Driven by a key-wound spring, the monk walks in a square, striking his chest with his right arm, raising and lowering a small wooden cross and rosary in his left hand, turning and nodding his head, rolling his eyes, and mouthing silent obsequies. From time to time, he brings the cross to his lips and kisses it. After over 400 years, he remains in good working order.
A miracle of technology! (You can watch a very low quality video of the robot in action here
.) “He walks a delicate line between church, theatre, magic, science,” King writes, pondering the significance of the mechanical monk. “Here is a machine that prays.”
What does it mean? According to King and Radiolab, in the context of Counter-Reformation Spain, the robot monk strikes to the heart of debates about how one gets close to God:
You have the Protestants, with Luther, who are saying, “it’s not about works … it’s about whether you feel it.” And then you have the Catholic argument which is to say you do these rituals because these are the rituals, and this is the way you get close to God.
The robot monk teaches us how to do ritual. Controversial! Given the ridiculous degree of crufty observance and corruption in the Church at the time of the Reformation (and, um, other times), I obviously understand why the Protestant appeal to pure feels was compelling. But my own ingrained Catholic social justice calculus of “good works” aside (“don’t fucking tell me your account with God hinges on how you feel inside instead of your concrete actions in the world, you schismatic apostates!”), I can’t help but think that this debate, and the robot monk himself, is a metaphor for the observance of creative process.
As stated above, I’m suspicious of the reduction of creativity to a bunch of instrumental observances in the mechanised pursuit of… metrics. Hack-work content marketing success, paid in SEO indulgences to the Church of Google. But to respond to this by abandoning the rigours of creative process for the inspiration of pure feeling would be a mistake. Unless you’re a tidal wave like my friend Janelle, feelings are fickle. Protestant churches tend to trade the horrific institutionalised power of the Catholic Church (about which we need no reminders) for another kind of tyranny: exploitative emotional economies in which the faithful tend to be at the mercy of charisma. And to trade in pure charisma is to produce strongmen. As our current times remind us, charismatic populism offers release for the anxious but also destroys the processes that ultimately help us flourish as communities. Creative populism that relies on emotional catharsis tends to destroy the basis for a consistent creative practice. Just as the Reformation ended up eliding the point of what “good works” might potentially be about (i.e. acting rigorously to enable the arrival of goodness), we also need to remember what creative rituals are for (i.e. exactly the same thing as good works).
Thus it is with Nick Cave, who for me is the amazing robot monk. He mightn’t be your cup of tea, or you might even find his work occasionally objectionable, but I think most of us can agree that his creative practice really hums. (Don’t let his obsession with Southern Baptists or his own Anglican heritage distract. In terms of process, he is an exemplary Catholic robot.) He prepares, meticulously. He shows up to work. He performs the motions regularly, not worrying about inspiration, and through these observances somehow accesses what he feels to be a divine and joyous experience of creativity.
I’m convinced that if Nick Cave relied on pure feeling, or murderous inspiration, or spontaneous gothic possession, or any of the other assumptions people make about his artistic persona, so many great moments of his oeuvre wouldn’t exist. Nick Cave walks the square and kisses the cross and talks to God. For he is a joyous robot monk.