The news of the death by suicide of Kurt Cobain, the tortured leader of Nirvana, grabbed onto a lot of us Friday afternoon and shook us hard. It was a warm, sunny day full of the promise of spring, which made it even harder to deal with, to get out of your mind.
John Updike knows something about suffering and desperation. The protagonists of his Pulitzer-winning novels go through angst in a way Cobain could have understood. Updike's characters leap out at you like tigers, catching you unaware. Elvis Costello wanted to call one of his albums Emotional Fascism, which easily could have been the title of an Updike novel.
As it happened, Updike happened to be in Indianapolis on Friday afternoon, participating in a seminar and meeting representatives of The Star, The News and NUVO.
When it was my turn, I asked him to comment on the suicide and describe the spiritual crises that successful people, especially rock stars, face.
The great man spoke with disarming eloquence and class.
"I think all of mankind operates in the shadow of spiritual crisis," he said. "The rock stars, in a way, more so than any of us. I don't know quite what led to this man's suicide, nor does every rock star commit suicide, of course. Very many remain quite healthy and survive the terrible blast of celebrity and whatever other temptations befall them.
"It puts an extra strain on the system to be so young and suddenly, so rich, so much attention focused on you.
"And what do you do with all this sense of suddenly being superhuman? I suppose one thing you can do is maximize pleasure. "One way to maximize pleasure, maybe the first way that comes to mind, is to take drugs. Drugs have a life of their own; they get you involved in a self-destructive cycle and, just off the cuff, that's why it may be extra hard to be a rock star.
"'Most men lead lives of quiet desperation,' Thoreau said. Certainly most men and women lead very deprived lives. In a sense, the deprivation shelters us from ever exploring those limits of possibility which the very rich, the rock stars, the movie stars are used to leading.
"I once read a book about the sultans, the sultans of Turkey, to whom the word no was never said. They could do anything. And one of them would go out and shoot people at random on the street because the sultan was allowed to shoot 10 people at random a day. They had harems populated by scores, hundreds, of women. Rich beyond belief. A lot of them wound up crazy and impotent, so there's a limit to getting everything you want.
"Rock stars? I don't know where they come from, they probably come out of middle-class basements, don't they? Where they have their guitar and their drum sets? They are simply middle-class kids whose dreams have come true too soon and maybe because they're very reckless and self-infatuated, they're trying to become angels. That was certainly the feeling you had in the late ¼60s and early ¼70s, when so many of the real stars just went down like rockets: Joplin, Hendrix and others.
"What their insides, their spiritual state feels like, I don't quite know, but modern man lives under an extra stress that people of the Middle Ages, the more credulous ages, didn't have. You cope with it in varying ways. Some refine their faith; some turn to drink; some ignore the whole problem and some shoot themselves in the head."
The room went dead silent.
Then, The News cleared his throat. "Uh... I'm going to shift gears here," he said, and the press conference with the great writer continued, life going on as it always does.
Like other networks, the Internet featured a flood of information about Cobain's suicide Friday afternoon. The reaction from the computer users, many of them college students, was less eloquent than Updike's, but no less impassioned.
Here is a sampling:
Why is this always happening. You'd think that our generation would be different. That we could learn from the past, that we could deal with pressures better than those of past generations.
So many of Nirvana's songs dealt with this predicament. The tear in our hearts between being like our parents and striving for something better.
A quitter and a self-pitying loser, too. Instead of facing up, he indulged in himself and refused to stand against adversity. A true quitter, I guess Kurt Cobain was a true spokesman for our generation. Pathetic.
What was his problem, anyway? Being a rich/famous rock star wasn't what he really wanted to do?
He died twice.
First he shot himself, and then MTV beat him to death.
Consider that maybe Cobain was finally ready for death, maybe he just wanted to call it a day and shuffle off this mortal coil. Yes, it's sad to those he left behind But we should only be sad to a point. Consider the happiness that is involved. You must remember this: Kurt WANTED to die. I will not be against such a wish ã I can only respect the grace and nobility of wishing to fulfill one's own destiny.
And one guy just quoted one of Cobain's lyrics as a grim epitaph:
I found it hard
So hard to find
Oh well, whatever
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