Séance with the Freudenabteilung (or, Communing with Dead Nazi Sex Slaves): Listening to Joy Division as Religious Experience

 

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“Whoever fights monsters should see to it that in the process he does not become a monster. And if you gaze long enough into an abyss, the abyss will gaze back into you.” – Neitszche

 

When you struggle with depression, it’s tempting to juxtapose your own horror stories with the real horror stories of history in an attempt to gain a more sober perspective. But these efforts usually backfire and cause even more despair. Pilgrims must be on guard for the monsters they will encounter on such journeys.

 

See the martyrs of the Coliseum, eaten alive by Lions. See tortured prisoners in a medieval dungeon. See innocents on America’s death row, St. Lawrence being slow cooked on a spit, starving children in Sub-Saharan Africa, refugees dying in the water, never reaching safety. The list is ongoing, endless.

See Jewish teens and women forced to pleasure Nazis and “reward” inmates in concentration camps.

I couldn’t imagine such a thing and didn’t. I discovered it while researching the name of one of my favorite bands. Turns out that Joy Division, the influential English post-punk band, is the English translation of the German “Freudenabteilung,” the name of Nazi concentration camp brothels.

 

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Joy Division front man and lyricist Ian Curtis was an avid reader, an epileptic who suffered mental anguish, who took prescription drugs to counter frequent seizures. Curtis is a founding father of Goth, though he had short, kempt hair and wore buttoned down collared shirts and business trousers. He was married at 19 and had a child. The most uptight conservative would approve.

 

He took his own life in 1980, at the age of 23.

 

Curtis’s literary and historical interests were broad. Listening to Joy Division, you’ll hear traces of Burroughs, Nietzsche, Lovecraft, Sartre, Hesse, and more in his songs. But I see him as I see everything, through my own Catholic glasses.

 

When I watch videos of his performances, I see a man communicating with the poor souls of history and literature, all those who experienced unspeakable horrors. I see a man who has suffered himself and has the deepest empathy for those who have suffered before him. It seems as if his soul is trying to leave his body and go home. It’s sad, beautiful and terrifying all at once.

 

***

 

In “Dead Souls” (the B-Side to the single “Atmosphere”), Curtis sings:

 

Where figures from the past stand tall

And mocking voices ring the halls

Imperialistic house of prayer

Conquistadors who took their share

 

That keep calling me

They keep calling me

Keep on calling me

 

The title of the song is plucked from Nikolai Gogol’s Dead Souls, considered the Russian Divine Comedy. It’s a story about the moral rot in middle class society, in which the main character buys dead souls in order to sell them to get rich.

 

Writing in the Independent, Jon Savage remembers watching Curtis perform the song in the early days of Joy Division:

 

“…he begins to sing: Someone take these dreams away/ That point me to another day. The lyric to “Dead Souls” is an unsettling evocation of psychic possession and the presence of past lives. The chorus is an anguished chant: “They keep calling me.” From today’s materialistic cultural perspective, this might excite derision, but like many others in that hall, I’m totally gripped.

 

As the tense, metallic music ebbs and swells, Curtis holds nothing back. This intensity – and the tension it causes – can be seen in his body posture. Even when dancing at full speed, he is stiff. Together with his severe haircut and utilitarian clothing, he has an almost militaristic rigidity that subverts his attempts at physical release. Lacking fluidity, his movements resemble the jerkings of a marionette.”

 

This “psychic possession and the presence of past lives” mentioned here conjures images of an ancient Shaman who could hear and speak with the dead.

 

In Everything You Ever Wanted to Know about Heaven, theologian and philosopher Peter Kreeft described three types of ghosts:

 

  1. Ghosts from Purgatory (what I call the “Jacob Marley” type): “the most familiar kind: the sad ones, the wispy ones. They seem to be working out some unfinished earthly business, or suffering some purgatorial purification until released from their earthly business. These ghosts would seem to be the ones who just barely made it to Purgatory, who feel little or no joy yet and who need to learn many painful lessons about their past life on earth.”
  2. Ghosts from Hell: “… malicious and deceptive spirits – and since they are deceptive, they hardly ever appear malicious. These are probably the ones who respond to conjuring’s at séances. They probably come from Hell. Even the chance of that happening should be sufficient to terrify away all temptations to necromancy.”
  3. Ghosts from Heaven: “…bright, happy spirits of dead friends and family, especially spouses, who appear unbidden, at God’s will, not ours, with messages of hope and love. They seem to come from Heaven. Unlike the purgatorial ghosts who come back primarily for their own sakes, these bright spirits come back for the sake of us the living to tell us all is well.”

 

I wonder which ghosts haunted Ian Curtis, if any. If a ghost was responsible for his despair, I surmise it was a ghost from hell.

 

***

 

A bootleg of a Joy Division concert called “Dante’s Inferno” features a painting by Gustave Dore of the giant—straight out of the Old Testament stories of the Nephilim–who carries Dante and Virgil to the Ninth Circle, home to Satan. “Dante’s Inferno” includes the following songs:

 

·      I Remember Nothing
·      Love Will Tear Us Apart
·      Wilderness
·      Colony
·      Insight
·      These Days
·      Digital
·      Transmission
·      Atrocity Exhibition

 

The song, “I Remember Nothing” includes the sounds of breaking glass representing broken people, relationships and hope. To me, this song not an embrace of despair but an artistic presentation of people who went full “Stockholm Syndrome” for whatever reason while kidnapped or imprisoned, the mystery of loving your abuser.

 

“Love Will Tear US Apart,” their best known song, seems to be about two people who love each other but contempt is now present. Wherever there is human love, ambition, resentment, contempt, desperation can take hold like weeds in a garden.

 

“Wilderness” is a song of pilgrimage, but the kind of psychic, soul pilgrimage that characterizes Curtis’s work:

 

I travelled far and wide through many different times,

What did you see there?

I saw the saints with their toys,

What did you see there?

I saw all knowledge destroyed.

I travelled far and wide through many different times.

 

I travelled far and wide through prisons of the cross,

What did you see there?

The power and glory of sin,

What did you see there?

The blood of Christ on their skins,

I travelled far and wide through many different times.

 

I travelled far and wide and unknown martyrs died,

What did you see there?

I saw the one sided trials,

What did you see there?

I saw the tears as they cried,

They had tears in their eyes,

Tears in their eyes,

Tears in their eyes,

Tears in their eye.

 

The line “the blood of Christ on their skins” reminds me of St. Longinus, the Roman Centurion who thrust the Holy Lance into Christ’s side to ensure he was dead. According to legend, the flowing blood of Christ cured his blindness. He quit the army, became a monk, but was eventually tortured and executed by the Roman Governor. To say this spear had an influence on history and literature would be an understatement. It features in the Crusades right up to World War II. It appears in Malory’s Le Morte d’Arthur and Wagner’s Parsifal.

 

“Colony” may reference Franz Kafka’s “In The Penal Colony,” a dark tale about the cruelty of humanity, about humans who are not just indifferent but passively involved in a cold murderous regime without troubled conscience. It also evokes Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness. “Insight” seems to be a song about having an existential crisis because you wasted your life. Either you were doing the wrong things or failing at the right things. Either way, it evokes the futility of Ecclesiastes. The last song, “Atrocity Exhibition,” which takes its title from the works of J.G. Ballard, is about the horrible things humans spend money on in the name of entertainment. Putting society’s lunatics on display for kicks, gladiators killing each other. The song also describes organized bureaucratic genocide.

 

The music of Joy Division is certainly dark. But Curtis is like a post-punk Virgil, taking us on a journey through time, both real and imagined in literature, encountering the very real darkness of existence, the real anguish of human life. Maybe because of his own deep suffering, Curtis was capable of a deeper level of empathizing with the suffering of others, to crystalize it in powerful art. When I look at his body of work and watch him perform live, especially in the context of my Catholic faith, I’m convinced he was in communion with those suffering souls. Who’s to say he didn’t speak with a victim in the Freudenabteilung? And this, to me is what makes his art so deeply religious.

 

It’s what we, as Christians, are supposed to do:

“Rejoice with those who rejoice, weep with those who weep. Have the same regard for one another; do not be haughty but associate with the lowly; do not be wise in your own estimation.” (Romans 12:15-16)

***

Bill Broadhurst is an engineer and instructor in the energy conservation and building automation field. He enjoys Ranger hockey and cold British music (The Cure, The Smiths, Joy Division, et. al). He’s an adult convert to Catholicism and a member of the Sick Pilgrim community.

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