Suffering Sucatash #2

Voice Card  -  Volume 14  -  Stuart Card Number 3  -  Thu, May 31, 1990 9:29 AM

As I was going back through the voice cards, tracing back the discussion about suffering (do accountants have these sorts of discussions, I wonder?), I came across John's review of Walden Two by B.F. Skinner in Volume #12, I believe. It's worth reading again.

One phrase struck me in particular. John, describing Skinner's "perfect" commune type society and the role of "artists" in it, writes: "Skinner would have us believe that after a pleasant afternoon of milking cows, Joe artist pulls out a canvas and whips up a happy picture of happy cows and . . . this sketch is a deeply moving work of art."

This reminded me of an essay by Virginia Woolf that I have recently read entitled "Shakespeare's Sister." In this essay Woolf ponders why in the Elizabethan age, the greatest age of literary genius in the history of our wonderful language (though the Romantic age gives it a good run for the money), there were no great women writers sprinkled in among the Shakespeares and the Jonsons and the Marlowes and the Websters and the Spensers and the Donnes, etc. Such pondering leads her to speculate upon the nature of "genius":

"For genius like Shakespeare's is not born among laboring, uneducated, servile people. It was not born in England among the Saxons and the Britons. It is not born today among the working classes. How, then, could it have been born among women whose work began . . . almost before they were out of the nursery, who were forced to it by their parents and held to it by all the power of law and custom?"

The operative word here in terms of our Joe or Josefina artists of Walden 2 might be "uneducated"; nevertheless, I think poor old B.F. Skiner would have been disappointed by how unsports(wo)man-like the artists of Walden 2 would be with regards to playing out their scripted lives.

I don't think that they would want to hay or placidly milk cows all day. Not being able to practice their art and imaginations in more socially countenanced ways, I think that they would escape Walden and live in the marshes at the end of the pond. I think that they would come out at night with the owls and the possums; they would dance in the moonlight and pilfer grain for a measly dinner; they would be known as witches, or wraiths, or devils; whatever they did, they would most assuredly not play by the rules Skinner had laid out for them.

Woolf agrees. Further down in the paragraph I just quoted from, she writes:

"Now and again an Emily Bronte or a Robert Burns blazes out and proves its presence. But certainly it never got itself on paper. When, however, one reads of a witch being ducked, of a woman possessed by devils, of a wise woman selling herbs, or even of a very remarkable man who had a mother, then I think we are on the track of a lost novelist, a suppressed poet, of some mute and inglorious Jane Austen, some Emily Bronte who dashed her brains out on the moor or mopped and mowed about the highways crazed with the torture that her gift had put her to. Indeed, I would venture to guess that Anon, who wrote so many poems without signing them, was often a woman. It was a woman Edward Fitzgerald, I think, suggested who made the ballads and the folk songs, crooning them to her children, beguiling her spinning with them, or the length of the winter's night."

And this, I think brings us back to the matter of suffering and artists. Artists would prefer not to suffer. But if it is a decision, to be made instinctively or not, between death and suffering - between spiritual / emotional / intellectual / heart-clenching death and suffering - suffering will often win out. This is a distinction that the mundane, Skinnerian, Jesse Helmsian, non-creative, unartistic, doltish people who have so often impacted the lives of artists throughout history have never understood, and they probably never will.