Saturday, 3 April 2021

Accidents and substance

Some people seem to have aerodynamic souls.  They go through life causing barely an eddy in the great stream of the world.  After painless childhoods, they grow up, get a job, get married, get a family, get old and die - all as effortlessly as a fish moves through water.  Often, they are deeply content; but they never appear in history.  They are completely invisible, and live, if at all, only through their children who carry their name and perhaps a faint memory of endless summer holidays spent with a smiling, faceless couple.

Contrast them with those who travel through life with all the grace of a thrown brick.  Whatever smoothness existence requires at a particular moment for an easy passage, they proffer only corners and edges.  They have desperate, terrible childhoods which they carry around for the rest of their lives like criminal records.  Adolescence is a painful cosmic joke.  If they marry at all, it is always the wrong person; if they have children, they have too many or at the wrong time.  Their home is a disaster: constant repairs, burglaries, fires.  In old age they are plagued by illness, and are abandoned by their relatives.  Death, when it comes, comes too late, or at an embarrassing moment, or messily.  But these are people whose days are richly textured, and who wear life's scars like medals.  And you remember the look in their eyes for ever.

Most of us fall between the two, divided between a cowardly desire for an easy, painless path through this world, and a craving for incident.  As ever, we cheat and compromise: we seek comfort in reality and fulfilment in fantasy.  We may daydream about the ideal partner; imagine the success and riches of our own business; begin to think about planning that daring holiday; but we make do with a nice semi-detached, 2.4 kids and a dog.

To compensate, we turn to the great surrogates.  There is entertainment, whose constant, specious excitement fills temporarily the yawning gaps in your soul, without real engagement or risk; and there is art, whose basic premise is that its creators offer you their suffering and exaltation in return for honour, a little money, and absolution for their lives.

Absolution because the greatest artists have always failed, have always been social misfits, bad wives and husbands, spendthrifts, political dupes, cripples and emotional wrecks.  They were profound creators not just because they suffered, but because they were able to channel that anguish into art, to win from it self-knowledge, knowledge about life and death which we gratefully receive.  Genius is never enough; to create a masterpiece, a Mozartian facility must be married with a Mozartian misery.

When we envy unthinkingly the great writers, painters, composers and the rest, we should remember the price they paid - usually unwillingly - for their glory.  And when we are in pain, or robbed or beaten, when we are tricked by shysters, when we are burnt by deep and hopeless love, lacerated by loss of family, or ravaged by disease, we should remember that like those artists we too have the possibility of seizing from vicissitudes something other than raw despair, of gaining through these accidents of life a real and lasting inner substance.

(1989)

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