'All beauty must die': the aesthetics of murder, from Thomas De Quincey to Nick Cave

Citation metadata

Author: David McInnis
Date: Jan. 2006
From: Traffic (Parkville)(Issue 8)
Publisher: University of Melbourne Postgraduate Association
Document Type: Article
Length: 7,171 words

Main content

Article Preview :

Nick Cave's Murder Ballads album, possibly the most controversial piece of work in his oeuvre, is rarely (if ever) considered as a serious artistic work which significantly engages with any literary or aesthetic tradition. With the intention of redressing this erroneous perception, this paper develops a comparison between Cave's album and a series of essays ('On murder, considered as one of the fine arts') by the Romantic author Thomas De Quincey. De Quincey's essays are used to position Cave's ballads in their historical and intellectual context, taking into consideration the links (in relation to the sublime and the aesthetics of murder) between Romanticism and contemporary culture.


Had Thomas De Quincey not already gained notoriety as the author of Confessions of an English Opium Eater (1822), he would most assuredly have been immortalised on the strength of his remarkable series of 'murder' essays which followed. In his paper 'On the knocking at the gate in Macbeth'(1823), De Quincey sought an explanation for why certain acts of murder had greater purchase than others on the human capacity for sympathy; why, that is, certain murders seemed more pathetic (in the sense of pathos), the plight of their victims more poignant, the deed more terrifying--in short, why certain murders were productive of that peculiar experience known as sublimity. (1) He followed this initial inquiry with a series of essays 'On murder, considered as one of the fine arts' (1827 - 1854), in which he pronounced his own explanation for the phenomenon described in the Macbeth article. Although the theory De Quincey promulgated was predicated on the aesthetics of murder, his conception of how, precisely, these aesthetics produce their effect was not static or final, but developed continually throughout this period. In tracing the trajectory of the theory's evolution, I wish to discuss the gradual shifting of emphasis from the murderer to the witness, to reassess the merits of De Quincey's case for why and how murder might be productive of sublimity. Subsequently, through application of the theoretical insights gleaned from this investigation, I wish to focus on the significance of a recent, notorious excursion into the aesthetics of murder--Nick Cave's Murder Ballads (1996)--to consider the extent to which De Quincey's Romantic conceptions of murderous aesthetics have influenced contemporary culture.


In his series of 'murder' essays, De Quincey espouses a theory of 'aesthetic judgment liberated from moral contingencies'; a theory which proceeds from his injunction to cast aside moral judgements (where morality cannot undo homicide), and instead salvage something from the situation in aesthetic terms. (2) De Quincey proposes that if we 'dry up the tears', we might 'have the satisfaction perhaps to discover, that a transaction, which, morally considered, was shocking, and without a leg to stand upon, when tried by principles of Taste, turns out to be a very meritorious performance.' (3) In his discrimination between instinctive (moral) reactions to--and aesthetic appraisals of--real life situations, De Quincey's sentiments echo a philosophic paradox dating back to Aristotle (if not...

Source Citation

Source Citation
McInnis, David. "'All beauty must die': the aesthetics of murder, from Thomas De Quincey to Nick Cave." Traffic [Parkville], no. 8, 2006, p. 117+. Accessed 17 Jan. 2021.

Gale Document Number: GALE|A159180169