Saturday, May 26, 2012

Let's Spike the Tired Old Notion of the Suffering Artist

Sometimes I would like to be a novelist. A micro reason is novelists get to explore  ideas that might be verboten or just never come up on ordinary conversation. A macro reason is to explore a major idea or theme. The latter purpose is the occasion for this post.

I think a great theme for a novel would be the bankruptcy of the notion of the suffering artist. While I might concede that some great artists have suffered quite a bit, and perhaps their suffering was to some extent related to their greatness as artists, I have two observations:
  1. My belief is that they would have suffered no matter what, due to problems of temperament or mental conditions. I reject the idea that it was a choice they made, as a sacrifice for their art.
  2. In the meantime, that mythology of suffering misleads so many young, talented but insufficiently gifted, would-be artists, at a substantial cost in lost happiness.
I stumbled onto an article that thoroughly explores this territory (my italics):
One can see why the cursed poets believed they had been chosen for so terrible and sublime a fate. Their mythology of genius born in suffering helped make their hard lot endurable, as countless adolescents who have read J. D. Salinger can testify. But it also drove them deeper into misery—drove them to seek out misery, to cherish drunkenness, madness, ordeal, as a source of poetic inspiration. That wisdom comes of suffering, at least for prophets and tragic heroes, is an ancient truth; but is it wisdom to chase after suffering, as though the evil of the day were insufficient?
There is something perverse about these poets and their view of their calling. Their loneliness, drunkenness, disease, the early deaths of or abandonment by their fathers, the tauntings and beatings they took from their schoolmates: These and other blows became the fundamental truths about the world and the stuff of their poetry. They did not imitate Christ’s selfless suffering. Instead, with a poet’s vanity, each relished in his own way his martyrdom, championed it, flaunted it.
Baudelaire, Verlaine, Rimbaud: They were remarkable artists, yes, among the greatest of their time. But the perversity of unhappiness cherished and cultivated constricts their excellence: The pursuit of unhappiness assumed too large a place in their souls.

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