San Francisco, CA
June 6, 2013
I used to romanticize a lot of things: suffering, honor, polar bears. But strangely, I always hated canned sentiment, the kind Hallmark cards are notorious for, or the kind that happens when you are watching a movie and suddenly the music swells and you know you are being told to feel sad and sympathetic.
I’ve never liked being told what to feel or what to think, but I didn’t realize until recently that sometimes what I think and feel is influenced by subtleties, undercurrents, and even the fact of my limited lifespan. After all, how many things can I pay attention to and notice every day if I’m trying to walk down the street listening to a podcast while checking my email and drinking coffee? If, barring accidents and opportunistic maladies, I only live about 80 years… that’s just not enough time to observe life. It’s hardly enough time to read even a fraction of the good books out there, let alone watch all the movies, travel around, think, see, learn. If you keep learning, which I try to do, do you reach a point at which you just have to hit the “cancel/clear” button and wipe some memory so you can make some room for more? I have a pet theory that this what death is for. If we lived any longer we’d all be starkers.
But I’ve strayed from what I’m after… which is the idea of romanticizing personal struggle, and how that makes me want to smack someone with a flyswatter.
In high school, I “qualified” for the advanced literature class. I was so excited and proud. Then I spent a year reading Dostoyevsky, Plath, Turgenev, Sartre… basically every depressed non-American writer that my English teacher could get her hands on. Naturally, I also gravitated to new wave music, so while waiting for Godot, I listened to The Cure, The Smiths, Siouxsie and the Banshees. Talk about a perfect storm… I was a depressive personality to begin with… and here we were reading the most persuasive and lyrical voices of the 20th century arguing for the ultimate alienation and negation of self. If these people, who could make such beauty from suffering, ultimately gave up and offed themselves… well hell… what is the point?
The point is, somewhere along the line, I was fully indoctrinated into the belief that pain and suffering are synonymous with good writing. And frankly, good writing and good art is satisfying because of pain. It isn’t beauty that we respond to really, it’s how painfully beautiful something is. Even humor has an element of pain to it… things that are truly funny have a wry or bitter turn, or set off a sympathetic expansion feeling in the head/heart/gut that is a kind of ouch, in a way, an ouch that makes a burst of laughter in recognizing shared frailty.
Things that do not contain even a kind of homeopathic ghostly reference to pain are really not that compelling. When a child says something unwittingly funny, I would hazard that it is funny because an adult “knows better” or sees it from a more tired perspective… this is also a kind of pain.
Fluffy puppies and kittens of course are not painful at all, which is why they are lovely to look at and play with, but are not art.
Did you see that, what I just did there? I called something art… well, I called something (not) art. The point I’m edging my way toward, or clumsily ham-fisting my way into submission is this: struggle and suffering are often the subjects of good writing and good art because that’s what artists do– they take the things that suck and try to show why they do not suck, or perhaps make them not suck as much by depicting them in a way that is, itself, beautiful.
It is the reaction of people to pain and difficulty that either creates or destroys beauty.
So what I’m saying is, don’t romanticize this act. It isn’t the writer or the artist that we should focus on, eating ramen or tapping on pipes in a gulag to communicate with other imprisoned writers. Focus instead on the thing that put them there.
The drive to create something worthwhile out of pain and confusion and the transient and often unfair nature of life should never be romanticized, because then it becomes tame, controllable, distanced, and unreal. We’ve got to stay close to these things.