Does giving art to the world rescue artists from their loneliness?
Often when an artist kills themselves, it seems to change the meaning of their work. Perhaps it would be more accurate to say it reveals a deeper layer of meaning that was always there.
Sadly, there is no shortage of examples. One death that hit me pretty hard was the 2010 overdose of a young musician who went by the stage name Jay Reatard. The opening track on his last album was called “It Ain’t Gonna Save Me.” It isn’t clear what he is referring to, maybe meds, maybe success.
I think there are a lot of musicians some of whose music seems to come from a gloomy beyond to which the living rarely venture: Nick Drake and Elliot Smith, for example. Soundgarden’s “Black Hole Sun” is perhaps the best example of a song that seems to have changed meaning after the singer hanged himself. The lyrics are perfectly poised in ambiguity. We see the impossible central image; it looks like the eclipse on the cover of Bauhaus’ “The Sky’s Gone Out.” We feel the song’s undercurrent of hopefulness, like The Police’s “Invisible Sun.” For the literary reader, the image may echo the black milk in Paul Celan’s most famous poem “Death Fugue.” The verses of the song are obviously describing a state of despair, but the chorus could be a plea for death or an invocation of regeneration and rebirth. The singer’s actual death flips the chip, so to speak, so that the black side is up and the white side is down, but it remains double-sided.
The old Joy Division song “Love Will Tear Us Apart” is practically a suicide note. The band’s singer and lyricist Ian Curtis hung himself before it was even released. I had the poster on my wall in college and yet I was and remain convinced in my heart that the lyric is actually love won’t tear us apart. Again, we see a pattern of undeniably sad verses but the structural expectation, here unfulfilled, of a rising countermovement in the chorus.
We armchair psychologists can’t explain any suicide really, but there seem to be some patterns we can try to identify. Sometimes a life of alcoholism or drug addiction leads one down a path where self-destruction becomes inevitable. The addiction may be a genetic disposition or a doomed strategy for processing difficult emotions.
Some suicides come after a perceived setback while a surprising number come when an artist is at the peak of their success. It almost seems like fame kills more artists than failure. Could it be that fame induces a weightlessness in which no moral restrictions seem to apply, even the rule against self-slaughter? Could some of these artists have been saved by a strict diet of measured, balanced praise, combined with a modest income that went up 6% annually?
Another paradox is that we think of despair as leading to inactivity, but suicide is in most cases an action, a decision, a resolution. We may think of it as succumbing in a moment of weakness but it can also be interpreted as a brave, heroic act, a rebellion against one’s own suffering and the understandable expectation that it will continue.
The event of a suicidal act being committed after suicide-themed art has been made can be simple or complex. A song can simply be a suicide note: they said it, then they did it. However, a living optimistic critic might well imagine that demons can be exorcised through art, so that writing a suicide song could be a one-time substitute or even a cure for the urge itself.
Many people who are not artists find that when they unburden themselves of their dark thoughts to a friend, they get some relief. Does the same thing happen to artists? Does giving art to the world rescue them from their loneliness or does it put the final seal on it, because in some sense they are actually giving it to no one, there is no one there to receive it, at least not at the moment of solitary creation? Could it be that completing a song is not like winning a sports match and feeling the adulation of the crowd but more like paying one’s debt to one’s own talent and becoming free to move on from it? Or could it be that the masterpiece that we non-artists imagine validating a life instead somehow invalidates everything that comes after, in its great shadow?
Paul Valéry, who presented himself as both poet and critic, was suspicious of any perfectly expressed misery, describing it as a shipwreck from which an aesthetic harmony has secretly been salvaged. Rather than weighing the gravity of songs of despair and tallying the fates of those who wrote each of them, I am going to assume that there is no necessary relationship between the anguish a song conveys and the implied agony of the artist who wrote it. Most suicides don’t even leave notes, while others probably feel that the author of one of these particularly sad songs has done that explanatory part of their work for them.
For some reason our society has chosen to tell us that we are all potential artists, beings without known limits. Certainly, there is a great deal of amateur talent in any country that allows its citizens the leisure to develop it. But making forms sturdy enough to hold strong feelings is not something most people can actually do, even among those who try. My best guess would be that those who build the most profound forms are not as susceptible as others to the feelings that the forms contain, despite occasional jarring evidence to the contrary.