Art, Alcohol and Depression

WE ALL KNOW about the somber, yet weirdly attractive, myth associated with art, and artists. The scene is all set. Behind a simple desk, deep into the night, is an open collared, boozy, melancholic painter or novelist, driven slightly out of his mind, in order to produce a luminous piece of art. It’s very tempting to be teleological about it. The idea is ancient. Early Greeks called it entheos when a slight insobriety was sought to provoke inspiration. Though there is some truth in the concept of entheos, the romanticization of the lifestyles of Hemingway or Van Gogh, seems to either avoid or answer cheaply, the question of depression.

Why are some surprised, and even disappointed, when told that Mozart’s mental condition was probably genetic and not induced by musical virtuoso? Well, when applied universally and not only to Mozart, the disappointment arises from two corollary realizations. First, that there is no maddening truth hidden in art. Secondly, it means the abolition of the pornographic wish that someone ought to find that trueness and, preferably, to be maddened by it. By the way, don’t be astonished to find out that this type of cynicism is present wherever there is a mystical or esoteric fantasy. Its not quite the human sacrifice of our ancestors, but the same old wish to see it happen is still there, especially if one could have a disclosure of the occult in return.

In the wake of Robin Williams’ suicide, a sense of confusion gripped those who knew the flamboyant, energetic, almost uncontrollable persona of the comedian. That he had such an appreciation of humour and playfulness, yet so tormented with bottomless depression. Sometimes, the hardest thing to spot is that which is staring you right in the face. I realized this half wondering about the contradiction myself and came to remember Richard Pryor and Chris Farley (who became so lonely in his last days that he paid a prostitute to hang out with him. When they began arguing about money, the lady left, with Farley right behind her, begging her to stay. That’s when he collapsed. His final words were “don’t leave me”) and many other troubled comedians. Jason Pargin wrote a brilliant article about the tragedy of humour. In a lethargic, almost aggressive manner, he reflected on how the comical often served as a masquerade for a much darker core: a ruined childhood, a mental disorder. Remember also how much of humour is self-irony. So the trauma starts living off you. Your skin colour if you’re black, your obesity if you’re fat, your foreignness, your mental instability. Pargin put it bluntly, even hauntingly, when he wrote that this was the clown feeding on the human being, and not only that, it was feeding on all the traumas and insecurities of that very being.

I saw the distinction here as well. Sylvia Plath and Mozart could all be very depressive. They articulated this in their craft. Of course, in comedy that would be a complete non-sequitur. When Mozart had an occasional go at humour in his signed letters, it was scatological. And even so, what about the lazy suggestion that humour keeps us sane? The suggestion is lazy, becomes it means nothing, though it sounds like something. Humour is the confirmation of our insanity. Try to picture the vastness of the universe, its chaos, its meaninglessness, its random disposition, its self destruction, and imagine somewhere in all this, certain ingredients of the universe has met to produce conscious mammals, who now sit round a bonfire on a hostile planet, all looking at each other bewildered, finding no other reaction to this absurdity than mere laughter. It seems disarming, though it’s perfectly insane.

The brilliant Ned Vizzini, who committed suicide, wrote about how life was being like a “reverse nightmare” and that it sometimes felt as if he was, not waking up from, but waking into a nightmare. This is painfully revealing. The utter graveness of those words hinted at a chronic twist to his suffering. Nothing is quite like the sight of an expressive mind also being incurably desolate. The most useful literature on depression or bipolar is not in psychiatry or psychology, but happens to be of Sylvia Plath, or Virginia Woolf, or Stephen Fry. Even then, such a compliment can only be pitiful at best. And so, when you need catharsis, art is apathetic. It doesn’t heal you, and even, throuh self-exploration, deepens your wounds. Its a mirror of the self. Perhaps only vaguely, or partly, but always there is a small hint of exposure. Being still magnetized to such fate might at first seem masochistic, but it is true that the manic sometimes can only think through colour, or movement, or note or prose. The true tragedy presents itself when this arousal turns into depression and one can no more see anything but through the lenses of self-pity.

And so people are right to point out that there is a triumvirate here between creativity, intoxication and mental illness, though the circle of cause and effect is much less romantic and more practical than imagined. Those who do have a mental disorder, or a proneness in that direction, are proportionally more allured by art. The implication here is of course more than disturbing. Just as much as the silly clown or the open-collared drunkard feeds of its victim, so does our culture, the viewers, the readers, the onlookers. You and me.

Written by Hanad Ali
Picture Credit: Symphony of Love


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