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.