Tuesday, 7 October 2008

On Kurt Cobain and Karl Barth: the possible impossibility of theology

I’ve always been intrigued by artistic forms in which the very possibility of art becomes an open question. The most striking example is the work of Samuel Beckett: his plays posit the absolute impossibility of drama; his work is hugely preoccupied with the urge to tell the truth, yet all his writing foregrounds the impossibility of truthful speech. In his late plays and fiction, Beckett stages and enacts the end of literature – its paralysing “endgame” – and yet in precisely this way, Beckett breaks open the possibilities of literary aesthetics, generating new forms of speech and writing.

Or, for a more recent example, take the music of Nirvana, the great “grunge” band of the 1990s. The band’s music emerged as a violent protest against the possibility of music itself. Just think of Kurt Cobain’s trademark harrowing shriek; the way his lyrics suddenly implode into tortured incoherence; the way the songs tend to collapse spontaneously under the weight of their own impossible demands. Witness the exhausted aggression of the band’s stage performances – performances that routinely culminated in the destruction of stage, amps and instruments. Nirvana didn’t merely represent another drug-induced cry for social disengagement (although obviously that’s one side of the story) – above all, the band was raging against music itself. On stage they were enacting the end of music: the final shriek of the wrecked and wasted human voice, the metallic howl of dismembered guitars, the dying moan and hiss of gutted audio speakers.

Nirvana’s protest against the possibility of music became even more pronounced after the massive commercial success of their 1991 album, Nevermind. With this album, the band had achieved international fame as the centre of the new Seattle “grunge scene” – and so the band turned all its fury on grunge music itself, and on the fans who had become consumers of this new sound. As one of their early songs, “Aero Zeppelin”, rather brutally put it: “You could shit upon the stage, they’ll be fans…”

And so Nirvana’s next (and final) studio album, In Utero (1993), represented an astonishingly aggressive attempt to alienate the band’s own devoted fans. (The gesture of this album was rather like the celebrated incident in Bob Dylan’s 1966 electric concert at the Manchester Free Trade Hall in England. In response to the angry cries of his erstwhile folk fans, Dylan turned to his band and growled – surely the greatest single moment in the history of rock – “Play fucking loud,” before launching into a devastatingly vehement electric performance of “Like a Rolling Stone.”) Nirvana’s In Utero opens with its most difficult and most confronting songs. The chorus of “Scentless Apprentice”, for instance, consists of nothing but the repeated scream, “Go away, get away,” before the song dissolves finally into the heavy hiss and oblivion of electric distortion.

Like Beckett’s great play Endgame, Nirvana here enacts the impossibility of its own artistic form – In Utero is not only the greatest album of its decade; it is the end of music itself, the collapse of any possible harmony into the undifferentiated violence and anarchy of mere noise. As Kurt Cobain had put it in the 1991 song, “On a Plain”: “It is now time to make it unclear…”

Okay, it’s a bit of a stretch – but I wonder whether this can provide some help in understanding that most difficult and most confronting work of modern theology, Karl Barth’s commentary on Romans (1922). This was a sustained piece of theological writing which announced the impossibility of theology. Indeed, Barth’s prose was itself an enactment of God’s shattering apocalyptic judgment on all theological speech. If the miracle of modern literature is that writing still proved to be possible after Beckett, and if the miracle of contemporary music is that music did not cease entirely with In Utero, then the miracle of modern theology is simply that Barth’s commentary on Romans was not the last work of theology ever written.

In Barth’s commentary, theology uttered it final dying word – and yet against all odds, this proved also to be a word of resurrection, a word that both shattered and reinvigorated the possibilities of speech about God. Reading Barth’s commentary is, perhaps, rather like attending a Nirvana concert: the spectacle of sheer destruction, the violent conflagration of an entire tradition – and yet, amidst the ashes, a sudden surprising glimpse of something new.


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