Björkology, or Nine Circles of Hell

By René Bennett

Björkology (noun): an examination of the world and a production of concepts ensuing from the lifework of the Icelandic artist known as Björk.

1. “And there is no map/ And a compass wouldn’t help at all” (“Human Behaviour”)

All the histrionic souls in limbo ask themselves Who Killed God? as if the answer might carry them across the threshold past their nonetheless human form into the northward kingdom of Paradise. But in order to find the unknowable object of our seeking-afters we must abandon the compass and instead travel frenetically: south, sideways, inwards, then outwards, along the trackless paths of passion, into the bedroom, into the furnace, headfirst into the dimly lit descent.

2. “I’m a path of cinders/ Burning under your feet” (“Bachelorette”)

We find ourselves descending into a territory populated by sounds sometimes primal, sometimes violent, beautiful and haunting at once. The sounds erupt from Icelandic volcanoes, and we are carried along in their burning cold magma. “Like rough volcanoes with soft moss growing all over it,” is how Björk conceived of her music when making Homogenic. The album is unrooted from the Earth’s chamber and flows across a landscape, making bedmates of snowstorms and synthesizers, rustling forests and hard cities. Björk’s music is not a model of our urban world, but rather is arranged in direct collusion with that world; it acts surgically upon it, making incisions and sutures. What we have constructed with the modern technoscape of cyberspace and urban architecture is a fragile shell blanketing the ever-rumbling volcanic activity that churns under and inside of us. A Björkology neither recapitulates nor negates this life-shell, but forms a reciprocal envelopment: on one hand enveloped in the sounds of microbeats and glitches and electronic distortions, and on the other swelling around and penetrating this technoscape with the insuppressible and relentless force of nature (an audial encounter with the sublime?). Volcanoes erupt out of the metropolis. Slow lava seeps out of the speakers. All will eventually be subsumed into nature—not destroyed in the sense of absolute destruction, because it is always sublimated into something else, but rather perforated to let the internal darkness shine through.

3. “On the surface simplicity/ But the darkest pit in me/ Is pagan poetry” (“Pagan Poetry”)

Or we might be better off likening this reciprocal action to making love, which itself is a volcanic act, patterned by flows and eruptions. The phrase “making love” implies a process of production (making)—we become electric generators of love, which, if it can be defined at all, must be defined as the movement of deindividuation. The body loses its surface and circumference, becoming indivisible, becoming a monad. In Ancient Greek paganism the divine monad was considered to be the generative totality of the universe contained in every god, every person and point. The monad is characterized by having a center that is everywhere, in the same way that the center of a body spreads all around when it’s fucking another body. This is best visualized in the music video for “Pagan Poetry” directed by Nick Knight, which features shots of unsimulated sex acts while the bodies simultaneously dissolve into topographical lines, becoming formless, becoming decentralized. Shifting between these and shots of Björk sewing an Alexander McQueen dress into her body, the video makes her out to be a monad, where finite surfaces are dissoluble and the body loses its boundaries. The song progresses in a flow of lifts and falls, absent of any absolute center. Björkology is above all an engagement with monads.

Bacchanalia: back to making love. Pagans know more than anyone how to unravel the body. In the pagan festivals of the Bacchanalia, the slave becomes a free person, the politician becomes a vagrant, all submit themselves to nature, man fucking man fucking woman on a bed of freshly blossomed irises. In The Birth of Tragedy, Nietzsche described these orgiastic festivals as an “ecstatic rapture” in which “every man feels himself not only united with his neighbour, reconciled and fused together, but also as one with him… with only scraps fluttering around in the face of the mysterious primordial unity.” Specifically, Nietzsche is consigning the Bacchanalia to the realm of the Dionysian, his term for the artistic drive to submit to irrational nature, to give up structure and liquefy into a collective fullness. Under the spell of the Dionysian, the individual collapses into the monad, a point consisting of all points, a body extending across every body. Becoming formless: this is the poetry of pagans. Surfaces are done away with, revealing a molten core, the “innermost depths” (Nietzsche). There is something quiescently hovering in that darkness, but we are coming upon it soon.

4. “Traveling,/ Leaving logic and reason./ Traveling/ In the arms of unconsciousness./ Let’s get unconscious, honey” (“Bedtime Story” by Madonna)

Björkology is fundamentally deindividuated, and that means that, yes, it includes Madonna, too. The lyrics to “Bedtime Story” (Björk’s lyrics) are the words that Björk “always wanted to hear [Madonna] say.” The words travel from one body to the next, from Björk to Madonna to the listener, instantaneously, forming a fluidly connected assemblage. What we’re getting at is a question of boundaries—the subject/object boundary, the boundary between one circle of hell and the next. The boundaries are real, insofar as we impose them upon a boundless wholeness, but they are never fixed and eternal. They fluctuate or evaporate at every instant, ourselves change shape whenever we merge with another. Mouths superimpose one another: the mouth of Björk, the mouth of Madonna, the mouth of the volcano. A proliferation of mouths, a proliferation of selves. Deindividuation is not a process of negating the self, but of selves multiplying, shifting positions, crashing together. I feel pulled into the mob. Myself extends into the body of Björk and the voice of Madonna, and vice versa. “Logic and reason” cut boundaries across this rippling mass, but Björkology stitches them back up. It scrapes away our conscious divisions. When we become unconscious, we are released back into the amniotic fluid that envelops the entire species, an unmappable flow, a primal surrender. Subject and object converge into a Möbius strip. Let’s get unconscious, honey. Let’s become lava.

5. “He sets off the beauty in her./ He’s Venus as a boy” (“Venus as a Boy”)

In reception theory, an emphasis is placed on the question of where subjectivity lies. Does the feeling of the music belong to the experience of the artist, or does it belong to the experience of the listener? Where does the expression of feeling originate?

There’s a sense of subject confusion on the track “Venus as a Boy,” characterized by its fixation with third-person pronouns. He sets off the beauty in her, and he is also the embodiment of the female goddess Venus. The subjective feeling is delegated to a third party, neither the singer nor the listener: he and her, both of whom are unknowable. In an interview with David Hemingway, Björk stated that the song is about a “specific person,” yet this person remains unnamed and unknowable, a specificity diffused through generality. Nevertheless—beauty is set off from one subject to another: a phenomenal catalysis. Is this not, rather than containing subjectivity, rupturing the notion of subjectivity altogether? As the joke goes, “It’s all fun and games until someone loses an I.” Beauty, in this sense, is not externalized, but rather is collectively internalized, sparked at particular moments of contact, unsheathed in successive collisions. It’s there, coursing among us, running from Björk’s dictaphone to Talvin Singh’s sitar to your ears. These seemingly disparate expressions come together and set each other off in a rush of aesthetic excess (all of aesthetics is excessive). Each movement instantiates something which was previously latent, and this is why we must make the descent into the volcanic throat.

The unconscious is an underworld, and the underworld is vastly disorganized. In The Red Book, Carl Jung mapped his psychospiritual descent into the underworld as a way to trace out the latent content of the unconscious, on edge to be activated. Manifold spirits, languages, and lovers flash past each other in a swarm. Jung learned this from his imaginative journey into the underworld, a journey he considered to be a necessary undertaking for expanding consciousness: “Hell is when the depths come to you with all that you no longer are or are not yet capable of.” The undertaking is realized by what Jung termed a “mythopoeic imagination,” an active imagination that aims at prying beneath the surface of the rational and the superficial, into the collective, into the volcano. Hence, the importance of mythical figures in Jung’s conception of the collective unconscious, which represent a kind of unifying mythology of the self. Of course, Jung imagines these mythopoeic archetypes to be inherent and fixed, but Björkology knows that they are injected into us, fomenting out of the endless collision of a million souls. Our mythologies are neither in nor outside of us; they are us, the unnamed boy is Venus. We are multiple. In the collective unconscious, there are multitudes of mythologies, histories, and cultures shaping and whispering to us. “Venus as a Boy” is hyper-aware of how numerous unconscious cultural influences shape our experience of the work. It is culturally vast, throwing Bollywood rhythms, Roman mythology, and a splash of jazz into its sonic amalgam, catalyzing various latencies, channeling the depths of the collective unconscious. And we’re carried back to the Dionysian: deindividuation, heteroglossia, collectivity, mass. Venus, after all, is a planet. The expression of any song, any work of art, comes not from a locus fixed in any particular body, but from a crossing, a crash, an anti-subjectivity. It is born from the swarm of the collective unconscious. Put another way: subjectivity is an orgy.

6. “All the modern things/ Have always existed/ They’ve just been waiting/ To come out/ And multiply” (“The Modern Things”)

The viscous flow of lava spills out of time and across history. It comes from a place that long predates modern things, where our bodies were not much more than a formless, hibernating soup of organic matter. Any plunge into Björkology is a plunge into the otherworld of biological protohistory. “I love being a very personal singer-songwriter, but I also like being a scientist or explorer,” Björk once said. Björk is fascinated with nature, not in order to establish it as separate from civilization and technology, but the opposite—to show how they are the same, this binary is a fantasy, and we need to embrace nature and culture as a pair of conjoined twins. The sounds of geysers erupting seamlessly blend with glitchy techno-beats. Our proposed distancing ourselves from nature and evolutionary history is causing us to drift further and further away from beauty and awareness and the meanings that impel us to preserve the earth in order to preserve ourselves.

On her Vespertine World Tour, a striking display of luminous zoological imagery was projected from the backdrop of the stage, enveloping Björk and the musicians on stage in a petri dish of seemingly extraterrestrial forms and organisms. These were not aliens at all, but illustrations of fauna by the German biologist Ernst Haeckel from his book Art Forms in Nature. Haeckel believed in an evolution of continuity, in other words, in an evolution connecting all organisms, highlighting that life has a certain wholeness to it, with varying degrees of deviation. This view of evolution was supported by Haeckel’s studies of human embryos, which culminated in the proposition: “ontogeny recapitulates phylogeny.” Ontogeny (the development of an individual organism) bears a resemblance to phylogeny (the evolutionary development of life), which signals, at the very least, a common descent shared among all life. The most haunting aliens are ourselves. We are 90% bacteria. The rest is mutation, deformation, decoration. A descent into the underworld is an evolutionary descent, a journey into prehistory, a reunion with the microbial. Hence the title of Björk’s seventh album, Biophilia: the compulsion to connect with other life-forms. When you give in to this compulsion, Björk says, “the grounds open below you and you can feel your mother and her mother, and her mother, and her mother, and her mother 30,000 years back.” Our Archean mother is not just fixed in the evolutionary past, but is inside of us, colluding with our DNA. Our mitochondria tether us to our ancient mothers. In the womb we are fish. It is not only a compulsion but an imperative that we dive into our evolutionary descent. History is alive within body and landscape, every organism envelops every other organism, monadically. It is all there, contained in the first compounds of life: love, war, mythology, Björk herself. When we turn inwards, we see everything that is outside and everything to come.

7. “And they say back then our universe wasn’t even there/ Until a sudden bang, and then there was light, was sound, was matter/ And it all became the world we know” (“Cosmogony”)

We are enmeshed in an endless series of collisions rupturing across time and taxa, billowing into something new—an act of creation. When sedimentary rock relentlessly collides under extreme heat in the Earth’s mantle, a diamond is created. From where do we derive the urge to create? What moves us to leap into that unknown? To create is a dizzying act, quite literally a descent into the abyss (where we can only hope to find some nuggets of gold).

There is a fundamental darkness of creation. Think: let there be light. It is the darkness of an urge, and the reaching into that darkness. And while Nietzsche ascribed the drive to create to the higher order of the Apollonian, with the Dionysian encompassing the drive to destroy, both are crucially encapsulated in one another—we create by destruction, and destroy by creation, in a tessellating web of create-destroy-create. When the self gives way to nature, to dispersion, we nonetheless find something new, new connections to be plugged in, new collisions are made possible. The urge to create is the electricity of the circuitry that runs through our bodies and the world, zapping new connections into life (recall “making” love). Björk has always been a fervent collaborator, starting her career in a number of bands. Collaboration is a collision of multiple universes. What we’re getting at is creation without a creator, the creation of gemstones, the creation of whirlpools, not attributable to any particular actor. Björk’s collaborations include artists from numerous disparate fields—sculpture (Shoplifter), fashion (Alexander McQueen), drag (Hungry)—but also with nature, with electricity, with volcanoes. The creative impetus is ignited out of these mixings and crossings, like two sticks rubbing together to start a fire.

Creativity is urgent and intense. It is not simply bestowed upon us, like a law or a language, but rather it is the very thing driving us towards the event horizon. Jung knew of this dynamism: “whoever looks from inside, knows that everything is new. The events that happen are always the same. But the creative depths of man are not always the same… Because of this we seek in ourselves the meaning of events, so that the way of what is to come becomes apparent and our life can flow again.” Every pocket of human history has observed the world and created a narrative about its creation; the creative event breeds a story, which in itself is a creative event. It is not a matter of finding the “correct” narrative, or the indisputable truth of the world, but rather of engendering new concepts, unlocking potentials that were previously untapped, by way of a creative act. What we might unlock is something meaningful and enlivening. Our descent is a crossing through various circles, each tapping into an immense reservoir of unrealized affinities. Any one of these circles might serve as a point of departure, a point from which to take flight across other thresholds, a conceptual tool for unlocking new connective potentials. Where else does a volcano erupt, which microbes live on our skin? What gods are starving yet for worship? We feel ourselves pulled into this heat, we feel it pounding against us from the inside. The need to be moved, the need to be volcanic. To be shamelessly intense is perhaps the first stage of any creative act.

8. “When my life is through/ And the angels ask me to recall/ The thrill of them all/ I shall tell them, I remember you” (“I Remember You”)

We are getting closer, closer to something tender and pulsating. The question is not Who Killed God? but rather Where Did We Bury Him? Because if God is what stands outside of space and time, and God is dead, then there is nothing but this space and time, this cosmos—and if there is nothing outside of this cosmos, then God must be buried somewhere in it, lifeless, but not gone, like an extinct organism, like a magma chamber. We have always been searching for God, and we didn’t know it. A savior, a sovereign, someone to tell us where we’re going, something to stop us wandering gauntly across this arid horizon. Where we have buried God, we have hidden the cravings for unforgiving hardness that nonetheless hold us in their reins. Jung: “Because I wanted to give birth to my God, I also wanted evil.”

We are always in danger of displacing our desire for God onto another. For one man named Ricardo López, what first began as a fanaticism for an artist soon became the need for salvation from a god. López collected fantasies about Björk in his diary, approaching a page count of 1,000. He wanted to go back in time and befriend her as a child, inject himself into her apostolate. What else could this diary be but a prayerbook? An invocation of an outpouring of unconditional love? In return, what López desired was acceptance into her heavenly queendom, to be absolved of his inadequacies, which he often wrote about. We might call López an obsessive Björkologist, one who turns the whole world into her domain. But this type of fixation is dangerous and unreliable fantasizing, a confusion of deindividuation for hyper-individuation, melting down the self only so that another individual can take over it. When López felt that his salvation was threatened, he began to sink into a state of psychosis like the one Jung relates. Björk started a romantic relationship with Goldie, and so her love could not be returned to López. In turn, López sought to bring down her holiness altogether, so that God’s love and fear would be entombed from all access: “I’m going to send her a package. I’m going to be sending her to hell.” He constructs a letter bomb of sulfuric acid and brings it to the post office. Upon returning home, he turns on his webcam, continuing a series of video diaries he’s been recording as documentation of his revenge and fixation, and puts on a song, Björk’s version of “I Remember You.” While the song plays, he shaves his head and smears red paint around his face. “I know exactly what I am doing,” he says to the camera, then sticks a revolver in his mouth and shoots a bullet through his head, splattering blood and brain matter onto the wall behind him.

How did we end up here, in this bloody cavern?

What happened to López was not at all a pact with the devil, but an addiction to God. He pined for a god that was eternal and transcendent, so that he might be absolved of this human form, this mortality (López often expressed shame and revulsion about his weight and his body). Because López did not find where we had buried God, did not make the descent, he could not recognize when the hunger for God was taking over him. To Jung, God is composed of light and darkness united, so if one doesn’t confront both of these sides, he says, “Your darkness, which you did not suspect since it was dead, will come to life and you will feel the crush of total evil and the conflicts of life that still now lie buried in the matter of your body.” Instead of confronting the depths and generating new understandings out of them, López remained fixated on this one figure whom he’d deified, clouding all other meanings and potentials, so that he could instead achieve a kind of higher order, which we see crumbling as soon as he realizes Björk’s love exists beyond his singular attachment. If we are preoccupied with some kind of unchanging godliness, then everything will seem to be in a state of decay. And we must, more than anything, and despite its fearfulness, recognize the part of ourselves that is desperate for godly salvation and tempted towards revenge against the killing of God. Jung also wrote, “Knowing your own darkness is the best method for dealing with the darknesses of other people.” Maybe there is something comforting about this darkness, about the knowledge that we are all faced with it, haunted by yet trying to learn it. Maybe this is why, after the entire ordeal, Björk responded by sending to her attempted killer’s family a bouquet of flowers.

9. “Let’s unite tonight/ We shouldn’t fight/ Embrace you tight/ Let’s… Unison” (“Unison”)

After all, we have found each other in the final circle: a bedroom, a soft mattress, a window. Two exist as two, but in unison, together, stable, connected, free. We are neither apart nor synthesized, but fluctuating and responsive, synergizing one another, like two echoes confiding in each other. We’ve reached an eruption of the subject (an embrace). You look like a monad, even if Björk isn’t your thing. Taste, too, is variable, and perhaps what Ricardo López couldn’t fathom is that Björkology doesn’t require a love of Björk herself—it’s a springboard, a guide through the underworld. Björk is Virgil. We’re all making peace with the impermanence of God, or with the impermanence of self. We’re unearthing the pre-textual, the prehistoric, the shame of our microbial ancestors, a return to the primordial organic past, where we were all waiting to collide into our present bodies, which will soon collide into something else, in an endless momentum. And I know that one day we will come apart and this will all cease to be, but for now we can lay together on the mattress, and watch the lights through the window, and feel them moving through us.