Nordpolen Journal: 6/6/13- romanticizing the artist who suffers

Nordpolen Journal: 6/6/13- romanticizing the artist who suffers

San Francisco, CA
June 6, 2013

Pablo Picasso, Massacre in KoreaI 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.

2 thoughts on “Nordpolen Journal: 6/6/13- romanticizing the artist who suffers

  1. In my Arctic imagination there is Frankenstein’s monster leaping onto an ice floe and setting himself on fire. So many artists like Mary Shelley, figuring landscapes they’ve never been to… so I’ll ask one who’s gone to the Arctic (that will be you ;) about suffering (figured from polar experience or not) in the Arctic…. Why are poems and novels written, why screenplays filmed, in places where the writer hasn’t traveled? And what happens to artists when they visit uninhabitable places?


    1. Dear Oblomovshchina- I’m sorry it took so long for me to reply… I just returned from the trip two days ago and have only now been able to settle down to check my blog and begin to think about how to process and write about the journey. I think your question deserves a much more in-depth response than what I could write here as a simple reply… in fact I think your question is the same one I had going into this journey, and what I’m going to be writing over the next few weeks about the trip (and probably the next few years as I make other work related to this experience) will address this question, though I doubt it will ever answer it… but I am so glad you asked, and I will do my best to show you what I saw and experienced and thought about in relationship to that question. I do know one thing I can say for sure… no place is uninhabitable. Anywhere you can cast your inner self, you can inhabit, and that may be the heart of the reason people write about places they have never been… because they are inhabiting it as an inner landscape. Another writer on the journey with me has a book in progress that is set on Svalbard, and she spent a lot of time on the trip reconciling her inner vision of the place (based on research) with what we actually saw. At one point, we landed on a fjord that, unlike the other places we had been, which were rocky and stark, with very little vegetation– this one had green turf, and resembled a place she had imagined in her book that she thought she might have to re-write, as nothing in reality we had seen so far had matched it. She told me that she felt like something had been acknowledged, or come full circle– a kind of inner confirmation as the place imagined reconciled itself with a real place. This, to me, is one of the ineffable parts of writing… how the inner reality and the outer reality circle around one another, and sometimes converge in ways you never could have imagined.


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