the pleasure of being sad

A good friend got us an interesting and appreciated Christmas present, ‘A Field Guide to Melancholy‘ by Jacky Bowring which I have been reflecting on and reading the past few days.

At one point on New Years Day I found myself alone drinking tea and reading this book, looking at a big lonely Christmas tree in a hotel lobby thinking that everything fitted together very nicely. It looked sad, purposeless, days numbered yet also beautiful in the first gloomy day of 2014.

At another point in Sligo I found myself trying to draw the hotel and getting really down that it just didn’t look right, that the lines where wrong and my colouring pencils didn’t match the colours, that I can’t capture things properly when drawing while simultaneously enjoying the whole process.

And yesterday in Cookstown I was getting sad about how the once thriving Saturday market in my home town has all but disappeared now thanks to M&S, LIDL, Asda, Tesco,Argos, Homebase etc while also taking delight in the nostalgia of what it used to be like (or what I imagined it used to be like).

In fact the more I’ve thought about it the past few days, the more I realised that I’m maybe just a sad guy at heart and maybe that is OK. Not all the time, but maybe as a sort of default setting that is part of who I am.  And perhaps 2014 is the year to accept that and even see the value in it instead of wondering ‘What is wrong with me?’ Maybe it’s just time to value the paradox of it all.

Although I found the book to be a bit dense sometimes I am grateful that someone has written a book casting sadness and melancholy as something that can be good, positive and even beautiful as it makes me feel like less of a freak.

So much of modern society seems to be about pursuing happiness or eradicating sadness which makes me feel out of place. It’s not that I don’t want to be happy more that I’m not so sure if I want to get rid of the dark, sad bits in me sometimes and that makes me wonder if I’m OK in the head as who wants sad, dark bits in them?.

There is one bit of the book that I keep thinking about:-

‘[However], psychiatric concerns cast the Field Guide’s advocacy of melancholy as a rich dimension of human existence into tricky territory, with global worries over the increase in mental illness – of an escalation of melancholy as madness. Writers such as Peter D Kramer are emphatic that depression as a medical illness should be eradicated, just as diseases like smallpox have been’

It’s something that I think about. Would I change my natural inclination towards melancholia if I could?

I don’t think I would.
One of the things that brings me joy in life is experimenting, creating and I although it also drives me crazy lots of the time I often feel at my most creative when I am down in the dumps, maybe even in some place beyond ‘down in the dumps’. As the book suggests perhaps that is the trade off.

It’s the paradox that although something might make me sad I can also feel extreme joy towards it.
I might feel alive and like I’m flourishing with creativity or appreciate the beauty in some sad work of art.
As the book suggest the lines seem blurry with many of these definitions, and I can only speak from my experience but I am not sure I would want the sad bits in me to be eradicated like smallpox as I am not sure how parts of me I enjoy and help me to love my neighbour wouldn’t also be eradicated in the process. Those bits seem linked.

There is a quote from Victor Hugo at the start of the book. Some part of me likes the idea of sombre joy.

‘Melancholy is a twilight state; suffering melts into it and becomes a sombre joy. Melancholy is the pleasure of being sad.

a cup of tea with Vincent van Gogh

Bedroom in Arles

So I was lying in bed on Wednesday night reading a little book about Vincent van Gogh and staring at a plate of this painting, from my bedroom to Vincent’s bedroom in Arles, back and forth, back and forth. If wondered if Vincent had painted our bedroom would it have looked as peaceful? Could he have made my boxers look relaxing and Provencal?
I know lots of us feel a special bond to certain people and I guess that I feel a bond to Vincent. I know lots of people do, for different reasons.

‘He…had tried tried to be picture dealer, school-master, bookseller, and evangelist, and had suffered much doubt that he was good for anything at all. To his puritan family, who believed in the close connection of work and morality, he seemed an idler and a non-conforming eccentric. Actually he was a man with a calling, but still uncertain of what that calling was.’

Vincent van Gogh, Fontana Pocker Library of Great Art.

Maybe  the real hero in his story however is his brother Theo who faithfully supports his non-conforming eccentric brother through thick and thin. The fame for Theo should be as great as that for Vincent.

Anyway, so I was reading this all and thinking about it on Wednesday night.
Then yesterday afternoon H___ and I found ourselves at the home of a lovely couple down in Annalong, the sun glimmering out  on the Irish Sea and black guillemots fumbling about the harbour walls like misplaced penguins.
They offered us a cup of tea, and down came four china cups from the cupboard.One of them had them was printed with Vincent’s bedroom in Arles, which the lady poured tea into.  Then she passed that china cup to me.
What are the chances of that?

the umbrella of the gardener’s aunt is in the house

I was reading ‘The Moon and Sixpence‘  last night, saw this bit and something connected.

‘The only thing that seemed clear to me – and perhaps even this was fanciful – was that he was passionately striving for liberation from some power that held him. But what that power was and what line the liberation would take remained obscure. Each one of us is alone in the world. He is shut in a tower of brass, and can communicate with his fellows only by signs, and the signs have no common values, so that their sense is vague and uncertain. We seek pitifully to convey to others the  treasures of our heart, but they have not the power to accept them, and so we go lonely, side by side but not together, unable to know our fellows and unknown by them. We are like people living in a country whose language they know so little that, with all manner of beautiful and profound things to say, they are condemned to the banalities of the conversation manual. Their brain is seething with ideas, and they can only tell you that the umbrella of the gardener’s aunt is in the house.’

Somerset Maugham

acrylic procrastination

One of my resolutions for 2013 (because I’m old school sometimes and like that sort of thing) was to try some painting, something which I had never really tried before for different reasons.

One of those reasons is that there just isn’t much room in the house,
another reason is that jars of water and my clumsiness are a recipe for disaster,
another reason if you want another one is that I don’t really know what I’m supposed to  be doing,
perhaps another is that I wasn’t sure if I’d really enjoy it,
and another reason that I wasn’t sure what to paint.

Oh, and a few more. Paint and canvas can be expensive especially if  like me you would be fond of slapping it on. I can’t really afford to be experimenting to much in a cramped little room.

Maybe the main reason though (for me anyway) is that there are so many options and ways to go that it is hard to know when to stop or begin, what I’m even trying to achieve. We see so many images everyday that we can become image exhausted or image hyper active that I wonder what you can bring to the party. It’s like that in music. There is so much music that when you’re writing a song it’s hard to think what else you can bring to the party. Maybe it’s like that with writing as well, I don’t know.

In a way maybe you’ve just got to step out in faith and give it a go, ‘risk it for a biscuit’ and all that. Still another side of me says ‘What’s the point of putting all this effort in if you’re not really sure what you’re doing’. Which ends up tiring me out and makes me decide to walk to Lisburn instead. *To maybe buy paints. Which I think might help. But I’m not sure for certain. So will the money be a waste. Perhaps I should think about that more. Procrastination. Etc Etc.*

drawing lines + risking things

I’d an idea a few days ago and thought ‘That might just work, I’ll give it a go…
And so the last few days have been spent trying to make this idea and see if it will work or look as cool as I imagined it might look.

It can be hard to have an idea  sometimes as the point when you see it in your head or imagine what it might look like, or the ideal way it would sound, or the ideal way it might come out is the best that it’s going to get. When you try to make the thing it usually looks nothing like you imagined in your head, or it sounds crap, or looks rubbish,  or won’t work.

Or maybe it would work if you kept at it or tried again and took your mistakes aboard and got help.

But sometimes you just get fed up because it was another example of something you tried hard to make work that didn’t work out the way you planned and all those hours you spent fiddling at it and trying to be careful and this mess or that song you don’t like is what you have to show for your work. It can be disheartening.

One of the main ways it goes wrong is in not knowing when to stop. You might have something you think is OK or at home with but then you think ‘Ah, but it could be better if I added this….‘ and before you know it you’ve gone too far and messed it up. You added too much paint, you’ve not taken enough care, or you just  didn’t care and just added something random and now it’s a pigs ear. G.K Chesterton is supposed to have said

‘Art, like morality, consists in drawing the line somewhere.’

Is drawing the line the hardest part?

But on the other hand if we don’t ‘risk it for a biscuit‘ or if we settle for not taking risks and having a go then perhaps that is worse? I always think (and get a bit freaked out) by the parable of the talents and how the master treats the servant who buried his talents and played it safe.

This song covered by The Unthanks has been stuck in my head as well.

It’s about a man and his prized pigeon who he risks on big race from Rome.

‘There was gonna be a champions’ race from Italy
“Look at the maps, all that land and sea
Charlie, you’ll lose that bird”
But Charlie never heard
He put it in a basket and sent it off to Rome
On the day o’ the big race a storm blew in
A thousand birds were swept away and never seen again
“Charlie we told you so
Surely by now you know
When you’re living in the West End there ain’t many dreams come true”
“Yeah, I know, but I had to try
A man can crawl around or he can learn to fly
And if you live ’round here
The ground seems awful near
Sometimes I need a lift from victory”‘

how can we sing our song in a strange land?

I has been on a bit of a downer this week after spending last week in and around Dublin.

There are many reasons why I feel down but the main one is that just don’t feel as creative here in Belfast-Lisburn, I just don’t feel as inspired and free to make things or see new possibilities and this gets me down. I try drawing but don’t want to experiment and then get stuck in a rut, a bad rut. I hate the stuff I do and want to rip it up (which I nearly did yesterday afternoon).
I try writing a song but can’t get past the first two lines.

That is not meant to be a slight on either Lisburn-Belfast, I guess you can’t help who you love. You can try and give it a go, a sort of arranged marriage of sorts but it might be a unhappy arranged marriage at that.

The light, colours, angles, are all wrong. Nothing seems to fit properly and the shadows creep in all the wrong corners.  Everything is green and overhangs the pavement.

I, frustrated

I am really frustrated as I feel I can’t communicate things that are deep inside me to people in a way that they’ll understand or even want to listen. Someone asked me last week if I liked writing and I tried to explain that I found it really hard to write, it makes me feel exhausted and at any rate I don’t feel particularly gifted with writing.
Yet here I am writing I suppose. But it’s alright typing how I’m feeling, but when it comes to things like expressing things I believe are wrong with the world or injustice, or if I want to point out beauty  or hope it drains me.

The biggest obstacle is trying to lose the word ‘I’. I dominates, especially on a blog and it makes you feel selfish in your writing. I don’t need to use the word I as much as I do. I don’t want my writing or art to be about me, but I’m not sure how to produce it with including me in it. See what I mean?

publish or perish?not sure

This book is a struggle to read, but there bits that voice some of what I struggle with in life, especially when it comes to things such as making a living or why I sometimes feel a bit odd or stuck.


‘..every modern artist who has chosen to labour with a gift must sooner or later wonder how he or she is to survive in a society dominated by market exchange.  And if the fruits of a gift are gifts themselves, how is the artist to nourish himself, spiritually as well as materially, in an age whose values are market values and whose commerce consists almost exclusively in the purchase and sale of commodities?’

This is what gets me down. How to make a living with gifts in a commodity society?

Later on in the book (after skipping out chapters) Lewis Hyde writes this

“Having accepted what has been given to him – either in the sense of inspiration or in the sense of talent – the artist often feels compelled, feel the desire, to make the work and offer it to an audience. The gift must stay in motion. ‘Publish or perish’ is an internal demand of the creative spirit…”

This is what also gets me down also because I feel that ‘publish or perish’ line deep in my gut.
I realise that it could be an idol in my life, something I look to to give me  value or validate me,  but it’s also part of the way I’ve been created.