What Is the Meaning of Ian Curtis’ Death?

Where Is the Line Between the Art Object and the Artist? 

Trauma, Transformation, and Punk Rock (Part V)

Originally published in Mental Contagion 

“[T]hink of Ian Curtis, let his soul fill you. That man cared for you, that man died for you, that man saw the madness in your area,” 
(Dave McCullough’s Obituary in Sounds, May 31st, 1980.)

“After Ian Curtis’s death journalists romanticized him beyond recognition. He conveniently fit a pre-determined mold - that of the romantic poet driven to suicide by an unfeeling world - and as such has entered the pantheon of rock martyrs. Joy Division has also been reinterpreted - and made into something they were not,” (Steve Grant, “Death Will Keep Us Together: Joy Division and New Order Examined,” Trouser Press, March, 1982).

“All interpretations, all psychology, all attempts to make things comprehensible, require the medium of theories, mythologies, and lies;  and a self-respecting author should not omit, at the close of an exposition, to dissipate these lies so far as may be in his power,” (Hesse, Steppenwolf, 69).

Who was Ian Curtis? What was his “message,” his “vision” - did he have a vision/message? How does his suicide on May 18th, 1980, affect how Joy Division’s music is viewed today? What is the “truth” of Ian Curtis/Joy Division, what is the “lie,” what is the “myth?” How much did Joy Division (do all performers/artists) contribute to their own myth? What if myth, rather than truth is the reason that we are drawn to performers? What if we do not want to know the historical truth? What takes place in the space between the performer and the audience (Buber’s “Sphere of the Between”) and how does each shape the other?

It is a historical fact that Ian Kevin Curtis was born on July15th, 1956 and that he died by hanging himself on May 18th, 1980, at the age of 23. These are facts that can be verified, but what about all the books and articles on him and the band: Deborah Curtis’ (his widow) Touching From a Distance; Mick Middles’ From Joy Division to New Order: The Factory Story; Mark Johnson’s An Ideal for Living; or 160 pages of the Xeroxed articles entitled, Joy Division/New Order: A History in Cuttings? (All of the articles cited will refer to this last document, unless otherwise specified. This booklet has no author or press or date listed, it is a collection of articles from various sources, some identified, but many not. I found this at the old Wax Trax! on Lincoln Avenue in Chicago. I am not sure how to go about finding a copy of this reference, my apologies.) 

Historical Truth/Narrative Truth

Some relativists would argue that there is no such thing as “objective truth,” that every perception is a creation, yet many would say that certain events, (such as birth and death) are easily agreed upon elements of consensual reality (even this is sometimes debated, as in Elvis). The line between myth and history is one that is much debated and far from clear. In psychoanalysis, Donald Spence has coined the terms, “historical truth,” and “narrative truth,” to represent, respectively, the objective and subjective elements of truth. Certain fields of study are more concerned with the subjective, inside of truth, and others with the objective, outside of truth.

Recovered Memory/False Memory

A current example of the debate between these two conceptions of truth is the recovered memory/false memory debate, which has to do with the question of determining historical truth from the narrative truth revealed in psychotherapy. Memory is fallible, that is well documented, but all memory cannot be invalid. Another issue in this debate involves the age old fear of the power of the therapist (hypnotist/magician/rock ‘n’ roll star) over the impressionable mind of the patient.

The Recovered Memory (RM) side of the debate argues that early childhood trauma overwhelms the child’s capacity to integrate extreme emotions and as a defense, the child splits off (dissociates) the overwhelming memories from consciousness. Further, it argues that with repeated trauma, these dissociated emotional states may take on the role of an alternate personality to cope with the trauma, while the original personality remains unconscious of the trauma. This then takes the form of Multiple Personality Disorder (MPD) or Dissociative Identity Disorder (DID) as it is now called.

The False Memory (FM) side of the argument runs this way: the therapist is so powerful that they can create a vivid “memory” in a patient, which never occurred. This is done by “overzealous” therapists who impose their views on the passive patient, in other words, the trauma did not occur in the past, but occurred when the therapist indoctrinated the patient into the RM framework. The therapist/patient may then create together a series of personae or personalities that take on different “archetypal” roles: villains, heroes, damsels in distress, lost and vulnerable children, wicked step-mothers, devouring parents, rapists, sadists, satanists, and victims. [“Archetype” is a term used by Jung to describe potential, typical life situations, interactions, and modes of being. He explored several different archetypes, including: the shadow, the anima, the animus, the great mother, and the wise old man, to name a few. According to his theory, archetypes are elements of the Collective Unconscious and are universal possibilities of being for everyone. Outside of Jungian psychology and therapy, Jung’s concepts have been influential in the study of mythology and religion, particularly in Joseph Campbell’s study, The Hero With a Thousand Faces.] 

We are then faced with the question: are these mythic forms/roles fictions imposed from the outside (False Memory), or are they “correct” memories of past heinous crimes which took archetypal form (Recovered Memory)? Or, a third perspective: are they a blend of external trauma and internal archetypal projection? We can ask if they are externally imposed, why are they so readily accepted? Could it be because the imposed forms resonate with internal templates (archetypes)? Thus, the external existence and popularity of mythic forms could be understood by the existence of internal templates that resonate with (and also shape?) external forms.

One last comment on this issue, neither the FM, nor RM sides are arguing that Multiple Personality is not created. Rather, the question is when it was created and who created it? Was it the child’s unconscious defense that created MPD in response to overwhelming trauma, or was it created by the therapist who convinced the patient to take on this role of MPD? One interesting flaw in the FM argument is that if therapists are powerful enough to “create” MPD in a patient they are seeing for one hour a week, would not that seem to argue that parents who have 24 hour control for 16-20 years of a child’s life have even more power? To argue that MPD is a creation does not settle the FM/RM debate.

A Third Point of Synthesis?

Let us turn to a Jungian view of this debate to see if we can find some middle ground between the opposing views. If these forms exist internally as archetypes, they may be more likely to arise if the integrating capacity of the ego is diminished through early trauma (the ego overwhelmed from the outside). We could also imagine these forms spontaneously manifesting and overwhelming the ego from the inside. [Jung referred to this as, “identification with the archetype.” Jung, himself, experienced an overwhelming flood of archetypal experience in the 1910s, which he described in his book, Memories, Dreams, Reflection, in the chapter entitled, “Confrontation With the Unconscious.” An interesting note in Jungian biographical scholarship is the possibility of Jung’s own sexual abuse as a boy]. Another possibility is that the externalization of these internal forms could be facilitated by an “overzealous” therapist (by the therapist stimulating the latent archetypes through an invitation to the patient to play out/enact mythic roles).

A view of this debate as described above would thus encompass and allow both extremes of the debate. This is done by largely expanding the domain of narrative truth. It does not answer the complicated questions of historical truth of DID it happen or DID it NOT. It does eliminate the pre-condition of trauma for the existence of MPD. It does not invalidate the possibility of historically true recovered memories.

That Man Saw the Madness in Your Area

Wonderful, but why am I discussing this in an article on Ian Curtis? Largely, because of the complicated interplay between narrative and historical truth and also as a way to introduce the concept of archetypes, and particularly the embodiment or identification with archetypes which may help us to understand, or at least add an element of caution in exploring the frequently larger than life lives of rock ‘n’ roll stars. [I remember reading something in a book by Mircea Eliade, I cannot remember the title, in which he explores the creation of a modern myth in (Romania?). He spoke with various people who described the supernatural death of a groom on the eve of his wedding. Eliade was able to track down the historical truth of the event, the man died in a mountain climbing accident on the eve of his death, but because of the timing and power of this tragedy, it activated all sorts of archetypal, mythic projections which then became associated with the legend. This is similar to the current study of what we call, “urban legends.”] 

The current discussion is of how much is an artist’s personal life and biography important in understanding his/her art? Does art stand alone and the artist is irrelevant? (I would say, no). Is the art irrelevant, except as an externalization of the artist’s psyche? (Again, no).

Where is the Dividing Line Between the Artist and the Art Object?

The argument that art should stand on its own and that the artist’s life is irrelevant to its understanding flies in the face of the readily observed popular and critical interest/fascination with the life history of the artist. Whether it is a movie about Jackson Pollock; a biography of Jerzy Kosinski; a spread on who wore what at the Oscars; a blurb on who an actor is dating; a book on the latest girl or boy pop icon; media reaction to the latest Radiohead album; or a book on Joy Division, it seems that everyone (a few theorists aside) is interested in the inner and outer lives of artists. We can deplore this as gossip, or we can ask, why is gossip so compelling? In fact, we may wonder how much of the artists role in culture is the production of art objects versus how much it is to live a larger than life life, in the spotlight? Further, to what extent are these two roles be linked?

What Critics Said About Joy Division/Curtis Before His Suicide
“Joy Division speak of apocalypse, hopelessness and fragmentation, yet their music acts as an exorcism of passivity and neglect, as near a revitalisation of the spirit of rock ‘n’ roll as I’ve experienced in a long while,” (Steve Taylor, “It’s Fun to Play at the YMCA, undated reference, probably review of the 2/8/79 gig in London).

“[T]oday’s purveyors have witnessed the failure of wanton destruction, as epitomized by punk, and in turn have retreated inwardly,” (Chris Bohn, “Northern Gloom: 2, Southern Stomp: 1,” undated reference, University of London, probably review of the 2/8/80 gig).

“[T]he music rolling like some stark answer to the fate of what was punk, like a memorial to something real and furious...Andrew walked to the bathroom. He was humming ‘She’s Lost Control’ to himself when the razor slashed ecstatically like a hungry vampire,” (unnamed author, “Death Disco,” a review of Unknown PleasuresSounds, July, 14th, 1979).

“As Richard Jobson said, Division’s music is genuinely violent , and it’s the violence of beauty rooted in beastly desire, the violence of breakdown, inhibition, failure...fatalism...Joy Division are a powerful act of make believe, their songs like desperate bits of nightmares, clearly drawn, potent and personal. But Joy Division’s dreams are the inescapable places where we live,” (Paul Morely, review of gig with Section 25 and Killing Joke, New Musical Express, 2/16/80).

“To talk of life today is like talking of rope in the house of a hanged man,” (unnamed author, “Where Will It End?” review of Unknown Pleasures, released in 1979, a year prior to Curtis’ death by hanging).

These quotes show that the myth was already well-formed even prior to Curtis’ suicide. The band seemed to foster this myth - by their sound, by refusing to “entertain” the audience with crowd pleasing banter, by Peter Hook playing his bass with his back to the audience, and by their refusal to reveal the meaning of their music (no lyric sheets, their reluctance to be interviewed). All of these things seemed to paint a picture that Joy Division were not part of the rock and roll swindle, but stood above or apart from it. Add to this the fact that they chose to record on Factory Records, an independent label (unlike the Sex Pistols and the majority of other punk bands). Joy Division refused to play the game of rock and roll stars - instead they behaved like Artists reluctant to reveal/destroy the secret of the philosopher’s stone, the aqua permanens of their art - at least until Curtis’ suicide which suddenly burst their carefully guarded anonymity. Curtis’ death gave a finality to the “message” of the band, which could not be argued away. The death was a public event, since he was a critically acclaimed outsider artist, and, like the above described groom, Curtis killed himself within days of the band’s first American tour and the possibility of greater stardo(o)m. We may wonder how much of their anonymous stance contributed to the audience’s projection of their own needs or demands for archetypal role play on to Ian Curtis. And yet, does it make any sense to blame the audience for their projections? (“Whatever the cause i feel a portion of the blame must rest with everyone who came into contact with the band - you, me, City Fun, Factory, anyone who bought one of their records or attended a gig. We all put pressure on Joy Division and maybe Ian Curtis just got tired of the pressure - I don’t know,” (Paul H., “Curtis joins Lynyrd Skynyrd,” undated, unreferenced).

Asylums with doors open wide,
Where people had paid to see inside,
For entertainment they watch his body twist,
Behind his eyes he says, ‘I still exist’...
But the sickness is drowned by cries for more,
Pray to god, make it quick, watch him fall

Joy Division, “Atrocity Exhibition,” (1980)

Or, how much did Curtis get caught up in playing out a role? (Identification with the archetype - which we will explore in greater depth in the future.)

In the shadowplay, acting out your own death, knowing no more...
But I could only stare in disbelief as the crowds all left

Joy Division, “Shadowplay,” (1979)

Or, how much is co-creation: the performer taps into the internal, archetypal forms, bringing them to light (externalizing); the audience experiences the external form which resonates with their own (dormant) internal forms; these awakened forms are projected back out on to the performer, which amplifies the original impulse. In this sense, art is the vehicle through which the Collective Unconscious is transmitted from one agent to the next. Or, art is the dialogue of the Collective Unconscious with itself (as embodied in audience and artist).

But What has the Individual Personality to do with the Plight of the Many?

This question of the relationship between performer and audience (or therapist and patient) is worth exploring more in depth in future issues, but for now, let us consider this quote by Jung on the interaction between the one and the many:

“It is not for nothing that our age calls for the redeemer personality, for the one who can emancipate himself from the inescapable grip of the collective and save at least his own soul, who lights a beacon of hope for others, proclaiming that here is at least one man who has succeeded in extricating himself from that fatal identity with the group psyche. For the group, because of its unconsciousness, has no freedom of choice, and so psychic activity runs on in it like an uncontrolled law of nature. There is thus set going a chain reaction that comes to a stop only in catastrophe. The people always long for a hero, a slayer of dragons, when they feel the danger of psychic forces; hence the cry for personality...But what has the individual personality to do with the plight of the many?...when the mere routine of life predominates in the form of convention and tradition, there is bound to be a destructive outbreak of creative energy,” (Jung, from “The Development of Personality,” cited in Storr’s, The Essential Jung, 201-202).

Consider another quote from Jung, this one on the risk of the internal, archetypal form overwhelming the ego and bringing about identification or the ego with the archetype, which leads to a shadowplay, or an externalization of the archetype in a totalitarian way:

“It was founded on the perception of symbols thrown up by the unconscious individuation process which always sets in when the collective dominants of human life fall into decay [consider the oft cited social precursors of punk]. At such a time there is bound to be a considerable number of individuals who are possessed by archetypes of a numinous nature that force their way to the surface in order to form new dominants [a new order?]. This state of possession shows itself almost without exception in the fact that the possessed identify themselves with the archetypal contents of their unconscious, and, because they do not realize that the role which is being thrust upon them is the effect of new contents to be understood, they exemplify these concretely in their own lives, thus becoming prophets and reformers...For this reason there have always been people who, not satisfied with the dominants of conscious life, set forth - under cover and by devious paths, to their destruction or salvation - to seek direct experience of the eternal roots, and, following the lure of the restless unconscious psyche, find themselves in the wilderness where, like Jesus, they come up against the son of darkness,” (Jung, from “Introduction to the Religious and Psychological Problems of Alchemy,” ibid., 285-286).

Try to cry out in the heat of the moment,
Possessed by a fury that burns from inside

Joy Division, “The Eternal,” (1980)

I traveled far and wide through many different times...
What did you see there?
I saw all knowledge destroyed...
What did you see there?
The power and glory of sin

Joy Division, “Wilderness,” (1979)

Psychic Infection

Jung, thus describes how the individual can embody the role of prophet and reformer (visionary artist) and manifest contents of the collective psyche (archetypes) which arise in response to the current collective, social situation. This is not without its dangers, however, because the archetypes are charged, numinous energies, that can bring about destruction or salvation (recall Bataille’s conception of the sacred which encompasses both the possibilities of death and life). The artist, thus, puts him/herself in harm’s way, like wading into powerful currents in the water, one can be invigorated or drowned. Through the concept of the Collective Unconscious, Jung has a way of explaining the interactions of the individual and the group - how the individual can act out the unconscious wishes of the group, yet also risk getting swept away in those waters. In this way the artist serves a psychological function for the group by raising topical questions and embodying the social conflicts and tensions of that age (which resonate with classical conflicts, but manifest as old wine in new bottles). One term of Jung’s which is pertinent to this discussion (and this magazine) is, “psychic infection,” (Jung, from “The Undiscovered Self,” ibid, 352). This is another way to understand the interplay between the individual, the collective unconscious, and the group: that archetypal forms are psychically infectious, or can precipitate mental contagion

Let us approach a conclusion through another quote from Jung: “modern art...though seeming to deal with aesthetic problems, it is really performing a work of psychological education on the public by breaking down and destroying their previous aesthetic views of what is beautiful in form and meaningful content...the prophetic spirit of art has turned away from the old object-relationship towards the - for the time being - dark chaos of subjectivisms. Certainly art, so far as we can judge of it, has not yet discovered in this darkness what it is that could hold all men together and give expression to psychic wholeness...The development of modern art with its seemingly nihilistic trend towards disintegration must be understood as the symptom and symbol of a mood of universal destruction and renewal that has set its mark on our age,” (Jung, ibid., 402).

Music that Unleashes the Savage Beast

It is considered a truism that music soothes the savage beast - this is thought to be true of music that is sublime and beautiful. What if you played base and ugly music for the beast? What if the beast starts playing punk rock? Is there a music that unleashes the savage beast from Bambi’s breast? What if it is necessary to unleash the savage beast before it can be soothed?

Talking about Rope in the House of a Hanged Man

Let us return to the facts, to the historical truth: On Sunday, May 18th, 1980, Deborah Curtis found Ian Curtis’ body hanging from a rope in the kitchen. She knew he had watched Herzog’s film, Stroszek, the night before. In this film, the protagonist, an artist, travels to America and is unable to choose between his two lovers and commits suicide. Ian, himself, was in a similar situation, in between his wife and his lover, and about to embark on Joy Division’s first American tour. [Here we have a complex interrelation of art and life, does Curtis follow the movie, does the movie follow Curtis, is this a case of synchronicity - two seemingly unrelated events, which become irrationally, but temporally connected - it seems implausible to argue it away, but is that just because it seems so archetypal? Remember Jerzy Kosinski’s last night, watching Peter Greenaway’s Drowning by Numbers, drinking, taking barbiturates, tying a plastic bag over his head and climbing into his bathtub (1, 2, 3, 4...), (from James Park Sloan’s, Jerzy Kosinski, 3)].

Deborah Curtis reconstructs Ian’s last night: coffee, whiskey, Stroszek, writing a suicide note, listening to Iggy Pop’s, The Idiot [it was apparently still on the turntable], and then hanging himself. She describes herself waking that morning in a dream or hallucination of hearing the line from the Doors song, “This is the end, beautiful friend. This is the end, my only friend, the end. I’ll never look into your eyes again...” (Deborah Curtis, Touching From a Distance, 130-133).

You, You’ll See No More the Pain I Suffered, All the Pain I Caused!

We are left with a puzzle, unsolvable, unknowable, as the answer lies in the past, and perhaps there is no answer. The line between fact/fiction, between historical/narrative truth, between myth/reality is hopelessly blurred. Curtis/Joy Division lived out an archetypal life and embodied larger than life tragedy, because of this we project our own larger than life desires on to him and the band. This projection was occurring even before Curtis’ death, but that event solidified the myth and invited a re-interpretation of all that had come before it. Everyone likes a good story, even if it is a tragedy, maybe especially if it is a tragedy, consider the Ancient Greeks, consider Oedipus. We already know what is going to happen to Oedipus, and yet we still watch in anticipation: sent away so he doesn’t fulfill the prophecy of killing his father and marrying his mother, slaying a stranger who turns out to be his father, defeating the sphinx, marrying a stranger who turns out to be his mother, putting out his eyes (“You, you’ll see no more the pain I suffered, all the pain I caused!”), wandering blind through foreign lands, and then somewhat redeemed, or at least somewhat accepted in the end...

“Some people have said [our music] is all about death and destruction. But it isn’t really. There’s other things. None of the songs are about death and doom,” (Ian Curtis, cited in Thompson’s Better to Burn Out: The Cult of Death in Rock ‘n’ Roll136).

“If we go further and consider the fact that man is also neither what he himself nor other people know of him - an unknown something which can yet be proved to exist - the problem of identity becomes more difficult still,” (Jung, from Psychology and Religionibid, 241-242).

ConiunctionisDavid Kopacz