Nor I Beheld Aught: The Artist and Suffering... and Joy

"Fear not suffering - the sadness
Give it back to the weight of the Earth
the mountains are heavy, heavy the oceans.
Ah, but the breezes, ah, but the spaces - "
~Rainer Maria Rilke

I would like to explore the necessity of suffering to the artist. Some suffering is inescapable in life, but what do you say - is it on equal footing with joy, or does it create better and richer than the happy times? Are the romantics right to write in despair?

The romantics shall do as they choose, but I've never been particularly drawn to the brooding-artist image above any other. In my favorite idea of myself—and I'm narcissist enough to have many—I'm actually a little happy-go-lucky; humming and talking to myself, laughing randomly at things that pop into my mind, head often tilted back toward the sky, hands always ready to reach out to the nearest flowers.

I won't bore you by listing the ranges of angst that keep me from being entirely the charmed soul I'd like to be. Suffice it to say that the brooding side of me exists, and affects every day of my life—but I fight it with everything I have, including this usually-cheery blog.

My experiences aside, suffering is a common theme among artists. Probably because the stronger forms of suffering, like those of beauty, are felt too deeply for words and must be expressed through transcendental powers like art, literature, and music. Masha expresses this well when she says:
...I do think that there is a tendency for the artist to feel deeply, and feeling deeply, to suffer in and for the world. That suffering, mingled with the joys of life, with the daily things, is boiled down in the soul of the artists until all his works well forth from these rich, fully infused memories, what Rilke described as "blood remembering".
Or, as Chaim Potok put it:
"For all the pain you suffered, my mama. For all the torment of your past and future years, my mama. For all the anguish this picture of pain will cause you. For the unspeakable mystery that brings good fathers and sons into the world and lets a mother watch them tear at each other’s throats. For the Master of the Universe, whose suffering world I do not comprehend. For dreams of horror, for nights of waiting, for memories of death, for the love I have for you, for all the things I remember, and for all the things I should remember but have forgotten, for all these I created this painting—an observant Jew working on a crucifixion because there was no aesthetic mold in his own religious tradition into which he could pour a painting of ultimate anguish and torment."—from My Name is Asher Lev*
(Mr. Pond, if you're wondering, did not post Friday, perhaps due to Easter-related busyness.)

Masha's question for the week intrigues me. Does the artist create better out of suffering, or are joy and sorrow equals in their benefit to the artist?

I would claim that the best joys, like the stronger forms of suffering and beauty, can often not be described without art. Depression has been good for my writing, but so has getting married. So has becoming Catholic, an experience in which sorrow and love have mingled beyond my ability to talk about. Anything that requires transcendental expression is material for the artist; not just the pain, but the haunting delights and yearnings of living. Tolkien has put it better than I could:
The consolation of fairy-stories, the joy of the happy ending: or more correctly of the good catastrophe, [is] the sudden joyous “turn” (for there is no true end to any fairy tale). . . In its fairy-tale—or otherworldly—setting, it is a sudden and miraculous grace: never to be counted on to recur. It does not deny the existence of dyscatastrophe, of sorrow and failure: the possibility of these is necessary to the joy of deliverance; it denies (in the face of much evidence, if you will) universal final defeat and in so far is evangelium, giving a fleeting glimpse of Joy, Joy beyond the walls of the world, poignant as grief.—from On Fairy Stories**
Or, from Frederick Buechner:
"...yet the tears that come to our eyes at the joy of the fairy tale are nevertheless essentially joyous tears because what we have caught a glimpse of, however fleeting, is joy itself, the triumph, if not of goodness, at least of hope. And I do not think it is entirely fanciful to say that it is not only in fairy tales that we have glimpsed it." from Telling the Truth***
It's Holy Saturday as I write. Lou has Bach's St. Matthew Passion playing, and tonight is the Easter Vigil in which there are joys I can most definitely not explain in bare words. But tied up in these Holy Week celebrations is the hope of paradise, of the "sudden joyous turn", and perhaps that is why I choose to write fairy tales—because while suffering has had its effect on my artistry, so have the glimpses of joy. I won't promise a happy ending to every story I tell, but I do write toward the hope of paradise.

* Quoted from Goodreads, as I don't have a copy of Asher Lev handy. The wording is at least close to the original.

** Quoted from Eucatastrophe: Hope Beyond the Walls of the World on Pages Unbound

*** Quoted from my friend Jana. Three cheers for the Internet!


  1. I'm just so glad to know that others are full of ideas of themselves..mine vary, depending on what seems most attractive ~ sometimes I'm full of artistic brooding, other times I'm more realistic.

    This was amazing though, and I agree that married and a good faith life are good for art, I don't know about you, but my husband really helps me see well the world around me, and love it just a little bit more. Linking it in with Holy week was a fantastic idea as well! It's true that all the beauty of Holy week wouldn't be if not for the joy of Easter!
    Loved it. Happy Easter!

  2. Thanks, Masha! This one was a lot of fun to write. And yeah, I don't know why, but varying self-images have always been part of my life. I'm glad to know I'm not the only one. :)

    Happy Easter to you, too!


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