I offered some brief thoughts on the sublime in my last post, honoring fashion designer Alexander McQueen, who committed suicide last week. “Every angel is terrifying,” wrote the poet Rainer Maria Rilke, expressing how we feel when art touches us with something more than mere beauty, something so far beyond mortal experience that it leaves us feeling brushed by the corner of Death’s robe.
Perhaps it’s a myth that artistic geniuses are more affected by depression and suicide than the general population. Nonetheless, I wonder whether they push themselves to walk that tightrope between this world and the next…and some fall off.
This scene from the 2005 film version of Andrew Lloyd Webber’s musical “The Phantom of the Opera” seems to me to express the artist’s dilemma. Christine must choose between the sinister, disfigured, passionate Phantom, her musical mentor, and Raoul, her rather bland but aristocratic childhood sweetheart. Like thousands of other female fans, when I first saw this musical at the impressionable age of 18, I felt she’d made the wrong choice.
Though my crush on the Phantom lingers, I saw a different dimension when I watched the film 15 years later. Christine appears to turn away from the source of her musical inspiration, toward a safer life as a conventional upper-class wife, because she fears where this romance with grief, darkness and death might lead. As W.B. Yeats wrote:
The intellect of man is forced to choose
Perfection of the life, or of the work,
And if it take the second must refuse
A heavenly mansion, raging in the dark.
That’s not to say that one must live a dangerous or sensually excessive life in order to produce great art. (Sorry to disappoint you.) I think it does mean that we have to be willing to enter the dark places in ourselves.