Nick Cave on the terrible devastating opportunities that bring transformation

I wrote recently about how Nick Cave talks about the relationship between suffering, loss and renewal in Faith, Hope and Carnage. He expands on this later in his conversation with Sean O’Hagan, who I only just discovered is an accomplished musician rather than the high brow music journalist I’d assumed. Reflecting on his last record Carnage, which came immediately after Ghosteen which so preoccupied me this year, he suggests that the prominence of ‘leaving’ on the album is in fact an exploration of the beginnings which endings make possible:

What I’m trying to say here is that the record may seem to be concerned with leaving, in the classic style of a Jimmy Webb song, let’s say, but is actually about arrival, or maybe transformation – a kind of changing from one thing into another. About beginning at one place and arriving somewhere else. Most of the songs seem to do that – you know, they are split in two by an event. It seems important somehow to acknowledge that on a personal level.

Cave, Nick; O’Hagan, Seán. Faith, Hope and Carnage (p. 165). Canongate Books. Kindle Edition.

He explains how the writing of Carnage was deeply shaped by the experience of the pandemic, though is less committal about the degree to which the songs are about the pandemic. But this sense of being ‘split in two by an event’ certainly captures something of the suspension of life entailed by the pandemic, particularly the early months of days blurring into each other for those whose work meant they remained in their homes. This experience of rupture invited meta-reflection on what we were doing and why, rendered cruel by the practical constraints upon doing anything about it; this (deeply classed) experience of inertia upending the flow of lives, bringing premature endings to things which might otherwise have survived and contributing to the survival of things which might otherwise have ended.

This splitting was liable to generate change in the way Cave describes but in a tangled and unwelcome sense which complicated the (equally classed) projects and initiatives which it gave rise to a biographical level. It’s a fascinating exercise to look back on your life over the last three years and consider how things might have been otherwise if not for SARS-CoV-2 e.g. relationships, friendships, career, home etc. Obviously it’s an entirely hypothetical exercise with little in the way of practical implications for what we do in the situations in which we find ourselves now. But it draws attention to how our lives were split in two by this event, with consequences that will continue to be played out for years to come.

I suspect part of Cave’s reticence about identifying the ruptures of Carnage too closely with the pandemic, as well as his commitment to the exploration of the meaning of his work through improvisation, lies in the other kinds of ruptures which inform his work. He writes again on pg 165 of the rupture involved in loss as a mechanism for change, in which being ‘split in two by an event’ means we literally cannot continue as who we previously were:

Well, we’ve talked about this a lot, the idea that suffering is, by its nature, the primary mechanism of change, and that it somehow presents us with the opportunity to transform into something else, something different, hopefully something better. That God bestows upon us these terrible, devastating opportunities that bring amelioration and transformation. This change is not something we necessarily seek out; rather, change is often brought to bear upon us, through a shattering or annihilation of our former selves.

Cave, Nick; O’Hagan, Seán. Faith, Hope and Carnage (pp. 165-166). Canongate Books. Kindle Edition.

What fascinates me about how he describes this is his sense that, as he puts on pg 151, “we become, as human beings, more precise”. His point is that there is a “second life” lived after this rupture, which by its nature is “more essential” and in which we respond to things in changed ways. This echoes what he says much earlier in the conversation about how we can emerge from grief as a “more complete, more realised, more clearly drawn person”:

But what I want to say is this: this will happen to everybody at some point – a deconstruction of the known self. It may not necessarily be a death, but there will be some kind of devastation. We see it happen to people all the time: a marriage breakdown, or a transgression that has a devastating effect on a person’s life, or health issues, or a betrayal, or a public shaming, or a separation where someone loses their kids, or whatever it is. And it shatters them completely, into a million pieces, and it seems like there is no coming back. It’s over. But in time they put themselves together piece by piece. And the thing is, when they do that, they often find that they are a different person, a changed, more complete, more realised, more clearly drawn person. I think that’s what it is to live, really – to die in a way and to be reborn. And sometimes it can happen many times over, that complex reordering of ourselves.

Cave, Nick; O’Hagan, Seán. Faith, Hope and Carnage (p. 107). Canongate Books. Kindle Edition.
There are some people trying to find out who
There are some people trying to find out why
There's some people who aren't trying to find anything
But that kingdom in the sky
In the sky
I'm going to the river where the current rushes by
I'm going to the river where the current rushes by
I'm gonna swim to the middle where the water is real high
Hand of God coming from the sky
Hand of God coming from the sky
Gonna swim to the middle and stay out there while
Way down low, way down low, let the river cast his spell on me
Let the river cast his spell on me
(Hand of God, hand of God, hand of God, hand of God) ooh, oh
(Hand of God, hand of God, hand of God, hand of God) ooh, oh

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