The Artist as Saint

His nickname among musicians was “Prince of Darkness.” According to many who claim to have known him well, and according to an accrued reputation bordering on myth, Miles Davis was a jerk. 

Based on evidence available for review on YouTube, as well as eyewitness accounts shared anecdotally and personally, Keith Jarrett can be insufferably obnoxious.

Richard Wagner was an anti-Semite.

Some folks can separate the art from the artist; some can’t. No matter the philosophy of your aesthetics, though, eccentricity in our artists is generally acceptable, perhaps even expected. Misanthropy is not. But how do we assess the art of those whose hatred of life is bigger than their love of living? Is it possible for an artist to create transcendent, life-affirming art if, at the height of his powers, he commits suicide?

The brilliant writer David Foster Wallace killed himself last year. (His cheerleaders, including several of the magazines that published his work, mentioned in their obituaries only that he “died,” though the cause has never been a secret). Fiction’s purpose, Wallace had said, was to show “what it means to be a fucking human being.” And good writing, he claimed, should make the reader “feel less alone inside.” He himself suffered from acute mental illness, and his eventual demise can be linked to his decision to stop taking the anti-depressants that he relied on for decades to make life bearable. Can his work, then, really be trusted to hold a mirror (or a prism, or a microscope, or a speculum) up to existence? After all, what being alive meant to DFW was inexorable, paralyzing pain, the kind of suffering that no amount of sentences, no matter how artfully constructed, could assuage.

Ironically, decades from now, when someone who picks up one of his two completed novels, or his collections of short stories or journalism, and reads the work without foreknowledge of the author’s death by self-inflicted hanging, the texts might suggest a man who found life complicated, trippy, unknowable, and funny, but certainly not something to be obliterated, something to be escaped or prematurely ended.

Whenever someone kills himself, we think “what a shame, what a waste.” With an artist, the shameful waste of extraordinary talent and vision irks us, offends our sense of fair play. Give me that ability, we think, and watch what I do with it! Perhaps the romantic conception of the artist as clairvoyant medium, a seer able to understand and express the nature of Life, ought to include an even more maudlin aspect: tortured saint whose special talents for imagination manifest a darkness we normal souls find unimaginable.

You may also like...