Don’t Be Afraid Of The Dark

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.

18 thoughts on “Don’t Be Afraid Of The Dark

  1. “When you look into an abyss, the abyss also looks back at you.” Now that is a true and scary quote. I agree with you in the main. Artists/writers like to find the truth between the cracks, things that others either don’t see, or don’t want to see, and that is often found in the darker elements of us al,l and the world around us. I think your final sentiments sums it up really well. All you can do is follow what calls you and hope for the best. Brill post for sure Derek!

  2. “To look into the abyss, but not fall in,” Derek that was so insightful. I was wondering the same things this week, I realised the books I love to read are dark, even the music…I mean I am at my happiest when there is no sun, cold and dark windy days.

    I could not put it into words…thanks Derek. Thanks for articulating what I needed to but couldn’t

    Beri Bua

  3. I love this peice, my mind is always drawn to the darker side . Personally I don’t have a problem with it. Someone has to do it we can’t all be light hearted optimists or the world would become very boring. However sometimes I fear I lean a little to close into the abyss but something/one always pulls me back. I love the line “when u look into the abyss, the abyss looks into u” great line. Great article to get the mind thinking Derek, thanks for sharing.

  4. As evidenced by my blog, I’m not just drawn to darkness. I like things that are downright lurid. I’m not sure why this is. I’ve had people scold me for it all my life, but it’s what interests me. That artists like Charles Bukowski, Flannery O’Connor, Tennessee Williams, and William Faulkner are remembered means (I guess) there’s an audience for it somewhere out there.

    I think it takes all kinds to make the world go around. It’s funny, though, how puzzled we all are at each other.

    Thanks for the thought provoking post.

    1. I really like your comment that it takes all kinds to make the world go around. I’m good with that because that makes it all interesting. It is also true that people are puzzled at each other about it. What is really puzzling is why people think everyone should see things only the way they do. There is so much more.

  5. It’s funny, I don’t seem like the type, but dark intrigues me. The more disturbing, the more I find myself asking questions. Maybe because the thought process behind “the dark” is so different from my own?

    Good post.

  6. Ah, darkness has always drawn me. In high school I really wanted to become a forensic psychologist, out of the desire to study criminal minds and whatnot (and this was before CSI became a huge hit), and although I abandoned that path when I got to college, I went and became a sociologist. Which means I basically study social problems, and grapple with darkness at a more structural level, rather than at the individual level.

    I haven’t delved deeply into ‘dark matters’ in my writing up to this point, but one of the story ideas I’m currently working on takes me to the seedy underbelly of 19th century San Francisco. There will be crime and murder and some shady dealings, and I’m REALLY excited about that.

    Excellent post!

  7. Another amazing piece, Derek.

    Artists are the Western world’s version of Shamans. And like Shaman in every culture, they wrestle with the shadow side.

    The American Indians tell the story of Crow who pecked at her own shadow until it woke up and consumed her and she became dead crow, the shape shifter.

    Integrating the shadow side is fraught with perils, but you seem to be quite good at it.

  8. Opening up your mind to write on the dark side is dangerous business. Clearly, from what you described above, it’s driven people to madness. Or they were just mad in the first place. Or their unfortunate life experiences drove them to madness, they tried to write about it, but it didn’t help them.

    I do believe people who have hard life experiences tend to be more emotional writers, because they’ve experienced so many themselves.

  9. I think people like to peer into the abyss (usually by way of writing) to explore the possibilities of what to do when they actually fall in. Few people make it through life without some crap or another hitting them. If we study how different people answer the question, we have some guidance. It’s a dry run for disaster.

  10. My novels tend toward the dark side – I am fascinated by the shadow self and also know as a therapist that often clients walk through the darkness to get to the light. After journeying with them in that way, I guess it’s natural I do the same with characters!

  11. This conjures up two images; Anakin Skywalker (“Well the roads go without saying Reg!”) and a film with Robin Williams in called “What dreams may come”. A must watch, if you want to really feel what “The Dark-side” just might be. If you’ve not experienced the dark-side, how can you truly appreciate the good.. Excellent blog my man!!

  12. Do you think the darkness attracts because we know it can consume us? Perhaps questioning, learning, and expressing the darkness is our way of fighting it. We may be warriors, saying “This is out there; beware!” Thank you for another great post, Derek.

  13. Ying and yang. Personally, I reckon it’s best not to examine things too closely. Life is infinitely more tranquil that way. Yes, it’s limiting, Yes, it’s blinkered. But I’d go nuts if I thought about anything deeper than getting through today. But that’s just me.

  14. I’m with Caren. I’m often being told to take my rose tinted glasses off but I’m happy and content wearin them! Having said that this is a great post Derek. I admire those who are brave enough to peer into the abyss. I spend a lot of my time pretending the abyss isn’t even there! A scaredy cat? Maybe. But it works for me.

  15. Maybe we all have the darkness within us. That darkness can produce works of great beauty. The greatest of art which touch us the deepest are those with darkness at their centre.

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