I wish to begin this piece with the lines that Hasan Zaidi quoted to end his essay on Paul Auster in Books and Authors last Sunday (May 12): “Man has not one and the same life. He has many lives, placed end to end, and that is the cause of his misery.”

These are words from early 19th century French memoirist Chateaubriand, translated into English by Auster, which appear as an epigraph at the beginning of the novel The Book of Illusions. Chateaubriand’s words somehow reminded me of the leading Romantic poet Lord Byron’s famous saying: “I doubt sometimes that a quiet and unagitated life would have suited me — yet I sometimes long for it.”

A quiet and unagitated life would mean living a simple, straightforward life that may eventually keep one without misery and at peace. That may well be possible to an extent for monks, nuns, ascetics and fakirs. But next to impossible for painters, poets, writers and performing artists.

They cannot help the constant suffering caused by an inner angst while, at the same time, they get drawn towards what is called in Arabic taktheer (pronounced takseer in Urdu) — the variety, the plurality and the choice that the world offers to their beings. It is not only their desire to seek pleasure and their inner angst that continue to negotiate and clash with each other, it is the political world around them that compounds their misery.

The Czech-French writer Milan Kundera defined himself once as a hedonist trapped in a world politicised to extremes. I would say that it is three powers that continue to pull creative people in three different directions with full force: the inner sadness that they cannot escape, the nonconformity that their desires and yearnings bring, and the conformity that politics and society demand from them.

Pulled in three different directions, they are left torn and tormented. This makes painters, poets, writers and performing artists prone to psychological issues and mental health challenges, some conditions leading them to commit suicide — examples range from geniuses such as Sylvia Plath and Virginia Woolf, to our own brilliant poets Shakeb Jalali and Sarwat Hussain.

Three powers continue to pull creative people in three different directions with full force: the inner sadness that they cannot escape, the nonconformity that their desires and yearnings bring, and the conformity that politics and society demand from them.

Mir Taqi Mir had said: “Sanna’a hain sab khwaar, azaan jumla hoon main bhi/ Hai aib barra uss mein keh jis ko hunar aavay [Artisans and artists are all miserable, I being one of them/ One is marred by a major flaw if s/he possesses some talent].”

Mir also went through a long episode of mental illness. Much after Mir, poet Munir Niazi wrote: “Chaahta hoon main Munir iss umr ke anjaam par/ Aik aisi zindagi jo iss qadar mushkil na ho [Munir, I wish that when my life ends/ I get a life which is not as difficult as the present one].”

If we take a look at the great painters, from Vincent Van Gogh to Edvard Munch to Georgia O’Keefe, you will find many who have struggled with mental health issues. Even Michelangelo is said to have suffered from bouts of depression and anxiety and wouldn’t eat or change his clothes for days. Some of these great artists’ work is attributed to their mental health conditions and psychological make-ups. In my view, there was an inner fire that consumed them, but there was also heat from the

fire outside.

A lot has been explored and written about the relationships between genius and madness, and creativity and anxiety. From Kay Redfield Jamison and Ann Belford Ulanov to Jay Macnaughton and Shamim Ahmed, there is a lot of literature made available to us by scholars ranging from literary critics to psychologists. But is there a final word on the issue?

Perhaps, it is true that artists are more prone to such conditions and their numbers are higher among those who suffer from mental or psychological illness, but there are many others who are able to prevail upon their demons.

I must confess that, after having experienced even milder forms of such problems and then seeing people from up close who have gone through mental health challenges, I do not want to romanticise mental health problems by claiming that they come with artistic talent.

One understands that many supposedly normal people are fascinated by abnormalities and freakishness if they are found in artists or performers they look at from a distance. But it is not wise for any society to turn its creative people into freaks and then tell us that it is an occupational hazard. The society and polity of the country need to lessen the pain of creative minds. And not just creative minds, everyone.

Compassion and forgiveness can turn the world into a better place for all. This reminds me of our leading poet, Fahmida Riaz, whose life was made miserable from time to time by our society and the state. Later in life, after losing her only son, she suffered from acute anxiety and depression. She channelised those emotions in her work and braved the tumultuous times like few have.

Artists, poets, writers and performers may also try to overpower their anxiety and pain with their creative talent and intellectual determination, like Riaz did. It does seem like a tall order for all, but may also be read as an autosuggestion to myself.

The writer is a poet and essayist. His latest collections of verse are Hairaa’n Sar-i-Bazaar and No Fortunes to Tell.

Published in Dawn, Books & Authors, May 19th, 2024

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