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.

32 Comments:

the don said...

i don't know if i'd call that a stretch, but it is definitely, most definitely, creative and enticing. keep up the good work bro!

Earl Barnett said...

Great post.

Just glad Karl Barth didn't have to deal with Courtney Love.

Andrew Tatum said...

I read other peoples' blog posts to my wife all the time and this is the first one she's actually enjoyed!! And she's not even a Nirvana fan (although she's read a hell of a lot more Barth than I have). I'll go with the don and say that this is definitely not a stretch! I'm sharing this in my google reader for all my friends! I am glad that you, sir, exist in the blogosphere!

Peace,
A.T.

roger flyer said...

I'd call it a m a j o r stretch.

As a boomer who taught a hundred guitar wannabe Nirvanians how to play 'smells like teen spirit'
(Nooooooooooooo...Arrgghhh...)

It offends my 'adult' sensibility to equate Barth and Cobain. Just as one of my earlier rants can't understand why some are celebrating the carnie
Tom Wait's 'theology'.

But ultimately, I confess I don't understand Barth or Cobain.

Anonymous said...

why is music impossible

TheoPoet said...

Interesting post---I wouldn't have thought of connecting the two. Haha.

Joshua said...

exactly what a blog post should be...interesting, creative, thought provoking, and untenable.

i'm not sure, beyond your rhetoric, why either music or theology are impossible before/after cobain or barth. is it because "history" has run its course? or that music and theology are always and everywhere impossible? if the former, i'd beg to disagree (unless your speaking of a particular brand of theological history). if the later, what makes cobain and barth pertinent? because they name this reality well?

Ben Myers said...

Joshua: yeah, I agree — I'm pretty sure this whole post is completely untenable... But I still thoroughly enjoyed writing it (with the tortured cries of In Utero pounding in my ears).

Andrew: I'm flattered that your wife liked the post! My own spouse likes Nirvana even less than she likes Barth, so I'm not sure I'll try it out on her...

Roger — you're right, Nirvana was a terrible influence on a whole generation of wannabe guitarists. I reckon Kurt Cobain himself only knew about three chords — but oh my God, the things he could do with those three chords!

dan said...

It's a good effort, but I think it gives Nirvana more credit than they deserve. Still fun to read. I would suggest that Yo La Tengo actually did (to music) more of what Ben is talking about in this post.

kim fabricius said...

My 30-year-old son Karl (named after you-know-whom) was home for my birthday last night, and around midnight we moseyed on over to F&T. He was very impressed, not only with the content but also with Ben's style. He has a first-class degree in English and an MA in Cultural Studies; he has also played drums in bands with such names as Piss Up a Rope and Black-Eyed Riot, so he knows both his Beckett and his Nirvana; alas, he does not know the theology of his namesake (bad parenting, I know). Anyway, Karl also thinks the thesis is a stretch; or rather he thinks that there would be better - and earlier - bands to make the point. All I'd add is that tenability is over-rated.

Btw, I showed him a few "Propositions". He liked the pictures.

Terry said...

Scentless Apprentice is one of the best songs ever written, in my opinion. Thanks the post, Ben; I enjoyed it. And it's spurred me into thinking more about writing on the male expression of anger using Kurt (and Anakin Skywalker) as examples!

Daniel Hames said...

Hey chaps,

Theology got a resurrection: music is still suffering. Possibly the most overrated band in the world!

But a very enjoyable post nonethless. Thanks.

Anonymous said...

This would be a good post if:

1 - it said anything.

2 - it wasn't based on Romans Commentary - Barth thought it so last year.

dguretzki said...

Sure it's a stretch, but it doesn't matter whether Cobain or Barth intended their work at the time to represent the dying throes of music or theology respectively. Your comparison is evocative, playful, and insightful.

I taught and read through Barth's Romans commentary to a senior undergraduate seminar a few years ago and on the last day, the class sat in uninvited silence for the last minutes of class until someone broke the silence and said, with obvious exasperation, "Now what!!??" This illustrates something of what Ben is saying. Barth's Romans invites a kind of theological resurrection.

Ben Myers said...

"Now what?" Thanks Dguretzki, that's a brilliant anecdote!

Kim, glad your son approved. Anyone with a name like Karl and a band-name like Piss Up a Rope is alright in my book!

bomarkus said...

Ben,

Great post. There is a word I grew to expect as I read: "deconstruction." This, it seems to me, is the "breaking open" process you name here? I think Derrida would easily be an apt addition to this lineup... (now whether he would go willingly is another matter entirely)

Cheers.

A united method said...

Really enjoyed the post. This is good stuff.

Dave Belcher said...

Ben....this was just...excellent in so many ways. But then again, I don't come to a post like this asking, "Now does that hold together logically?" That's like coming to a Hieronymus Bosch painting and asking, "What is the meaning of that nude, duck-billed man?"

Dave Belcher said...

For those who haven't yet had the pleasure of delving into the fascinating work of Michel de Certeau, that last comment was a way of saying that the depths of some things are given to be enjoyed, rather than plumbed.

Shane said...

Neil MacDonald essentially argues something like this--except it isn't
Cobain that he compares Barth (and Wittgenstein) to but some fin-de-siècle viennese/Bauhaus-y folks.

All that said . . . yeah it's a stretch and usually I'd be wanting to call you out for that, but I did write most of my NT papers in college while listening to Cobain.

Good times.

Samuel said...

This was interesting and stimulating; thanks. I'm currently reading through the Romans Commentary for a class, and it's hard not to see a sheer destructive power in the book.

Perhaps Nirvana was the end of a brand of pop music, but while they were signalling the end of pop music Arvo Part (to take one example) had recently published Fratres and Summa, and while Ritschlian liberalism was bleeding under Barth's blade, sound theology (e.g. Bavinck to Berkouwer) was still being done.

Still, point taken - and enjoyed.

mat said...

Interesting post, Barth is a brilliant theologian. Feel sorry for him though - liberals don't like him and neither do the hardcore evangelicals. I have recently set up a blog called theology for everyone, its meant to be fairly simple conversation starter. feedback would be muchly appreciated. It's still very new and I'm experimenting with how complicated and long etc it should be.
cheers, cool blog!

http://theology4everyone.blogspot.com/

mat

N. Dan Smith said...

In the introduction to The Left Hand of Darkness, Ursula K LeGuin makes some great points about the nature of art. She understands it as communicating that which cannot be expressed in words. Then she defines literature - using words to communicate what cannot be expressed in words. ;-)

Paul said...

Nice post, Ben. I discovered In Utero only recently. I happen to have a guitar tab book of the whole album. Slashing the "Scentless Apprentice" riff on my Telecaster makes me feel like a kid again.

Would somebody please help me out here: I have "The Great Passion" by Eberhard Busch and the first three vols. of C.D. on my bookshelf, hopefully to be read sometime soon. But what exactly was so revolutionary about Barth's Romans commentary? I've heard a lot about how it's the "Like a Rolling Stone" of modern theology, but can anyone summarize how it changed the landscape, or its main thesis?

Thanks,
Paul

roger flyer said...

Paul-
Ow!

I hope you are not of my former students. If so, I apologize to your neighbors.

and I'd like to hear how Barth's Romans commentary is Like a Rolling Stone, too.

brainofdtrain said...

Ben, I agree that in Nirvana's ashes their was a resurrection of music, a glimmer of something new--the work teh band's drummer would do by forming the band the "foo fighters :)

Rev Nev said...

I hate to lower the tone of this blog to academic interaction but... I wrote my undergraduate dissertation on Nirvana and reflected that to understand the post-modern generation we needed to grasp Barth's concept of Urgeschichte...

Anonymous said...

Maybe we could link Augustine and Ozzy Osbourne; Aquinas with Slayer; and Calvin with Sabbat. I'm a huge fan of these bands, but a bigger fan of Barth. However, never the twain shall meet!

Ryan Buesnel said...

Very Interesting blog. My only slight criticism is that Nirvana, far from suggesting the 'impossibility' of music, were instead reacting against the worship of musicians as God's, or more specifically, the Glam rock excess of the 80's. Nirvana were all about the music.

Still, that's hypercriticism. Well done! We need more of this type of thing.

Christopher said...

I'd recommmend for the 'end of music' or a rebellion against music itself try KHNATE or Sunno))) -- even the band 'EARTH' (in which Cobain played drums prior to Nirvana).

But thanks anyways, you've motivated me to check out Barth.

Devin Doyle said...

Haha... man you're so far away from what Nirvana was really about...

Nirvana wasn't this ironic, philosophically based critique that you're making it into... they weren't proving the possibility or impossibility of anything -

they were working class teens with zits and beer... they couldn't play out in the aberdeen rain with the rednecks they hated, so they made noise in their basement...

that's it... don't take the legend of kurt and nirvana and use it to make these bloated cultural or artistic assumptions... it's not true....

but it's interesting.

but just ridiculous.

Anonymous said...

I have read this a half dozen times...thank you!

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