Inside I sat, seeking the presence of a GodSearched through the pictures in a leather-bound book And I found a woolly lamb dozing in an issue of blood And a gilled Jesus shivering on a fisherman's hook
—Nick Cave, “Darker With the Day,” from the No More Shall We Part album
The duet of feasts that opens the “thin veil” month of November—All Saints and All Souls—exposes the radically different themes of holiness and destruction. The former might seem a straightforward point of faith. But why single out the latter? It is because, when we come to commemorate those souls most personal to our own lives, aside from the secure constellations of the canonized saints, we are forced to meditate on the thing that has taken them from us. Death. The thing that, on the surface of it, destroys our connection with those we have known and loved.
Honest confrontation with the raw fact of death may, however, be the beginning of wisdom. It certainly has been for the Australian-born rock singer Nick Cave, whose dialogue with the Irish journalist Sean O’Hagan resulted in the best-selling book Faith, Hope and Carnage. It is the carnage part that gives Cave’s musings on life, death, and the last things their unusual edge. If we are honest, death is carnage, in the most literal sense. It destroys the flesh. The cover of Cave’s most recent album of that title, Carnage (made with his long-time collaborator, Warren Ellis), seems to point to this very fact. The letters CARN stand out starkly at the top, with the rest of the word appearing underneath in red and black.
Read round the edges of the typography, and the eye picks out another word: cage. An apt image, too, for Nick Cave’s life as a whole: how to get out of the cage that constricts and destroys the human soul. A many-times rehabbed heroin addict, Cave, with his band The Bad Seeds, has long explored the darker side of human experience. But the death of his teenage son Arthur, in 2015 (also drug-related) sent Cave in a very different musical direction. The 2019 album that was wrought out of Arthur’s loss, Ghosteen, is a gorgeous and haunting exploration of the world of grief—and regret.
The metanoia wrought by the shock of extreme grief is what lies at the heart of Faith, Hope and Carnage. Averse to giving interviews as such, Cave is nonetheless a good conversationalist. Music journalist Sean O’Hagan has known him for thirty years, and holds up his end of this process, eliciting a no-holds-barred exchange that throws up some fascinating insights. For instance: “Ghosteen feels as if it came from a place beyond me and is expressing something ineffable. I don’t know quite how to explain this, Sean, except that perhaps God is the trauma itself.”
O’Hagan asks him to clarify. Perhaps grief, Cave responds, “can be seen as a kind of exalted state where the person who is grieving is the closest they will ever be to the fundamental essence of things. . . . You are taken to the very limits of suffering. As far as I can see, there is a transformative aspect to this place of suffering. We are essentially altered or remade by it. . . . It actually feels like grief and God are somehow intertwined. It feels that, in grief, you draw closer to the veil that separates this world from the next.”
In a culture where many celebrities embrace an amorphous spirituality that rejects structured religion, Cave stands out as an authentic seeker of truth. He has recently engaged in some other frank conversations, with the former Archbishop of Canterbury, Rowan Williams, for instance, in which he makes no bones about his developing sense of Christian identity. He describes himself as having a long history of fascination with the Bible and the person of Jesus, dating all the way back to his time as a choirboy at Wangaratta Cathedral. The suffering Christ in particular runs through his life-story. His younger years were marked by anger and transgression (one recent biographer has made much of the death of his father as a factor in all this). He has mellowed since then, but Cave was always, and in some ways still is, an overturner of social expectations. Current conventions of political correctness are unsurprisingly a target of the older Nick Cave’s scorn, just as provincial values were in his youth.
Perhaps the most fascinating thing about Cave in his hard-won maturity is his openness to dialogue. This comes out in the book, and even more so in his blog The Red Hand Files, in which he answers questions from fans (he has done this live onstage too). It is tempting to suspect public figures of posturing when they say they embrace a particular religious outlook. But the things Cave says on his blog, and admits to O’Hagan, about responding to other people’s perplexity and pain, give the lie to this. He is sincerely interested in what could make the world a better place, and roots that in the art of human relationally—arguably an extension of his art as a lyricist.
“A good faith conversation,” he says in response to a question from a reader on how to negotiate conflict, “begins with curiosity.” He continues:
It looks for common ground while making room for disagreement. It should be primarily about the exchange of thoughts and information rather than instruction, and it affords us, among other things, the great privilege of being wrong; we feel supported in our unknowing and, in the sincere spirit of inquiry, free to move around the sometimes treacherous waters of ideas. A good faith conversation strengthens our better ideas and challenges, and hopefully corrects, our low-quality or unsound ideas.
All in all, Cave probably has something to teach us about “the courtyard of the gentiles.” One of the perils of a firm, evangelizing faith is that it fails to gain any purchase on the troubled contours of contemporary culture. It is all too easy to get stuck inside a pod of received piety or catechetical zeal. To discourse with us, non-Christians need to know that we are not just parroting an easy narrative. Cave is clearly not doing this, if only because of the death of his child, which he says now defines him. “Purely from a personal point of view, living my life within a neat narrative didn’t make sense any more. Arthur died and everything changed. That sense of disruption, of a disrupted life, infused everything.”
If nothing else, Nick Cave is a testament to the power of that which ruptures received ways of thinking. Whether the chaos of grief is truly connecting him to an abiding faith (his most recent statements show a greater commitment to church-going, for example) is something only he knows. But for a consummate performer, his religious quest is refreshingly unperformative: he has said he does not see himself as a “card-carrying Christian,” and yet he relentlessly turns around the question of sin and redemption. You get the sense of a hungry soul. It occurs to me that the incarnate Godhead giving himself as literal flesh and blood is quite a Nick Cave trope.
Perhaps what is most fascinating in Cave’s current discourse is his humble acceptance of the fact that even the most dedicated “Jesus freak” is far from “saved”: he is still a sinner, a work in progress, in need of constant mercy and course correction. One thing Cave seems sure of, however, is the folly of the cynicism that defined his earlier years. To one despairing youngster on The Red Hand Files, he advises: “Cynicism is not a neutral position—and although it asks almost nothing of us, it is highly infectious and unbelievably destructive. In my view, it is the most common and easy of evils.”
One thing is certain. Nick Cave never fails to surprise. He recently returned to his interest in the visual arts, making a set of ceramic statues about the life of the Devil. Is this how he views his own past life? He does not say. And yet at the end of the series there is a moment when his protagonist actually faces death, and a young child extends the hand of forgiveness towards him. In a video about these ceramics that I watched on YouTube, Cave pauses for a long moment in front of this last piece. Make of this what you will, but the contemplation of innocence runs throughout Cave’s recent work. The child who forgives the evil that wreaks carnage is right there, in the quote from Isaiah 11:6 that sits on the flyleaf of Faith, Hope and Carnage: “And a little child shall lead them.”