Not long ago I was drinking with a friend, his girlfriend, and some acquaintances at a bar on Manhattan’s Lower East Side. An editor who worked at a well-known science magazine dominated the conversation. He said the theme of an upcoming issue was going to be “the end” — the end of oil, the end of life, the end of time.
“We, as humans, are fascinated with the end,” he said.
The table fell silent. I said, “Yeah, the death drive is real.”
The editor said he’d never heard of the death drive. I was surprised. But I guess science magazine editors are just as likely to become informational silos as the rest of us. So I explained: You know, Freudian psychoanalytic theory? The compulsion towards self-annihilation? Towards nothingness? Surely our fascination with endings has at least something to do with facing the finality of our own lives.
The editor shrugged. “I don’t really think about those kinds of things.”
“That doesn’t mean they aren’t there.”
Months later I was in a bar in Brooklyn with a friend, one of those charming polymath friends who humble you and make you feel cooler for knowing. She’s a student of musicology and member of a doom band called Blood Ceremony. (Doom is heavy metal played intensely slow.) She was telling me about her research on mystical Sufi music. I asked if she thought there was a connection between her interest in Sufi music and her love of doom. She laughed and said, simply: “Death drive.”
Master Musicians of Jajouka, “Live in Lisbon” (2007)
The Master Musicians of Jajouka play one of the oldest forms of music there is. Evidence suggests that their sacred compositions have been passed down through the generations for 1000 years. Their kind of traditional Sufi religious music is intended to move the listener beyond the self. The mystical droning and repetition function in the same way a mantra does in certain forms of meditation — as a means to transcendence. Thoughts cease. Pure being takes over.
Doom metal has a similar goal, carrying the listener into cognitive nothingness on thick slow slabs of distorted sound. In these instances, Sufis and metalheads both aim for blissful oblivion.
I’ve been practicing meditation for just under a year now. My teacher frequently invokes terms like nothingness, thoughtlessness, and bodily transcendence to try and convey the experience of meditation.
You’d think he’d bring up death as well, at least as an analogy, given he’s seeking a state of being where one isn’t aware of their body or surroundings or thoughts. Yet it never does. A man, my teacher, uncomfortable discussing death spends his life in pursuit of oblivion? Sounds like the sneaky work of the death drive to me. So does an issue of a magazine devoted solely to endings — whether its editors know it or not.
– David Marchese