The Twentieth Century—Edvard Munch, TS Eliot, Virginia Woolf, A Need for Empathy

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 Scream by Edvard Munch
The Scream by Edvard Munch

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.

Thomas Stearns Eliot
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.

TS Eliot signature
TS Eliot signature

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
Falling towers
Jerusalem Athens Alexandria
Vienna London
Unreal

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.

Virginia Woolf
Virginia Woolf

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.

Virginia Woolf last letter before suicide to her husband
Virginia Woolf last letter before suicide to her husband

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.

A World Like No Other—Shangri-La

Lost Horizon by James Hilton
Lost Horizon by James Hilton

The first book that always comes to my mind is Lost Horizon by James Hilton (1900-1954). It is a book as fascinating as any written ever. Lost Horizon comes tantalizingly close to the concept of an ideational world. Such a world that may exist as a refuge from the harshness of modern life. The novel exploded on to the literary scene in 1933 and was made into a movie, also called Lost Horizon by Frank Capra in 1937.

It also won the author the prestigious Hawthorden Prize in 1934. In fact, this book is also known as the book that started the “paperback revolution”.

In popular imagination, the novel gave a new word, a new place called Shangri-La. It is at this lamasery that Hugh Conway finds refuge, inner peace, love and a sense of purpose. You can also watch this really insightful PBS documentary on Shangri-La: The Lost Treasures of Tibet.

The novel has some really memorable passages of enchanting prose:

While he was still contemplating the scene, twilight fell, steeping the depths in a rich, velvet gloom that spread upwards like a dye. Then the whole range, much nearer now, paled into fresh splendor; a full moon rose, touching each peak in succession like some celestial lamplighter, until the long horizon glittered against a blue-black sky.

This is visual writing at its best. If I were teaching a creative writing course, I would take this passage as an example of how to write a novel. Here, James Hilton is looking at the world from the protagonist, Hugh Conway’s eyes.

And as they go up the mountains to the lamasery…

About a couple of miles along the valley the ascent grew steeper, but by this time the sun was overclouded and a silvery mist obscured the view. Thunder and avalanches resounded from the snowfields above; the air took chill, and then, with the sudden changefulness of mountain regions, became bitterly cold. A flurry of wind and sleet drove up, drenching the party and adding immeasurably to their discomfort; even Conway felt at one moment that it would be impossible to go much further.

I have read and re-read Lost Horizon many times over. Every time, what amazes me is also that James Hilton does not write a very voluminous book and yet manages to convey a very powerful story, while painting a beautiful landscape away from the raging ills of society.

Lost Horizon (film) by Frank Capra

This was the film, Lost Horizon by Frank Capra. One of the most expensive movies made. The film’s final cost, including promotional advertising, was $2,626,620 and it took a lot many years to recover its costs. However, the movie itself was very impressively produced. Frank Nugent of the New York Times had called it ‘one of the 10 best films of the year’. The original prints had got damaged and the movie was restored and reissued in 1973.

A screen grab from Lost Horizon (1973)
A screen grab from Lost Horizon(1973)

A large number of people prefer the moving image, the way a novel has been rendered on the screen. It would depend on how it was done. Here, the film was impressive too. And sometimes, we do have our personal preferences. Somehow, I found the novel haunting too.

There have been several million copies of the novel sold, making Lost Horizon, one of the enduring and a much-loved novel of the twentieth century. The novel does retain its place as a literary text. Lost Horizon is the stuff that ‘cult’ novels are made of. US President Franklin D. Roosevelt named the Presidential hideaway in Maryland after Shangri-La. It was renamed as Camp David later.

The idea that it is an ageless world is very fascinating. However, it is not completely ageless. The High Lama does pass away but before he dies, he tells Conway that ‘we have managed to slow age and we practice everything in moderation here’. I find that a very fascinating concept too. Living life in moderation. This is akin to what the great Buddha told us. And the practices of the lamas at the lamasery seem similar to Zen Master Thich Nhat Hanh and his concept of mindful living.

And before I leave you with this little passage from the novel, let me also tell you that Conway does meet Sieveking, who was an expert on the great Polish composer Frédéric Chopin, and Conway plays a piece, which Sieveking says it cannot be Chopin…

Anyway, I hope you enjoy this little passage from the novel…

It had, of course, crossed his mind, but a certain initial and fantastic unreasonableness about it had been too much for him. Now he perceived that the unreasonableness, however fantastic, was to be swallowed. That flight from Baskul had not been the meaningless exploit of a madman. It had been something planned, prepared, and carried out at the instigation of Shangri-La. The dead pilot was known by name to those who lived there; he had been one of them, in some sense; his death was mourned. Everything pointed to a high directing intelligence bent upon its own purposes; there had been, as it were, a single arch of intentions spanning the inexplicable hours and miles. But what WAS that intention? For what possible reason could four chance passengers in the British government aeroplane be whisked away to these trans-Himalayan solitudes?