Tuesday, November 27, 2007

The Art of Self-Destruction

Are the souls of certain creative people particularly raw, that they are given to fortify themselves with alcohol or drugs and destroy their lives? It's not a new phenomenon, of course. There's a certain obsessive quality about the devotion that it takes to pursue the life of an artist despite all the obstacles encountered along the way. Few of those who attempt it rise beyond the level of mediocrity--not in terms of their work, perhaps, but how it is received or remembered in the course of years, decades, centuries... And then there are those who, no matter how successful, can never bring themselves to accept the adulation of the world out there; something inside convinces them that they are failures.

These thoughts prompted by two events last week, one movie, one theatrical performance. It's not fair, I know, to judge a movie based on the DVD, but Ellie and I missed "La Vie en Rose" when it was in the theaters, and caught up with it in our living room down at the beach at the end of last week. It's the story of the French songstress, Edith Piaf, the "little sparrow," who used her rather coarse and reedy voice to belt out songs that scalded the listening ear with its exuberance and pain.

Given the story of her turbulent life--abandoned as a child, brought up in a brothel, plagued by the death of a child, the murder of her sponsor, the plane crash death of the love of her life, disease--it's not surprising that this tiny (4 foot 8 inches!) fragile woman used whatever she could lay her hands on to alleviate the pain. It's clearly a meaty story, too, for the big screen. But, sadly, I just hated the film. Attribute it in part to the small screen, but the director's obsession with chiaroscuro effects--the dramatic juxtaposition of dark and light--made it often impossible to make out what was happening on the screen. Worse, though, was the infuriatingly "clever" play with time, turning what would have been an irresistible story of a heart and soul in deep distress into a confusing, intellectually-driven cinematic nightmare. My judgment. But I loved the songs.

By strange coincidence, we heard from friends that "Hank Williams: Lost Highway" was playing at our local theater, the Laguna Playhouse, and bought tickets for Saturday night. I'm an old Hank Williams fan. I couldn't resist. And really enjoyed the show. It tracked Hank's rise to fame and his downward slide into oblivion as the demon alcohol sank its claws ever deeper into his flesh. Expelled from the Grand Old Opry and eventually abandoned by his band, the Drifting Cowboys, because of his uncontrolled drinking, he died of drug-induced heart failure at the age of twenty-nine in the back seat of a Cadillac on his way to a gig. Hank's songs about love and rejection, high living and remorse remain as enduring testament to genius gone tragically awry.

"Lost Highway" proved to be a good show, flawed at the end, I thought, by an unsuccessful effort to bring the audience back out of the despondency of its main character. It needed a different structure, one which allowed a little more retrospective distance--an end to which it could usefully have put the character of Tee-Tot, the black blues singer who was Hank's early inspiration and who "framed" the front end of the story. If I were to do the rewrite, I would end with the focus on this character, completing the frame and giving us a sane, Greek chorus perspective on the protagonist. Still, the actor-singer-performers did a great job in recreating the best of Hank Williams songs--enough of a treat in itself.

So, back to our initial question... Both Williams and Piaf suffered the wounds of a traumatic childhood (Hank was born with a mild case of spina bifida and was brought up in the Depression with an absent father,) and both clearly experienced great suffering in their lives. The art they practiced may have been to some extent a means of relieving the suffering by giving it back to the world in the form of songs. But evidently it was not enough. The path to self-destruction was filled in each case with as much pathos as tragedy--with as much self-pity, then, as necessity. The trail of death, in the twentieth century alone--from the poet Dylan Thomas to those rock stars, Jimi Hendrix, Janis Joplin, Jim Morrison, Kurt Cobain, along with too many others to name--is depressing evidence of the prevalence of the disease.

The Buddhist teaching is that pain is inevitable, but suffering is a choice. If suffering is what we add to pain by attaching to it, it may follow that these creative people clung to pain because it provided them with the source and medium for their art. There are many others, of course, who choose a different path, and it will likely always be one of those impenetrable human mysteries as to why each one of us opts for the path we do. Sad, though, that talents like Williams and Piaf are snatched away from us before they can fulfill the greatness of their promise.

NOTE: I have just added to the blogroll a newly-discovered blog called "About Suffering" by Robert Daoust. It's very much in keeping with today's theme, so I hope you'll check it out.


mandt said...

As always you bring interesting points to discussion. The attachment to suffering is a profound one. Isn't it so often true that folks just cannot let go of painful memories? Also about the Piaf film---it's terrible when the symbolist affectations of chirascuro can tell between the 'Cabinet of Dr. Caligari' and ' La Vien Rose.'! LOL The songs are great and somehow brings up another great songster in a similar vien---Jacques Brill. Peace MandT

mandt said...

PS: make that can't. :)

carly said...

Suffering is useful. It leads to perplexity, strengthens, and produces clarity and sublimity. Improper understanding of suffering leads to regression and standstill. It must be valued that suffering leads from the dark to the light, love, through movement, not detachment. Detaching leads to indifference and decay. Linking leads to love. To everything, turn, turn. Things which need guidance are not to be thrown away. Nor should one dwell upon them. Just the right balance is needed.

heartinsanfrancisco said...

I was in Paris in 1960, just a few years before Edith Piaf died, and her music was the soundtrack of my visit. It was ubiquitous, and yet sounded fresh every time.

I am immediately transported back there when I hear one of her songs in a restaurant, or wherever it shows up these days, which is rare.

In the 80's, I attended a Hank Williams Junior concert in which he yelled drunken profanities at the audience and then fell off the stage. He does not seem to be half the man or the entertainer his father was.

The pressures of stardom are nothing new from the examples you mention to Judy Garland, Britney Spears, Olivier, John Barrymore, and writers, too, like Dylan Thomas, Hemingway, Sylvia Plath -- the list is endless.

Rather, we should note the celebrities who manage to survive their own adulation without falling victim to drugs, booze, and other suicidal behaviors.

growingupartists said...

I'd prefer a world where we didn't patronize alcohol and drug abusers. Is is so wrong to think that earning a place in the public eye requires a sober mind and spirit? I suppose there's all sides to perception, but I'd prefer a warning label attached to these million-dollar artforms. But then I'd be wearing one of my own "invisible hopeful".