Faith, hope and carnage: Nick Cave's most painful song. Critical comment by Nicola De Cilia

Reading Time: 9 minutes


Nick Cave in New York City, 2009, photo by David Shankbone for Wikimedia Commons


There's a line from a Nick Cave song, Cannibal's Hymn, which goes: “But if you're gonna die with them cannibals, / sooner or later, darling, you're gonna get eaten.” It means, more or less, that if you go to dinner with cannibals, sooner or later you will be eaten. Listening to it after some time (it is taken from the double Abattoir blues, from 2004) sounds (it must be said) like one of those self-fulfilling prophecies, as if we were from the Greek myth: starting from 2015, Nick Cave's life has been crossed by various tragedies, the most devastating, the death of his son Arthur, aged only fifteen, who fell from the cliffs of Brighton while under the influence of a dose of LSD. Added to this was the death of a second son, Jethro (who lived far away in Australia, unrelated to Cave's life, but his death was no less painful for this), of Anita Lane, a very dear friend (she had been also his girlfriend), his mother, and other friends (let's remember at least the musician Mark Lanegan).


Nick Cave (born in 1957 in Australia) has always had a certain familiarity with "cannibals": the lyrics of his songs and his books are inhabited by desperate people, murderers, possessed people, madmen: in short, an anthology of flowers of evil, a gothic repertoire worthy of Edgar Allan Poe's nightmares which rightfully placed him among the last heirs of the cursed poets (Reinhard Kleist's graphic novel, Nick Cave. Mercy on me, published by Bao in 2018, only confirms this image). Under these guises, his appearance in the film remains unforgettable The sky above Berlin by Wim Wenders from 1987: a damned angel who sings, suffers, shakes, writhes (under the gaze of another cursed angel, Blixa Bargeld) on the stage of a smoky Berlin post punk venue, performing a breathtaking interpretation of From her to eternity (any interpretation of From her to eternity it's breathtaking).

However, no matter how familiar he was with cannibals, he couldn't avoid ending up devoured too. What perhaps was not expected was that, after being devoured and chewed, it was also vomited out of their stomachs. We are still on the side of the myth, a bit like the whale that spits out Jonah, the reluctant prophet, and it is precisely faith (passed through the crucible of mourning) that performs an emetic function. 


As evidence of this new dimension, a long book-interview with the journalist Sean O'Hagan was released in September 2022, entitled Faith, hope and carnage, for the editions of the Ship of Theseus (414 pages, 21.00 euros): fifteen chapters resulting from a series of telephone conversations held during the lockdown of 2020, "an uncertain time", as O'Hagan defines it, which leads Nick Cave to address various topics from his experience in the world of music but also more intimate and burning themes such as mourning, religion, faith (and also addictions such as alcohol or drugs). A book that may appear disconcerting for those who have remained stuck in the image of the cursed Cave: but King Ink (his nickname as well as the title of a collection of poems from 1988) is a true artist, certainly one of the greatest and deserves the attention only of his musical fans but of a wider audience. And if Bob Dylan's Nobel Prize for Literature made sense (and it did, of course!), then it also makes sense to listen to Cave's songs and read Cave's books with the attention due to literature tout court.

Undoubtedly, biblical imagery and language have characterized Cave's texts since his beginnings, not only musical but also literary (his first novel is entitled And the donkey saw the angel, which is a quote from an episode from the Bible). But from rhetorical paraphernalia (in the technical sense) religion has also become substance and the conversation with O'Hagan suggests Cave's recognition of the presence of the divine in the world. All this made some of his fans turn up their noses: on the pages of his blog The Red Hand Files, he was accused of having become a "postcard hippie". Cave responded calmly, clarifying how things changed after his son's death. “I I'm changed. For better or worse, the anger you speak of has lost all appeal in my eyes and yes, perhaps I have become a picture-perfect hippie. Hate no longer seemed so interesting to me. I shed those old feelings like a layer of skin to shed. They were disgusting in their own way.” And if at the time there was nobility in being messed up, pissed off at the world, contemptuous of people and thinking that this attitude had some value, "in the end this behavior seemed, so to speak, stupid to me". The death of his son forced him to deal with grief authentic and “that attitude of contempt towards the world began to wobble and then collapse. I began to understand how precarious and vulnerable things in the world are and I began to care. I suddenly felt the urgency to at least lend a hand to this beautiful, terrible world, instead of simply denigrating it and taking pleasure in my own judgment."


Nick Cave photographed in Kemp Town, East Siussex, on 24 October 2012 by Bleddyn Butcher (Wikimedia Commons)

Each of the fifteen chapters into which the book is divided drags us into the feelings, affections, fears and new hopes of the Australian artist: “Although I tried to anchor each conversation to a single theme – writes O'Hagan – , often took on a dizzying momentum of their own, with some overlapping and intertwining topics: creativity, collaboration, values, beliefs, loss, mourning, reinvention, tradition, challenge, the persistence of hope and love in the face of death and of desperation." In the end, one has the sensation of being in front of Cave's heart laid bare: the sincerity, the honesty, the trust with which he entrusts the reflections to his interlocutor (and to the readers) to tell the traumas, the faith, the doubts, guide us along a groping journey into the unknown. In a book that "tells a dramatic creative and human metamorphosis in the face of an enormous personal catastrophe", crossed by a sense of the transience of life, Cave is careful, however, to offer easy solutions, which do not exist: the most fitting is that of a stumble forward. But this isn't accurate either, and it's Cave who corrects himself: “Perhaps what I mean is that although we feel like we're moving forward, in my opinion we always move in a circular way, with everything we love and remember in tow, and bringing with us us all our needs and desires and hurts, and all those who have poured into us and made us who we are, and all the ghosts we travel with. It is like running towards God, but that love of God is also the wind that pushes us, it is impetus and destination, and resides in those who are alive as well as those who are dead. We move around and around, encountering the same things, again and again, but within this movement events happen that change us, that annihilate us, that shift our relationship with the world. It is this mutual circular motion that becomes more and more essential, present and necessary with each turn."


Nick Cave and The Bad Sees, Live at Coliseu do Porto, 22 April 2008 (Wikimedia Commons)

What saved Cave from despair is the work ethic, an exquisitely Protestant theme, if you will. Behind the artistic creation lies an enormous commitment to which Cave has always entrusted himself and which has a thaumaturgical power. “I believe that art somehow manages to reconcile the artist with the world. […] Music can be an active form of redemption. It can be a way of restoring balance by giving the world something explicitly good, the best of us. And, of course, that requires participation in the world.” Participate in the world, says Cave: and anyone who has had the chance to attend one of his concerts knows how true this statement can be. On stage Cave finds “a sort of invincibility within an excruciating vulnerability”. One of his concerts is truly an alienating and heartbreaking experience, in which Cave plays the role of the shaman capable of dragging the audience into a Dionysian dimension: if Pier Paolo Pasolini were alive, he would not hesitate to recognize the presence of the sacred on Nick Cave's stage and his Bad Seeds. In a badly secularized era, it is increasingly rare to be able to have an experience that puts us in contact with a sort of transcendence. The decline of historical religions as a horizon of meaning for Western societies has not produced a human religion, as was desirable for an authentically secular conscience, but on the contrary, a new form of superstition, a new idolatry, all linked to consumption. The philosopher Nicola Chiaromonte wrote: “The religion of the this side of things – of the passing moment – of self-oblivion in the continuous distraction from the existence of a world – from the fact of mortality – and even from profound joy – because joy asks for 'more' – it refers to a shining and hidden meaning. In short, I would not be far from stating that the current condition of civilized man is the worst imaginable." 

The sense of the sacred, then, is nothing other than the sense of limit, the feeling (and clear awareness) of being part of a whole that is unknown. “God is trauma itself,” says Cave, commenting on one of his most intense records, Ghosteen (2019), written after the death of her son Arthur: "mourning can be seen as a sort of state of sublimation where the one who suffers is as close as ever to the fundamental essence of things". In mourning, essentially, one becomes aware of the idea of mortality. “You end up in a very dark place and experience the limits of your pain. […] We are profoundly altered or reshaped by it. Now, this process is terrible, but over time we return to this world bringing with us a form of knowledge that has to do with our being vulnerable to participate in this human drama. Everything seems extremely fragile and precious and of greater value, and the world and those who inhabit it seem so helpless in the face of danger, yet wonderful. […] It really is as if grief and God are somehow intertwined.”

Nick Cave, Live in Croydon, 4 September 2021 (Wikimedia Commons)

Ultimately, Cave proposes, under a new painful guise, a formula dear to Arthur Rimbaud: the poet - and Cave is a poet - must become a seer and he becomes a seer "through a long, immense and reasoned disregulation of all the senses. All forms of love, of suffering, of madness; he searches for himself, he exhausts all the poisons within himself, so as to retain only their quintessence. Ineffable torture in which he needs all his faith, all his superhuman strength, in which he becomes of all people the great sick man, the great criminal, the great cursed one - and the supreme Wise One! – Because it reaches the unknown! Having cultivated his soul, already rich, more than anyone else! He reaches the unknown, and even if, shocked, he ends up losing the intelligence of his visions, he will still have seen them!

Yes, even we lay people, intolerant of red or black clerics, of religions and fundamentalisms of every type and manner, of eschatological or salvific perspectives, must be grateful to the Ink King because he lashes us, provokes us, stimulates us to react and confront ourselves with pain, with mourning, with evil, with good, with God and nothingness. 




Cover image
Nick Cave, Live in Coachella (California), April 14, 2013. Photo by Ian T. McFarland for Wikimedia Commons


Nicholas DeCilia was born in Treviso in 1963. Collaborator of «Lo Straniero» and «Gli asini», magazines both directed by Goffredo Fofi, he is the author of an investigation on education and rugby, Pedagogy of the oval ball (edizioni dell'asino, 2015) and of the novel A white scandal (Rubbettino, 2016). He edited an anthology dedicated to Giovanni Comisso, Travels in lost Italy (edizioni dell'asino, 2017), and two books by Nico Naldini, Friends alphabet (the anchor of the Mediterranean, 2004) e How can we not defend ourselves from memories (Cargo, 2005). In 2018, he published with Ronzani Editore, edited by Maria Gregorio, Saturnini, melancholy, a little delirious. Meetings in Veneto. In 2019, again for Ronzani, was released Geographies of Comisso. Chronicle of a literary journey, edited by Maria Gregorio. In 2021 he published for Digressions Giovanni Comisso, an invitation to read.


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