“Whatever inspiration is,” the Polish poet Wisława Szymborska observed in her superb Nobel Prize acceptance speech, “it’s born from a continuous ‘I don’t know.’” And yet, with our reflex for teleological thinking — that childish grab at “I know!” — we habitually cut ourselves off from the mystery that houses the most creative, and therefore the most vulnerable and alive, part of our own souls, forgetting what Carl Sagan’s ghost so poetically reminds us: that “the universe will always be much richer than our ability to understand it.”
Nothing restores our porousness and receptivity to that richness more readily than music — the backdoor of consciousness, through which something transcendent slips past all of our reasoned reservations, all of our guardedness and confusion, at once releasing us from the solitary confinement of the self and restoring us to ourselves, reminding us that we are always half-opaque to ourselves and this opacity shimmers with possibility.
These questions — the power of music, the power of porousness — animate Nick Cave, whom I see as a kind of sculptor of the spirit, turning the raw materials of life — a life that has not been easy — into something of transcendent beauty.
In Faith, Hope and Carnage (public library) — his long and luscious conversation with Seán O’Hagan — he considers how music parts the veil between the known world and the mystery of being:
I think music, out of all that we can do, at least artistically, is the great indicator that something else is going on, something unexplained, because it allows us to experience genuine moments of transcendence.
I think there is more going on than we can see or understand, and we need to find a way to lean into the mystery of things — the impossibility of things — and recognise the evident value in doing that, and summon the courage it requires to not always shrink back into the known mind.
In a passage evocative of Nathaniel Hawthorne’s contour of the edges of consciousness, he considers that “impossible” place where transcendence lives — “a semi-conscious place, a twilight place, a distracted place, a place of surrender” — the place where his dead son also lives, and the life-deep sorrow of the loss, and the portal to beauty the loss unlatched in his creative spirit:
There is another place that can be summoned through practice that is not the imagination, but more a secondary positioning of your mind with regard to spiritual matters… It is a kind of liminal state of awareness, before dreaming, before imagining, that is connected to the spirit itself. It is an “impossible realm” where glimpses of the preternatural essence of things find their voice. Arthur lives there. Inside that space, it feels a relief to trust in certain glimpses of something else, something other, something beyond.
That otherness, that beyondness, is what we commonly call mystery — the realm of experience inaccessible to our analytical minds, unaccountable by reason, and yet a stratum of reality we touch beyond doubt in those rare transcendent moments, as palpable as a lover’s hand, as alive as prayer.
Nick reflects on the supreme portal our species has devised for accessing that realm:
Of all things, music can lift us closer to the sacred.
[Music] has the ability to lead us, if only temporarily, into a sacred realm. Music plays into the yearning many of us instinctively have — you know, the God-shaped hole. It is the art form that can most effectively fill that hole, because it makes us feel less alone, existentially. It makes us feel spiritually connected. Some music can even lead us to a place where a fundamental spiritual shift of consciousness can happen. At best, it can conjure a sacred space.
In that sacred space, we get to see the world more whole — not artificially, not as a pretty delusion, but with greater fidelity to the deeper reality. He weighs the robust salvation to be found in that space:
The luminous and shocking beauty of the everyday is something I try to remain alert to, if only as an antidote to the chronic cynicism and disenchantment that seems to surround everything, these days. It tells me that, despite how debased or corrupt we are told humanity is and how degraded the world has become, it just keeps on being beautiful.
But because there are no absolutes in beauty, everything we experience as beautiful is a projection of something we long for — a fragmentary fulfillment of our existential longing, or what C.S. Lewis called “the thing itself.” Every artist makes what they make out of the raw material of longing, conscious of it in varying degrees, codified in various forms. Nick considers his:
All my songs are written from a place of spiritual yearning, because that is the place that I permanently inhabit. To me, personally, this place feels charged, creative and full of potential.
Songs have the capacity to be revealing, acutely so. There is much they can teach us about ourselves. They are little dangerous bombs of truth.
Self-revelation is the most vulnerable-making thing of which human beings are capable, and yet in that vulnerability we find our deepest freedom. Echoing Bob Dylan’s insistence that “you must be vulnerable to be sensitive to reality,” he adds:
My experience of creating music and writing songs is finding enormous strength through vulnerability. You’re being open to whatever happens, including failure and shame. There’s certainly a vulnerability to that, and an incredible freedom… To be truly vulnerable is to exist adjacent to collapse or obliteration. In that place we can feel extraordinarily alive and receptive to all sorts of things, creatively and spiritually… It is a nuanced place that feels both dangerous and teeming with potential. It is the place where the big shifts can happen. The more time you spend there, the less worried you become of how you will be perceived or judged, and that is ultimately where the freedom is.
Faith, Hope and Carnage is a joy in its wide-roaming entirety. Complement these fragments with the poetic physicist and pianist Alan Lightman on music as a language for the exhilaration of being alive and other superb writers, from Whitman and Woolf to Kurt Vonnegut and Oliver Sacks, on the singular power of music, then revisit Nick Cave on songwriting, the remedy for despair, and art as an instrument of self-forgiveness.