Defending Kurt Cobain’s Sadness

EDITOR’S NOTE: We hope you enjoy this guest article from Santiago Ramos.

Responding to my recent article, “In Defense of Kurt Cobain’s Sadness,” Tom Hoopes argues that I am wrong to resist any easy explanation of what made Kurt sad. Instead, he writes:

I don’t want to commit the cardinal sin of Catholic commentary and decide right away that “of course Kurt Cobain was unhappy. He had a God-shaped hole in his heart that he was trying to fill with guitar feedback.”

So forgive me for saying: Of course Kurt Cobain was unhappy. He had a God-shaped hole in his heart that he was trying to fill with guitar feedback.

In my original article, I inveighed against two ways in which people misunderstand Kurt Cobain, Nirvana and the grunge “movement”: Either by dismissing their angst and sadness as the whining of the privileged middle class, or by reducing it to mere political discontentment in the aftermath of the Reagan era.

Tom Hoopes, on the other hand, doesn’t misunderstand Kurt—he understands him too quickly. He doesn’t reduce the angst to any particular social cause, and he doesn’t dismiss it as whining. Instead, he identifies two personal reasons for Kurt Cobain’s sadness—Kurt’s parents’ divorce, and Kurt’s estrangement from any sort of faith in God.

The problem is that those two reasons combined are about as useful an explanation as saying that the Grand Canyon is grand because it’s really deep. The metaphor of a “God-shaped hole” is as reassuring as a question accompanied by its answer, but it is also an elephantine abstraction that doesn’t really tell us anything about how life really works.

There are many people who—like Kurt Cobain—suffered through the divorce of their parents at an early age and who didn’t end up addicted and depressed. There are many who grew up in united and loving families and who did end up addicted and depressed. There are some religious people who struggle with depression and addiction and some atheists and agnostics who live adjusted and disciplined lives. There are some depressive, addicted, children of divorce who nevertheless have become successful lawyers. But there is one—only one—who grew up to become a singer like Kurt Cobain.

Moreover, even for those who have been given the gift of faith in their lives—those for whom the God-shaped hole has been filled up to the brim—the drama of life does not end. Faith merely makes you look at the drama in a different way. Just ask Abraham, or St. Augustine, or Tom Hoopes. (It’s true that Augustine says that the restless heart finds its peace when it rests in God–but that doesn’t happen in this life.) For the wayfarer who is lost in the desert, the discovery of a map or a signpost that shows you the way out is an occasion for joy and hope, but it is not an immediate rescue from the heat and the sand and the sun. As he follows the path out of the desert, he needs constant reminders that he is actually still on the path, and that somehow someone is taking care of him, with him at that very moment, guiding him through his terrible adventure.

It is a terrible truth that Kurt never felt—at least, he never expressed such a feeling—that he was accompanied on his own terrible adventure. He left us three studio albums, and one live unplugged show, which capture a pained voice in a strangely eloquent expression of its pain, and a knack for coming up with a surprisingly lucid or interesting turn of phrase in the middle of an otherwise unintelligible song—“Here we are now, entertain us!”, “I miss the comfort in being sad,” “I love myself better than you/ I know it’s wrong, so what should I do?”, “Teenage angst has paid off well/ Now I’m bored and old.” Everyone shares with him the same desert heat on their back and brow.

What I don’t like about Mr. Hoopes’ explanation is that, if it is correct, then there is no real reason to listen to Nirvana. Their music is actually the noise of a sickness for which we already have the cure. But there is no cure for, no way out of, the problem of life. Either with faith or without, you have to go through it.

We love Nirvana, and Kurt Cobain, because his sadness was human, and his music was a moving expression of that very human sadness. He was an extreme case, sure. And he was no Camus or Mahler or whatever. But he commanded the loyalty of millions of fans because he expressed something real in a way that in certain moments was beautiful. Whether we like it or not, we have more than a few things in common with Kurt Cobain.

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11 thoughts on “Defending Kurt Cobain’s Sadness

  1. Marcello says:

    Hoops and Ramos have two different approaches to evangelization.

    For the first approach evangelization coincides with apologetic, for the second with the acknowledgment of the human desire for God.

    Which one would convince Cobain, and which one would not?

    Which one aims to defend what we already know, which one will surprise us with a renewed relationship with Christ present even in this secularized society?

  2. Amen, Santiago! says:

    I love Mr. Ramos’ take on Augustine, for how odd it would be if coming to rest in God was something “accomplished” once and for all in this life. How utterly boring!

    What does Walker Percy say about discovering the meaning of life on Tuesday — what the hell are you gonna do Wednesday? Well, you’ll be bored — and this is even worse — be boring.

    No, restlessness is the spring that keeps us in relationship with Reality and each other. I’ll rest when I’m dead, thank you very much.

  3. Jonathan says:

    This is an impressing article – it impresses on you a deeper way of looking at everything, including Kurt Cobaine, and including life. It refuses to reduce either life to something we can “do” or figure out on our own, or faith to something that “solves” everything neatly, like a math problem. It is truly a defense of the human heart in every respect.

    Thank you Santiago. Keep writing!

  4. John L. says:

    Thank you for this article.  Nirvana was my favorite band in junior high and high school and I saw one of their last concerts in person.  Cobain’s suicide hit me hard, when the news broke I remember sitting in my room with the door closed listening to Kurt’s music for hours.

    Life as a teenager is extremely difficult because you are trying to figure out who you are.  Young people could relate to Kurt’s music because there was something genuine about his pain and feelings of isolation.  All young people experience these feelings, not just victims of divorce and abuse.  Most of the kids in my Confirmation class probably spent more time listening to Nirvana than going to church.

    A line from the Nirvana song “All Apologies” says it best: “I wish I was like you, easily amused.”  To be Christian means to be joyful.  Cobain did not have many people giving witness in his life.  Every life taken on its own is a tragedy and should be a wake-up call for all of us to reach out to those who are suffering.

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