Camera obscura, part II - Paying the price for inspiration

Maybe there is an alternative to Socrates’ “divine madness”: drunkenness, eroticism, dreaming. Look at our greatest artists. Michelangelo was a person with bipolar syndrome who portrayed himself as a flayed martyr in his paintings. Henri Matisse gave up a lawyer practice and became a painter because of appendicitis. Robert Schumann began composing only after his right hand was paralyzed, ending his concert pianist career. Cervantes’ career as a novelist came only after he was wounded at the battle of Lepanto. He was unemployable and so, sensible as he was, he became a tax collector, but in his vigor to be fair, he foreclosed on a Catholic Church . . . during the Inquisition. From prison, waiting for the sentence of either life or death, (a strong motivator for creativity,) he wrote “Don Quixote,” the most published book in history after the Bible.

Frederick Nietzsche’s influence remains substantial within philosophical circles, notably in existentialism and post-modernism yet he went insane from syphilis. Mozart showed prodigious ability from his earliest childhood but was also bipolar and had uremia. Frida Kahlo’s work is celebrated in Mexico as emblematic of national and indigenous tradition. She contracted polio at age six, leaving her right leg thinner than the left. Lord Byron, an English poet and a leading figure in Romanticism, suffered with depression and a congenital deformed foot. El Greco had astigmatism, which is why he distorted human bodies in paintings, stretching everyone’s arms and legs.

Vincent Van Gogh, the Dutch postimpressionist, may have suffered from Ménière’s disease, an affliction of the inner ear that causes pain, disorientation, dizziness and misery. Some believe “Starry Night” illustrates his dizziness. When you see the painting in real life, you are almost disorientated with its beauty. I almost fainted when I first saw it, almost sucked into the whirling universe of stars. And you despair, too, because the light in the church steeple is out. The church is dark and dead, while the stars dance their courses. Have you ever lay on your back and stared at the stars? Sometimes you have to grab onto the Earth because it feels like everything is reversed and you are falling up. That’s what “Starry Night” does.

Paganini, the greatest violin player that ever lived, struggled with tuberculosis, depression, syphilis, kidney stones and inflammation in his jawbone or osteomyelitis of the jawbone. The doctors gave him mercury for the syphilis until all his teeth fell out, his skin turned grey-white and his hair fell out. He had Ehlers-Danlos syndrome, a congenital disease that left his joints so flexible he could touch his thumbs to his wrists. He was a walking corpse. But when he played the violin, he was an angel.

Imagine all of the portraits of the Saints, smiling, performing miracles as they are being tortured and killed, rapture on their faces as they transcend mortality itself in the moment of their greatest pain.

Theodore Gericault painted a world-changing masterpiece called the “Raft of the Medusa,” based on an actual shipwreck, showing a handful of suffering castaways that survived out of 150 people left adrift on a raft after their ship sank. During that time, Gericault abandoned his fiancé, who was also pregnant. He starved himself, cut his hair, wore his clothes to rags, and cut himself off from all friends for the two years it took to paint the picture. He locked himself inside his studio, and surrounded only by the rotting cadavers and severed heads and limbs he studied for the painting. I don’t think he did this for artistic accuracy. I think he did it to punish himself, to try to duplicate the experience of horror, to almost become one of the maddened survivors of that catastrophe. He painted the experience almost as a witness. He finished the painting and then killed himself. He was 32.

Think about all the rock stars and movie stars on heroin, alcohol or any number of self-destructive things. Take away their struggle and suffering, and give them money, fame, make it easy for them, have people telling them they whatever they do or say or create is wonderful and brilliant. Then they’re lost.

Sometimes it’s not self-destruction it’s the tools artists use: paint, cadmium red, titanium white. Did you know that in art school you are still taught to be careful? Some oil paints are loaded with lead, copper or iron oxide. The poison risk is made worse because many artists twist their brushes between their lips to get finer points. Art schools still warn about all those artists that went insane, Van Gogh, Toulouse-Lautrec. So many suffered so much nerve damage that many of them ended their careers and lives painting with brushes tied to numb, lifeless hands.

Francisco Goya contracted lead poisoning from the paints he scooped onto the canvas with his fingers, not a brush. Deafness, depression, insanity and brilliance resulted.

Beethoven’s deafness and depression may have stemmed from syphilis. And then he composed his famous Ninth Symphony, “Ode To Joy.” I always cry when I remember that on the event of the first performance, Beethoven couldn’t conduct with his deafness, and when it was over he just sat there while the entire theater exploded in ovation. A friend had to help him to his feet and turn him around so he could see the standing ovation. The first speech I did after losing my eyesight, Melanie had to stop me from fumbling and leaving the podium, and turn me to face the audience so that I could HEAR the ovation even if I couldn’t see it.

The trouble is, a school, a teacher can teach you technique and craft which are essential. But inspiration cannot be taught. You can’t buy talent. You can’t reason your way to a masterpiece or an epiphany. There is no road map to enlightenment.

Maybe inspiration needs disease, injury, and madness. According to Thomas Mann: “Great artists are great invalids.” May be for an artist, chronic pain and illness is a gift. Maybe Kurt Cobain, without his drugs, misery, depression and suicide, wouldn’t have created “Nirvana,” one of the greatest rock bands of the 1990’s, but just would have stayed a skinny, pimpled slob from Seattle.

All these mystics, and all these great artists through time all over the world, found their way to enlightenment by physical suffering. As the Irish say: those in power write the history and those who suffer write the songs.

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