Nick Cave is a man well-versed in staring into the darkness. His subject has long been death, and his songs come on like Leonard Cohen channelling Edgar Allan Poe: murderers and madmen, their lovers and their victims, stalk a universe as blackly comic as it is terrifying. He has built a career probing the minds of misfits and the macabre: his is the convict unrepentant and contemptuous before the electric chair, his the innocent dead at the hands of a lover overcome by her beauty.
In July of last year, the singer’s teenage son, Arthur, fell to his death from the cliff-tops near their Brighton home. Skeleton Tree, Cave’s sixteenth studio album, is his response, the sound of a man turning the lens onto himself. Gone are the ballads and the personae of earlier work; in their place we are presented with an I-voice that we are to identify with the artist’s own. There’s nothing easy or comforting to be found in the record: from the first lines of ‘Jesus Alone’, the opener, when Cave intones ‘You fell from the sky / And crash landed in a field / Next to the River Adur’ over droning synths, to the desperate refrain, ‘And it’s alright now’, that closes the eponymous final track, each song reveals a Cave searching amid the darkness for something onto which to cling. As he says in One More Time With Feeling, the film that accompanied the record’s release, “What do you do when something so catastrophic happens that you… you just change?”.
This feels like familiar territory: the work of art as the drama of a man trying to forge meaning out of unimaginable pain. But Cave is not your usual artist, and in his hands the album becomes something far more unsettling and frank, as we discover within the first ten minutes of the film, a work as beautiful, poetic and raw as the record itself, when the singer stares down the camera and, with devastating honesty, remarks, “I don’t believe in the narrative anymore”. Early in the film, Cave ruminates on the elasticity of time, and the thought lingers unfinished over the rest of the film, until at last he explains what he is means by it. The image used is that of a rubber band connected to a central point, in this case the trauma of his son’s death; the band stretches as time passes, giving the impression of progress, until suddenly the band snaps back to its original position, and we find ourselves back in the darkness. This is the searing truth that Cave and the film’s director, Andrew Dominik, return to time after time: that the idea of catharsis, of progress, is a myth. Cave’s lyrics make much of this rejection: filled with images of dislocation and decentering, of repetition and of forces beyond the author’s control, they tell of a man lost in the darkness, and unable to escape.
It’s fascinating to hear Cave and long-term collaborator Warren Ellis discuss the writing and recording of the album, for in doing so, they debunk the myth of art arising out of tragedy. We think, says Cave, that we want some trauma to happen to us, to give us something to write about; in his experience, however, it is the trauma itself that becomes the obstruction that blocks the creative process. Almost all of the songs on the record were written and recorded before his son’s death; the accident itself became the catalyst for releasing the album in its unrevised form, rather than the source of a great outpouring of creativity that allowed the artist to come to terms with his grief.
In challenging, effectively, the very notion of catharsis, Cave is calling into question an idea that stands at the head of the Western literary tradition. In the Poetics, the first systematic attempt at literary criticism we have, Aristotle introduced the term to explain the desired effect of tragedy upon its audience, the “proper purgation (or purification)” of intense emotions such as fear and pity. The ideal dramatic work, he argues, is that which brings such feelings into their proper balance. As much as anything, this doctrine can be read as a response to Plato’s criticisms of the mimetic arts as malignant forces that work to overcome the rational self-control that is man’s ideal state by the evocation of such emotions; in the model city of his Republic, such art forms are banned for precisely this reason.
Although not without its faults – for one thing, the suitability of the concept’s application varies immensely across the corpus of Greek tragedy – the principle of catharsis has become so ingrained in our cultural consciousness that it is now freely applied to all areas of life, much like the ideas of ‘redemption’ or ‘atonement’. At the same time, taking its lead from works such as Shelley’s ‘Adonais’, Tennyson’s ‘In Memoriam A.H.’, and Sassoon’s ‘The Last Meeting’, all of which end with their respective poets reconfirmed in their beliefs through their art, society has privileged the essentially Romantic image of the individual creating meaning out of suffering, and achieving the release of catharsis in doing so.
Why is it, then, that such an ideal has proved to be so abidingly popular throughout history? Perhaps it is because it appeals to our human desire for structure as a means of coping with the reality of our existence. Catharsis provides an end-point, a moment of closure, that satisfies and fulfils our requirement for narrative; it makes order out of our personal chaos, and helps us feel like we are in control of our experience. David Jones’ In Parenthesis, a modernist epic of the First World War, serves as an excellent example of how the act of creating art can have such an effect. In his preface to the work, Jones, who suffered from post-traumatic stress disorder after the war, writes about how the poem served as a mirror through which he could re-experience “things I saw, felt and was a part of”, and thereby make sense of the horror of the trenches. More recently, Pete Silbermann, of Brooklyn band The Antlers, has spoken of debut album Hospice, which charts the breakdown of the singer’s relationship through the metaphor of a person dying from cancer, in broadly similar terms: “It’s a record about overcoming difficult shit. I think when you find yourself free from that – releasing yourself – it’s a very epic feeling. You feel like you are triumphing, even if it’s difficult, even if everything is kind of damaged afterwards… it’s still a very grand triumphant moment”.
For every artist who embraces the narrative of catharsis, however, there is another who rejects it. Bon Iver’s For Emma, Forever Ago is a case in point. In 2006, the lead singer, Justin Vernon, decamped to his father’s cabin in the wilds of Wisconsin in the aftermath of the break-ups of his band and his relationship, and spent the winter recording a collection of songs lamenting lost love, heartbreak and depression. Such a backstory fits perfectly with the idea of catharsis, yet in talking about the record, Vernon consciously rejects it: in a 2008 interview with A. V. Club, he said “When I left the cabin I don’t think I felt renewed or ‘done’ or anything”. More recently, he has expanded on this, and especially the figure of the titular ‘Emma’, often wrongly identified with his ex-lover: “Emma isn’t a person. Emma is a place that you get stuck in… a pain you can’t erase”. The mythologising that has surrounded the album perfectly exemplifies the problem with the concept of catharsis: as appealing as it undeniably is, it is both limited and artificial, creating an idealised horizon of expectations that it is not necessarily possible or viable for an individual to fulfil, much like the fifth stage of grief, acceptance, on the Kübler-Ross model, another example of the attempt to make prescriptive and universal the experience of suffering. That’s not to say that catharsis doesn’t exist, or to deny that art can be immensely beneficial in dealing with trauma; Vernon himself says that he now views his album as a “triumph” for his mental health. It is simply to point out that the obsession with catharsis suggests that there must be an end to grief, and a failure to obtain this is in some way a failure of one’s humanity.
This is precisely why Skeleton Tree and, possibly to an even greater extent, One More Time With Feeling, are so remarkable. They do not show a Cave regaining control or moving forwards, as we might expect; instead, they expose a man who is brave enough to admit that he cannot, and may never be able to, see out of the darkness. Such honesty is so valuable because it is in essence liberating; it tells us that sometimes the expectations of society are utterly irrelevant, and that sometimes all we can do is just hang on.
Mourning is a symbolic language, codified according to the customs of each society. Cave’s record reveals the emptiness of these signs. Of course, he may look back on it in later years as a central component in the process of his grief; again, he may not. For the time being, however, it will serve as testament to the ugliness, the rawness and the emptiness that such a trauma can leave behind: it is not the solution, nor is it catharsis, however much we may wish it to be so. Sometimes, quite simply, as the man himself says, “Someone’s gotta sing the pain”.