I stumbled upon Faith, Hope and Carnage via an interview Nick Cave did with Richard Fidler. There was a part of me that thought I knew Nick Cave. Maybe this was from following his blog, The Red Hand Files, or just the nature of him as an artist. However, there was something about the conversation with Fidler that really caught me. That lead to reading the book.
Faith, Hope and Carnage is a meandering on and off conversation between Nick Cave and journalist, Seán O’Hagan, captured on the page through fourteen chapters. Beginning at the start of the 2020 and carrying on through to the end of 2021, Cave walks through the process of creativity as it happens, as well as reflecting upon the death of his son, grieving, life and music. It is very much a pandemic project brought about by the strange times.
It really did feel like the end times had arrived, and the world had been caught sleeping. It felt as though, whatever we assumed was the story of our lives, this invisible hand had reached down and torn a great big hole in it.
Cave goes into how he wrote Ghosteen, the writing of Carnage, the creation of his ceramic figures and The Red Hand Files. He reflects upon the change to a more disruptive narrative after his son died, “narratives pushed through the meat grinder.” Cave also talks about the various inspirations, such as Stevie Smith, Elvis, Flannery O’Connor, and Rodin.
Built around conversation, the book seemingly goes where it goes. I imagine in another world, it might have been scrubbed of its contradictions, repetition and edges, but I feel that it is this disjointed nature is what makes it special. It provides an extension to Nick Cave the musician, extending the usual approach to his music to the actual text. Just as he explains that the wider “creative process is life and all it brings”, in some ways this all or nothing approach applies to the act of creativity.
Strangely, Faith, Hope and Carnage is a book that would not have worked any other way. The conversational nature allows the book to go to places and explore topics that might have otherwise be cut by the editor. It really feels like sitting in on a personal conversation. I think this is epitomised by the conversations about his mother or Anita Lane who both died midway through the project.
O’Hagan tries to structure the conversation. For example, there are times when he brings up old quotes which demonstrate this. However, as each chapter unfurls the topics stretch beyond any sense of expectation. Capturing this generosity, Richard Fidler describes the book as an ‘act of kindness’ for the reader.
Throughout, there are many themes explored:
Although grief involves ‘some kind of devastation’, Cave explains that grief often defines who we are and how we see the world. Working through this is usually about getting on top of the small things. On the flipside, grief provides a gift and opportunities, a ‘reckless’ and ‘mutinous’ energy, a sense of ‘acute vulnerability’, defined by the fact that the worst has already happened. In the end, we may not have a choice over life’s circumstances, however we do have a choice as to how we grieve.
A choice, a kind of earned and considered arrangement with the world, to be happy. No one has control over the things that happen to them, but we do have a choice as to how we respond. Page 103
Like the gift of grief, for Cave, ageing is about growing into the ‘fullness of your humanity’, continuing to be engaged and respecting the ‘vast repositories of experience’. One experience that leaves its mark on us are those who die, leaving us like ‘haunted houses’.
I think these absences do something to those of us who remain behind. We are like haunted houses, in a way, and our absences can even transform us so that we feel a quiet but urgent love for those who remain, a tenderness to all of humanity, as well as an earned understanding that our time is finite. Page 148
Alongside the respect for experience, Cave suggests we need to celebrate regret as a sign of self-awareness or embracing uncertainty and the world of possibilities. We also need to be able to make mistakes and with that forgive.
We need to be able to exist beyond disagreement. Friendships have to exist beyond that. We need to be able to talk, to make mistakes, to forgive and be forgiven. As far as I can see, forgiveness is an essential component of any good, vibrant friendship – that we extend to each other the great privilege of being allowed to be wrong. One of the clear benefits of conversation is that your position on things can become more nimble and pliant. For me, conversation is also an antidote to dualistic thinking, simply because we are knocking up against another person’s points of view. Something more essential happens between people when they converse. Ultimately, we discover that disagreements frequently aren’t life- threatening, they are just differing perspectives, or, more often than that, colliding virtues. Page 246
However, the greatest challenge is to keep turning up again and again.
if I look back at my past work from the certainty and conviction of the present, it appears as if it was a series of collapsing ideas that brought me to my current position. And what’s more, the actual point I’m looking back from is no more stable than any of the previous ones – in fact, it’s being shed even as we speak. There’s a slightly sickening, vertiginous feeling in all of this. The sense that the ground is constantly moving beneath your feet? Yes, exactly. So how do you deal with that? Well, I have learned over time that the creation itself, the thing, the what, is not the essential component, really, for the artist. The what almost always seems on some level insufficient. When I look back at the work itself it mostly feels wanting, you know; it could have been better. This is not false humility but fact, and common to most artists, I suspect. Indeed, it is probably how it should be. What matters most is not so much the ‘what’ as the ‘how’ of it all, and I am heartened by the knowledge that, at the very least, I turned up for the job, no matter what was going on at the time. Even if I didn’t really understand what the job was. Page 247
This reminds me of Austin Kleon’s book Keep Going.
For Cave, religion is ‘spirituality with rigour’. With this, faith and God are the search itself, where God is both the ‘impetus and the destination’, and the question is itself the answer. He suggests that religion often serves a utility beyond sense.
Why would I deny myself something that is clearly beneficial because it doesn’t make sense? That in itself would be illogical. Page 78
For example, It provides a language of forgiveness often missing in secularism.
Challenged on his belief, Cave argues that scepticism and doubt are actually a means of strengthening belief. Interestingly, Cave talks about prayer as a form of listening.
Prayer is not so much talking to God, but rather listening for the whispers of His presence – not from outside ourselves, but within. It’s kind of the same with the questions that come in to The Red Hand Files. I think they are singularly and collectively trying to tell me something, which may just be ‘I am here’. I think they reflect my own needs. There is an exchange of a sort of essentialness, wherein we attend to each other through a sharing of our collective need to be listened to. Page 190
For Cave, music is about transcendence, spiritual yearning and the sacred essence. It fills our ‘God-shaped hole’, our desire to ‘feel awed by something.’ It has the ability to ‘improve the condition of the listener’ by uniting people and ‘putting some beauty back into the work.’
Music is one of the last great spiritual gifts we have that can bring solace to the world.Page 204
Reflecting upon his current process of writing music, Cave discusses the way in which he makes music from the disparate parts found through improvising.
The nature of improvisation is the coming together of two people, with love – and a certain dissonance. Page 57
Associated with this, Cave talks about the ‘ruthless relationship’ he has with his initial ideas and his willingness to discard words.
the lyrics lose their concrete value and become things to play with, dismember and reorganise. I’m actually very happy to have arrived at a place where I now have an utterly ruthless relationship to my words. Page 15
He actually suggests that he has a physical relationship with his words and knowing what is right. This all reminds me Jon Hopkins’ process of building something to destroy it.
Surprisingly, writing music for Cave is not continual, but a deliberate time-based process. Something that reminds me of Mark Ronson who I vaguely remember suggesting that it was time to write a new album regarding Uptown Special. With this, the challenge with a new project is getting beyond the easy residual ‘deceiving ideas’, to “write away from the known and familiar”.
I tend to find that when I first sit down to write new songs there is a kind of initial flurry of words that appears quite effortlessly. They seem to be right there, at hand, so there is a cosiness about them, a comfortableness. And because they aren’t too bad, really, you immediately start thinking, this is all going to be easy. But these are the deceiving ideas, the residual ideas, the unused remnants of the last record that are still lurking about. They’re like the muck in the pipes, and they have to be flushed out to make room for the new idea, the astonishing idea. I think a lot of musicians deal in residual ideas, because they’re seduced by the comfortable and the familiar. For me, that’s a big mistake, although I can understand the temptation to create something reassuringly familiar. And, in a way, the whole industry is set up to cater to that – to the well-known or second-hand idea. Page 144
All in all though, Cave explains that songs change when played live, it is when the fullness presents itself. A record is only ever one part of that journey.
My best ideas are accidents within a controlled context. You could call them informed accidents. Page 23
He explains that it is important to have an element of risk, such as taking on new and challenging projects or just being naïve, to produce creative terror that helps drive things forward.
I think to be truly vulnerable is to exist adjacent to collapse or obliteration. Page 45
The problem is that ideas often slowly rise and hold hands, with the gap between boredom and epiphany being very close. Astonishing ideas usually require faith and and patience. Sometimes ideas just need air in order to prove their validity. This is why conversation is so important. In the end though, although writing music may start with a ‘date in the diary’, Cave explains that the wider creative process is life and all it brings.
I really don’t think we can not talk about it if we are talking about the creative process. It’s simply part of the whole thing. The creative process is not a part of one’s life but life itself and all that it throws at you. For me, it was like the creative process, if we want to call it that, found its real purpose. Page 104
This reminded me of Damon Albarn’s description of ‘creativity as a condition.’
What I liked about the book is that in itself it felt like a form of conversation with the reader. With Cave seemingly changing stride mid-sentance, the reader is invited in almost as an equal. This had me thinking myself about grief and the importance of being vulnerable.
Additionally, I appreciated seeing a different side to Cave, not a real side, but a different presentation of ideas and thought. I think that this is also captured by the Cave and O’Hagan in the epilogue:
O’Hagan: I thought I kne you
Cave: I didn’t know that either until I opened my mouth.
Written during lockdown, it also provides a reflection on life lockdown during lockdown as it happened, not as some retrospective. The initial positive potential to be able to do nothing, to put aside our issues, but then the growing frustration of such strange times.
We blew it. We squandered it. Early on, many of us felt that a chance was presented to us, as a civilisation, to put aside our vanities, grievances and divisions, our hubris, our callous disregard for each other, and come together around a common enemy. Our shared predicament was a gift that could potentially have transformed the world into something extraordinary. To our shame this didn’t happen. The Right got scarier, the Left got crazier, and our already fractured civilisation atomised into something that resembled a collective lunacy. For many, this has been followed by a weariness, an ebbing away of our strength and resolve and a dwindling belief in the common good. Many people’s mental health has suffered as a consequence. Page 154
I cannot remember the last time I read a book where I wanted to begin again as soon as I had finished it. I wonder if this says as much about me as it does about the book and Nick Cave.
If you enjoy what you read here, feel free to sign up for my monthly newsletter to catch up on all things learning, edtech and storytelling.