Evangelion, Ye, and the tragedy of true artistry in modernity

After watching the Japanese manga Evangelion TV series ‘Neon Genesis Evangelion’, the End of Evangelion film and the Rebuild saga of remake films — directed by the visionary Hideaki Anno — I perused YouTube videos blending Evangelion snippets with the music of Ye, the artist formerly known as Kanye West. One comment struck me as worthy of mentioning:

Sometimes I feel that Kanye’s subconscious is [expletive] crazy like Eva and that’s where all his talent comes from. It’s like Kanye has a[n] in[n]ate understanding of the human mind which is why Eva goes so well with it. It is said that your enjoyment of the original series correlates with your mental health at the time.

A YouTube comment on an Evangelion compilation which is accompanied by the music of Ghost Town — I document other medleys of Evangelion and Ye on Twitter here.

I truly believe that we should not stigmatise someone for mental health troubles — but I also believe mental health troubles do not stop you from saying or doing the right thing. What these troubles do impact is the ability to communicate effectively. So even if your intention is to help people indiscriminately, the interpretation may be that you are hurting people discriminately. The demonisation of free expression really troubles me, as it reminds me of how racism and antisemitic scapegoating actually occur in the past — finding an individual who is ‘evil’, such as Alfred Dreyfus in 1890s France or Ye today — and blaming historical phenomena on them (backed up by a mob of willing elite supporters behind the censorship, no doubt). It is horrifying. But it also reflects how people fear the inner strength of those with depression — for it is people who suffer from self-doubt who have found the key to survival: self-belief. One of my favourite songs, a deliverance from depressive episodes for so many, is ‘Stronger’ by Kanye West: ‘Now, now, now that, that don’t kill me — can only make me stronger.’ A parallel song for the self-doubt phase of bipolar psychology is ‘Runaway’, with Ye’s most recent plea to his estranged wife Kimberly Kardashian: ‘I need you to run right back to me.’ It is moving beyond words. And watching Evangelion has reminded me of that. There is a scene where one character, Asuka, is fighting man-made monsters with her own robotic monster suit, but is defeated when the monsters who she has slain are resurrected. Taken by surprise, Asuka is devoured by the beasts after being impaled by multiple spears, as per the image from Neon Genesis Evangelion below.

The destruction of Asuka’s Eva suit before it is eaten by hostile Eva-Angel hybrids (or something like that — I need to rewatch it), and her along with it.

I empathise with this deeply. I feel the attempt to wage a war of words can result in similar defeat — those who live by the sword die by it, right? But who are we to say Asuka deserved it? Asuka is quite nasty towards Shinji, the protagonist, who she calls an ‘idiot’ while not-so-secretly loving him (Shinji and other characters have also been compared to Ye). But Asuka died trying to save the world, not destroy it. The events lead Shinji into madness, becoming ‘Lucifer’ and ending the world as they knew it (in the post-apocalyptic world of Evangelion, world-ending ‘impacts’ are not-so-infrequent occurrences). The monsters Asuka and Shinji fight are ‘Angels’, although mankind build robotic ‘Eva’ to fight them. Once the Angels are defeated, the Eva turn on each other, roughly. But as with everything in Evangelion, the story is so much more complex than that. I want to spend time analysing the series in depth — but I want to first defend the need for true artistry in the first place, in this dark and dangerous world we live in.

The devouring of Asuka is a literal metaphor for what happened to Ye in 2022. Caught in coercive contracts with clothing companies Gap and Nike, as well as with his own record label, Ye tried to escape the only way he knew how: speaking his mind. The downside was he was publicly vilified — his contracts were dropped, but at what cost? The cost of expressing his love for everyone, including those who commit awful crimes, is being seen as a criminal himself. But Ye broke no law. He incited no violence (which, as I have pointed out before, arises from the ‘political economy’ [Marx]— not ‘language games’ [Wittgenstein]!). And it seems that no-one, except him, has materially suffered as a result of his ‘actions’. We live in a society in which speaking out of turn or doing anything that violates established ‘taboos’ leads to ostracisation — like how the Athenians treated Socrates, how many bigoted Europeans treated Spinoza and Marx, and how the French treated Dreyfus until Zola came to the rescue with ‘J’Accuse’, exonerating Dreyfus and discovering the real conspiracy of antisemitic German generals looking for someone to blame. Rarely is the problem individual; usually it is institutional.

And the way has been prepared — even Karl Marx, who fled from antisemitic censors in Europe, is now being targeted by woke-liberal critics seeking to cast him as a ‘self-hating Jew’ for his ironic critique of antisemitism. Marx was, according to literary critic Edmund Wilson (no known relation), a great ironist — but we take what he said in such a bizarrely literal way that we fail to see that his writings present an alternative to the bigotry of ideology; namely, the cool science of political economy. But no matter — when Marx is not being hounded by the postmodern left, he is being cast as a villain by the neoconservative right, despite the fact Marx believed in freedom of the press, democratic politics, and republican institutions — as opposed to the exploitative tyranny over wage labourers under capitalism. And as G. A. Cohen has pointed out, Marx thought socialism/communism could only happen after capitalism — not after feudalism, a precapitalist mode, as was the case in Russia and China when they had ‘Marxist’ revolutions. But no matter — despite the existence of marxists.org, few today care to read beyond ‘The Communist Manifesto’ (itself a gravely misread text), meaning the deeper meaning of Marx’s philosophy is completely and utterly misunderstood.

I think a similar thing is happening today in the rather empty reaction to Ye’s music and politics — with people relying on short media clips or quotations, without examining the totality of Ye’s lyricism, writings, and talks over the span of his career. As a Chicago student recently said on the Kanye’s Posts podcast (a successor to the music-focused Watching the Throne podcast): Is Ye trying to spread hate or love? This question seems obvious on whichever side of the fence you sit. But it actually requires deep thought about the meaning of love — a concept examined by Hannah Arendt early in her career in the context of the theology of Augustine, who called evil an absence of goodness (privatio bone). Jon Bellion, who said on a song, ‘the teachers said I’m nothing — but Kanye gave me college’, also has a song describing the feeling of being ‘guillotined’ by love: ‘You fill me up, you set me soul ablaze — your love is so amazing,’ which takes place ‘even when I lose my head.’ The reception of Ye’s attempt to communicate his complex and multilayered philosophy has been, I think, the opposite of loving. ‘Love your enemies,’ Jesus said, not vilify them and paint them as a villain.

And as the Childish Gambino song ‘Sweatpants’ goes: ‘Rich kid, asshole — paint me as a villain.’ YouTube videos have portrayed Gambino as a ‘Son of Kanye,’ and Donald Glover (whose stage name is Childish Gambino) has said he can go ‘further’ than Kanye musically. Kanye is somewhat tame musically — he innovates new themes which others elaborate on. We might not think it yet, but it may be that Kanye is turning tropes on their head, ironising the right (as Marx did) by implicitly replacing bad ideas with better ones (though this is not how it seems through the filter of mainstream media — which Frankfurt School writers Adorno and Horkheimer aptly called ‘the culture industry’). We have seen this before in his surprisingly empathetic response to a mother who had sought an abortion, and he talked of his own father’s stated wish to abort Kanye, and his own troubles as a father reckoning with the thorny moral debate. What at first seemed to be something right-wing turned out to be a new political position altogether — one which got beyond the totalitarian character of culture war, by turning it on its head multiple times. Paradigm shifts, as Thomas Kuhn argued, follow apparently random switches in position, where every extreme is entertained until a mean is reached, balance is restored, and a new paradigm of thought emerges. Who is to say that is not happening today?

For Asuka did not bring about her own death. The institutions and ‘Wolves’, to echo another Ye song, around her did that. Think of the assassination of MLK, or the murder of founding rapper 2Pac, and then consider how our society treats anyone who is ‘different’. In Wednesday (the new series on Netflix, on which you can also watch Neon Genesis Evangelion), the style of gothic alterity is worshipped. In reality, substantial deviations from the status quo are not tolerated. We can’t even question the orthodox historical narration of the past — yet alone found a path toward the future!

‘Ask more questions,’ Ye asked his fans, in Socratic fashion, at his Saint Pablo tour in 2016. But this is a dangerous imperative in contemporary society — for it is not what Kanye said that is the reason he is vilified; it is the fact he had anything to say about taboo topics of post-totalitarian society. It is not the content of opinions that is the cause of censorship. It is the fact someone has an opinion at all that leads to their cancellation by the ‘market of ideas’. So much for free speech — which now is, as University-affiliated censors never cease to emphasise (with no small degree of threatening fury), is not ‘freedom from consequences’.

I am sickened by this. What is happening today is not OK. We live in a de facto global totalitarian state, one which is decentralised and marketised but nonetheless unified by the ‘pursuit of power after power’ (Hobbes). In the unreleased song ‘Slave Name,’ Ye announced: ‘We’re in our own Holocaust.’ You know what, I disagreed at the time. But there is a significant chance he’s substantially right — even if the style of the expression is not acceptable in today’s febrile, fearful political culture. In Zygmunt Bauman’s seminal Modernity and the Holocaust, Bauman — who narrowly escaped the inferno himself by moving to Soviet Russia from his native Poland in 1939 — described totalitarianism as a system of bureaucratic control, where values are replaced by arbitrary rules about what ticks the box of efficiency. Bauman argues that modernity as a whole — not some ‘bad people’ (itself a functionally antisemitic, and more broadly liberal individualist, way of seeing the world) — is the cause of the horrors of the twentieth century. The modern state, democracy, and capitalism created the banal evils of the totalitarian state. Individuals were swept along with the current — as they are today, in the new inferno which follows modernity’s new crisis of cataclysmic proportions.

It is fashionable to compare our time to the 1930s or 1940s. But to quote a horrifying possibility raised in Tenet: ‘It’s worse than that, goddamnit.’ For now the ability to even think is a crime — a phenomenon described in Arendt’s The Origins of Totalitarianism and Orwell’s 1984 alike. People are not targeted for who they are, but simply for being anyone at all. If free thought is no longer possible, then human history has truly ended. Leader of the Frankfurt School of critical theory Max Horkheimer speculated before the end of World War II that totalitarianism might end as a result of an alliance of the lonely. Hannah Arendt later argued that loneliness made the ‘banality of evil’ in totalitarianism possible.

Loneliness can also lead to originality and artistry. In Ye’s music and Evangelion’s televisual artistry, I have faith for a new beginning. It is argued that Ye is the personation of totalitarianism. But he is not. Totalitarianism today is impersonal, leaderless — a Hydra that cannot be defeated unless it is undermined at the core: the political economy of marketisation and sociopolitical division along class and state lines. We must abandon the project of demonisation of those with something to say, whether we disagree or no. We must instead build a common project to lift ourselves from misery and address the common dilemmas of our time: climate change, capitalism, and the rise of China. We should do all this and avoid the risk, as spelled out in Evangelion, of fighting those who might help us save the world with their determination to save themselves.

I know my views will result in my own condemnation. But I cannot let fear stop me from saying what I believe to be right! Neither should anyone. Let us see the light. Before it is too late.

Disclaimer: Any similarity between names mentioned and actual individuals is purely accidental and largely theoretical. These are fun ideas to entertain but, as always, I may be mistaken. After all, what do I know?

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