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To Suffer Is to Suffer

Sam Leith, bad-boy columnist for Britain’s The Guardian, just wrote a column in which he seeks to debunk the myth that artists must suffer.

He quotes that bastion of mental health, the late poet, John Berryman: “My idea is this: the artist is extremely lucky who is presented with the worst possible ordeal which will not actually kill him. At that point, he’s in business: Beethoven’s deafness, Goya’s deafness, Milton’s blindness, that kind of thing.”

Leith goes on: “It rings through the ages, this idea: the old connection between art and torment. It’s a poisonous creed. It’s also bullshit. It may be true, but it’s adolescent bullshit all the same.”

I thought—Music to my ears, those words. Because I grew up thinking there was in inevitable link between art and pain.

When I was young I wanted to be a ballet dancer, so I knew suffering was mandatory. I welcomed the burst blisters from my pointe shoes, sore calf muscles, mis-shapen toes. The real suffering came as I moved through adolescence and discovered that hips and breasts do not a ballerina make.

But I’d always loved writing best, anyway. I’d be a writer, that’s what I’d be. And I knew what to expect from that, too.

I knew how miserable John Berryman was from reading a memoir his ex-wife had written after their divorce and his eventual suicide. In it she chronicles his drinking, depression and infidelity.

I knew how miserable Hart Crane was from learning about the closeted writer’s only heterosexual relationship with Malcolm Cowley’s wife and his own probable suicide.

I knew—everybody knew—how miserable Sylvia Plath was because it was mass-marketed in The Bell Jar. And the poetry. And the journals. And a biography. She was the Queen of Misery.

I knew that Hemingway was miserable. And Virginia Woolf. And Anne Sexton.

I didn’t want to kill myself, as they did. But even the writers who didn’t kill themselves managed a respectable amount of misery.

D.H. Lawrence had a stormy marriage to an obese wife who cheated on him and he died of TB in his forties. Katherine Mansfield had a weird marriage, an unsettled sexuality and died of TB in her thirties.

Then there were all the institutionalized writers: Robert Lowell, Elizabeth Bishop, Ezra Pound. Or those crazy-ass writers who weren’t institutionalized, like T.S. Eliot (who had his poor wife committed instead), Tolstoy and Faulkner.

And it doesn’t help to read Proust’s depressing analysis of the creative impulse:

But all the same, when a living creature is so faultily constituted . . . that he cannot love without suffering, and that he has to suffer in order to apprehend truths, the life of such a creature becomes in the end extremely wearisome. The happy years are lost, the wasted years, one must wait for suffering before one can work. And then the idea of preliminary suffering becomes associated with the idea of work and one becomes afraid of each new literary undertaking because one thinks of the pain one will first have to endure in order to imagine it.

So Sam Leith’s column was a welcome bromide, particularly since I spend large portions of my days closeted in my study wondering if my suffering quotient is sufficient to allow for some good writing. I’ve done the multiple marriages thing. And I have my eccentricities that I’m not going to reveal here.

But overall, I’m a happy camper. And Sam Leith says that’s not a bad thing.

He quotes from E.M. Forster’s journal: “I should have been a more famous writer if I had written or rather published more. But sex prevented the latter.”

And then he observes, “Nobody should have to write, or paint, or sing from the depths of despair, no matter how exhilarating the results. I’m sorry we never got to read Forster’s unwritten novels, but I’m much happier he got laid.”

But just as I was cheering up about being somewhat cheery, I read the posted comments following the Leith piece. And it seems people just do not want their artists happy.

Take alexjensons’s response, for example: “This is an ignorant article, completely detached from the real world . . . [it] makes it sound like happiness is an automatic given. Please. It might be in the pampered halls of mediaville, but not everywhere else.”

And though another respondent points out that Leith’s tone is intentionally tongue-in-cheek, most of the commentaters don’t buy it. The overall assertion is that suffering and art are essentially what butter is to bread—a desirable, though unhealthy component.

On the flip side, however, suffering doesn’t guarantee good art. As EMF4EVER put it: “I know of someone whose life resembles nothing less than the character in Knut Hamson’s Hunger, but unfortunately, he can’t write for shit.”

And the last word goes to CliffordChallenger: “We apparently need this romantic myth of the tortured artist or the artist who dies young, such as Mozart or Schubert. Most lives in history have been miserable without producing memorable art at all.”

Now that’s a happy thought.

—Jo Page

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