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Edmund Wilson

Edmund Wilson, author of The Wound and the Bow, argued that suffering was the mother of creativity. But what if suffering and creativity are actually siblings?

Some argue that creativity and genius spring from a profound sensitivity to subtle differences. Such sensitivity, such fine perception, makes possible deep and powerful art. However, it also leaves its possessor wide open to pain and damage from life’s rough and tumble course. The less sensitive miss the subtle insults, the small slights by omission, and the finer points of innuendo. The more sensitive and perceptive do not.

One is, therefore, tempted to speculate that creativity does not, as is so often assumed, come from being wounded or mad or riddled with polarities, ambivalences, and conflicts, but that these difficulties are simply another product of being sensitive. Collateral damage, as the military types would say. Inner torment is not the parent of creativity; it is its sibling.

In the past, critics, psychologists, even artists themselves, have regarded the suffering of creative people as the motivator of creative striving. Art was a way of dealing with the pain, the human equivalent of the irritated oyster smoothing sharp edges by making a pearl. Writing was especially prone to such theorizing and it is not difficult to see why. For more than a century, famous novels have dramatized the lives of artists (tormented, naturally). These novels are regarded as being “deep,” the “deep” material springing from the writer’s own (tormented, naturally) experience. This plethora of agony seemed sure and certain proof that without inner torment one cannot write a profound novel.

The trouble with this seems obvious. Authors who possess the prerequisite sensitivity to subtle differences, yet remain quite normal, have written many powerful, subtle, and perceptive novels. It is entirely possible to be, at the same time, both perceptive and psychologically robust. Critics, psychologists, and many artists simply prefer the torment model. It is so much more interesting, so much easier to talk about, and best of all, so wonderfully Romantic. The whole notion of suffering as the wellspring of creativity stems from carefully selected evidence. A quiet life does not attract biographers, nor does it generate those juicy anecdotes which critics, psychologists, and today’s literary talk show hosts so adore. Art in general, like Christianity before it, has a strong bias in favour of misery and suffering.

Seen from the revised perspective, the view that says inner torment is merely sister or brother to the creative ability rather than its parent, we can look past the old creativity paradigm (Edmund Wilson’s famous, “the wound and the bow”) to form an entirely new one. First, we may assume that inner torment is not a requirement for the production of fine works of art. Second, we may say that where suffering does exist it can do no more than influence what such artists choose as their theme. These sufferers would have been equally fine artists without the pain; their work would simply have gone in another direction.

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