I like movies with happy endings. Sadness sends me into panic, as if I will never get out from under the weight of it all. Yet, I have to admit there is an arresting beauty in sadness.
Tragedy, sadness, melancholia, anxiety and even ugliness have generated some exquisite art, music, films and theatre over the centuries. Sometimes tragic events are shown with objectivity, such as in, ‘Death Of Marat’, a painting by Jacques David. Sometimes the internal angst of the artist comes through with stunning effect, such as in Vincent van Gogh’s ‘Starry Night’ — the view from the window of his room in the mental asylum.
In his essay ‘Atrabilious Reflections upon Melancholy’ (1823), Hartley Coleridge (son of the poet Samuel Taylor Coleridge) praised melancholy as a more refined state of mind than happiness: “Melancholy is the only muse. She is Thalia and Melpomene. She inspired Milton and Michaelangelo, Swift and Hogarth. All men of genius are melancholic and none more so than those whose genius is comic.”
In Roman and Greek poetry, the muse of tragedy, Melpomene, was invoked so that one might create beautiful lyrical phrases. Thomas Carlyle believed, “Our sorrow is the inverted image of our nobleness.” The Japanese have a phrase, mono no aware, which literally means ‘the beautiful sorrow of things.’
From childhood, everyone has encouraged us to be happy: parents and friends, FM radio and psychologists. The cornerstone of Buddhism is the removal of dukha or suffering. Perhaps, they really mean we should be content: a friend described himself, with a smile, as the second last note in the double bass of the orchestra of life. But contentment rarely translates into art. Restlessness, whether of passion for discovery, or angst or ‘karb’ seems to be a prerequisite to the creative process.
Tragedy, sadness, melancholia, anxiety and even ugliness have generated some exquisite art, music, films and theatre over the centuries.
Some artists’ work is neither sad nor happy such as Mughal miniatures or the works of Da Vinci, Vermeer, Reynolds, Mary Cassatt and Renoir. Other artists present tragic subjects not as a personal expression of sadness but for the work to act as a witness. Frieda Kahlo made paintings of her physical disabilities in almost dispassionate detail.
The essential suffering of humankind was recognised by Buddha, whose teachings elaborated ways of overcoming that suffering through personal effort. However, the true originators of human suffering as an eternal struggle emerged from the pantheon of vengeful Greek and Roman gods in constant conflict with humans, epitomised by Prometheus who was chained to a rock for stealing fire for humans from the gods. Every day an eagle would eat his liver, which would heal at night only to be eaten again until Hercules killed it with an arrow.
Along with the centrality of the suffering of Christ, the tradition of suffering became a much visited theme in Western Art, continuing well into the secular art of later centuries.
The Greek dramatist Euripides established the first concept of tragedy in art. Expressing painful events in an aesthetic language creates a balance perceived as pleasing. He introduced the role of the Chorus — a group of commentators who, through highly emotional song and dance, as Charles Segal writes, “give ritualised expression to intense emotion and to provide comfort, solace and security amid anxiety, confusion and loss.” One can extend this role to the artist who, like the Chorus, directs the viewer towards ways of responding through the aesthetics of composition and colour.
The Romanticism of the 19th century presented sadness as a more personal and internal state. As state patronage melted away, the artists, composers and authors retreated into the solitude of personal studios, allowing the space to dwell on sadness.
There is a tendency to romanticise sadness as an excuse for indulgent inaction. However, there is a deeper value and need for sadness, sorrow and the awareness of tragedy. Joy and sorrow are inseparable, the one allowing the other to exist. Khalil Gibran says, “The deeper that sorrow carves into your being, the more joy you can contain.”
Sadness is one of the six basic emotions described by Paul Ekman, along with happiness, anger, surprise, fear and disgust. The family of ragas evoke the nine rasas or emotions — the predominant ones being love (shringara), peace (shanti), detachment and melancholic solitude (vairagya).
Sadness presents a moment of honesty and vulnerability. The basis of true friendship is said to be based on sharing grief, difficulties and sadness rather than just happy moments.
The creative impulse in many ways springs from the perception of imbalance, and the artist feels obliged to restore balance and, as Maurice Balcho writes, “build a bridge across the void.” Ernest Hemingway wrote, “Writing is easy. All you do is sit down at a typewriter and bleed.”
Art, music, dance and literature through structures of aesthetic ordering, make it possible for viewers and audiences to process difficult emotions more safely. The act of transforming sadness into art requires objectivity, thus conveying the ability to control emotions, transform them and, as Julia Kristeva says, it “enables a refusal to succumb to melancholia.”
Durriya Kazi is a Karachi-based artist and heads the department of visual studies at the University of Karachi
Published in Dawn, EOS, September 9th, 2018