The Guardian has a piece pondering whether adversity and unhappiness are the font of art.
The poet John Berryman once told an interviewer: “I do strongly feel that among the greatest pieces of luck for high achievement is ordeal. Certain great artists can make out without it, Titian and others, but mostly you need ordeal. My idea is this: the artist is extremely lucky who is presented with the worst possible ordeal which will not actually kill him. At that point, he’s in business: Beethoven’s deafness, Goya’s deafness, Milton’s blindness, that kind of thing.”
For the future of his own poetry, Berryman said he counted on “being knocked in the face, and thrown flat, and given cancer, and all kinds of other things short of senile dementia. At that point, I’m out, but short of that, I don’t know. I hope to be nearly crucified.”
This is what Sylvia Plath was getting at, too, more concisely and with less ironic humour, when she wrote: “The blood jet is poetry.” It’s what Auden was getting at when he wrote of Yeats: “Mad Ireland hurt you into poetry.” And it’s what Yeats was getting at when he said: “The intellect of man is forced to choose/ Perfection of the life, or of the work/ And if it take the second must refuse/ A heavenly mansion, raging in the dark.”
My instant response was exasperation: what bullshit! But I realise that almost all the novelists whose work I really love had some terrible trouble in their lives: illness, or exile, or grief. Or all of the above. I wonder if contentment saps the will. Why do you need will if you’re not striving for anything? My my opinion creating art requires will.
Do I think writers need to be unhappy to write good stuff? No. But we do need to want. We need to yearn. We need to long.
What do you think?