Good Friday Reflection: An Artist in the Dark

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This article, An Artist in the Dark, originally appeared in Comment magazine, the opinion journal of CARDUS: Our thanks for this fitting reflection on Good Friday.

Desolation and Creation

Many shadows lurk in the corners of the human mind; there are innumerable valleys of darkness the soul may stumble through. The wild varieties of depression, desolation, and doubt have frequently haunted artists, deadening their creativity. Yet, for as often as artists have lain silent and exhausted, stifled under the weight of darkness, others have turned their pens or brushes against the shadows. What makes the difference? When both are plunged into a dark night of the soul, what shuts the mouth of one and sets free the songs of the other?

I do not know.

The answers to these questions are further complicated by the fact that modern psychiatry often fails to distinguish spiritual afflictions from mental illnesses. Whenever I have mentioned that I am thinking about "spiritual desolation and creativity," I have almost invariably received reading recommendations about mental illness and creativity. I do not believe these afflictions are the same, though of course the same person may suffer from both. The conflation is bolstered by unhelpful stereotypes of artists and mental illness, such as Kay Redfield Jamison's Touched with Fire, which posthumously diagnoses dozens of artists with major depression or bipolar disorder.

Even once spiritual darkness is separated from mental illness, and both from the occupational hazard, there is confusion about causes and kinds of soul-sadness. Is it caused by sin? Is it an inevitable phase of sanctification? It is circumstantial? Temperamental?

Categorizing Darkness

There are texts that examine doubt, desolation, the dark night of the soul, and despair as separate phenomena. In his classic work of devotion The Spiritual Exercises, St. Ignatius Loyola writes about cycles of "consolation" and "desolation." Desolation is "darkness of soul, disturbance in it, movement to things low and earthly, the unquiet of different agitations and temptations, moving to want of confidence, without hope, without love, when one finds oneself all lazy, tepid, sad, and as if separated from his Creator and Lord." St. John of the Cross writes, in The Dark Night of the Soul, that this struggle is a "purgation," first of the senses, then of the soul. It "is bitter and terrible to is horrible and awful to the spirit." Søren Kierkegaard wrote about doubt as "a cursed hunger" that "can swallow up every argument, every consolation and sedative." No matter the type of darkness, travelling through it is a journey through the Valley of the Shadow of Death.

When any of these kinds of darkness seize a sufferer, neat labels and tidy definitions are useless. Categorization will not bring light. Categorization will not bring artistic inspiration. St. John writes that during the dark night, "imagination and fancy can find no support in any meditation." It may be the temporary death of creativity. Any of these inexplicable sorrows can manifest themselves either as a paralysis that freezes creativity—or as a stimulus to a desperate, agonized inspiration. Yes: there are artists who have turned their darkness into words, music, or paintings. Their wrestling matches with the shadows are depicted again and again throughout the history of literature, music, and art—sometimes in the past tense, as retrospection; sometimes as an active, present force in the work. Perhaps their witness may be that longed-for hint of dawn.

Writing in the Dark

John Bunyan, for instance, struggled with doubt his entire Christian life. Reading through Grace Abounding to the Chief of Sinners is painful, as the reader is subjected to Bunyan's recurring cycles of spiritual torment. In one such crisis, Bunyan felt as if he had given in to a mental temptation to "sell Christ." The result was two years of torture: "I felt myself shut up into the judgment to come; nothing now for two years together would abide with me, but damnation, and an expectation of damnation.... I was both a burden and a terror to myself." Yet he managed to limit, contain, and personify that horror as Giant Despair in The Pilgrim's Progress. Walter Wangerin, Jr., brings this consuming doubt to life in Chauntecleer the rooster in The Book of Sorrows. The composer Palestrina may have experienced something similar after the death of his wife, when he wrote a motet about his fear of judgment, or when he composed a series of Lamentations during another dark period of his life.

As someone trained in Ignatian spirituality, Gerard Manley Hopkins was intimately familiar with cycles of darkness and light. He captured and mastered them in his six "terrible sonnets." In "I wake and feel the fell of dark, not day," he thinks the "light's delay" will last for hours, and "where I say / Hours I mean years, mean life." That poem ends in desolation. That poem comes from the depths—de profundis—yet like the Psalmist in Psalm 130, Hopkins does not stay there. In the masterful "Carrion Comfort," he refuses to give in:

Not, I'll not, carrion comfort, Despair, not feast on thee;
Not untwist—slack they may be—these last strands of man
In me ór, most weary, cry I can no more. I can;
Can something, hope, wish day come, not choose not to be.

Sometimes the only possible gesture is refusal of annihilation. Yet at the end of "Carrion Comfort," Hopkins writes about the time of desolation as "That night, that year / Of now done darkness." It is over. He made it through. And even in its deepest darkness, he wrote poetry, some of the best poetry in English, during the very time when he was racked by desolation. Many, many artists have floundered in the depths, but the sheer number of pieces of music, poems, and paintings entitled De Profundis (such as this piece by Arvo Pärt, this poem by Christina Rosetti, or this painting by George Rouault) bear evidence that they surface again, see the light again, and make art again. In that, all faithful artists should find consolation.

Writing Into Light

Darkness can come from external circumstances, too, especially tragic loss. New York artist Makoto Fujimura has been tried in the furnace of our times. He lived and worked in the heart of lower Manhattan when 9/11 struck, and he recently lost paintings to the floods of Hurricane Sandy.

Zero Summer was painted for the sixtieth anniversary of the destruction of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, during the period of Fujimura's many responses to 9/11. It is glossed by this question from T.S. Eliot's Four Quartets: "Where is the summer, the unimaginable / Zero summer?" In this painting, I see both the horror of falling towers, and the golden beauty of unassailable grace. In the winter of desolation, the Edenic "zero summer" is difficult to imagine—but maybe, just maybe, not impossible.

Even if creativity does die in that time, another grain of hope may be found in the Gospel pattern of death and resurrection: "unless a grain of wheat falls into the earth and dies, it remains alone; but if it dies, it bears much fruit" (John 12:24). As George MacDonald has described in Lilith, "Every creature must one night yield himself and lie down" in the long, cold, white room of the dead, in order to live again fully and see God. For the artist, then, who finds herself wandering in the dark night, there is hope: It is a spiritual season, not a life-long diagnosis, and it leads to light.

Help of another kind may be found in the remembrance that God himself, in the person of the son, suffered the despair of his father's absence, the desolation of the cross. Even as he was dying, He cried out His darkness in the words of a Psalm of Desolation.

The Crowning by Bruce Herman, like all great works that come from the depths, captures both the cosmic suffering of Christ and the personal agony of the artist. Herman writes:

The Crowning was the first of more than twenty pieces intended as participation in the tradition of Stations of the Cross. Christ's radical identification with human loss, grief, and suffering indicate for me that the Incarnation was not a divine "appearance" or some sort deus ex machina, but the deadly actual encounter of God with sin. It is mind-numbing to me that even God suffers and dies as a result of the encounter. Not a story for the faint of heart—but happily for us, not the end of the story.

Darkness is not the end of the story. Perhaps God is making art of us when we cannot make art: St. John wrote that "It is just as if some painter were painting or dyeing a face; if the sitter were to move because he desired to do something, he would prevent the painter from accomplishing anything." Darkness and desolation are often only identifiable in retrospect, after they have let go their grip. It is then that the curse becomes a blessing and the negation becomes a gift. In the midst of the darkness, everything may seem like condemnation—even these words. Yet I encourage you: when the darkness takes you, do not move out of faith into despair. Sit still: God is painting you into a masterpiece, and maybe creating a masterpiece through you, too.

Candle image by Cindee Snider Re. Used with permission. Sourced via Flickr. Sørina Higgins is an adjunct faculty member in English and the author of a new full-length poetry collection, Caduceus. She is the Book Review Editor of Sehnsucht: The C. S. Lewis Journal, a staff writer for Curator, and a blogger about the arts and faith at iambic admonit.