Kurt Cobain and the problem of guilt


A mulatto. An albino. A mosquito. My libido [1]. So sang Kurt Cobain, the lead singer of Nirvana, in the song of my generation, Smells Like Teen Spirit. Last year a documentary about Cobain’s life was released and it uncovers so much of the tragedy surrounding his childhood; in particular the rejection he felt in being sent from home to home because neither parent wanted to take care of him.

In his typically candid and blunt way, Cobain talks about his teenage angst in search of sexual conquest:

In a community that stresses macho male sexual stories as a highlight of all conversation, I was an underdeveloped, immature little dude that never got laid and was constantly razzed. Oh, poor little kid. It bothered me, probably more so because I was horny, and frequently had to make up stories like, ‘When I went on vacation, I met this chick and we f***** and she loved it.’ [2]

He later goes on to tell the harrowing account of how he (actually) lost his virginity by taking advantage of a girl with learning difficulties, and the consequent self-revulsion and guilt that led him to attempt suicide. And all of this when he was still at school. Listening to him speak, you feel a curious mixture of disgust at Cobain’s actions, and heartfelt compassion over his brokenness and insecurity—something we all identify with.

Step back about 1,600 years and we encounter a North African philosopher called Augustine talking about his youth. He says he was warned by his mother not to go sleeping around, especially with married women, but her warnings sounded ‘womanish’ and he would have been ‘embarrassed to obey them’. So, instead… 

I went headlong on my course, so blinded that I was ashamed among the other youths that my viciousness [referring to sexual conquests] was less than theirs; I heard them boasting of their exploits… And I set about the same exploits not only for the pleasure of the act but for the pleasure of the boasting… and when I lacked opportunity to equal others in vice, I invented things I had not done, lest I might be held cowardly for being innocent, or contemptible for being chaste. [3]

It’s strange how little the times change. Take a man born in the 300s or the 1960s, and both need to feel accepted, to feel loved, to feel that they could run with the pack. Both do things they regret, and for reasons they later see to be weak and inexcusable. Both men experience gut-wrenching guilt on account of their actions, guilt that brings an unbearable weight upon the soul.

But you see, the two stories take very different directions. While Cobain and Augustine both end up famous and well-regarded in their respective fields of philosophical musing—one in music and the other in writing—somewhere along the way one experiences a tragic hopelessness leading to despair and suicide, while the other encounters life-changing hope and a new start.

And what made the difference? 

One of Augustine’s most memorable and stunningly succinct descriptions of the human problem goes like this: ‘For you have made us for yourself and our hearts are restless till they rest in you’ [4]. The ‘you’ he’s speaking to is God.

What does Augustine mean when he talks about finding heart rest in God? For one thing, he found this rest in forgiveness for all the things he felt guilty about. Augustine read the Bible and came to believe that Jesus was who he claimed to be; the Son of God and the one who can save us from guilt and sin. Whereas so many people go on through life with the nagging sense that they can’t fix what they’ve broken, Augustine discovered that God offers forgiveness, a clean slate, a new start. That experience gave him profound rest.

But he means more than just forgiveness, since being forgiven may only get us back to where we started; it doesn’t necessarily address the underlying brokenness, longings, and insecurities that are driving destructive behaviour in the first place. If a hungry boy steals a loaf of bread and gets caught in the act, the judge might let him off and allow him to go free but the boy is still hungry; in other words, he’s forgiven, but that hasn’t solved his deeper problem. So how did Augustine discover healing that not only made him feel forgiven and clean, but also satisfied his soul’s most secret longings?

For Augustine, forgiveness was the door into the most profound and life-changing reality: a relationship with God that finally offered him the sense that he had come home. Our hearts are restless till they rest in you. In a sense, then, the question of whether we have found this rest means that we are all either Cobain or Augustine.


[1] Smells Like Teen Spirit, by Nirvana on the album Nevermind, 1991
[2] Kurt Cobain in the documentary Kurt Cobain: Montage of Heck, 2015
[3] Augustine of Hippo, Confessions, Book Two, III.7, translated by FJ Sheed in 1942
[4] Ibid. Book One, I.1


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