What is a poet? An unhappy person who conceals profound anguish in his heart but whose lips are so formed that as sighs and cries pass over them they sound like beautiful music. And people crowd around the poet and say to him, “Sing again soon”–in other words, may new sufferings torture your soul, and may your lips continue to be formed as before, because your screams would only alarm us, but the music is charming. And the critics step up and say, “That is right; so it must be according to the rules of aesthetics.” Now of course a critic resembles a poet to a hair, except that he does not have the anguish in his heart, or the music on his lips.
–Søren Kierkegaard, Either/Or
“May new sufferings torture your soul.”
An ominous request from a supposed fan. But this piece from the 19th century existentialist philosopher seems to say more about the nature of the artist than the desires of a follower. It speaks of a sort of transformation occurring within the body of the artist and sees the gap between the composer’s creating and the passerby’s hearing.
I’m sure we’ve all listened to a song or some other work and really enjoyed it, then later came to find out “I made this when I was going through…” What did we appreciate–a piece that slaps, or a process that is truly a biological masterpiece? How often do we marvel at those lips which Kierkegaard spoke of, the lips which belong to the bodies who have such compassion for themselves (and for you) as to reconstruct healing artistry from ruin?
The renowned psychoanalyst C.G. Jung takes this remark on art and pain a step further in part of his short essay on “cryptomnesia.” In this research he comments on the psychological mechanisms enabling recollections of hidden memories. While pointing out lived examples of these mnemonic eruptions, he states:
The genius, too, has to bear the brunt of an outsize psychic complex; if he [sic] can cope with it, he does so with joy, if he can’t, he must painfully perform the “symptomatic actions” which his gift lays upon him: he writes, paints, or composes what he suffers.
“He composes what he suffers.” Artwork, for Jung, is the very suffering of the genius. What does this mean for these pieces that are imprints of the soul, transcriptions of trauma? Again, I think it highlights the phenomenal action your body takes to hold steady through the disorienting turns of existence. It’s a sort of redemption, a self-salvation, if you will, which carries hope, meaning and healing to those open to receiving your work bursting with story.
So, then, like the mechanic alchemy which changes the ancient plants and plankton buried hundreds of thousands of millennia ago into the fuel which powers the modern day, so your body transmutes your own past into your creative future. Your body moves the brush, pushes the pen, or strikes the keys with your whole force of being and with everywhere you’ve been.
I don’t mean this piece to be some sort of romanticizing take on looming mental hardship. That shit sucks and requires as much professional attention as one can manage. What I wish to spotlight is one of the amazing processes which your body has developed to help negotiate life with a chaotic world. It’s a mysterious, hard-wired self-compassion, and it’s beautiful in and of itself.
And–while I’m clarifying this piece–let me be sure add that you are not valuable because the work you create is great. You are valuable because living as such is so rare. You are truly a diamond amongst the stars. What other creature have all the astronomical instruments on Earth and in orbit spotted which has such a capacity for life, such strength and resilience as to fashion marvels from mayhem? And as for any critic who doesn’t recognize that value either within you or your work–remember that they have neither the anguish in their hearts, nor the music on their lips.
Sing again soon.