I was transfixed by an article in today's Wall Street Journal - In Praise of the Crackup: A novelist peers through darkness to find glittering gems in writing and art - by Jeanette Winterson, in which she explores "the collision of creativity and mental instability", digging deeper into the way that artists are often able [driven?] to transform personal pain and loss into works that offer great meaning and value to others. I was first struck by her illumination of the connection between blessing and wounding:
The French verb "blesser" means "to wound." Original etymologies from both Hebrew and Anglo-Saxon bind "bless" with a bloodying of some kind—the daubing of the lintel at Passover, the blood smear on the forehead or thigh of a new young warrior or temple initiate. Wounding—real or symbolic—is both mark and marker. It is an opening in the self, painful but transformative.
This notion of wounding as opening resonated with one of my favorite poems by one of my favorite poets in an audiobook by one of my favorite modern authors. In Your Heart's Prayer, Oriah Mountain Dreamer recites the poem "Not Here", by Rumi, in which he celebrates the broken-open place:
There's courage involved if you want to become truth.
There is a broken-open place in a lover.
Where are those qualities of bravery and sharp compassion?
What's the use of old and frozen thought?
I want a howling hurt.
This is not a treasury where gold is stored; this is for copper.
We alchemists look for talent that can heat up and change.
Lukewarm won't do.
Halfhearted holding back, well-enough getting by?
It also reminded me of other ancient wisdom that I [also] first encountered through Oriah, a piece by Rabindranath Tagore, of which I do not know the name:
I see a light, but no fire. Is this what my life is to be like?
Better to head for the grave.
A messenger comes, the grief-courier, and the message is that the woman you love is in her house alone, and wants you to come now while it is still night.
Clouds unbroken, rain, all night, all night. I don't understand these wild impulses - what is happening to me?
A lightning flash is followed by deeper melancholy. I stumble around inside looking for the path the night wants me to take.
Light, where is the light? Light the fire, if you have desire!
Thunder, rushing wind, nothingness. Black night, black stone.
Don't let your whole life go by in the dark.
Evidently, the only way to find the path is to set fire to my own life.
Ring the bells that still can ring
Forget your perfect offering
There is a crack in everything
That's how the light gets in.
Returning to the wisdom channeled by Jeanette Winterson, there were a number of other highly resonant insights and experiences, written with such elegance and poignancy that I cannot bring myself to do anything more (or less) than simply excerpt them here:
We know from 100 years of psychoanalytic investigation that an early trauma, often buried or unavailable to consciousness, is the motif that plays through our lives. We meet it again and again in different disguises. We are wounded again in the same place. This doesn't turn us into victims. Rather, we are people in search of a transformation of the real.
Creativity takes the heavy mass of our lives and transforms it back into available energy. Taking the mundane or the weighted, the overlooked or the too familiar, art is able to re-show us ourselves and ourselves in the world. Art holding up a mirror to life is commonly misunderstood as realism, but in fact it is recognition. We see through our own fakes, our own cover stories, we see things as they are, instead of how they look, or how we'd like them to be.
Art isn't a surface activity. It comes from a deep place and it meets the wound we each carry.
Even when our lives are going well, there is something that prowls the borders, unseen, unfelt. The existential depression that is becoming a condition of humankind, experienced as loss of meaning, a kind of empty bafflement, is different from the situational depression we all go through from time to time. Job loss, bereavement and catastrophe will throw us into situational depression, but existential depression is different. When life loses all meaning, we cannot live.
Longing is painful. Every work of art is an attempt to bring into being the object of loss. The pictures, the music, the poems and the performances are an intense engagement with loss. While one is in the act of making, one is not in loss, and one has meaning.
[Addendum: While Jeanette Winterson focuses on art and literature, in Wired's recent article on "An Epidemic of Fear: How Panicked Parents Skipping Shots Endangers Us All", Amy Wallace describes a transformation of a wound into a blessing in the realm of science:
To understand exactly why [Paul] Offit [inventor of the rotavirus vaccine] became a scientist, you must go back more than half a century, to 1956. That was when doctors in Offit’s hometown of Baltimore operated on one of his legs to correct a club foot, requiring him to spend three weeks recovering in a chronic care facility with 20 other children, all of whom had polio. Parents were allowed to visit just one hour a week, on Sundays. His father, a shirt salesman, came when he could. His mother, who was pregnant with his brother and hospitalized with appendicitis, was unable to visit at all. He was 5 years old. “It was a pretty lonely, isolating experience,” Offit says. “But what was even worse was looking at these other children who were just horribly crippled and disfigured by polio.” That memory, he says, was the first thing that drove him toward a career in pediatric infectious diseases.]