Inhabiting the space between the words “tortured” & “artist”

Brendan Behan with the artist Lucian Freud in Dublin, 1952

Having driven my classmates and I to analysis paralysis in the name of dissecting the meaning behind an ambiguous piece of prose, Sr. Mary, one of my secondary school English teachers, broke with tradition. She took a step back, and asked us to do likewise. Then she broke with tradition even further, and gave us a peek behind the veil, so to speak, by way of the story of an encounter she’d had as a young nun and teacher with the late, great Irish writer Brendan Behan (above, with artist Lucian Freud in 1952). Spying him at a literary event in Dublin, she’d rushed over, her exuberance and ebullience tripping up not just her feet but her words, as she simultaneously plied him with praise and inelegantly demanded of a favorite passage that had long confounded her, “What, exactly, did you mean when you wrote that?” Behan’s brutally blunt answer? “Sister, I haven’t a f***ing clue. I was out of my mind when I wrote it.” Behan, who described himself as a “drinker with a writing problem,” drank himself into his grave six years following publication of the book in question, Borstal Boy, at the age of 41.

When I finally surrendered to the idea of writing, specifically subject matters of a personal nature, I made a choice: I would not be the stereotypical “tortured artist.” Ireland, in particular, has had enough of those. Ours is an ancient race with a storied and slaughtered history. Coupled with a deeply feeling, darkly poetic heart, it makes for a beautiful, rich, melancholy- and, at times, alcohol-riddled literary tradition.

The Irish word for whiskey, uisce beatha, means “water of life.” Alcohol certainly appears to form the lifeblood of many aboriginal civilizations possessing a brutal history of dispossession—a ready tool with which to paint a veneer of gaiety over a deep underlying sadness felt all the way to the bowels of the native earth. When turning their eye inwards, artists know that they must walk the path soaked with the suffering of the collective consciousness, “the footfall tapping secrecies of stone,” to borrow poet Patrick Kavanagh’s words. In addition, of course, to their own.

One of the reasons I resisted the path of a writer is because I did not want to dwell in the dark, a place I knew only too well. I also did not want to reclaim from its depths stories only of sadness and suffering. I wanted to tell stories of hope and redemption. However, in order to tell a tale of redemption, a writer must know redemption. Therefore, a writer must not just visit her own deepest, darkest depths; she must dwell there for a while. She must be willing to dive to the bottom of the ocean and unlock the chest filled with all she’d rather not face. To develop the discipline and the courage to sit with it, and not judge it, not disown it, not hate it, not run from it, not numb it, not drown it, and not drown in it. To allow all the silt stirred up “across the floors of silent seas” (to steal from the beautiful syntax of T.S. Eliot) to rise until, eventually, it’s so close to the surface that the light can finally penetrate the dark. And in that moment comes wholeness, redemption—and the awareness that she must make that journey many times. For, just as the road to hell is paved with good intentions, the road to heaven is paved with painful truths one must continually excavate.

Does this feel torturous? Yes. At times, intensely so. Does this make me tortured? No. As long as I remember that this, too, shall pass.

1 Comment

  • Sai says:

    That is an amazingly beautiful, eloquent description of you as an author… Certainly makes one want to read more…

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