In the sixteenth century, the Aztecs are said to have carried out gory human sacrifices on a grand scale—to the point where at the height of the practice, thousands of prisoners in a day had their hearts torn out of their chests while still alive. To us today this seems a gruesome, primitively violent practice, an ancient atrocity that we can hardly imagine human beings taking part in, except possibly with the aid of a Mel Gibson movie and Hollywood special effects.
Less conspicuous and less bloody instances of human sacrifice, however, are sometimes overshadowed by the works produced through them. Great pyramids, temples, and cathedrals, massive architectural works that still draw tens of thousands of tourists every year, these were often built by slaves or what amounted to the same thing, human beings whose lives were consumed and rendered hardly worth living by the demands of all this beauty and grandeur—when their blood and bones didn’t literally end up in the mortar along with their sweat and tears.
Is it ethical to enjoy works of art that are born out of this sort of sacrifice and suffering?
I am aware that this is a problematic question in and of itself. Apart from the difficulty of understanding what “ethical” means in the first place, there is a certain consensus with regard to ethics that things we cannot really help doing have little ethical status. If we cannot help but find ourselves benefiting from certain works of art, it makes no more sense to ask if that is ethical than it does to ask if tsunamis are ethical (insofar as we do not cause them by global warming, at least), or whether it is ethical to have been born.
There is also the complication that self-sacrifice for the greater good (however defined) is frequently admired, if not asked for. “Greater love hath no man than this…”—and so on. If medical students didn’t make the sacrifice of studying for their exams and working 80 hours a week and more as residents, we wouldn’t have doctors, just to take one example. It would be neat and tidy to say: self-sacrifice, good; sacrificing other human beings, bad. The ethical trouble as I see it is that there is often a fine line between the admirable gesture of self-sacrifice in response to the call of the other and the responsibility undertaken by the other in calling for the sacrifice. It can be difficult to pinpoint where self-will ends and coercion begins, and probably they seldom do anything but overlap.
For now, though, let’s look more closely at the extent to which art and human sacrifice are intertwined. The problem goes considerably deeper, I would say, than a few massive monumental artifacts. When we look at the lives of any number of great and famous painters, composers, poets, novelists, or thinkers, we see both self-sacrifice and other-sacrifice. We see exceptional suffering: self-inflicted, inflicted on others, or just as likely both at once. Watching the biopics and reading biographies, we see melancholy, alcoholism, egomania, mental illness, emotional and social handicaps.
A typical 1996 biopic about the artist Jean-Michel Basquiat shows Basquiat’s girlfriend coming home to find that he has painted all over everything in her apartment, including her dresses, ruining them. She and her defaced wardrobe are one of the early sacrifices to art in the story. We see Basquiat rise to prominence and then self-immolate, dying of a heroin overdose at 27. On the subject of film, only consider briefly the case of Roman Polanski, director of The Pianist, who escaped the Warsaw ghetto as a child; as an adult his pregnant wife was brutally murdered by cult members just two weeks before her due date. He later pled guilty to raping and sodomizing a 13-year-old girl before fleeing the country, and so justice for the girl and her family was sacrificed to his career as a film artist. Clearly this is a man who knows more than a little about suffering and evil, from the standpoint of both enduring and inflicting on others.
There is Wagner, whose music has enraptured everyone from strident Nazi soldiers to fat innocuous bourgeois ladies draped in loops of pearls, who wrote copious, revolting, and to some extent influential anti-Semitic pamphlets, and who formulated an ideal of Teutonic heroism and “Aryan” superiority that served as an inspiration to Hitler, and whose music is seldom played in Israel because of these associations. Or less dramatically, take Brahms, the antithesis of Wagner in the classicism of his music and the quiet and frugal life he lived, a lonely, prickly old bachelor, intensely critical of himself and others, who was a great friend of the Schumanns and loved Clara Schumann hopelessly and most likely unconsummatedly for long years. That quiet life bespeaks a self-hatred that for all we know could well rival the others’ externalized ravings.
Certainly, great artists and thinkers are individuals (and perhaps they might even be considered so—by themselves if by no one else—to a higher degree than ordinary workaday folk), and there must have been some who were actually reasonably well-adjusted, and among those who have not been, the variety and the range of severity of what ailed them has surely been vast. Given that caveat, however, for the purposes of discussion I want to propose a generalized model of a type of person whom I am calling “the artist,” a model that combines a theory about a type of artistic motivation with a number of actual characteristics one stumbles over in reviewing the history of artists and intellectuals. Such a generalized model has its usefulness, despite all the exceptions that won’t fit into it, as long as we carefully bear in mind its artificiality.
Here, then, is a rough theory of what makes people happy and why “the artist” so often misses it. Once basic levels of material sustenance and bodily integrity and safety are attained, what brings happiness is being able to love and be loved, to form positive, mutually sustaining bonds with other people, to experience physical and emotional intimacy on a regular, long-term basis, to feel that one belongs somewhere and has a place in the world. It sounds simple, even clichéd, and it seems that for many people it is—the ability to form these bonds comes naturally to them, or is modeled and taught from earliest childhood.
Some of us, however, either lack the models or the aptitude for this version of happiness. It takes certain skills and knowledge, and a particular type of intelligence is useful in acquiring those skills and that knowledge—an intelligence that may have nothing to do with great art or science or abstract genius. One must understand, for example, the risks involved in forming and maintaining human bonds and be able to differentiate between appropriate risks and those that are too great. One must grasp the imperative of taking an active role in obtaining one’s own happiness and be prepared for the anticlimactic nature of happiness obtained, lest one be overwhelmed by the sudden relative absence of struggle and stress and experience it as a slide into an abyss of emptiness and ennui.
Perhaps most difficult of all, one must trade a sense of oneself as a godlike actor in a cosmic drama for a humbling grasp of one’s reality as a mere human being among billions of others, with human needs like every other’s, and face up to the fear of losing the shining self and the self’s boundaries by admitting and embracing commonalities with the mass of humankind. One must conquer the fear of becoming ordinary, the fear of not becoming a star and not being better than other people. One must see that achieving the satisfaction of these simple, common emotional needs is in itself a work of great value.
And these are just some of the a priori attitude adjustments needed—without even beginning to speak of all the practical skills that have to be developed, like asking people out on dates, giving compliments, finding a flattering hairstyle, and carrying on interactive, balanced conversations.
So, the artist is often someone who, through some combination of heredity and environment, has difficulties in some of these areas, the a prioris, the practicalities, or the whole bit. And finding himself or herself gifted in some other form of intelligence—rhyming words or reading equations, persisting in a thought and following it to its logical end, or sensing the emotional impact of visual combinations of colors and lines, say—the child who will become the artist learns to get praise and attention through what she produces, or at least to take a certain abstract pleasure in her command of the medium. The praise and attention and pleasure, while not sources of long-term happiness in and of themselves, are like a promise of the possibility of happiness, and so they are addictive, and so the child, and then the adolescent, and then the adult, pours more psychic energy into developing these abstract gifts than into mastering the practical skills and knowledge required for long-term happiness.
The artist, then, at whatever age this all takes shape, faces some ordinary source of unhappiness, but has trouble comforting himself through his bonds with those close to him, which is ordinarily a central purpose of such bonds—because this is precisely the area in which the artist is less developed and less gifted. And so he is terribly alone with his unhappiness. Unhappy thoughts wear a groove into the brain as they trudge down the same tracks again and again, unable to go elsewhere because they aren’t shared or given light and air. And so the unhappy thoughts become a pattern and a habit, and the artist falls prone to depression and despair.
The strategies the artist tends to use to combat the despair are sadly such as only perpetuate and may worsen her situation. There is a poignant strategy of indirect communication. In her work she embeds hints and veiled depictions of the truth of her inward condition that she is unable or unwilling to communicate directly. No matter how evident her inner turmoil and how autobiographical her work becomes, it is still always framed as fiction, or least as an artifact, a work, as something separate from the artist herself, as an intermediary and a barrier between the artist and her audience. Still, in these cases, she is producing something rather than speaking, and no matter how voluminously she may write, if that is her medium, she remains in a profound sense voiceless.
The indirect communication is always inordinately prone to misunderstandings. Because it is a work rather than a true dialogue, there is no immediate correction of errors. In a conversation with a friend, you tell a story, your friend mishears a certain detail or doesn’t understand something, the friend can stop you and ask for clarification. You explain, and the story can progress, and your friend can respond with approval, disapproval, curiosity, illumination, or another story of his own. The work of art and its reception is not a conversation, and the history of art and ideas is not a “Great Conversation” in that sense, because a real conversation is immediate. From the standpoint of the psyche, immediacy is the whole point.
Another strategy is excellence—to rise above the crowd, to be better than other people, or at least to be thought so, by producing excellent work. The artist infuses his work with extraordinary craft or charm or interest or shock value or soul, in order to draw people to him, to be noticed, to get attention. As mentioned previously, the attention provides a promise of happiness—the thrill of being noticed, the hope of finally making a connection and breaking out of isolation, of meeting a soul mate. The artwork is a kind of mating call, to draw like-minded others to the artist.
Why this so frequently fails as a strategy is that by the time the artist is excellent (and lucky) enough to be noticed, he is often far more excellent than everyone else. To be noticed by ordinary people who have nothing in common with him and don’t understand his mode of being is a hollow victory. At least, it may seem so to him, and then he may have little hope of finding someone he considers his equal. For in the meantime, his pursuit of excellence and neglect of other human concerns has made him something of a freak. More gently put, he has scaled tall mountains in order to be seen, but once he has attained his pinnacles, no one else can reach him. And it is too late to go back down. He is a changed man, changed from the man he was who had yet to undergo these ordeals, and unlike the great mass of humanity who have no analogous experience and no great desire for it either.
It may be just as bad if not worse for the artist who actually does find her soul mate in this way, through excellence, since the sort of person who will best understand her and be able to decode her private language, seeing through the veil of her indirect communication, is a person who, like her, is stunted in his or her ability to form and maintain sustaining human bonds. And this, I imagine, is how train wreck–type relationships of the Sylvia Plath and Ted Hughes variety come about.
The artist, in this model, wittingly or unwittingly sacrifices his life and the lives of others to the demands of his art, poignantly and self-destructively giving up the potential for human happiness in exchange for excellence in his medium. Granted, for some the practice of art may actually be therapeutic and healing. There is a whole branch of psychotherapy known as expressive therapy (including under its umbrella visual art therapy, writing therapy, dance therapy, and so on) that aims to use the process of creating artwork as a therapeutic tool. These benefits of creative expression are thought to be unrelated to any particular talent in the patient or the quality of the work produced. But for the artist in my model above, art functions rather as a substitute for true therapy and true healing, or as a barrier to it. The artist has no therapist guiding him to use the creative process in way that is constructive and beneficial to his psyche, and more importantly, his talent and the quality of his work are integrally bound up with his self-regard. Art, rather than acting as a medicine for him, is more like a street drug whose unpredictable effects can range from anodyne to ecstasy-inducing, and from judgment-impairing to poisonous.
Given this model of the artist and her relation to sacrifice, how then should we view art and artists? Is the artist’s sacrifice ever like that of medical students who give up some of the best years of their lives to serve society, and whom society so badly needs? And if some people are happiness-challenged from the get-go by birth or upbringing, isn’t it better to sublimate it and channel it into art than simply to go around being troubled in an unproductive sort of way? And what about Harry Lime’s view in the film The Third Man about five hundred years of peace and prosperity in Switzerland and nothing but the cuckoo clock to show for it, while war-torn and chaotic Renaissance Italy produced extraordinary art and intellectual progress? Should we prefer Lime’s Switzerland to his Italy?
I contend that, if we had a choice, we should choose rather to live in a world devoid of art than to allow a single person to be sacrificed to its demands. If the condition were set for us that every human being could be happy and well-adjusted and mentally healthy, but there would be no more art or music or philosophy as we know it, we ought to choose for every human being to be happy and to lose the art. I believe that no film, no matter how sublime or insightful or intelligent or uplifting, no matter how many awards it might win, is worth the rape of a thirteen-year-old girl. I believe that no poetry or novel in the world is worth its author’s suicide, no matter whether it is Nobel prize-winning or takes its place at the very pinnacle of world literature, no matter how many high school and college students end up writing mediocre essays about it. No mother’s grief over a single dead child in war-torn Renaissance Italy under the Borgias is worth any amount of Harry Lime’s Michelangelos and Da Vincis. I will go even further and say that I highly doubt that any work of art or philosophy is worth the breakup of what otherwise might be a happy marriage or love-relationship, or worth breaking the heart or spirit of any man, woman, or child. If I had to give up every philosophical work ever written by Soren Kierkegaard in exchange for his having married his Regine and having made her happy and having been able to be happy with her, there is no question in my mind that this would be the right thing to do (and I say this as someone who was a big fan of Kierkegaard during many angst-filled university years).
Several years ago, psychiatrist and author Peter Kramer, in his book Against Depression, considered at length the relation of clinical depression to art and intellectual achievement. He was struck by what seemed a kind of nostalgic attachment to the notion that depression has considerable value as a catalyst for artistic achievement. He encountered people who essentially voiced implicit or explicit fears that a drug-based cure for depression could impoverish the artistic landscape. In his book, Kramer details developments in scientific research on depression that make clear its character as a physical deterioration of the brain, and compares it as a disease to other diseases such as tuberculosis, epilepsy, and syphilis, which possibly influenced the work of artists such as Doestoyevsky, Dineson, and Nietzsche, and which in our day no one would hesitate to eradicate insofar as possible.
Kramer’s position is chiefly astonishment that anyone would hesitate to wipe depression or any other mental illness off the face the earth. He is also fairly confident that the arts would continue to trundle along as productively as ever, although tastes might shift to reflect the de-romanticization of mood disorder.
But what I want to do here is to pick up where Kramer leaves off, and to pose the question: What if curing depression really did mean the death of art? What then? What if not only curing depression, but providing the social support and whatever else was needful to alleviate the neuroses and emotional or social or moral handicaps that plague “the artist,” what if that left us bereft of a vast portion of the artistic production to which we are accustomed, as a society, to receive and enjoy (or at least consume)?
The ethical question here is not so different from that posed by Dostoyevsky’s character Ivan in The Brothers Karamazov. In the chapter “Rebellion,” Ivan rattles off a gut-wrenching catalogue of atrocities committed against children, including the story of a five-year-old girl abused by her parents.
They beat her, thrashed her, kicked her for no reason till her body was one bruise. Then, they went to greater refinements of cruelty—shut her up all night in the cold and frost in a privy, and because she didn’t ask to be taken up at night ... they smeared her face and filled her mouth with excrement...Can you understand why a little creature, who can’t even understand what’s done to her, should beat her little aching heart with her tiny fist in the dark and the cold, and weep her meek unresentful tears to dear, kind God to protect her? ... Why, the whole world of knowledge is not worth that child’s prayer to “dear, kind God”!
Shortly thereafter, Ivan asks Alyosha:
Imagine that you are creating a fabric of human destiny with the object of making men happy in the end, giving them peace and rest at last, but that it was essential and inevitable to torture to death only one tiny creature—that baby beating its breast with its fist, for instance—and to found that edifice on its unavenged tears, would you consent to be the architect on those conditions? “No, I wouldn’t consent,” said Alyosha softly.
Of course, Ivan was after God, here, not art, and the question was whether a just God, a God worth believing in, could really be author of such atrocities. But indeed religion and art have a good deal in common, in their demand for sacrifices and mysticism and worship, as well as their promises of solace and edification and redemption. Suppose, then, we pose the question differently: Suppose the child in the outhouse, rather than weeping out a prayer to “dear, kind God,” instead cries her plea and her misery in the form of a song or a poem of heartbreaking beauty. Suppose as this child grows up, she turns all her weeping into some form of art and in this way creates works of extraordinary and sublime genius. Does this beauty and this genius come at too great a cost for us?
Imagine that you were the architect, then, of all the world and history of art, the whole array of beautiful, inspiring, unsettling, thought-provoking, and cathartic works that have been created to the present day and are still to be created in the future, but that it was necessary to found this edifice upon the torture of just one small creature, the crying child in the outhouse. Could we consent to build a world of art on that condition?
I, for one, would answer as Alyosha does. What we collide with here, perhaps, is the old debate between utilitarianism, or calculations of the greatest good for the greatest number, versus a categorical imperative, that is to say, the idea that our rational faculties must perceive at least some things we categorically ought or ought not to do, regardless of how many peripheral benefits might result. When it comes to the notion of human sacrifice, taking for example the misery or death of a child in exchange for the lives or ease of any number of other people, I find myself squarely and immovably on the categorical imperative side, although not in any way that seems particularly rational or reason-driven that I can tell. Rather, faced with the image of the child in the outhouse, I find in myself no will to think or argue, but only a great, massive, insurmountable No, a No so coextensive with my consciousness that if it ever faltered it seems to me that my very selfhood would disappear. This feels more like the opposite of reason to me, and so it is possible that I am a fool in this, and by not giving due consideration to the question I am missing some proof that would explain all and bring me to believe the contrary with regard to what I could allow, but if so, then I prefer to remain a fool. If others cannot follow me here, there is little to be done besides acknowledging that we part ways.
I find little logical or emotional distinction between the unsanctionable sacrifice of Dostoyevsky’s child and the horrific Aztec sacrifices of captured prisoners. The artist and thinker who are sacrificed to art and thought, or those whom they sacrifice, are not so different from Dostoyevsky’s miserable child in their worth and in their potential and in their capacity for suffering. We are all not so different from that child, which is clearly the whole point of the story. And so likewise, I am categorically against the notion that any work of art could be worth the sacrifice of the mental or moral or physical health, or the happiness, of a human being.
Of course, this whole train of thought is purely theoretical, as we can’t choose between chucking all of Wagner’s operas in exchange for the Holocaust never having happened, or healing Virginia Woolf’s wounds of the psyche in exchange for losing all her novels. Not only can we not reach into the past and rearrange things into a more ethically pleasing pattern, but in the present and future, we can hardly choose to make everything all better for each artist who fits our model. We can’t prevent every childhood trauma or inherited psychic or physical weakness or romantic disappointment of adolescence that might end up sublimated as art.
Further, suppose one were to go to the artist and say: “Look here, you are clearly suffering, and this isn’t needful. Look after your own happiness and health and take responsible care of those around you, even if it comes at the expense of your art. No one will mind, we would rather you be happy and secure in loving bonds of family and friendship and intimacy.” For one thing, the inwardness of the artist is hidden from us, and we can’t ever really know for sure to what extent or in what respects a particular artist may correspond to our model. And if we do guess correctly that a given artist resembles our model in important respects, and if the artist were to hear this from us, how should she believe what is said if it runs contrary to her experience and deeply held beliefs, to what she feels is expected of her from other quarters? “You must not waste your gifts and your talent, your audience needs you, you are not meant for an ordinary life and you are no good at it anyhow, succeed and you will be loved, be a star and you will be worthy of love,” and so on, these are the messages she has possibly internalized through long hearing or imagining, from “stage” mothers or demanding teachers or her few peers or from herself. Certainly, as well, the artist cannot be forced to mature or heal against her will or at a pace of which she isn’t capable.
Often enough, those with mental illness or neurosis or inappropriate coping strategies are strongly attached to their illness and their strategies, and don’t wish to be cured. For the illness and strategies carry with them their own forms of addictive intoxication, as I mentioned above in describing the model of the artist for whom recognition provides a mesmerizing but frequently empty promise of happiness. Thus, even if one could accurately diagnose a precise problem or set of problems in the artist, and even if one had every right and justification and full opportunity to offer the artist some type of help or treatment, the artist could still resist or refuse any such offers. As he is a grown-up person and an autonomous human being, there is then nothing to be done.
It does some good, though, just for us to take the point that art can consume artists and those close to them as sacrificial victims and that the art we enjoy from our vantage point as audience will at times have come at a monstrous and unforgivable human cost. The deeper this understanding works its way under our skin, the more likely we are to temper our respect for art with a far greater respect for life, that is, real and immediate life, ordinary everyday unadorned life, life lived well and happily without hang-ups about being excessively bourgeois or untheatrically content. In turn, we may then be more drawn to art that reflects these values, art that is as cheerful at its source as it is thoughtful or profound, art that proceeds from a fundamentally humane and sane worldview.
While we are at it, it can’t hurt to go further and rethink how our traditional canon has been formed. Our tastes in art and literature have historically been shaped and handed down in a kind of self-legitimizing circle, as our tastemakers have been critics, scholars, and academics with artistic temperaments, if not actually artists manqués. It wouldn’t be surprising if this had more than a little to do with why our canon is full of works that enshrine the darker values and equate despair with profundity and madness with genius. If a revaluation of values with regard to art and life were to take place, actions like boycotting Wagner might come to seem less philistine to outside observers, if they ever did seem so.
Perhaps also, if society’s collective attitude were gradually to turn towards a rejection of our contemporary version of human sacrifice, this new spirit of the times could sweep through enough corners to find and influence those near to the artist, and even the artist himself. Understanding the toll art can take on the artist and those around him has all the more worth, of course, if it is not just members of the audience but those closest to the artist or young budding genius—parents, peers, teachers, lovers, and loved ones—who understand, so that rather than pushing and pressuring, or permitting too much under the justification of giving fee rein to develop a talent, they can be supportive and value his health above his work and encourage him to do the same. Naturally, it is best of all if it is the artist himself who understands the danger and can then take steps to secure his own health and happiness and refuse to be a sacrifice. If a new spirit of the times could convey this revalued set of values to him and his near ones, then just by deciding that we find the sacrifice unacceptable, we will have done some good.
In the meantime, to the artist or would-be artist, or the aspirer who may never be great or famous but still has an inner life like that of the artist I described, I say, your health and your happiness and that of those around you and for whom you are responsible, these things are more important than any work of art you will ever produce. Your own soul and your own life should be the first and most carefully wrought masterpieces that tower over every other thing you achieve.
But then, I might be asked, if we should encourage the melancholy poet, for the sake of his mental health, to play hooky for a day and leave off writing his nihilistic epic to go watch a soccer game and then have a hoagie and a beer at the local dive bar with some buddies—if the little seven-year-old child prodigy can be forgiven for putting off writing her twenty-third symphony in order to play Barbies with her friends and chase butterflies in the park and make faces at the giraffes in the zoo—can’t we say the same for the medical student studying for her exams, or the firefighter who wants to change careers because crawling in and out of burning building to rescue babies is too risky and stressful? Suppose Louis Pasteur had been too busy de-stressing, eating bonbons and going to therapy appointments, to discover the principles behind vaccines? The self-sacrifice of the doctor and firefighter are good for society, and likewise the poet and the composer can contribute to the greater good through their hard work. Really it’s a shame to think of any of these bright people wasting their talents and gifts. And wouldn’t it be stopping up a great wellspring of human progress, to deny the legitimacy of self-sacrifice for society’s greater good?
Of course, the range of what can fall under the term self-sacrifice spans a wide spectrum, from putting in a few extra hours at work to the example of Sydney Carton in A Tale of Two Cities, who chooses to die in place of Charles Darnay for the sake of his beloved Lucie. The closer we get to the Sydney Carton extreme, the more problematic self-sacrifice becomes. It is not trivial that Sydney Carton had to drug Charles Darnay in order to take his place in death, because Darnay could never have allowed it consciously. One shrinks from imagining the sense of guilt Darnay and Lucie must feel at the thought of the price of their happiness. Further, suffering or death that are freely chosen—insofar as such a choice can truly be free—as an act of self-sacrifice can inflict unbearable emotional pain on the self-sacrificer’s family and loved ones. And the image of Dostoyevsky’s child in the outhouse is hardly less nightmarish if the child has chosen to be there to save another. We allow police officers and firefighters and soldiers to risk their lives for our benefit, but we do not ask them to meet certain death, and if anything less than the greatest care is taken to minimize the risk they run, it provokes a public outcry, shakes our faith in democracy, and with any luck leads to a change in leadership—and all with good reason.
We need the people who put in extra hours at work. We need the police officer, the firefighter, and in the worst and most desperate circumstances, perhaps, the soldier. We also need art. We need beauty, entertainment, enlightenment, sublimity, and shock. But where do we draw the line as to what we will allow in order to satisfy our needs? My argument, at least in the case of the artist, is that we draw the line at any point where health—mental, moral, or physical—is threatened. Beyond that point it is for us, the audience, and not the artist to sacrifice, by being willing to give up art if that is what it takes to spare the artist or her loved ones. If anything, the artist at that point should sacrifice by refusing to become a sacrifice or sacrifice others for the sake of artistic greatness.
Such a sacrifice beyond the point of sacrifice—sacrificing sacrifice itself, as it were—can be made on both sides in a kind of leap of faith, a Kierkegaardian faith in an absurd result, that in the movement of giving up what we valued so highly, we will get back all that we gave up and more. For there is an alternate vision of how art may arise from the artist, beyond the vision of suffering and beyond even that of art as therapy: a vision of art created out of health and abundance and the enjoyment of mastery, rather than out of sickness and poverty of spirit and impotence—art as play, art out of joy. (Ironically enough when we consider the source, this vision finds expression in Nietzsche’s idea of philosophizing out of sickness versus philosophizing out of health in the prelude to The Gay Science.)
Suppose, then, that the artist faces her fears of becoming ordinary, common, losing her genius edge, by doing what must be done in order to find happiness for herself—forsaking at least for a time her strategies of indirect communication and excellence in order to learn the same things bakers and garbage collectors and accountants have to learn if they are to be happy, communicating directly, loving and being loved independently of extraordinary accomplishments. Having crossed the chasm into normalcy, she may not find her way back. She might end up as an accountant or a florist or a housewife. That will likely be the case if her drive to live as an artist was coextensive with the roots of her original despair. And if that is the case she is likely better off happy as an accountant than despairing and suffering as a painter or novelist or what have you. But if the artist finds herself on the other side still possessed of her gifts as before, still with ideas welling up in her, and still with the means to realize them, she has the choice of continuing to practice her art. Her works may now lack any glamour contributed by narcissism or nihilism, but will be the work of a sane and mature personality, and will reflect this. Her life will be better, and her art will also be better—at least, to the taste of those who value such things.
Further, fate willing, we will not lose our artists’ work early, as did the audience of Kleist or Woolf or so many others. As audience, we may end up with fewer artists, but better ones, and longer-lived ones. And that would be a result well worth sacrificing for.
THERESE DOUCET lives near Washington, D.C. with her husband and daughter. Her translation of Rilke's poem "Liebes-Lied" has been set to music in a choral work by the American composer Giselle Wyers, forthcoming from Santa Barbara Music.