At the moment I am re-reading How Proust Can Change Your Life by Alain de Botton, my favourite living popular philosopher (if you have can popular science you can have popular philosophy). In this book, de Botton talks about Proust’s idea that you can only come up with interesting intellectual thought (or original artistic observations) after you have suffered in life.
Does he mean that people who suffer are intellectual or artistic, or are intellectual or artistic people are destined to suffer?
An artist’s more profound suffering – whether emotional or psychological – can often seem to enhance their work. This notion of the suffering artist is related to the idea of the mad artist, something I explored when I started this blog. Vincent Van Gogh painted Starry Night during a period of emotional turmoil. Apparently, John Lennon and Paul McCartney came together to make music after experiencing the deaths of their mothers.
Does misery result in insight? Do we only reflect on what we experience when we are depressed? When we are happy are we unable to have profound insight? Proust believed that we only take note of the details of everyday life and reflect in depth on our lives when we are suffering whether from mental or physical illness (and he suffered greatly from both during his lifetime). In many ways, I agree. When I am unwell or feeling down, time slows down and the everyday ordinary aspects of the day seem to be elevated in their importance in my mind. When I am healthy and happy, time quickens in its pace and I hardly notice anything beyond the surface. But does a profound bowt of suffering in reality result in a creative mind? Picasso felt an earthquake as a three year old. Did this lead him to art?
Suffering alone is perhaps not enough. And also, I believe that someone can create great art or philosophy without having suffered. Personally I find that I need both the down times and the up times to think up with ideas (and this in fact may may happen on a monthly basis). The ideas only spring to mind during the up times, but these ideas might have taken a subconscious root during the down times, so I need both.
The conclusion might be that suffering just opens up the possibilities for creative thinking and it is having the capacity to take advantage of these opportunities that divides the intellectual thinker from the non-intellectual thinker, and the arty from the non-arty. After all, everybody suffers. Or as R.E.M famously sang ‘everybody hurts, sometimes’.
de Botton, A. 1997 How Proust Can Change Your Life Picardor, London