A while back, I was playing a friend a few of my original songs. These wouldn’t have necessarily been the darkest of the bunch, but he still turned around afterwards and said something to the effect of, “Those are some heavy lyrics.” This made me stop and think: why am I attracted to the darkness?
When I was studying for a Literature degree, it was the writers who dealt with the darker subjects that piqued my interest, the likes of Samuel Beckett or Robert Lowell. And I’m obviously not the first writer or reader to be drawn to the darker side of life. But why: why are we drawn to people with troubled lives, or people who write about troubled lives?
Is that what we were put here for, to examine the darker side of life? To look into the abyss, but not fall in. I read a quote about Robert Lowell that talked about “the appreciation for madness that he cultivated”. And it seems to me that that is what many of these great artists do, they face down the things that others are not willing to engage with. Lowell faced down madness; Beckett faced down the futility of existence. And the most important thing is, they didn’t balk, they continued on. There are exceptions, of course: Sylvia Plath, Anne Sexton, Van Gogh, and many more besides. But there are even more who didn’t balk, and continued to spend their lives dealing with these subjects, to leave something behind for us.
There are side effects to living this way; how could there not be? As Nietzsche said, “When you look into an abyss, the abyss also looks into you.” Lowell suffered from manic depression and had many stays in hospital; Beckett experienced mental problems when he was a young man. Others have dealt with alcoholism and drug addiction. So, why do it? Why write about these things if they cause such anguish?
But this suggests that any of them had a choice. It sounds clichéd, but writers don’t choose their subjects, their subjects choose them. It’s what they grew up reading or were interested in, combined with their personalities. And the personality is a vital part of it. If you have a light-hearted personality, you’re probably not going to be writing War and Peace. If you have a darker personality, then you become Charles Bukowski or Philip Larkin.
But as far as the figure of the dark, brooding artist goes, that’s nonsense. No one cultivates that image while they’re alive; it’s applied to them afterwards. So, while this generation can look back at the insane painter or the alcoholic writer and think they were “cool”, no doubt for the artist and the writer, it was no barrel of laughs. No one chooses to suffer from mental illness, and very few actually decide to become alcoholics or drug addicts; it’s something that happens to them, sometimes unconsciously. Do you think Van Gogh wouldn’t have been happier out painting landscapes with a peaceful mind?
But someone has to look to the dark side because that’s where the truth lies. David Lodge said: “Literature is mostly about sex and not much about having children; and life is the other way round.” And it’s true. Because you can’t write about life as this happy-go-lucky existence when you only have to look around and see what’s really going on. I could make a conscious decision in the morning to write light-hearted fiction and never again approach some of the subjects that I write about. But my mind would wander before long back to the same thoughts. The fact of the matter is, the truth is in the darkness. It’s no coincidence that, from the Greeks to the Elizabethans, tragedy has been regarded as the highest form of drama. Somebody’s got to look into the abyss and just hope they don’t fall in.
So – people will say – stop asking the questions. But, I don’t have a choice. It’s bad enough if you’re an intelligent human being and it doesn’t dawn on you to ask questions; it’s worse if it does dawn on you but you choose not to.
It’s certainly possible to spend your life not taking anything seriously and not asking any of these questions. I don’t know if that makes your life less stressful or not. Maybe it all depends on your personality. But, nonetheless, it is possible to do. But, when you get to the end and look back, would you not feel like you’d wasted your life? Of course, Beckett on his death bed said that life had taught him “precious little”, so there’s no guarantee that asking the questions will get you anywhere either. At the end of the day, all you can do is follow your heart and/or your head, and do whatever it is you think you’re supposed to do.
Image: Samuel Beckett painted by Louis le Brocquy.