Glen Hansard on imagining darkness

The value of dark art and the use of the via negativa in narrative works is something that I’ve been pondering for many years. It started with my fondness for Joy Division and then got mixed in to Mormon art by the emergence of Brian Evenson and Neil LaBute, two of America’s most conspicuous practitioners of the via negativa as well as (coincidentally or….?) former Mormons (of sorts). My instinct is that there is value in dark art, but that the location of that value needs to be carefully delineated and contextualized and varies from work to work, that a wholesale defense of darkness in art wraps its arms around too much to be either useful or defensible.

So it with that humming away in the back of my mind, along with a few other persistent aesthetic concerns, that I read this morning this Glen Hansard interview with rock critic Greg Kot.

Hansard talks about his latest album with The Swell Season (which he claims is melancholy but not despairing) and his last album with The Frames (which he says was “dark as hell”) and says:

I had a bit of an epiphany recently when I saw a couple of U2 shows. I was deeply moved. Bono’s whole thing is to throw his arms around the world, embrace the good. Same thing with this Cat Stevens tape I’ve been playing lately. He writes life-affirming songs. For me, the next batch of songs I write will explicitly have to deal with that idea of redemption. We are the “˜imagineers’ — we imagine our life and it happens. If you imagine darkness, then darkness abounds.

The literary snob in me is quit to dismiss any aesthetic claims that are inspired by Bono (hey, I love U2, but I don’t look to Bono for anything but a decent pop song). On the other hand, Hansard has created some beautiful, melancholy-but-not-despairing songs, and his songwriting is steeped in narrative craft. No stringing together of opaque imagery and flights of fancy here. It’s great storytelling (you can here The Swell Season live in concert at All Songs Considered).

And so I’m taking this notion of his seriously and adding another dimension to my thinking on the merits of dark art and wondering if Hansard isn’t right that the correct approach is the melancholy but not the despairing and — getting back to my complaints about McCarthy’s The Road — wondering just how much darkness you can bombard the reader with and still redeem the work by offering the faintest glimmer of hope in the end.

15 thoughts on “Glen Hansard on imagining darkness”

  1. The Road. I read it long ago, doubt I’ll go see it. Once w. that tale was enough. My kids (18 and 20) are reading it because they want to ingest it before the film. So its still visible at my house. My husband keeps asking me if it is a good book. I stare at him blankly. Its that word “good” that throws me. I want to say its well crafted, but I have this sense that its cruel to the reader. I don’t know what to make of that feeling. You seem to suggest that it is both dark and life-affirming. I wouldn’t have put those two together, but I guess, the argument could be made.I just didn’t really take much hope in the ending. Dark art. Art that is *that* dark… Its probably the one thing I can’t ever imagine myself aspiring to write.

  2. Lisa,

    This is the reason I haven’t seen The Dark Knight. So many people I respect say that it’s largely about redemption, and has its consequent beauty, but I don’t know how safely I can plunge myself down that hole.

  3. William,

    Just for my clarification, isn’t there a difference between via negativa and the depiction/description of evil? As I understand it, the first attempts to describe God in terms of can’t be said about Him – by which I mean things like God’s being unchanging, limitless, beyond man’s comprehension, etc. But I would think that art based on this approach doesn’t require the depiction of polar opposites to God. I wouldn’t think sinful darkness is essential, only the ignorant darkness caused by man’s imperfection. But I can see how portrayals of evil could be included in such a method.

  4. Adam:

    Absolutely there is — and that’s why I think this needs further discussion and thought (and experimentation) and why reading the interview with Glen Hansard unspooled some things for me.

    I also think that it’s easy to go for the dramatic, grotesque and/or violent depictions of imperfection — it’s the finer gradations that I find more interesting and fruitful.

    In addition, I wonder if what matters about the via negativa is less the depiction of evil and more God’s response to that. That brings to mind things like England’s The Weeping God of Mormonism and that Joseph Smith quote about the deepest abyss (8th quote or so in that section). And is also why I liked that Hansard brings in the idea of melancholy.

  5. I love some art that uses darkness to great effect. Maybe the darkness is (thematically speaking) a character’s lost and fallen state from which she is redeemed. Or the darkness reads as “the way of the world” or “contemporary culture,” etc., etc. And a character’s virtue, standing in stark contrast to her dark surroundings, is a commentary on the darkness.

    On the other hand, it may be substantially harder to succeed with work that lacks a certain amount of darkness. Mormons are subjected to a lot of stuff that is plenty bright and cheerful but that leaves me completely flat and uninspired. And yet I can think of devotional works that don’t need darkness to work. (The world is dark enough. These works are pure light.) I am mainly thinking of religious classical music and architecture, though.

    I take it on a work-by-work basis. I suppose I ask questions like what effect did this work make of its darkness? Did it earn its darkness or lack thereof? What was the ultimate effect?

  6. Devotional works that don’t need darkness to work…. Religious, classical music and architecture which are “pure light”… Can you give me specifics so I can understand your meaning better?

  7. This post has been percolating in my brain ever since I first read it, and tonight I realized something about via negativa. We seem to have a prophetic imperative to reject it as it applies to God himself: for example, the Joseph Smith quote about a correct idea of God’s character and attributes being necessary to salvation and the one about not understanding ourselves unless we understand the character of God.

    But at the same time, Paul seems to employ via negativa in teaching about the next life: “Eye hath not seen, nor ear heard, neither have entered into the heart of man, the things which God hath prepared for them that love him.”

    When describing the glory of God or the condition of exaltation, that method is used a lot in the scriptures. Perhaps part of the reason is to pull our practical focus to this mortal sphere, while engaging our imaginations to aspire beyond themselves in conceptualizing the things for which we strive and the greatness of the being we serve.

    I also think the reason I thought of the painting I linked to above is because of its title. By definition, a theophany is a manifestation of God that is perceivable by the senses, but not necessarily of the material world. The painting (3rd from the bottom on that page) defies a simple explanation and yet doesn’t require one. It just looks like God. And yet, it’s not God. It’s just the sun above the trees. But it’s a moment that witnesses of God by it’s perfect organization.

    In some ways, that’s directly opposite to via negativa. But in others, it’s similar to the mystical elements of that approach.

  8. .

    Negative isn’t necessarily bad or evil, right? It implies absence. Something missing, something which left a hole behind, like a dinosaur footprint or an impression on a cushion.

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