Total Depravity or the Failure of Creation: A Review of Roland Boer’s Nick Cave: A Study of Love, Death & Apocalypse

“I don’t believe in an interventionist God
But I know, darling, that you do”
– Into My Arms

“I believe in God
I believe in mermaids too
I believe in 72 virgins on a chain
Why not? Why not?”
– Mermaids

The incredibly prolific Roland Boer is perhaps best known for his monumental Criticism of Heaven and Earth series which traces the importance and engagement with religion one finds in Marxist thought (currently three of the projected five volumes have been published). Among the books we would expect to find, including his recent collection The Earthly Nature of the Bible seeing him returning to his primary training in biblical studies in order to uncover the earthy and crude character of much of the Bible, his recent book on Nick Cave might seem a strange addition. Yet what we find here is typical of Boer’s work in general; combining a clarity of writing, ease with difficult concepts, genuine insights, and all presented with his typical crude and roguish sense of humor. More importantly what we find it is not some hobbyhorse book, but one that offers a genuinely interesting reading of Nick Cave’s artistic output (more on that below) and which fits within Boer’s own research agenda of Marxism and theology.  Here I will outline the contents of the book before turning to a disagreement I hope can move along into an interesting conversation.

Like Boer himself, Nick Cave hails from Australia, though for a number of decades has lived in Europe and South America, currently residing in England. His music has a certain universality about it though, beginning as a vocalist for the discordant punk band The Birthday Party (returning somewhat with his Grinderman project) and transitioning into the more lyrical and sedate style we find with Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds. Boer separates these two periods neatly into his Old Testament period (where Cave opens his mouth and curses God) and his New Testament period (where Cave’s interest in Christology becomes apparent). The reason that Boer gives for this Biblical separation is well grounded in Cave’s own artistic output as, from his lyrics to his plays and novels, we see an obsession with the Christian Bible. Boer goes so far as to claim that Cave’s work constitutes a place where “Bible, autobiography and Christology come together in a potent mix (7).” And having a Biblical scholar guide us through the many references in Cave’s work to the Bible was helpful and even, if you’re a fan, exciting to see how some of the lyrics were crafted. But this isn’t a book merely dedicated to exploring Biblical and religious allusions as Boer ultimately critiques Cave for his biography being couched within a capitalist framework that holds up the authentic individual and his Christology being ultimately heretical. The second is perhaps a bit questionable, though Boer writes, “After all, is not heresy the ability to make a choice, from hairesis, the ability of an individual to strike on a path of his or her own? It is not for nothing that the churches have struggled to keep heresy on the list of damnable sins, for the ideology of liberalism is so much part of our landscape that the charge of heresy these days evokes the dark and dingy times of medieval power and usual brings forth a laugh or mere curiosity that it could still be invoked (83).” This understanding of heresy may have some truth to it, but there is also a sense in which heresy, in the mouths of poets like Attar and Rumi (whose work I would argue is thematically similar to Cave’s), is a deeper fidelity. I also worry somewhat about holding an atheist to a charge like heresy when he engages with Christology as I am unsure of its meaning in the analysis and I would have liked to see Boer struggle with that a bit more (especially considering the place of orthodoxy and deviation in Marxism and his own admission that “heretical Christology […] I must admit has its appeal at certain points (83)”).

What Boer truly offers those interested in Cave’s work, especially his music, is a deep philosophical engagement with the form of the music itself. Boer tells us early in the text that most of the other studies have focused explicitly on the lyrics and sometimes moved to Cave’s poetry, novels, plays, and screenplays. Boer does give us that analysis, to great effect, in the majority of the book, taking us through the themes of love, death, and apocalypse mentioned in the subtitle,  always through the lens of the Bible, autobiography, and Christology. But he seems most proud of the fact that he analyses the music by leaning heavily on Ernst Bloch’s philosophy of music, mostly found in the opening essay of his Spirit of Utopia. Bloch’s philosophy famously accounted for music by focusing on the basic category of note and what grew up around it (hearing, voice, song, dance and rhythm). Bloch builds off of this to present us with a kind of typology of Cave’s music, arguing that his most basic form was the discordant song (OT outlook) and then the attempts to solve it through the forms of hymn and lament (though he also includes here a type he calls the “sinister song” which brings discordance into these styles), and then finally the dialectical song where this discordance is allowed full reign in the form of the hymn (such that the sinister song is an important step in this direction). It is this dialectical song where the search for redemption finds its place in Cave’s music, though under Boer’s very careful analysis and evaluation, very few of Cave’s songs make this grade (I have to say I was sad to see that one of my favorite Cave albums, The Boatman’s Call, is panned by Boer as nearly unlistenable whereas I see those songs as incredibly rich, though perhaps I have given in to the temptation of the hymn, as Boer calls it).

For both Boer’s literary analysis and philosophy of music he builds off of a particularly Calvinist reading (and here my worries about heresy reemerge, considering Calvin’s and Calvinism’s own spotty history in acting like members of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith) which reads the dark foreboding of Cave’s lyrics and music as rooted in a sense of the total depravity of human beings which then extends to all of nature itself. Boer does not provide us with a great deal of evidence for this particularly Calvinist doctrine being so instrumental in Cave’s music, which could be forgiven if it was simply a way in which Boer aimed to understand it, but he does not quite present it in that way. While the book goes to great lengths to provide its readers with a real sense that Boer isn’t overcoding Cave’s music with his own theory, when it comes to total depravity I think it falls short of that mark. Biographically I do not know of anything that would suggest Cave would be so impressed by Calvinism. With regard to his own upbringing I am unaware of his family’s religion, though the boarding school he was sent to was Anglican (where it fits within the amorphous landscape of Anglican theology I am unsure of). Regarding the heavy influence of religious literature, like Southern Gothic, that seems to impress a more Southern Catholic approach to things. One can also easily see his antipathy towards American-style Evangelical Christianity in his interviews. So I ultimately was unsure of where Boer was drawing this reading from and, though it is impossible to deny the rather grim picture painted in a number of Cave’s songs (lyrically and at the level of the note), I read his engagement with the dark side of life in a rather different way.

The question, it seems to me, all comes back to Cave’s contradictory approach to the question of God. I won’t say God’s existence, but the question of one’s relationship to that existence or inexistence. There is a tension, one that Boer’s book beautifully bears out in his analysis of Cave’s trinity of “God, Cave and a woman”, where Cave both seems to disavow God (the failure of theodicy) and to claim that all his love songs are to God (creating a kind of ditheism where God and a woman are two persons and one substance to Cave’s own Christ-like nature as the Christ of the moon). This is of course the whole question of redemption that Boer brings out and thinks Cave reaches with his dialectical song, a redemption that Boer beautifully describes for us this way, “redemption now becomes the dialectical response to total depravity, the ability to find gaps in apocalyptic mayhem, the refusal to allow death its famed finality, the unexpected and undeserved possibility of a better world and even a challenge, despite Cave’s avoidance of politics, a possibility of overthrowing oppressive powers (117).” For me this suggests not so much total depravity, after all why is such a creation totally depraved if not for the existence of some gap between the ideal and the concrete (to draw on Adorno, another reference point for Boer). If total depravity is ultimately a kind of ideal for what creation ought to look like if Calvinism is true, then surely this gap exploited by Cave for his dialectical songs point to the partial and not total character of this depravity. What if, following more in line with the heretical and Roman Catholic-tinged path of Southern Gothic, creation were not totally depraved, but a failure? Would not this be closer to the ambiguity expressed in our struggles to accept, not just an interventionist God, but any God and yet when confronted with the face of love, why not?

Boer’s book is a truly great read for fans of Nick Cave who may be interested in his relationship to religion, but more importantly, it is a reading of Cave that is truly about Cave’s work rather than trying to shoehorn it into a weaker form more amenable to the tastes of the religious. It is also worth pointing out that Boer is no fanboy and this is not a work of fan-fiction, his adulation of Cave’s work is tempered very clearly by very tough critics, and the book is all the more illuminating of the music for it. I hope that Equinox has the foresight to release a paperback edition of this book so that more fans of Cave’s work, as well as fans of Boer’s, may have access to it.

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