Tragedy and art
Rambling ruminations after reading a book
*This contains minor spoilers for Tomorrow and Tomorrow and Tomorrow by Gabrielle Zevin*
Is the idea of the tortured artist real? Does the best creative work come from people who are in poor emotional states? And if so, why? What does this mean for me? For you?
To understand the "default" cultural perspective of the tortured artist, we start with the most classic historical example, Vincent Van Gogh. He was depressed for many stages of his life, and was thought to suffer from psychosis. Much of his most famous work comes from the last few years of his life. Less than a year after he cut off his own ear after hearing voices, requiring surgery, and while residing in a mental asylum, he painted Starry Night. A year later, after leaving, he shot himself. His best work came in the most emotionally fraught portions of his life. This is the cultural narrative of the tortured artist, in short.
This view is often criticized by those who see it as the romanticization and glorification of suffering. Artists don't need to suffer. By romanticizing suffering we fail to see how it could be removed, improved, or at least changed. Art celebrates adversity, and overcoming it, but often art and its romantic view of the world fail to acknowledge that most suffering has no inherent meaning. The myth of the tortured artist, in this view, is a coping mechanism.
The story says: This suffering is terrible, but it is also beautiful.
The response: It is terrible, yes. Beautiful, no. It is mundane, common to every soul on this planet. It is meaningless, without clear benefit or motive. And last of all, worst of all, it is unnecessary.
I've been thinking about this idea after reading Tomorrow and Tomorrow and Tomorrow by Gabrielle Zevin today. I want to start with a quote. One character, Sam, met another, Sadie when he broke his foot in a car crash during his childhood. She met him in the hospital when she was spending time with her sister who was being treated for leukemia. The pair, now in their mid twenties, discuss.
'And if I hadn't had a messed-up foot, we never would have made *Ichigo*, and we wouldn't be here, twelve years later, sitting in another hospital, less than a five-minute walk from the first one.',
'You can't know that,', Said said. 'We could have met at some other time. Our childhood homes were five miles apart, and we went to colleges that were less than two miles apart. We could have met at Cambridge. Our we could have met before that, at one of those smart-kid things in L.A.'...
'You're saying all my pain and suffering was for nothing?' he said.
'Complete waste,' she said. 'Sorry, Sam. The universe tortured you because it could, because it will.'
There is a very human urge to find meaning in suffering, and to some extent it allows people to find silver linings and overcome adversity. However, it is not a miracle cure. When we ascribe too much meaning to misfortune, we can accidentally start celebrating that which is very harmful.
This part of the critique I completely agree with. We should not celebrate the life of the starving artist, or glorify mental illness. But I think that a lot of the criticism of the take has gone a step too far. While there is no intrinsic value in misery, at times misery comes hand in hand with other aspects of life that allow for interesting work.
There is no great inherent beauty in mental illness, but it opens one up creatively in two different ways. First, as Tolstoy famously quipped, all happy families are alike, but every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way. There is so much more space to work with in the imperfect and sad than there is in the purely happy and healthy, so many valences of emotion. Experiencing these emotions makes one sensitive to their nuances, and so created artwork which reflects these moods gains a lot more depth.
For the second benefit, another quote from the book.
There were three things that had driven her, and none of them reflected a particular generosity of spirit on Sadie's part: (1) wanting to distinguish herself enough professionally so that everyone at MIT would know that Sadie Green had not been admitted to college on the girl curve, (2) wanting Dov to know that he shouldn't have dumped her, and (3) wanting Sam to know that he was lucky to be working with her... How to explain to Destiny that the thing that made her work leap forward in 1996 was that she had been a dervish of selfishness, resentment, and insecurity? Sadie had willed herself to be great: art doesn't typically get made by happy people.
These petty emotions can be powerful motivators. From my personal experience, stress and imposter syndrome can push many past what they thought possible.
Healthier reasons to do something tend to center around logical thinking, desire for play, or passive enjoyment. They rarely have the same strength, and rarely cause the same level of need to achieve that can come from more negative emotions. To be sure, these emotions can work poorly as long term motivators, and these less healthy emotions often ruin other aspects of your life.
Some part of this is just the nature of obsession. Single minded devotions is unhealthy, but it is essential for certain types of artistic projects. It causes you to be unable to relax, your mind always returning to the problem. It makes you less present in the moment, hurting your ability to socialize. But when obsessed with a problem, your ability to create solutions is much greater. Obsession often causes negative emotions, and negative emotions in turn drive obsession. Its a positive feedback loop, and like many positive feedback loops often ends in disaster. But if the artistic work you do benefits greatly from single-minded focus, the product of obsession will be greater than the product of a healthy lifestyle.
This tradeoff fascinates me. I think it also applies to research. I think the value that grad students get from the time they often put into their research is not the actual hours spent; for creative problem solving, writing, brainstorming, understanding literature, and coding, all very common tasks in many grad school programs, the amount grad students work can be excessive, and many of the hours are lost to being too tired to do good work but forcing yourself to do so anyways. But the obsession that is born of the process makes the questionably fruitful time investment worth it. With it, good ideas don't just come when working but in the shower, on a walk, and when talking to strangers. It is uniquely powerful.
For me as a writer, the question of the starving artist is a far one. The types of writing I find interesting rarely come from someone even vaguely resembling a tortured artist, and I have no reason to pursue that lifestyle. But as a researcher, it is invaluable to understand how to achieve obsession without devoting your entire being to it at a given time.
At the same time, I work "normal" hours at the moment and try to only go beyond around deadlines. My life is more full and fulfilled when I allocate much of my week to friends, reading, and if time permits, writing and experiencing the city I'm in. I want to reconcile these two realities as best as possible, trying to map the tradeoff curve between living a fulfilling life and solving problems I care about.
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