In praise of melancholy

28 May 2009 | Authors, Essays, Non-fiction, On writing and not writing

Writer's block

In this series, Finnish authors ponder the difficulties of their profession. Sirpa Kähkönen, author of six novels, gives an account of going unseen – the painful initiation, triggered by the lukewarm reception of one of her books, of a more mature and profound phase in her life as a creative writer

I found myself in a temporary but intense period of creative crisis in the spring of 2006. The crisis was expressed outwardly in the classic manner – as an emptiness, a desertification. Suddenly I was unable to get to the place between dream and reality where an artist operates. Something was missing from my writing; the spark, the vibration, the lifeblood.

When my novel, written and proffered with love, sank into oblivion without really generating any notice, when the opportunity to be seen in a positive light was taken from me, I experienced such a shock of disappointment that it almost wore me down.

Then I came across the Swedish psychiatrist Johan Cullberg’s book Skaparkriser. Strindberg’s Inferno och Dagermans. (‘Crises of creation: Strindberg’s Inferno – and Dagerman’s’), which I had purchased years earlier. It often happens that a book demands to be purchased for the sake of some future need. It’s best to listen carefully to such impulses.

Cullberg analyses the creative crises of two Swedish writers, August Strindberg and Stig Dagerman, that end in the first case with the writer’s hard-earned triumph, and in the second with suicide at the age of 31. Cullberg bases his research on letters, diaries and other factual documents, as well as works of literature. It’s possible to be of many minds about whether a person’s life can be reduced to the papers it leaves behind or to consciously-created fictitious works. But the merit of Cullberg’s work is that he gives the reader useful tools for analysing creativity. When I was convinced that I would never again be able to create anything, Cullberg’s book made me understand that many of my fellow artists have had the same experience.

Cullberg describes what Canadian psychoanalyst Elliot Jaques called the two types of creativity: spontaneous and sculpted. In his research in the 1960s, he found that there is a radical change in many artists’ work around the age of 35 or 40. Their manner of working changes in quality. During their youth, creativity is intense and spontaneous; their output comes ‘hot from the fire’. But around their fortieth year their creativity becomes more sculpted. Occasionally, inspiration may still be hot, and subconscious work just as important, but there is a greater distance between the first flood of inspiration and the finished creation, characterised as a powerful process of shaping.

In the creations of a mature artist, the work of inspiration is only the first phase – what seems to occur quickly and directly is in later life usually the product of long incubation and years of work developing a theme. According to Jacques, during this middle period of crisis, the lyric-descriptive attitude of the young artist shifts toward a more tragic-philosophical direction. Radical need, impatience, youthful idealism and optimism are replaced by a more reflective and tolerant stance – this could also be called becoming middle-aged.

This ‘mid-life crisis’ is, in a way, completely banal and mundane. But Cullberg expresses great sympathy for the struggling artist in a crisis. It is an agonising period because on the one hand it concerns the artist’s mundane worries: how will I make a living, how will I justify myself to the rest of the world during a time when I am simply mulling over changes? How long will it take the source of my creativity to replenish itself?

According to Cullberg, the artist’s profession involves a continual struggle for self-confidence and legitimacy. That was the case during my own crisis: how could I justify my desire to continue with my themes, even though they weren’t really making much more money for myself or for my publisher? How could I presume to claim that my subjects were meaningful, when the literary public wasn’t the least bit interested in them?

This narcissistic trauma was clearly a result of the fact that my great work had gone down the drain. I wasn’t recognised. Precisely because of my early experiences, this was the most devastating experience of all for me. Because I had to create some kind of narrative or frame of reference for my own artistry, I decided that I belonged to that group of artists who never tasted success while they were alive.

Marja-Leena Mikkola’s wonderful translations of Boris Pasternak’s poems helped me to find the right path: my desert erupted in colour. I wanted to do what Pasternak urged: to remain true to myself, to stay alive to the end. ‘Another, step by step, will follow/The living imprint of your feet;/But you yourself must not distinguish/Your victory from your defeat.’

I also noticed that the crisis left a permanent mark on my person. Paradoxically, a large measure of my energy was freed up because I no longer needed to conceal my grief from myself or from others. Cullberg calls sadness the compost of creativity: in a state of sadness, there is an increase in receptivity to signals of both the outer and inner worlds. The empathy needed for creativity is strengthened because a more internal listening creates a readiness for understanding inner relationships. People in this situation are said to hold the key to the ‘room of their depression’. A slight depression or melancholy, if you like, may nourish creation. But a difficult depression can be devastating.

The sculpting of a self-image is almost unavoidable for an artist, because selfhood is an artist’s most essential tool. Middle age, with its inevitable changes, makes the consideration of selfhood unavoidable to everyone. One must accept the inevitability of death and come to grips with the fact that there are very few things that can be blamed indefinitely on circumstance. We must face our own evil – and our goodness.

The acceptance of pain and loss as a part of one’s own life is difficult. Internalising them as a part of the artist’s fate is tough. The word fate is indispensable here. My crisis taught me to thoroughly accept the course of my life, including those things that I could not influence in any way, to accept the losses that have left a deep desire in me to be recognised, losses that nothing can ever replace. Because they can never be replaced, there is also no need to try to compensate for them.

Paradoxically, I became stronger as an artist and as a person through the deepest possible experience of weakness. Sadness is something that we all have in common as people – it brought me closer to other people, without desires or expectations. And recognising this sadness doesn’t close off the deep, peaceful happiness and joy of life in all its phases.

Translated by Lola Rogers

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