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What does your stupid art even do for the world?
asking for a friend asking for nick cave asking for my son asking for me
What time is it? Lauren asks me every morning as I try to sneak out of our bedroom without waking her.
4:30 I say, lying.
Ohmygod she says, sleepshook.
If I’d told her the truth - 4:05 - she’d say Al please sleep more but I don’t want to sleep. I want to wake up early because it gives me time to diddle. Usually I make an espresso and head straight for the computer but not today.
Today, I open a book called Faith, Hope and Carnage to a random page and I read.
So when it comes down to it, it’s not just about the work, but how it impacts on and enriches the lives of others?
It’s partly about the work, yes, but only partly.
You know, I touched on this in that essay we talked about previously, ‘The Secret Life of the Love Song’. I wrote about how, when I was twelve years old, my father asked me what I had done for the world. How had I contributed to the world? It’s pretty strange, really, when I think about it, that he would ask me that question. And, of course, I couldn’t really answer him, because I was twelve fucking years old! But I did ask him what he had done and he showed me, with considerable pride, a short story he had contributed to a magazine when he was a young man. That right there is the weird self-absorption of the creative person, don’t you think?
That’s Nick Cave. He’s a singer and then some. The book is a long interview with him and his friend, the journalist Seán O’Hagan.
I think about what I have done for the world and none of it feels like enough. Yes I am a son and have given joy, among other feelings, to my parents. I am a husband and father and in both I do my best and let us say for the sake of brevity that I am considered ‘good’ on both counts.
A good husband, a good father, a good son. Hell, let’s add a good friend in there for good metric measure.
That can’t be enough, can it?
Like Cave’s papa, I want to also say that my writing and creative work is…something. It’s more than nothing, right? I don’t know.
Surely it is more than nothing? It must be, what with the definition of nothing being no thing and my work being some thing and come on it’s my creative work what the hell! But does it have an impact?? That’s not my task, to use Adler’s phrasing.
Regardless, I *want* my work to count. Surely, when my life is up for review at the “what have you done for the world” council, which I picture to be 29 super intelligent koalas that review your file, at least one koala would say hey what’s this - Alex wrote a Substack.
The koala kourt would take a cool 20 minutes to look through some of my posts and then they’d return, having read them all (they read fast it’s why they are on the council).
“So…what’s everyone think?” the head koala, the one with the flower in his hair, would say.
Koalas and crickets.
It has to matter, right? Because if it doesn’t, then I really am Cave’s self-absorbed creative dad.
It seems a pretty egocentric thing to do, but also revealing. Or maybe he was just incredibly insecure?
Well, if my twelve-year-old son had asked me what had I done to contribute to the world, I hope I would have ruffled his hair and said, ‘Made you, little guy.’ Because it has to be about the ones you love, beginning with those closest to you and then emanating outward. There is the work, of course, and if we can free it from that sort of self-absorption or self-conceit, so that it becomes an expression of love, then that has extraordinary value. But it has to be about love. And it took a devastation to teach me that, to make me realise I needed to define myself first as a father and a husband and a son – as part of a family – and then finally as an artist.
I want so badly for my work to be free of self-absorption, but I mean come on. In this creator economy?
A lot of my writing is actively fighting against that self-absorption. At my best, I stop fighting with it all together and, instead, acknowledge it, accept it, and love it too. At my really best A+ stuff, I forget about myself entirely. The road towards forgetting is paved with good acceptance. Otherwise, it’s hate, and to hate my own self-obsession is itself an act of the self turned inward. The anger says, “I wish this were gone. I wish I were not this way.” with the implication being that if I were another way, I'd be good.
It's like the idea that someone who has low self-esteem is really a narcissist in disguise, because both share the obsession with the self, no matter if it’s awesome or awful.
In 2015, Cave’s 15-year-old son died falling off a cliff. That’s the devastation he’s referring to.
Then, cursed lightning striking twice, right before the book was published, his oldest son died at the age of 31. Seán O’Hagan mentions it in the afterword:
Sadly, as I began writing this afterword, the death was announced of Nick’s oldest son, Jethro, in Melbourne.
‘We are, each of us, imperilled,’ Nick says at one point in Faith, Hope and Carnage, ‘insofar as anything can turn catastrophic at any time, personally, for each of us. Each life is precarious, and some of us understand it and some don’t. But certainly everyone will understand it in time.’ The words echo anew.
In an interview he did with NYT Magazine after the loss of his second son, Cave says that the gradual loss of self is a recent thing:
To have told my 30-year-old, 40-year-old, 50-year-old self that my artistic output wasn’t the fundamental and most valuable aspect of my life, I would have thought you didn’t understand. These days I don’t feel that way. That’s not to say that I’ve stopped working as much, but it just feels, self-evidently, that other stuff needs your attention. Like tending to the people around you. You’re part of a larger community and part of the world. This is going to sound sad and extreme, but there’s that description of Satan in Dante’s “Inferno” trapped up to his waist in ice and self-absorbed in his own misery and waving his batlike wings and gnawing on his resentments with his three mouths.
I am fascinated by this process. Notably, Cave does not say he works any less, but simply that other things matter more. I forget often that the two are different concepts at all.
George Saunders said in a commencement speech that this process of becoming less selfish happens naturally over time:
One thing in our favor: some of this “becoming kinder” happens naturally, with age. It might be a simple matter of attrition: as we get older, we come to see how useless it is to be selfish — how illogical, really. We come to love other people and are thereby counter-instructed in our own centrality.
I can feel it happening to me already, since becoming a dad, the weight of each creative pursuit made less heavy by the simple fact that I’ve now got this big toddler in my arms too.
But I don't want it to happen slowly and naturally like it does for everyone. That’s too easy! Sure anyone can push past their own bullshit at age 60 when it’s all gone and behind them. Reflecting on the past and wishing you’da been different, that’s not so hard. But what about figuring it out in the moment?
Even here, in the quest for self transcendence of the self, *I* need to be the best at it. *I* need to get it just right.
I read the comments on the NYT piece about how much Cave means to people. Some people had lost their children, too, and I try to imagine what that would be like even though I know that I cannot know.
Walking to the kitchen to make breakfast, I start crying, overwhelmed with how much pain each parent must feel. Must live with.
As often, I am both living the moment and already planning on writing about it – this morning when Wilder wakes up (any minute now), I will not say "shit" out loud because I have to stop writing and have to go get him. I do not have to go get him, I get to go get him. A privilege.
I eat my breakfast and then diddle around on the internet some more and then I hear Wilder's crying and I say "shit!" forgetting wholesale the realizations from a minute prior.
I have work to do, I tell myself. I need some more time.
Walking to his room with the milk I remember that I'm supposed to enjoy this and so I try. But the trying itself makes it hard to enjoy anything. Awareness of self begets its own loss yadda yadda.
He stays cuddled up on me as we rock in the rocking chair, the warmth from his head a tiny radiator against my neck.
As I’m half basking in the glow of his little chunk of a body and half angry at myself for not being fully able to bask in aforementioned glow, he raises his head and turns toward me and stares at me with this gigantic idiot smile and he’s like 2 inches from my face so the whole thing has a fisheye lens feel that exaggerate his already absurdly exaggerated cheeks and in that brief second of a moment I can’t think about anything else because its too funny and too real and too good.
I start laughing and I can't stop. His blatant disregard for personal space mixed with the pure joy and love on his face takes me somewhere I haven’t been in a long time.
And then it is gone. I am back to thinking about how I will write about this. I am back in the world of myself and its discontents one of which is, in fact, dis content.
It's hours later now and I can still feel that feeling when he looked at me and I forgot I existed. That was nice.
Maybe “what have you done for the world” isn’t even the right question. It assumes an acting upon, separate from-ness. What if the good stuff happens less when you act upon the world and more when you become one with it? Part of it.
What made you forget about yourself in the world?
When did you forget that you and the world were different at all?
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what have you done for the world? how do you even begin to approach that question? do you think it’s worth asking?
who do do u love more - nick cave or nick cage (rhetorical)
if you’re a parent, how do you balance your creative pursuits with raising your child(ren)? how do you stay present for them?
when do you totally forget yourself? please tell me so I can go try to forget I exist
jk i’m not gonna do that i’m gonna meet you in the comment section see you in a sec!