Defending My Joy (Against Kurt Cobain)

This post originally appeared at CatholicVote.org.

The writer Santiago Ramos is a great Catholic voice who is attentive to, and respectful of, the prevailing culture — which, like it or not, is our culture, too; the culture we are Catholics in. That solidarity is what I liked about the article Ramos wrote in the Catholic Key, “In Defense of Kurt Cobain’s Sadness.”

The article — and his follow-up on the CatholicVote.com blog — make an important case: Artists are necessary champions of a kind of truth that would be lost without them, namely the truth that the human person is a mystery.

The Church and the artist have the same job: To preserve the human person in all his depth and significance, without letting the ideologues sell him short. Freudianism,  consumerism, utilitarianism … all of them try to tell man that he is just a piece of himself. He is his sexuality, his money, his job. Faith and art say No: man is something great. As the Second Vatican Council put it: Man “plunges into the depths of reality whenever he enters into his own heart.” Or, as Gerard Manley Hopkins put it:

“O the mind, mind has mountains; cliffs of fall / Frightful, sheer, no-man-fathomed. Hold them cheap / May who ne’er hung there.”

Too often, we religious people make the Church look like just another ideology, reducing the faith to moralism. We want to break the rock of the truth into a size we can hurl at someone, or show off in our display case, or bury in our yard. But in our hurry to man-handle the truth we forget that it is the foundation we stand on.

That’s why Ramos is anxious to defend Cobain: He doesn’t want to see an ideologue diminish the achievement of his art.

And I agree with Ramos — to a point. He explains:

Cobain “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.”

I like that point. In fact, my piece named those things that we have in common: the “culture of divorce and disbelief.” (We all live — and suffer — in the same culture, churchgoing or not, children of divorce or not.)

Where Ramos overstates his case, I think, is where he seems to make any attempt to understand an artist’s grief off limits. He puts it this way:

“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.”

But it seems to me that the only noise we can bear — certainly the only noise we can enjoy — is the noise of sicknesses for which we already have the cure.

Consider the noises of incurable sicknesses:

The wailing of the damned
The shriek of a colicky infant
The sound your killer makes as he tightens his hands around your neck

If you can bear these noises, you have been desensitized to them in some way. If you enjoy them, there is something wrong with you.

The thing about Nirvana for Ramos is that he enjoys it. Why does he enjoy listening to Kurt Cobain’s pain?

Because, to him, Kurt Cobain is like Hopkins wrestling with God, or the Psalmist weeping by the rivers of Babylon, or like Leon Bloy asking, “How could we know what God wants to do with us when we cannot even know what we are nor who we are?”

The reason these harsh sounds are at all pleasing is that they respect man enough to see his depths, and respect being enough to know that his mystery exists in order, not chaos.

If Christ did not rise from the dead, “Eli, Eli, lema sabachthani?” would be unbearable mockery — and Kurt Cobain would be raising intolerable questions. But Christ did rise from the dead, God did create our world, we do have a reason for our hope.

Ramos doesn’t want to see his Kurt Cobain dismissed by a moralist with a platitude. He says, “Do not understand him too quickly.” I agree but answer back, “If we can’t even fathom Kurt Cobain’s sadness, then what in Heaven’s name can we Christians offer the world?”

Says the Council: “To every thoughtful man a solidly established faith provides the answer to his anxiety about what the future holds for him.” It is a disservice to be smug and glib about that. But it is just as wrong to be unnecessarily tongue-tied about it.

Why should Kurt Cobain’s sadness quiet my faith? Like the prophet said last Sunday: “I say to myself, I will not mention him, I will speak in his name no more. But then it becomes like fire burning in my heart, imprisoned in my bones; I grow weary holding it in, I cannot endure it.”

I give him his dignity. I give him his mystery. I give him his art. But I refuse to kill my joy to protect Kurt Cobain’s sadness.

Tom Hoopes, former editor of the National Catholic Register, is writer in residence at Benedictine College in Atchison, Kan., where he teaches in the Journalism and Mass Communications department and edits the college’s Catholic identity speech digest, The Gregorian.

Tom Hoopes

Tom Hoopes

Tom Hoopes, author of The Rosary of Saint John Paul II and The Fatima Family Handbook, is writer in residence at Benedictine College in Kansas and hosts The Extraordinary Story podcast about the life of Christ. A former reporter in the Washington, D.C., area, he served as press secretary of the U.S. House Ways & Means Committee Chairman and spent 10 years as executive editor of the National Catholic Register newspaper and Faith & Family magazine. His work frequently appears in Catholic publications such as Aleteia.org and the Register. He and his wife, April, have nine children and live in Atchison, Kansas.