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.