I like to tell my students in conversations at coffee shops that the twentieth century can be best encapsulated between the Scream, that famous painting, by Edvard Munch (1863-1944) and the painful cries of Sylvia Plath. This is just a symbolic way of putting things and a century cannot be covered in an article, even if it tries to be insightful enough. You can watch a short, insightful film on Munch and The Scream here.
In fact, Munch made a series of four paintings, all depicting the scream. The agonized expression against the tumultuous orange sky in the painting says it all. There is so much of noise all around us, so much of screech, so much of what must hurt our inner beings and the natural world at large doesn’t offer us any refuge either. And in the midst of all this, our fellow beings must hurt us constantly. This is the story of the twentieth century as it appears to me.
The painting has been rightly called an icon of the modern age, a painting of our times. It is the long-suppressed cry that is trying to emanate from within us.
The disturbance, the stress, the anxiety, the depression of our daily lives far outweighs anything else around us. In the words of the Norwegian painter, Edvard Munch:
For as long as I can remember I have suffered from a deep feeling of anxiety which I have tried to express in my art.
Munch also says:
Disease, insanity, and death were the angels that attended my cradle, and since then have followed me throughout my life.
In 1908, at the age of forty five, Munch was full of anxiety and he suffered a breakdown. He sought medical treatment and was able to recover. It took him eight months to fully recover. That is when his paintings became more vibrant and less pessimistic.
The Scream has been used as a symbol of facial pain and it has also been used for trigeminal neuralgia, which is known as one of the most painful conditions known to humans.
I’m not trying to connect personal, autobiographical, lived-life pain to literary or artistic manifestations of pain in any direct or simplistically vulgar way. However, the point that I am trying to reiterate is the fact that the last century has been the most troublesome for us as humans and we have been singularly unsuccessful to remedy its difficulties. The cumulative effects of the pain do linger on.
T. S. Eliot (1888-1965) had troubled personal life, which led to a personal breakdown, from which was born The Wasteland (1922), one of the engaging works of the twentieth century. Eliot became lifelong friends with the American novelist, Conrad Aiken.
T. S. Eliot
In 1914, as a 26-year old, Eliot wrote to Aiken:
I am very dependent upon women (I mean female society).
Within four months, he was married to Vivienne Haigh-Wood, a marriage that failed from the start. The couple formally separated in 1933 and Vivienne remained in a lunatic asylum, against her will, till 1947, when she died of heart disease. Maybe, Eliot was cruel to Vivienne or perhaps, he wasn’t. Vivienne’s life itself should be the subject of an enriching biography. The fact that she was kept against her will in a lunatic asylum is also very similar to the fate of Antoinette, who is later called Bertha and kept in an attic in Jean Rhys’s acclaimed novel, Wide Sargasso Sea. The implications and the treatment of mental health are scary.
Eliot accepted in a private paper:
“I came to persuade myself that I was in love with Vivienne simply because I wanted to burn my boats and commit myself to staying in England. And she persuaded herself (also under the influence of [Ezra] Pound) that she would save the poet by keeping him in England. To her, the marriage brought no happiness. To me, it brought the state of mind out of which came The Waste Land.”
However, what is important is that Eliot and Vivienne should have received counseling, true friendship and warmth. What they needed was empathy. Eliot was lucky that the personal breakdown, which he suffered, got him to write The Waste Land, but there’s no guarantee that a major literary or artistic work may emanate from such deeply life-changing circumstances.
The Waste Land is a complex work but it can also be termed expressionistic in nature, much as Edvard Munch’s The Scream is an expressionistic work. The structure of the poem, its jagged lines and ideas clearly point to the intense stress, the psychological derangement:
What are the roots that clutch, what branches grow
Out of this stony rubbish? Son of man,
You cannot say, or guess, for you know only
A heap of broken images, where the sun beats,
And the dead tree gives no shelter, the cricket no relief,
And the dry stone no sound of water.
What is the city over the mountains
Cracks and reforms and bursts in the violet air
Jerusalem Athens Alexandria
I have often wondered, pondered, and ruminated greatly on the intense stress, the psychological derangement, the lack of empathy which has markedly governed twentieth century lives. And I know the effects have clearly lingered on in the twenty first century as well.
Look at Virginia Woolf (1882-1941), someone who again underwent intense personal trauma and who was singularly unlucky enough not to get empathy, warmth and love in good measure.
I have often thought of Virginia Woolf as one of the most impressive women of the century, impressive in every possible way. At the age of twenty two, she suffered a major breakdown due to the death of her father. She suffered many breakdowns and depressive periods and it has been suggested by scholars that it was perhaps due to the sexual abuse that she and her sister received at the hands of their half-brothers. All her life, she was plagued by intense mood swings and associated illnesses. There is no room for pity or sympathy here, much less shaming or insulting. What is required here is boundless love, warmth and empathy. Imagine, if we experienced something similar, what we might have gone through.
We teach Virginia Woolf’s novels. For instance, we teach Mrs Dalloway and speak about the psychological scarring of Septimus Smith and the almost-lunatic obsession of Clarissa Dalloway with the perfection of partying. This is akin to writing out a summary of the novel. But what we need to be doing is to uncover the social as well as historical reasons behind such trauma.
It is my considered view that the twentieth century has dehumanized people so much that they have become singularly narrow, petty, self-seeking, hurting to other fellow beings for no rhyme, nor reason, and forget that the pain that they inflict on other fellow beings would necessarily come back to haunt them in their lives. I sincerely believe that we should be full of empathy for our fellow beings around us, even those with whom we strongly disagree or have strong personal or professional differences and at the first signal in a crisis in a fellow being around us, we must rush to their aid with all the empathy and warmth at our disposal. I have known from personal experience as a university teacher for twenty years and also as a private citizen —aged forty four today—that such selfless empathy toward our fellow beings is often misconstrued in a variety of ways. If one is lucky enough not to be imputed darker or selfish motives, one will most certainly be ridiculed as a ‘soft’ person. However, the persons who ridicule others with empathy often fail to appreciate the fact that the intense stress around us, in our times, would come back to haunt them too. I have seen it invariably with a number of people in this short life.
Even highly educated people could suffer from these qualities of pettiness too. Often at workplaces or in our neighbourhoods, we lose no opportunity to publicly shame or insult some individual who is younger than us, who is powerless than us, who cannot harm us (and who has never harmed us) to show to ourselves and – to the world around us—how strong and powerful we are. However, much as we publicly try to insult others at workplaces or neighbourhoods, what we fail to appreciate is that we are actually insulting ourselves, the fact of our being human. In the process, we constantly alienate ourselves from everyone around us, thus, making us more insecure. So, the sense of power that we exhibit over others, to put them down, actually comes back to us and leaves us much weaker. We live in these false ivory towers, thinking that if we do insult others, we become much more powerful. But only deeply insecure people do so.
For over a hundred years, all over the world, each one of us has suffered from trauma all our lives. All we need is not to belittle it but to empathize with it. I have not said anything – nor did I intend to—speak anything from a religious or a moralizing perspective. I just had a deeply human standpoint. As Jean Paul Sartre (1905-1980), one of the greatest thinkers of the century said:
Hell is—the other people.
And I would like to add, “the other people” should realize not to give “hell” to the ones around themselves. I even wanted to talk about Sylvia Plath but would do it another time.
Looking at mental health, stress, depression and the traumas we undergo, Sigmund Freud (1856-1939) has a clinical approach, presupposing that the “patients” suffer from maladies and maladjustments. T. S. Eliot, in one of his plays, Cocktail Party, suggests something much more interesting for a litterateur. He talks about the need to change, correct, if not transform, the social causes that lead to such stress and trauma. I also wanted to talk about another great name of the twentieth century, whose contributions were immense: Viktor Frankl (1905-1997). But there is no hurry. There’s a lot more to be explored in other future posts as this website keeps on growing from thought to thought. Amen.
I was named after the great Rumi. I would be like a sufi, a dervish. Just smiling, in the comic mode of life, and accepting various foibles around us. Whenever I have been insulted by anyone ever, I have only found it extremely funny. I often look at the other person’s facial expressions, their eyes, the psychological reasons for their unduly unwelcoming behaviour. And I have invariably realized how utterly insecure such people are, how they suffer from tremendously low self-esteem, even while they tom-tom high esteem in public. I have only had empathy for all such people that I have ever encountered all my life. I think we must remain humans, above everything else, deeply human, because else we, too, should suffer the same risks these artistic, literary figures did and as so many others suffered too.