Suffer Is to Suffer
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
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
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
I didn’t want to kill myself, as they did. But even the writers
who didn’t kill themselves managed a respectable amount of
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
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
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
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
Now that’s a happy thought.