The Pleasures of “Emotional Difficulties”

In his review of several exhibitions showcasing the work of Félix Vallotton, Julian Bell writes:

Vallotton is not so much an autobiographical artist as an artist who coolly and procedurally recognizes that his own emotional difficulties might supply him with viable imaginative material.

Vallotton wouldn’t be the first or last artist to recognize this, of course. Writers are among the most notorious exploiters of their autobiographies as source material for their works. So much so indeed, that many a writer has to strenuously object to critical assessments of their work that insist on viewing it as mere revisitation of their life’s previous narratives.

There is another kind of artist who draws on his “own emotional difficulties” to “supply him with viable imaginative material”: the neurotic.  Here, the afflicted soul, familiar–at unconscious, subconscious and conscious levels–of the many traumas and crises that have thus far impinged on his life, uses them to construct all manner of fantasy, again, at varying levels of availability to his conscious self. There are daydreams aplenty, many revisitations of conflict, and lastly, and most interestingly of all, the construction of an elaborate mythology around daily life, the events of which acquire a distinctive hue because of their coloring by these repressed and available memories.

The neurotic, or the depressive, can thus become a tragic hero of sorts–to himself. His past now has a value all its own; it is that which has made his present dramatic and invested it with a poignant quality. He can now conceive of himself as a traveler through a landscape of trial and tribulation, bravely weathering the many storms it sends crashing down on him. He carries a heavier burden than most, he tells himself; his steps are slow and measured in recognition of this crushing load. Sometimes he is Sisyphus, sometimes a composite mythical figure constructed from heroes and saints alike.

There is thus value in this kind of self-conception, this kind of self-portrait. The afflicted life is dramatic and heroic; the resolved and cured life not so much. Small wonder then, that when lovers urge their neurotic partners to get help, to seek palliation and cure, so as to bring relief to their troubled relationship, the neurotic resists. His afflictions, which torment him so, are what make his life not humdrum. They are what render him unique and set him apart from the boring, teeming masses.

The neurotic is aided in his endeavors by the artist. Novelists devote great works to the forensic examination of flawed characters, carefully dissecting, and yet bringing to life, the tormented and the tortured. Artists graphically depict the sufferings of the damned. Those in pain are the subjects of works of art. The neurotic sees his life, this limited span of time here on this benighted earth, as his canvas, his blank page. The materials with which it these can best be drawn and written and brought to life are at hand: his past life, his troubles.

Who needs a cure when an illness can give so much meaning to an otherwise ephemeral and transient life?

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