, and even rape or murder) it will happen randomly, destroying our senses of agency and making us feel as if we are weak regardless of how strong, either internally or externally, we may actually be.
For many of us, the causes of crime are as unknown as the New Order’s motivations. There may be social mechanisms at work when crimes occur, but we can’t see them in action. All we see are the results. This is the truth Cobra hits upon, and this is what Cobra is fighting against. We’re terrified we may actually be the weak simply because we aren’t strong enough to control our external worlds. However, no human being can control her external world. That’s what makes Cobra such a compelling character. Regardless of how terrifying the scenarios portrayed in this film may be, by means of his will and his weaponry, Cobra continuously controls his external world. He does this by turning the very violence we’re so afraid of back upon itself.
That’s what eventually creates such a mesmerizing final scene. Much like how the opening sequence’s rising sun symbolizes the terrifying future the New Order hopes to bring to fruition, as Cobra turns the tables on a fist fight with the Night Slasher and lifts the murderer onto a hook to send him screaming into a foundry’s flames, we see the primal solution to our fears branded onto celluloid. It’s violence that terrifies us, and it’s violence we believe will save us. Whether that’s true or not doesn’t matter. What matters is, on the level of primal justice, as Cobra’s cult status certainly proves, it rings true for the audience.
This leads to the ethical dilemma Cobra poses: Is violence required to combat violence? To return to our Biblical morality, the Hebrew Testament exhorts ancient Israeli citizens to take “an eye for an eye”. In this way, peaceful ends justify violent means. Social order justifies those who act outside that order in order to maintain it. However, there’s also always the more contemporary approximation of this Biblical ideology, often attributed to Mohandas Gandhi: “An eye for an eye leaves the whole world blind”. In this formulation, peaceful ends do not justify violent means. For, there is no end to the cycle of violence. In fact, using peaceful ends to justify violent means could potentially allow for the justification of any violence. The New Order themselves could make the claim that when their purge is complete a peaceful, well-ordered world will result. Therefore, they are the righteous. Those combatting them, Marion Cobretti included, are the wicked allowing this world’s current chaos to continue.
However, there’s another way to interpret the call of an eye for an eye, and that is the formulation that leads to salvation in William Friedkin’s 1973 film The Exorcist: “Evil shall see itself, and it shall die”. Perhaps, it’s not the act of violence itself that brings an end to violence, but rather, it’s the reflection of violence back upon itself that brings an end to violence. For, if evil shall see itself and it shall die, then violence shall see itself and it shall cease. Like multiplying two negatives together, violence reflected upon violence becomes a positive.
This formulation of “the law” is embodied in Marion Cobretti. For, it’s his overabundance of violence that brings an end to the New Order’s violence. Their psychopathy is reflected back upon them in the form of Marion Cobretti’s own compulsive sociopathy, and it destroys them. There’s no way for them to combat it. From the supermarket terrorist to the Night Slasher himself, they can only succumb. Now, whether this formulation of “the law” is true in abstract reality doesn’t matter. What matters is this appears to be the formulation of the law Cobra believes.
And this formulation of the law continues to gain adherents because we all see Cobra’s chaos bubbling beneath the surface of our stable societies. We see violence in the news. We know there are crimes occurring in the world beyond our doors because we fear they may strike our children on their way to school. On some level, we’re all afraid any one of us could be in that supermarket when the terrorist strikes. We believe in the necessity of Cobra. We believe violence must combat violence. If we didn’t, we wouldn’t have a police force. We wouldn’t continue to enforce the death penalty. And we certainly wouldn’t condone the reality of war. Society’s stability is a piece of water-logged detritus we cling to while floating in a sea of chaos. We all know this. But does this make Cobra’s violence “right”? Will we continue to urge an eye for an eye, or will we finally insist we all must turn the other cheek?
My poem “A Straight Line Runs Through It All” on Examining the Odd, from my upcoming collection, We Are the Underground.
A Straight Line Runs Through It All
When first I looked upon the morning in its light,
I noticed the sky lit bright with your solar flare –
All that remains of the passion you sacrificed.
When, at a later date, I once more looked again,
you transformed, transmogrified into the demon
waiting patiently in my corner as I slept
alone awakening only unto nightmares.
You are one and the same, no matter what your form –
a trick learned in the ethereal heights of hell.
As a devil yourself, you cast the demons out
with your words like angelic palms caressing my pain.
You have hurt. You have healed. You have killed. You have judged.
When I lay on my side beneath the Temple Mount,
I gazed beyond through a crack in the masonry
to see you revealed in your holy glory
and know in truth……
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All I want is to see the sun through you
like the night that divides me into two.
I’ll follow you through this town.
Give my life up to feelings that drown
me in the moonlight where I’m always found
between my lies. You fly away
on wings of light as bright as day
while in the night you’re all I see
as I sleep through life just like a dream.
You are the sun, you are the one.
Under this spell, your will is done.
Who could ever leave the sun through you?
Like the night that divides me into two,
all I want is to see the sun through you.
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.