Pop Paganism

Breuckelen: A Stroll Round Magical Brooklyn

There is a hipster side to Brooklyn that irritates Javier Calvo, but also a magical Brooklyn - which can be located in the Brooklyn Masonic Temple (turned into a concert hall), in Lovecraft, in the Egyptian Museum and in the music of Liturgy. All of this is covered in the fifth Pop Paganism column.

Everyone who has followed the independent pop scene over the last decade, even from afar, knows that the city of Brooklyn is an international musical hub. The emergence there of interesting experimental, multifaceted pop is combined with certain elements that have made Brooklyn a paradise for trendy culture - the international centre of hip - and definitely a cultural enclave that can be as odious as it is attractive. Despite the obvious differences, Brooklyn has become a sort of new Hollywood of music. A place that aspiring musicians from all over the country emigrate to in search of their opportunity to make it big. If in Hollywood every waiter and waitress is a would-be actor or actress, it seems that there is nobody working in any of the millions of bars in Williamsburg who doesn’t aspire to be a musician or filmmaker. Originally centred on Williamsburg, hip has spread to Greenpoint in the north, reaching Long Island City on the east, and Red Hook on the west, making hipster Brooklyn an enormous indie kingdom that is as idiosyncratic as it is easy to caricature (as has been done in television series like “Two Broke Girls”).

I must confess that the Brooklyn hipster mystique irritates me, in part because I love the city (my adopted home, for years), but mainly because in the eyes of many it has eclipsed the wonderful legend and identity of Brooklyn itself. Brooklyn is a port city, complex and polyphonic, built on waves of Dutch, English, Italian, Polish, Jewish and Hispanic immigration. Working class, rough, and fiercely proud; it is huge, densely populated and divided into about eighty historic neighbourhoods, many of which are still ethnic enclaves. It is the dark twin of New York, like South London is the dark twin of London. A real Babel, almost an alchemical microcosm of the world. The stockpile of Brooklyn legends is simply interminable, but in this article, I want to present three as a sort of antidote or vaccination against the new hipster mythology: the Masonic Temple at Fort Greene, the collection of Egyptian artefacts at the Brooklyn Museum and Lovecraft’s The Horror of Red Hook.

Very well known today as a concert hall, the Brooklyn Masonic Temple at Fort Greene, on the corner of Clermont and Lafayette, was built between 1907 and 1909 as the meeting hall for all of the lodges in Brooklyn. When you see the building for the first time, it takes your breath away. It is an almost perfect cube made of marble, brick, and terracotta, measuring thirty metres on each side, at once colossal and delicate. Inside, full of marble staircases and Masonic murals, there are two larger lodge halls, one smaller one - a banquet hall - and its spectacular four-story auditorium, which is where concerts are held today. In recent years, since it became more popular, bands such as Swans, Neurosis, Throbbing Gristle, Sunn O))) and Godspeed You! Black Emperor have played there (as well as many other less illustrious bands).

Needless to say, if the band knows how to take advantage of the stage, and sometimes even if it doesn’t, the auditorium of the Masonic Temple can turn the experience of a live musical performance into an absolutely magical ceremony. Local legend has it that the Masons are the ones who rent the auditorium for holding concerts, but strictly speaking, this isn’t true. For decades the Fort Greene Masonic Temple was the spiritual centre of the Brooklyn lodges, coming to house about forty of them, but in 1977 the lodges lost the building, which was acquired by an organisation called The Empire State Grand Council, Ancient & Accepted Scottish Rite Masons Inc. The organisation in question is an unusual Mason’s lodge, made up of Afro-Americans and not recognised by practically any legitimate Masonic organisation. In 1977, it was The Empire State Grand Council that started renting the different meeting rooms out to various groups, in order to pay the building’s high maintenance costs. Nowadays, all sorts of public acts, weddings, baptisms and rock concerts are held there, generating a certain debate about how all of this is affecting the building’s wonderful interior.

Located on the northeast corner of Prospect Park, the Brooklyn Museum is home to one of the largest collections of ancient Egyptian art in America. The museum has been buying ancient Egyptian objects for over a century and sponsoring its own excavations in Nubia and Egypt. In fact, the museum’s biggest archaeological project is currently the excavation of the Temple of the Goddess Mut in South Karnak, which was begun in the 70s. The great treasure of the museum’s Egyptian section is without a doubt the private collection that the museum bought from the heirs of eminent American Egyptologist Charles Edwin Wilbour (which makes up a substantial part of the collection). Besides his collection of objects, Wilbour’s heirs also donated his professional library to the museum and created a research fund that has ensured that the museum can continue to make acquisitions. This is how the Wilbour Library was established, one of the main Egyptology libraries in the world. These days, just the part that is on display is enough to make a visit to the museum worthwhile, with thousands of objects and nine brand-new mummies, of which there are always four or five on permanent display. The most popular of them, recently restored, seems to answer to the name of Melvin.

“The Horror At Red Hook” was a story almost universally vilified for its evident racism, but it’s exciting to me for many reasons. It’s one of the author’s very few urban stories, including a fairly detailed description of the Red Hook of the 1920s, and the suggestion of the connections between immigration and the racially mixed neighbourhoods of Brooklyn and the occult underworld is effective (although offensive). But more than describing the story, which is well known, what I would like to mention here is an anecdote that I found out about recently. In the summer of 2008 a story came to light in the New York Post - picked up immediately by publications like The Gothamist - about a series of paranormal occurrences in the Brooklyn flat where Lovecraft lived during the years in which he wrote the story. The following is an extract from an article published in the Brooklyn Daily Eagle about H.P.L.’s relationship with the aforementioned neighbourhood:

“On New Year’s Eve, 1924 he left Flatbush, moving to 169 Clinton St. in Brooklyn Heights. Offering a snapshot of the era as well as his own psyche, Lovecraft despised the “decrepit” neighborhood (more so its immigrant residents) and may have suffered one of several nervous breakdowns in his tiny first-floor apartment on the corner of State and Clinton streets. But his imagination was never so alive: ‘Something unwholesome — something furtive — something vast lying subterrenely [sic] in obnoxious slumber — that was the soul of 169 Clinton St. at the edge of Red Hook, and in my great northwest corner room ‘The Horror at Red Hook’ was written,’ Lovecraft offered in a letter five years later.”

According to the information in the Post, the current occupant of the flat at number 169, Nellie Kurtzman, had reported paranormal activity. A mysterious buzzing was heard at all hours, without any localisable source. While Kurtzman was moving in, a picture leapt violently from the wall and the hammer with which she had been trying to hang it disappeared. Other objects disappeared in the following days and Kurtzman began to have strange, unusually clear dreams. The oddest thing about the case is that Kurtzman doesn’t seem to be an unstable person or one obsessed with poltergeists. In fact, she is someone fairly well known on the Brooklyn cultural scene: daughter of Harvey Kurtzman, the founder of the satirical magazine Mad, she is the head of marketing for Disney’s children’s book division, and has organised various events for the Brooklyn branch of the Occupy Wall Street movement.

It seems safe to recommend that you visit the collection of Egyptian papyri at the Brooklyn Museum or Lovecraft’s haunted apartment without any risk of running into hipsters there, or at the Brooklyn Masonic Temple either (unless it’s right when TV On The Radio are playing). Anyway, it would be absurd to close this mini-tourist guide to pagan-pop Brooklyn without recommending at least one of the many highly interesting bands that have come out of the Brooklyn scene in recent years. I want to talk about Liturgy, whose second album, “Aesthethica” (2011) surprised me as much and as pleasantly as their fellow Brooklynites (by adoption) Black Dice did ten years ago.

I am aware that someone might tell me that Liturgy are hipsters, and therefore the worst possible choice for this article, but I don’t agree at all. The other two main arguments blandished by Liturgy’s detractors is that they are pretentious (somewhere I read that their leader, Hunter Hunt-Hendrix, has been called the David Foster Wallace of black metal) and that they do “hipster black metal” or “Brooklyn hipster black metal”. The paradox is that Liturgy’s music, furiously detested by black metal fans, has little to do with black metal, especially on “Aesthetica”. Or, to put it more precisely: they feature about as much black metal as they do noise, post-rock, math-rock and hardcore (to mention only a few of the sources of their sound).

The accusations of being pretentious are understandable, both on the metal scene and on the rock scene in general. Hunt-Hendrix is not only the writer of the band’s (excellent) lyrics - which reflect on Catholic Christianity in a register that is light years away from typical metal Satanism - he is also a writer of poetry (influenced by Nietzsche, Blake’s prophecies, and Crowley’s writings). Furthermore, he is the author of a well-known manifesto published in the form of a book and titled “Transcendental Black Metal: A Vision of Apocalyptic Humanism”, originally included in an academic symposium entitled “Hideous Gnosis: A Black Metal Theory Symposium” [!]. The very existence of a discipline called Theory of Black Metal is enough to give many people goose bumps, but there it is (here is the link to a page dedicated to the discipline, if you don’t believe me). I’ve also included a fragment of H.H.H.’s manifesto. Among H.H.H.’s pearls of wisdom, which have earned him the hatred of the BM community, are statements such as “black metal participates in nostalgia and nihilism simultaneously in an unresolved way”,“ Transcendental Black Metal has the connotation of something between a Romantic experience of the Sublime and the ecstatic experience of Oneness”, and “true counterculture is a child of transcendentalism and not negation, but rather affirmation, and some say that it’s the legacy of the Cathars, Dada and punk”.

Beyond these considerations, “Aesthetica” is one of the most fabulous albums of last year. Conceptually, the choice of solar iconography and luminous landscapes of mystical force works without losing one bit of the rage of black metal. (There is something here of “Vision Creation Newsun” by the Boredoms and their following percussion based albums). Hunt-Hendrix sings at times as if he were being tortured and at times as if he were torturing someone - in the midst of a storm of syncopated rhythms, accelerations, decelerations, and bursts of frenetic rhythms. The guitars embark on luminous aerial flights and furious combats of tremolos - in the eye of a storm of sound where such disparate references as the architectural mysticism of Ruins, hardcore, the blind rage of certain Swans passages, things like Steve Reich and Glenn Branca and “arty” black metal and fellow citizens Krallice all come together. In my opinion, it is the perfect soundtrack to walk in the sunlight along the dilapidated steaming sidewalks of ancestral Breuckelen, always to the south and the east of the water, enjoying the magic simultaneity of all of the periods of an eternal city.

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