The value of suffering

Voice Card  -  Volume 13  -  John Card Number 10  -  Sat, Apr 21, 1990 05:40 PM

This is a response to Vol 13 Suzanne 4 ("About Artists")...


I think we are in agreement that the artist must suffer (although whether it's the art that causes the suffering or the suffering that causes the art is less clear). There are many misconceptions surrounding this truth and I was impressed by everything you said. Stuart also made some important points in his card [See Vol 13 Stuart 1].

Let me go further. First of all, although the artist must suffer, he must also experience joy. Pleasure as well as pain, union as well as separation. Each of these qualities cannot exist without it's counterpart anyway.

Secondly, as Suzanne wisely points out, none of us have to go looking for pain. Life simply IS painful (among other things) be you poet or potwasher. To the extent that we each create our own lifes, every one of us is an artist and we are all given many opportunities to suffer.

Thirdly, the artist-in-training simply CANNOT *choose* to suffer even if he is foolish enough to want to. What is suffering, after all? More than anything else, suffering is the lack of choice. To suffer is to be trapped; to be trapped is to suffer. Suffering is not just pain, but helplessness in stopping pain. So if you can turn your pain on and off you are not suffering.

Any remarks about the value of suffering are dangerous. The very word seems to have picked up a romantic connotation. All the heros and wizards of our legends had to pass through trials and dangers in order to achieve their quests, and they emerged on the other side of this great divide posessing a mysterious, almost magical knowledge that could only be understood by others who have also suffered. This happens to everyone from Odin to Oedipus, from Batman to Jesus Christ. As a result, suffering sometimes seems to be the work of heroes and wizards.

But Suzanne is right. There is nothing romantic about suffering and it is dangerous to think so for the same reasons it is dangerous to think of war as being romantic. And as Stuart points out, the notion that artists want to suffer gives society an excuse not to support and value art in the some of the ways it could.

And yet as dangerous as it is to say so, I grow more convinced with each year that suffering is vital to our development, both as artists and as human beings. It teaches lessons nothing else can teach, and the lessons it teaches are among the most important. It is foolish to seek out suffering, and foolish to glory in it, but surely it is just as foolish to deny its power when the time comes. Those who shy from life for fear of suffering, or feel ashamed that they are already suffering, stunt their own growth.

We are animals who have grown perceptive enough to grasp our own mortality. Each one of us awake imprisoned in a body and sentenced to death, and one by one we watch our fellow prisoners being led away. Sometimes there is unspeakable torture, but our interrogators give no reason for their inquisition and no escape is possible, except in our dreams: our songs and stories, our paintings and poems.

Of course that is only one way of looking at life (and not a very cheery one), but I hope you can see my point. Like it or not we are all "born to suffer as the sparks fly upward." To understand mankind, therefore, one must understand suffering, that is, one must suffer. Any artist who wants to figure out what's really going on underneath the surface of things, must sooner or later face the lessons of pain. We should not seek out these lessons, but rather learn to keep our eyes open even through our tears, so that we may never turn away from the face of truth.