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. Rebecca says:

    Quoted from this article: (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.)

    You’re wrong here. This peace can be had in this life. The saints tell us this and there are many souls who understand, and live with this reality today. It is the result of putting God first, before everything, including family. Our human minds have great difficulty with this, but it is possible; God would not have told us to do so otherwise. Once this is done, everything else falls into place.

    I’m not a fan of this artist, but I grew up in the 70′s and can relate. There are a lot of us who have been greatly effected by the sex, drugs, and rock-n-roll mentality. It’s a form of escapism that does us no real good. I’ve stopped listening to most rock in recent years, yet there are some ‘select’ songs that are truly beautiful, even when the lyrics are not, and I pray for these bands and the fans who listen to their music…..God meets us where we are, if we let Him.

    What we have to do is search for understanding of how we are to fill that ‘God shaped hole’ in our hearts, and not stop until we find the Truth. The journey is different for each of us…..and Jesus never said it would be easy.

    1. Tara S says:

      “This peace can be had in this life.” I would have to say that you are both wrong and right here. You are right in that learning to put God first and walking the hard and narrow path of the saints will bring a kind of peace that is totally inaccessible otherwise….and yet… In opening ourselves up to that trust and peace, we also stop relying on our old methods of protection and deflection from the pain that life affords. “We preach Christ crucified” and “take up your cross and follow me.” There’s intense pain to be had, even within the peace of Christ. The difference is that it’s pain with a purpose, which we understand and accept, and through which understanding and acceptance the terrible naked pain becomes a great deal more bearable than the pain we try to hide from. Even Christ, God Himself, suffered an agony in the garden, because no matter how close we are to God, earth is *not* Heaven, and there are still sad burdens to carry that cause us terrible grief!

  2. Scott W. says:

    Most of us have pop-culture ephemera that we indulge in and derive pleasure from and even occasionally carve out some life-lesson from. Nothing wrong with that in itself, however I would be inclined to put it in the same category as picking food out of your teeth: something so enjoyable it ought to be done in private and to no one else’s knowledge.

  3. Joe M says:

    Thank you Mr. Ramos. What if the loyalty Kurt Cobain had was the result of a negative seduction? Beauty is quite often portrayed as dangerous in the bible.

  4. Marianne Gervais says:

    My youngest son, an avid, and eclectic music afficionado, has talked with me many times regarding Kurt Cobain, and a band I could not stand to listen too has become one of several I have grown to like…or at least appreciate. In reading his personal journal, Kurt was a lonely soul and nothing he did seemed to fill his need for love or understanding. He obviously loved his daughter and his wife, Courtney Love, but he seemed to have nothing solid to hang on to. The life of a pop star is filled with false adulation, friends who are not friends, drugs, alcohol, fame, everyone wants a piece of you, or they make money off of you. Even the most faith-filled, well-adjusted person would have difficulty in the life of a rock star. It is so sad that Kurt felt such pain and hopelessness in his life. He was an admired musician, a talented song writer, and a sad little boy looking for ???? Another life cut short. But to look at someone like Kurt Cobain and even compare him to Joe Anybody with less than complex explanation, is to belittle all the demons he battled. All we can do is pray that his soul finds the rest it so greatly searched.

  5. Alicia Therese says:

    Wow. This is one of the most lucid, real commentaries to Nirvana I have ever seen from a Christian source. Thank you for not writing Nirvana off as either “devil music” (yes, I have heard this) or just a “God-shaped hole” in Kurt’s life. Too many times Christians choose to only listen to what is “positive and uplifting” at the expense of what is real. Sometimes real isn’t pretty, and it doesn’t feel good, but it does let us feel, if that makes any sense.

    I liked your thought “Everyone shares with him the same desert heat on their back and brow.” Nirvana has been and continues to be powerful, expressive music for me. I have even had a lyric tattooed. Sometimes it’s harsh and doesn’t make sense, but isn’t that life?

  6. patrice says:

    Bravo Santiago. This is the first article that I have read on this site that demonstrates an understanding and compassion for HUMANS. Thank you for writing such an eloquent, rational, and faithful article.

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