Present in Progress: Nick Cave and the Condition of the Higgs Boson Blues

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The traveler’s inward journey is a condition caused by an absence of memory, or more specifically, an absence of historical counternarratives that challenge the ever-present now and free him from a life that is paradoxically hellish and comfortable. Redemption, then, first requires an awareness of the condition itself, which Cave identifies in song.

John Duffy

"Is there not an echo of those who have been silenced in the voices to which we lend our ears today?

-Walter Benjamin, “On the Concept of History”

"Life in the oceans must be sheer hell. A vast, merciless hell of permanent and immediate danger. So much of a hell that during evolution some species - including man - crawled, fled onto some small continents of solid land, where the Lessons of Darkness continue.

-Werner Herzog, The Minnesota Declaration

The 2013 Nobel Prize for Physics was awarded to François Englert and Peter W. Higgs for their work “in the theoretical discovery of a mechanism that contributes to our understanding of the origin of mass of subatomic particles.” In essence, Higgs and Englert’s ideas have lead to the discovery of a field of energy against which subatomic particles respond and resist. The level of resistance to the field creates mass, and the field itself is made of particles which we now understand as Higgs-Boson particles.

Conducted at the CERN laboratory for particle physics in Geneva, the experiment relied on the Large Hadron Collider (LHC), a device the Nobel organization cites as one of the largest and most complicated ever constructed by humans. By July 4th, 2012, the evidence that scientists collected from the experiments revealed the existence of the particles, and substantiated the work the two scientists had been engaging for nearly half a century.

Though the achievement was branded one the most significant in the field of particle physics, the media’s treatment of the experiment as a quest for the so-called “god particle” confounded—to borrow from Herzog—fact and truth. Comments like those of Arizona State University theoretical physics professor Lawrence Krauss (that “the Higgs particle is now arguably more relevant than god”) did little to express the importance of the experiment beyond the already polarized binaries of science and religion. And though there were a few scientists who didn’t care much for the particle’s nickname, the amount of traction the “god particle” has received cannot be ignored. Because of what it articulates about our understanding of and relation to the natural world, the conversation surrounding the discovery has become more interesting than the experiment itself.

How we talk about the Higgs discovery has triggered a shift in the popular understanding of the creation of the universe, namely, that the Standard Model—or even The Big Bang—has somehow “won” the debate over where the universe came from. But understanding the experiment simply as a battle between the big bang (a theory the Higgs discovery does not entirely corroborate) versus an intelligent designer unfairly positions the Higgs event in the larger and more problematic context of the debate between science and religion (one that continues to play out in the United States in predictable ways). Instead of reigniting the age-old clash of worldviews between Enlightenment reason and classical realist faith, our conversation about the discovery should instead explore the implications of treating the event as a kind of cultural trump card, a story that cancels out all others. In other words, we ought to investigate the effects of treating the Higgs discovery as a moment that negates the cultural memory leading up to it.

The murky interplay between counterhistorical narratives and the ruptural moments of the present was not lost on singer/songwriter Nick Cave. Just four months after the announcement of the Nobel Prize in Physics, Cave and his band The Bad Seeds released Push the Sky Away, a transitional record that blends tender, structured ballads with experimental, thrashing soundscapes. Hidden late in the album’s tracklist is “Higgs Boson Blues,” a nearly eight minute meandering homage to an impressive range of cultural signs high and low. The song follows a nameless traveler as he embarks on a journey through a strange world of real and imagined spaces, ultimately lamenting the condition he shares with the people he meets along the way. And while Cave’s questionable namedrops might give some listeners pause (e.g. “Hannah Montana does the African Savannah”), the song still manages to call attention to issues that are entirely in line with our present cultural condition: empty and messianic notions of time, the allure of simulacra, and the notion that Hell is now.

As the track begins, Cave’s traveler embarks on a journey without a clear notion of time. The trip is described through several episodes that make up each of the verses: the traveler’s departure from the patio, visions of Robert Johnson and the devil, the arrival in Memphis, and then a brief meditation on death. By the conclusion, the listener is immersed in a pastiche of cultural myth stories with Cave engaging Robert Johnson alongside Miley Cyrus and waxing poetic about death and memory. Channeling Benjamin, Cave constructs his traveler as one who journeys through messianic time, or time that is fulfilled, immediate, and ruptural in that it unsettles the traveler out of his state of boredom. He leaves his constant and predictable patio for a journey to “Geneva”–a place where humans are supposedly constructing complex devices to advance scientific knowledge. Seems simple enough.

But the live version of “Higgs Boson Blues” included on Live from KCRW—the follow up to Push the Sky Away—complicates this story. Cave alters the ending of the song by returning the speaker to his starting point, the basement patio. In this final twist we hear the singer barely whisper, “Can’t remember anything at all / Sittin’ here in my basement patio / Can’t remember anything at all / I’m drivin’ a car down to Geneva.” Cave’s return to these opening lines signals a shift in how we understand the journey and its purpose; instead of moving through space and leaving his home, the speaker’s journey is entirely imagined. He now must negotiate opposite notions of time, where the life of the mind is immediate and qualitative, but the world outside is anesthetizing, continuous, and meaningless. To borrow again from Benjamin, the traveler’s comfort that is afforded to him vis-à-vis his basement patio is situated within a constantly comfortable but blank notion of time that is both homogenous and empty.

The notion of homogenous empty time also sheds light on the basement patio as the traveler’s start and end point. This space is made possible by the commodity fetishism upon which homogenous empty time relies. Its tables and chairs, its cushions and sun umbrella are all commodities that invite and enable relaxation. But the traveler’s journey begins not out of contentment, but out of boredom. He cannot escape empty time without severing the relationships he has created with the commodities that enable it. This implied boredom that constrains the traveler at the start of the track, then, is the same condition that enables his inward journey as the song continues.

Cave’s critique of time is further complicated by the fragmented stories that make up the traveler’s journey, stories with which listeners are already familiar. As we quickly recognize, the traveler’s journey is punctuated by interactions with well-known cultural narratives. The first of which involves the familiar Robert Johnson story about going to the crossroads and making a deal with the devil (a story that itself has been endlessly appropriated). But Cave’s traveler never leaves home, and his interest in a sort of Geneva-out-there seems also to align with our own media’s treatment of the setting of the real Higgs-Boson discovery. Both of these spaces represent a kind of perverted fantasy world where manmade devices solve our greatest mysteries and disrupt the inherent ennui that inhabits our day-to-day environment. Thus, to arrive at such a place is to inoculate oneself against the symptoms of what Cave labels “the Higgs Boson Blues.”

Beyond the Robert Johnson moment, other complicated signs also populate the inner landscape of the traveler’s journey. Cave invokes Memphis, Tennessee’s infamous Lorraine Motel—the site of the MLK assassination—where the traveler takes “a room with a view,” and hears a preacher using “a language [he’s] never heard.” Eventually Cave sings, “A shot rings out to a spiritual groove / Everybody bleeding to that Higgs Boson Blues.” Cave’s use of Johnson and MLK as markers on the traveler’s journey is a curious juxtaposition, and further articulates the symptoms associated with the condition. By engaging these contested and frequently appropriated narratives, Cave provides his speaker with a corrupt interest in illusory destinations, an interest made even more alluring by the fragmentary cultural stories that already exist at the moment of departure. In other words, the song would have listeners believe that the condition of the Higgs Boson Blues urges us to turn inward in pursuit of desirable simulacra: a place where Robert Johnson and the devil openly converse, where crowds of onlookers revel in a murder as their pain and joy converge in a murderous, spiritual dance. But as the traveler repeats, “I can’t remember anything at all,” he reminds us of one of the condition’s most insidious symptoms: that the pursuit of these fictions is not motivated by memory; instead, the pursuit of these fictions simply masks the absence of memory entirely.

By the song’s conclusion, Cave makes a curious lyrical move that caused a moderate stir. The wordplay here (“Hannah Montana does the African Savannah / As the simulated rainy season begins”) positions Cyrus as an actor who is already playing a role, and sees Cave continuing to engage the sexiness of simulacra. Notions of an exotic and other African Savannah are subsumed by Cyrus’ celebrity alter-ego “doing” it while the expected changes in climate play out in simulation. (Of course, this line might also suggest that the singer is shedding pretend tears at the sight of the landscape, but the interpretation of the lyric is less important than the larger goals of the song). Montana’s subjectivity as the familiar young-pop-star-as-white-savior only complicates Cave’s project. Just as the traveler embarks on a journey of enlightenment only to encounter the very figures who embody such a trip, Cyrus-as-Montana also travels to a place—or “does” the place—as a way to perform a role that the audience is already familiar with. By “doing” the trip and encountering the hologram, Cyrus’ performance is complete, as is her journey. For Cave, though, such a damning indictment of journeying in contemporary times also comes at a cost. He sings, “Mama ate the pygmy / The pygmy ate the monkey / The monkey has a gift that he is sending back to you / Look here comes the missionary / With his smallpox and flu / He's saving them savages / With his Higgs Boson Blues.” By tracing such a genealogy, Cave further articulates one of his song’s central ideas, that man-made popular mythologies like the commercialized myth story of Robert Johnson, or the Lorraine-Motel-as-Museum controversy concerning how we remember the Civil Rights Movement, create larger problems for which their inventors must eventually account.

A screenshot from the “Toluca Lake” location in Silent Hill 2.

Continuing to riff on Cyrus’ celebrity, Cave then sings “Miley Cyrus floats in a swimming pool in Toluca Lake / And you're the best girl I've ever had.” Whether he has “had” the ambiguous subject or Cyrus as sexual partners is inconsequential. What does matter is that we can see that the sexual athleticism that such a journey requires is engrained in the subjectivity of the traveler. This significance of such a quality is also perpetuated through decades of the same tired American blues and rock & roll tropes detailing sexual conquest. (To be fair, Cave is also no stranger to this kind of song.) The traveler’s positioning Cyrus’ in “Toluca Lake” can be read in two ways. This is either a name check of an upper class neighborhood in Los Angeles, or an oddball allusion to a fictional location in the popular horror video game Silent Hill. For the speaker to exist in a video game fantasy of avatars and alter egos certainly fits within the wider aims of the song, but such a reading seems too easy. Instead, we should understand Cyrus floating in both places. This interesting balance of alterity and likeness, of metaphoric and documentary functions, allows Cyrus to be herself and also more than herself at once. The traveler’s journey has the same effect, allowing him to be simultaneously in a basement patio and floating through a hyperreal landscape of mythologized, fractionalized histories. The saddest irony, of course, is that such a journey nullifies his actual memory and replaces it with a pantheon of familiar subjects in a world of comfortable commodities.

Again, channeling Benjamin, the song functions as a cautionary tale not because it warns of some impending disaster, but because it makes clear that such a disaster is now. The condition of the Higgs Boson Blues, then, is the condition of our present cultural moment. We are the traveler, and our present time is homogenous and empty. Cave’s concern—that the invention of an endless cycle of simulacra will come back to plague the inventor—is our concern. We are no strangers to the constant feed of impending disasters that plays out on television, all of which seem to be branded as outside forces working against a peaceful core. But Cave’s song is designed as a portrait of a “present in progress,” a bleak reality that is more an extension of our current moment than a threat to it.

Cave’s treatment of the Higgs-Boson discovery is not a way to quietly dispel notions of the divine, as the popular conversation surrounding the discovery would have us believe. Instead, Cave’s project is designed to dispel the notion of the market-as-divine. We live in a moment where empty homogenous time is the only metric for understanding time. Like the traveler, our notions of leisure exist within those boundaries. For Cave, to relax is to do so under the condition of the Higgs Boson Blues, that is to say, within a world of story fragments, where each character lives a life already lived and already sold back to consumers through products designed to anaesthetize and not illuminate. More simply, these are products designed to maintain a particular relation to world, not rupture such relations. Cave’s traveler’s motives to embark are understood at first as a reaction against the desperation of empty time, but we find that the constructed stories that occupy the life of the mind are just as vacant as the existence beyond it. Just as the members of The Bad Seeds illuminate and disappear as they pretend to perform for the cameras in the song’s video, the traveler’s world is consumed by shadow play, where memory flickers throughout infinite darkness.

Despite the radical criticism of “Higgs Boson Blues,” the song also functions as a gesture of hope. Cave, like Benjamin, reminds us that hope appears—if at all—not in what the current trajectory of our time brings, but in what arises from its ruins. The traveler challenges his condition by repeatedly shouting into the darkness “Can you hear my heart beat,” and seeking reassurance that a life of ruptural, messianic time exists beyond the emptiness of his present moment.

In his final addendum to “On the Concept of History,” Walter Benjamin calls for a moment of decisive rupture, a “messianic moment” where the process of constructing the present is halted, and redemption—or the disconnection of things from their exchange or sign values—is achieved. Cave echoes this call to action with “Higgs Boson Blues.” The traveler’s inward journey is a condition caused by an absence of memory, or more specifically, an absence of historical counternarratives that challenge the ever-present now and free him from a life that is paradoxically hellish and comfortable. Redemption, then, first requires an awareness of the condition itself, which Cave identifies in song. As for when such a break with the present might occur, let us again consider Benjamin as he reminds us that “every second [is] a narrow gate, through which the Messiah could enter.”

John Duffy holds a masters degree in American studies from the University of Michigan-Flint, where he was also the recipient of the Rackham Fellowship. He lives in suburban Detroit and works as a teacher, musician, and poet. His latest book, City of Progress, is available via This Deadly House.

Copyright © John Duffy. All rights reserved.

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