Sunday, October 5, 2008

The Devil, The Author, and The Red Right Hand


I had the chance to see Nick Cave last night, along with several Bad Seeds. It was by turns aggressive, cathartic, confessional, incantatory. An invigorating performer and consummate showman ("What? No, we can't play that song. Too gloomy. So this next one is about a guy going to the electric chair..")

Cave has an exceptional understanding of all the different points that intersect in being a rock singer - how you're a priest, a magician, a lover, a storyteller, a healer, a vampire, a demon, all at the same time. This kind of shapeshifting energy is the subject of one of his most well-known songs, "Red Right Hand," which warns of a diabolical shadowy figure who operates traceless and sinister, and who's kind of a substitute Satan without being named as such. 

It's a character not unlike the one at the center of Stephen King's Needful Things, who opens up a store in a small town for the sake of carrying out all manner of Faustian bargains with the townspeople - he's got IT, that thing you need the most, for a price, etc. 

Now it should be asked, what is the artistic obsession with the devil, with devil-like or diabolical characters? Because, to put it simply, every artist is the devil. Artistic creation is always creatio ex nihilo, and every creative act challenges God's monopoly on creating. 

Furthermore, what binds the artist and the devil together is that the artistic act, like any act of Lucifer, the fallen angel, is ultimately born of a power inferior to God's. The artist loves the devil because it's both their job not to replace the world of God, but to screw it up, to make trouble, to negate, to intervene. 

There is a hole in the world, the world that God made, because there is a hole in God. This is the Gnostic interpretation, the kind that the institutions of Judeo-Christianity had to fight to contain throughout history. The artist goes to this hole and he picks at it like an eternal wound, and from there he makes new things for the world, out of this hole. Where else do you imagine new things come from? 

Finally, when art dreams of demons, this is because it is thinking about its own origins, because it is reflecting on how it is born of what psychoanalysis calls the drive, the compulsion to repeat, the de-stablizing, addictive urge, of great power that consumes the one who undergoes it, who draws the artist in beyond his self-control.

The red right hand that Nick Cave sings about, that is the hand that holds the pen, that is the hand that is splattered with paint, it is the artist's own hand.

Another song that Nick sang last night was called "We Call Upon the Author to Explain," and its lyrics are a list of unjust suffering, contingent abuses, unexplainable sorrow, and the author is of course in this context God, whom you can call upon all you like but will not answer you. If God wanted to ever answer you, there would be no need for Nick to have a song about it. 

I could not help but think as well of David Foster Wallace, the brilliant, exceptionally-talented novelist, one of the best of his generation, who recently took his own life - one whose writings so often faced hopelessness and despair with rare courage, I could not help but want to call upon him as well to explain, to explain why after all this it seemed that his own words had failed him. What use, I wanted to know, was writing after all, if it could not keep you alive?

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