“Is there another life? Shall I awake and find all this a dream? There must be, we cannot be created for this sort of suffering.”—John Keats
John Keats knew suffering intimately. Born into straitened economic circumstances, he lost both parents at a young age and had to depend on a guardian who seems to have been rather indifferent. Plagued by the tuberculosis that would eventually kill him, he also lost two beloved brothers to the illness. He was unable to marry the one great love of his life, Fanny Brawne—his letters to her are some of the most exquisite in English literature. Mocked by the most influential critics of his time, his poetry never reached a wide audience in his short lifetime. He died a protracted and agonizing death at 25, an age when many artists have their greatest work ahead of them.
Yet in just six years, he produced some of the finest and most beautiful poems in the English language. One mourns for what he might have accomplished had he lived. But his achievement stands.
One would be facile and glib to assert either that Keats’ art came out of his suffering or that his suffering was caused by his art. Those old canards should be swept into the dustbin of history along with the notion that writing causes alcoholism or vice versa. These “ideas” have led far too many impressionable young minds into addiction or madness and kept addicts from seeking the help they need for fear of losing their creativity. (I speak from personal experience as well as extensive research.) Nevertheless, the coexistence of creativity with mental illness and addiction is undeniable and countless famous examples can be adduced, from Van Gogh to Robert Lowell to Kurt Cobain, to mention just a few. As Carl Jung noted, “There are hardly any exceptions to the rule that a person must pay dearly for the divine gift of the creative fire.”
I am obviously not a geneticist, but some of my study of this question indicates that many conditions are correlated without one necessarily causing the other and I hazard that psychiatric challenges all too frequently reside alongside artistic ability. However, this fact is by no means entirely tragic. My own experience again in addition to my extensive study of the lives and works of many artists, especially writers, has led me to believe both that mental disorders and be a spur to one’s creativity and that creative endeavors help one to cope with emotional challenges. For example in the case of mood disorder, mania can provide a great deal of energy for making art and depression can provide a respite. Neither is necessary, of course, for creativity at any level, but the creativity may be both compensation and a way to cope. (This seems less—if at all—true in the case of addiction. The belief that abuse of
alcohol or drugs makes one more creative is dangerous and potentially fatal. Every artist I’ve known and many that I’ve read about who got clean went on to produce more and better work.)
“In this short Life that only lasts an hour/How much - how little - is within our power” –Emily Dickinson
We all have to play the cards we are dealt at birth and acquire throughout our lives. We have no power over these things, nor over most external events we encounter. However, we do have the ability to use what we have as best we can. If one is blessed with creativity, with artistic talent, one can practice it with energy and dedication. My personal philosophy tells me that if I have the gift of poetry and other writing, however small, I am under obligation to make use of it, not only for my own satisfaction or pleasure, but also for the sake of others who might benefit or at least be diverted. The fact than emotional challenges can provide fuel for my work and that my work can bring momentary relief (Frost’s “momentary stay against confusion”) and possibly joy or sustenance to others is a strong motivation. One sees evidence every day of the powerful appetite people have for art of all kinds during this
period of quarantine and fear of illness. We are fortunate that so many artists and institutions are rising to the challenge of providing artistic experiences in novel ways. I am proud of my own very small part in this great outpouring.
The great German poet Rainer Marie Rilke, no stranger to physical and emotional difficulties who yet managed to produce a remarkable body of work, once said, “Who speaks of victory? To endure is all.” I do not believe he means teeth-gritted, clench-fisted existence. This endurance entails accepting what comes, rising to challenges, making full use of one’s gifts, and endeavoring to find joy in the midst of suffering. Those of us even modestly gifted necessarily remain mindful of the need to endure and carry on.