From the rising death toll in Iraq to the chaos created by Hurricane Katrina to the devastating earthquake in Kashmir, this year has been one of unthinkable grief. The poet Denise Levertov has written that we should not treat grief like a “homeless dog,” but “coax” it into the house and give it its “own corner.”
How are we supposed to do that this Christmas season? How can we give grief a proper place to rest?
It is a strange thing when a rock ’n’ roll musician can help us do that. Bruce Springsteen’s recent national acoustic tour was a chance to experience the power of art to help bear what might otherwise seem unbearable.
The tragedies recounted in Springsteen’s musical stories take place on a much more intimate, personal level than international disasters. Yet his songs remind us that the terrifying ways the world remains inhumane are always felt precisely on that personal level. The “meanness in this world,” to quote Springsteen’s album Nebraska, is never abstract. For decades Springsteen has mapped the lives of people who are threatened by mean things. On the tour promoting his latest album, Devils & Dust, he was explicit that his vision is carved from a stone that is deeply religious, even profoundly Catholic.
I saw Springsteen this fall in Providence, Rhode Island. After his opening songs, all of which were hushed, acoustic performances for a sit-down crowd, Springsteen spoke about the immigrant piety of the Italian and Irish sides of his family in New Jersey. He said that as a boy he would watch weddings and funeral processions as they filed in and out of the parish church across the street from his house, and that during storms his aunts would sprinkle holy water in the house. He didn’t romanticize his Catholic childhood, though. “Catholicism is a beautiful, poetic...and horribly terrifying religion,” he told the crowd. (A packed stadium of New Englanders, painfully familiar with the horrifying aspects of the sexual-abuse crisis, cheered wildly in agreement.) At one point he joked that it took a highly paid psychoanalyst to tell him that he is still working out his Catholic upbringing, song after song.
This was explicit in some of the songs that he performed. In “Jesus Was an Only Son,” he described Mary walking up Calvary with her son “in the path where his blood spilled,” and Jesus kissing her hands, praying that her tears will soon be stilled. Springsteen also sang of desperate individuals whose troubles are not easily solved. In “Matamoros Banks,” he traces the journey of a Mexican worker who tries to make it to America, but fails. The story is told backward, beginning with the young man’s dead body lying at the bottom of the Rio Grande.
Though many of the songs on Devils & Dust deal with bleak subjects, the album also features moments of exquisite tenderness. “Black Cowboys” describes a teenager who steals his mother’s boyfriend’s drug money and runs away from home. Before leaving, he slips into his mother’s room, brushes his hand on her hair, kisses her closed eyes, and ducks out.
These moments, though, do not temper Springsteen’s vision. His songs suggest that our afflictions are much more severe than we typically acknowledge. This is not an insignificant artistic gesture. In The Origins of Totalitarianism, Hannah Arendt wrote about the importance of “examining and bearing consciously the burden which our century placed upon us—neither denying its existence nor submitting meekly to its weight.” This seems to be one of those seasons when we must face the burdens of the times, and Springsteen can help.
It is significant that Springsteen’s Catholic upbringing increasingly interests him. Perhaps the Catholic stuff of his past—images of an only son on his way to death on a cross, of devils that haunt one’s soul—provides ways to think about what may seem unthinkable. Perhaps Springsteen’s faith allows him to invite grief into his life, to acknowledge its profundity. Maybe his songs can do the same for us.
Eric Alterman, one of Springsteen’s biographers, tells the story of the Springsteen concert on December 9, 1980, the night after John Lennon was killed. Springsteen insisted that he owed it to his fans to play. “It’s a hard world that asks you to live with things that are unlivable,” he told the audience, “and it’s hard to come out and play tonight, but there’s nothing else to do.” His fans were grateful that he chose to play that night. I was too in Providence.