Suffering Artist

Maybe oversimplified, but also kind of touching.

Eric ZhangJanuary 3, 2023

Personal relationships are really meaningful to people. But aren’t they so small? No one hears about those late-night escapades or long calls, memories, even incessant messages at times. There is some fragile beauty in sharing fulfilling experiences with just a few close friends.

I was reading about old music composers. One weird commonality in their narratives is that even if their personal life gets messed up, they still do great things.

… depressed and vulnerable … Clara [Schumann]’s own sufferings mental and physical were so unremitting after her husband’s collapse, and her resilience so heroic, that when it came to the misfortunes of others including her children, she tended to address them by grieving and weeping and entreating, but left it at that. Suffering was Clara’s normal mode of response, her way of showing concern. Performing was her religion, her only real therapy, and sometimes it was her cross.

—from Johannes Brahms by Jan Swafford

He [Brahms] waged a perennial battle to escape the emotional consequences of life and love, to dominate his life and everyone in it with the same relentlessness that he dominated the fabric of his music. If in the end the world wanted to make a living monument out of him, he found that another useful way of keeping the world at bay. The loneliness he would endure, if never relish.

—from Johannes Brahms by Jan Swafford

Misery is everywhere. It wears the strangest guises to mock us poor human beings. If you know a single happy person on this earth, tell me his name quickly, before I lose the little courage to face life that I still have.

—letter written by Mahler (1880), from Gustav Mahler by Jens Malte Fischer

Vividly I remember reading Swafford’s biography of Johannes Brahms at a retreat for technologists. I was not feeling okay at the time and also did not have Internet. Someone asked me what I was reading and I told them I was learning about a 19th century composer’s life, which I felt was magnetizing because they experienced a lot of despair and confusion, but they’re also responsible for a lot of music that’s personally meaningful to me.

After that tangent they were visibly perplexed — ok yes, understandable. I can do small talk too! Just feeling touched right now and shared too much information.

Someone might say this is an unhealthy theme, and you shouldn’t put suffering on a pedestal just because one person made something beautiful. I agree, suffering is bad. But aren’t these stories kind of comforting from a different viewpoint? Even it feels like everything in your personal life has gone wrong, and you’re all on your own, with perseverance and faith you can still do incredible things that inspire people for generations to come. So push on.