Beauty and Sadness

“Kurt Cobain’s sadness” may appear to be a strange, if not self-indulgent, topic for a blog discussion on this forum. But within it lie important themes: beauty and sadness. A sure way into the big themes is through the small particulars. Responding to my previous post, Tom writes:

Ramos doesn’t want to see his Kurt Cobain dismissed by a moralist with a platitude. He says, “Do not understand him too quickly.” I agree but answer back, “If we can’t even fathom Kurt Cobain’s sadness, then what in Heaven’s name can we Christians offer the world?”

I would answer: Christians will offer the world whatever it is that they have to offer; what they have to offer is no more threatened by the sorrow of Our Lady of Sorrows than it is by the sadness of Kurt Cobain. And Kurt Cobain’s sadness is not something that we can’t fathom. It is all too fathomable. Sadness is always about the same few things: loss, absence, heartbreak. Rupture. Negation. It is precisely this sadness that we should not be glib about, should not understand too quickly: our own.

I didn’t learn about sadness from Kurt Cobain. I learned about it from life. They took different forms in my life than they did in Kurt’s, cut more deeply or less deeply, but they were—are—essentially the same.

The heart of my disagreement with Tom is that I believe that Nirvana’s music is more like regular human sadness than it is some sort of big statement about the meaninglessness of it all. A calculated and studied statement of nihilism—for example, P. T. Anderson’s film There Will be Blood—would be boring. It would be boring not so much because it is nihilistic but because it is not truly felt. It comes from an abstract reasoning that the artist concocts in his study and wants to show off to the public; but the public only responds to a bleeding heart who wishes to confess.

Nirvana did just that. Its music was truly felt. There is not a studied lack of sophistication in their three-chord songs: they are really just three chords. Kurt Cobain really could yell that loud. (Nor do I have to throw God into the mix to justify their appeal: Kurt was not wrestling with the angel. He did not believe in angels. He was wrestling with all the stuff that all of us have to wrestle with in life.)

The difference that faith makes in listening to those three chords is that the person of faith who loves Nirvana will listen with a particular kind of hope. Perhaps, on top of that, he would be able to enter into the music and discuss it more boldly precisely because he has a faith in the essential goodness of being alive, of which sadness is not a threat but actually, paradoxically, a sign. But the music is still music and the sadness is still sadness. No desensitization is required. In fact, desensitization would diminish our ability to recognize the depth of feeling in the music.

There’s one thing point I should have made clear in my last post: One can’t defend Cobain’s sadness without also defending his music. If he was sad in the same way the rest of us are sad, then why are we talking about him in particular? One must defend the music. And that is a tricky matter. Etienne Gilson makes a very interesting comment about this type of discussion in his little book, The Arts of the Beautiful:

The most striking of these objective conditions is that aesthetic judgments are both dogmatic and unjustifiable. Every one of us may check the accuracy of this fact by observing himself; besides, the shortest conversation with other art lovers will show them to be what we ourselves are, positive in their statements, even inclined to exaggerate and defend them forcefully when in favor of their opinion, at least powerless to bring any convincing objective justification of it.

…The art lover loves a work of art for the joy it brings him; he is grateful to it for this gift, and since the experience of the beautiful never goes without some emotion, he releases it in expressing his gratitude and love.

In this passage, Gilson comes close to his philosophical rival, Immanuel Kant, and this latter’s argument that the best way to convince someone that something is beautiful is simply to point to it. So perhaps what I should do is link to a performance by Nirvana that I think is particularly beautiful.

But I am quoting Gilson also as a roundabout way of returning joy to the discussion—the central theme that Tom brings up in his post. Did Nirvana’s music really bring me joy? Yes. Always? Well, I like ice cream, but I don’t want to eat it all the time. But really, joy? Yes, joy in listening to an intense expression of human sadness—of the great, strange, unique-in-the-universe capacity for sadness that a human being has, and of the rarer capacity to fashion something beautiful out of it. Joy because I was able to wonder at both of these things.

So here I make a concession: Nirvana, in their own small way, were able to feel and to make art. But they never seemed to truly wonder at the very interesting fact that they could feel sadness and could make something beautiful out of it. That we human beings are such peculiar creatures. And that is the saddest thing of all.





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