This is an edited extract from Faith, Hope and Carnage, the distillation of more than 40 hours of conversation between Nick Cave and Seán O’Hagan.
Nick Cave: I do have certain memories of the night Arthur died. Yet when I try to recall what happened after that night, it’s almost like there is a rupture that time and memory poured itself into. Everything disappears.
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Seán O’Hagan: People tend not to want to revisit the moment of the actual trauma itself — and probably for good reason. Are you sure you even want to talk about this stuff?
NC: Fuck, I don’t know, Seán. I’m just kind of mystified by how little I remember, just how much I have forgotten.
I remember I was watching TV, and Arthur rings me, and I answer, but it’s not Arthur; it’s a stranger who had found his phone and his rucksack and shoes in a field near the black windmill outside Brighton. The stranger also says that there is police activity at the cliff near the windmill. Then there is this sudden roaring panic, and we are calling 999. Asking the operator what is happening at the cliffs! The police won’t tell us anything.
Then the police come to the house. My wife Susie and I standing on the doorstep, seeing the police car pull up, and the detectives stepping out and walking towards us with their composed faces, and us just knowing. The cops standing in the kitchen and telling us the news — our boy has fallen off the cliff, his body is in the hospital, he is dead, and my head starts roaring the loudest noise in the world…
SOH: I don’t know what to say, Nick. I just can’t imagine . . .
NC: I don’t remember much after that, for quite a while. Mostly, I just recall sitting on the back step of the house away from everyone and smoking and feeling the roaring body shock of it, like this alien force was going to burst out the ends of my fucking fingers. I remember feeling like I was physically detonating, like if I made any sudden moves I’d literally explode, so stuffed was my body with despair. And then sitting next to the bed, with Susie lying completely still in the dark, like a stone, her eyes closed, and saying, “I am here, babe, I’m here,” but really I’m not, I’m not there at all, I’m in a million fucking pieces, everywhere else, all over the place.
SOH: Were you angry at the world after Arthur died?
NC: No, I was in despair. I don’t think anger was part of it. Not for me, although who knows what boils away inside us. Susie, of course, entered a circle of hell that is reserved solely for mothers who lose their children. It’s a whole other level of loss and suffering, a terrible, terrible thing to happen to anyone. There are all sorts of feelings tied up in it, guilt and shame and self-loathing so primal, yet so complex, they are near impossible to unravel. We don’t have the language for it. Or maybe language itself is not up to the task. Perhaps the cultures that encourage people to dress in black and just wail, maybe that is the most articulate response.
I remember, in desperation, reaching across and taking Susie’s hand and feeling the shock of that same violent electricity in her hand. It was so physical. That physical affliction is not often talked about, as far as I can see. We tend to see grief as an emotional state, but it is also an atrocious destabilising assault upon the body. So much so that it can feel terminal.
SOH: Nothing prepares you for it. It’s tidal and it can be capsizing.
NC: That’s a good word for it — “capsizing”. But it is important to say that these feelings I am describing, this point of absolute annihilation, is not exceptional. In fact it is ordinary. We are all, at some point in our lives, obliterated by loss. If you haven’t been by now, you will be in time — that’s for sure. And, of course, if you have been fortunate enough to have been truly loved, in this world, you will also cause extraordinary pain to others when you leave it. That’s the covenant of life and death, and the terrible beauty of grief.
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.
SOH: When you are deep in grief, there’s no real comfort to be had in people constantly telling you that time will make things better. But I distinctly remember waking up one morning, having finally had a decent night’s sleep, and thinking, it’s going to be okay. There was a sense that something had shifted imperceptibility. Did that happen to you?
NC: At first there was nothing but darkness, but, over time, Susie and I started to experience something like small fragments of light. These points of light were essentially thoughtful gestures from the people we encountered. We began to see, in a profound way, that people were kind. People cared. I know that sounds simplistic, maybe even naïve, but I came to the conclusion that the world wasn’t bad, at all — in fact, what we think of as bad, or as sin, is actually suffering. And that the world is not animated by evil, as we are so often told, but by love, and that, despite the suffering of the world, or maybe in defiance of it, people mostly just cared.
Grief 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 either go under, or it changes you, or, worse, you become a small, hard thing that has contracted around an absence. Sometimes you find a grieving person constricted around the thing they have lost; they’ve become ossified and impossible to penetrate, and, well, other people go the other way, and grow open and expansive.
Arthur’s death literally changed everything for me. Absolutely everything. It made me a religious person. I am not talking about being a traditional Christian. I am not even talking about a belief in God, necessarily. It made me a religious person in the sense that I felt, on a profound level, a deep inclusion in the human predicament, and an understanding of our vulnerability and the sense that, as individuals, we are, each of us, imperilled. Each life is precarious, and some of us understand it and some don’t. I became a person after my son died.
SOH: Back in your younger, wilder days, when you drew on biblical imagery as a source for your songwriting, was that also a reflection of a deeper interest in the divine?
NC: Even in the most chaotic times, when I was struggling with addiction, I always had a kind of spiritual envy, a longing for belief in the face of the impossibility of belief that addressed a fundamental emptiness inside me. I might wake in my hotel room surrounded by the detritus of a heavy night on the road — empty bottles, drug paraphernalia, maybe a stranger in my bed, all that kind of shit, but also an opened copy of the Gideon’s Bible with passages underlined.
After Arthur died, the world seemed to vibrate with a peculiar, spiritual energy. I was genuinely surprised by how susceptible I became to a kind of magical thinking. How readily I dispensed with that wholly rational part of my mind and how comforting it was to do so. Now, that may well be a strategy for survival and, as such, a part of the ordinary mechanics of grief, but it is something that persists to this day. Perhaps it is a kind of delusion, I don’t know, but if it is, it is a necessary and benevolent one.
SOH: If so, that kind of magical thinking is a strategy for survival that a lot of people use. Some sceptics might say it is the very basis of religious belief.
NC: Yes. Some see it as the lie at the heart of religion, but I tend to think it is the much-needed utility of religion. And the lie — if the existence of God is, in fact, a falsehood — is, in some way, irrelevant. Sometimes it feels to me as if the existence of God is a detail, or a technicality, so unbelievably rich are the benefits of a devotional life. Stepping into a church, listening to religious thinkers, reading scripture, sitting in silence, meditating, praying — all these religious activities eased the way back into the world for me. Those who discount them as falsities or superstitious nonsense, or worse, a collective mental feebleness, are made of sterner stuff than me. I grabbed at anything I could get my hands on and, since doing so, I’ve never let them go.
SOH: I have to say that I am slightly in awe of other people’s devotion. When I go into an empty church, it always feels meaningful somehow — and vulnerable — to just linger there for a moment or so. Do you know Larkin’s poem, “Church Going”, which touches on that very thing?
NC: Yes! “A serious house on serious earth it is.” And yes, there’s something about being open and vulnerable that is conversely very powerful, maybe even transformative.
For me, vulnerability is essential to spiritual and creative growth, whereas being invulnerable means being shut down, rigid, small. My experience of creating music and writing songs is finding enormous strength through vulnerability. You’re being open to whatever happens, including failure and shame. There’s certainly a vulnerability to that, and an incredible freedom.
SOH: The two are connected, maybe — vulnerability and freedom.
NC: I think to be truly vulnerable is to exist adjacent to collapse or obliteration. In that place we can feel extraordinarily alive and receptive to all sorts of things. It is the place where the big shifts can happen. The more time you spend there, the less worried you become of how you will be perceived or judged, and that is ultimately where the freedom is.
SOH: It may be that the most meaningful things are the most difficult to explain.
NC: I do think the rational aspect of ourselves is a beautiful and necessary thing, of course, but often its inflexible nature can render these small gestures of hope merely fanciful. There is a kind of gentle scepticism that makes belief stronger rather than weaker. In fact, it can be the forge on which a more robust belief can be hammered out.
SOH: It’s intrinsically human to doubt, though, don’t you think?
NC: The rigid and self-righteous certainty of some religious people — and some atheists, for that matter — is something I find disagreeable. The hubris of it. The sanctimoniousness. It leaves me cold. The more overtly unshakeable someone’s beliefs are, the more diminished they seem to become, because they have stopped questioning, and the not-questioning can sometimes be accompanied by an attitude of moral superiority. The belligerent dogmatism of the current cultural moment is a case in point. A bit of humility wouldn’t go astray.
SOH: So, just to make sure I’ve got this right: you would like to get past your doubt and just believe wholeheartedly in God, but your rational self is telling you otherwise.
NC: Things happen in your life, terrible things, great obliterating events, where the need for spiritual consolation can be immense, and your sense of what is rational is less coherent and can suddenly find itself on very shaky ground. I think of late I’ve grown increasingly impatient with my own scepticism; it feels obtuse and counter-productive, something that’s simply standing in the way of a better-lived life. I feel it would be good for me to get beyond it. I think I would be happier if I stopped window-shopping and just stepped through the door.
When it comes down to it, maybe faith is just a decision like any other. And perhaps God is the search itself.
I think the only way I can fully give myself over to the idea of God is to have the room to question. To me, the great gift of God is that He provides us with the space to doubt. For me at least, doubt becomes the energy of belief.
SOH: That’s fair enough, I guess, but it’s starting from the premise that God exists and allows us to doubt, which an atheist would argue is essentially flawed logic.What would you say to that?
NC: Well, Seán, since when has belief in God had anything to do with logic? For me, it is the unreasonableness of the notion, its counterfactual aspect, that makes the experience of belief compelling. I find that leaning into these intimations of the divine, that for me do exist, as subtle, softly spoken and momentary as they may be, expands my relationship with the world — especially creatively. Why would I deny myself something that is clearly beneficial because it doesn’t make sense? That in itself would be illogical.
There seems to be a growing current of thought that tends towards a sort of cynicism and distrust of our very selves, a hatred of who we are, or, more accurately, a rejection of the innate wonder of our presence. I see this as a sort of affliction that is, in part, to do with the increasingly secular nature of our society. There’s an attempt to find meaning in places where it is ultimately unsustainable — in politics, identity and so on.
SOH: But, hang on, are you saying atheism — or secularism — is an affliction? And that you equate it with cynicism? I mean, come on, non-believers can have a sense of wonder at the world — with nature, the universe, with the wonders of science, philosophy and even the everyday.
NC: I am not saying secularism is an affliction in itself. I just don’t think it has done a very good job of addressing the questions that religion is well practised at answering.
SOH: What kinds of questions, in particular, would you say religion is more adept at answering?
NC: Religion deals with the necessity for forgiveness, for example, and mercy, whereas I don’t think secularism has found the language to address these matters. The upshot of that is a kind of callousness towards humanity in general, or so it seems to me. And I think callousness comes out of a feeling of aloneness, people feeling adrift or separated from the world. In a way, they look for religion — and meaning — elsewhere. And increasingly they are finding it in tribalism and the politics of division.
SOH: The decline of organised religion may be one reason for that, but there are others, of course, social and political.
Whatever you think about the decline of organised religion — and I do accept that religion has a lot to answer for — it took with it a regard for the sacredness of things, for the value of humanity, in and of itself. This regard is rooted in a humility towards one’s place within the world — an understanding of our flawed nature. We are losing that understanding, as far as I can see, and it’s often being replaced by self-righteousness and hostility. There seems to be a growing current of thought that tends towards a sort of cynicism and distrust of our very selves, a hatred of who we are, or, more accurately, a rejection of the innate wonder of our presence.
Well, I love this world — with all its joys and its vast goodness, its civility and complete and utter lack of it, its brilliance and its absurdity. I love it all, and the people in it, all of them. I feel nothing but deep gratitude to be a part of this whole cosmic mess. I have no time for negativity, cynicism or blame. In that regard, Seán, I feel as if I am completely and hopelessly out of time.
I don’t know how to exactly say this, and please don’t misunderstand it, but since Arthur died I have been able to step beyond the full force of the grief and experience a kind of joy that is entirely new to me. It was as if grief enlarged my heart in some way. I have experienced periods of happiness more than I have ever felt before, even though it was the most devastating thing ever to happen to me. This is Arthur’s gift to me, one of the many. It is his munificence that’s made me a different person. I say all this with huge caution and a million caveats, but I also say it because there are those who think there is no way back from the catastrophic event. That they will never laugh again. But there is, and they will.
Faith, Hope and Carnage by Nick Cave & Seán O’Hagan is published by Canongate