Imphal Review of Arts and Politics

There is a tortured vibrancy in Van Gogh's sunflowers too, quite the opposite of the exuberant kind as in the picture

Unworldly and Torturous Alienation is a Precondition of the Supremely Creative

Much has been written about the likeness of the movie version of Superman and is origin to Jesus Christ. Superman is an alien from the destroyed planet Krypton and the only son of a famous scientist there, sent to earth with the mission to be the saviour of the world. The theme should already sound a note of familiarity with the story of Jesus Christ, God’s only son sent to the earth to salvage and redeem humankind from sin and misery. Some of the leitmotifs that run through one of the latter Superman movies, “Superman Returns”, seem more than mere coincidence.

The voice of his father that perpetually haunts Superman are: “You are not one of them and you will never be”; “Sometimes you will feel like an outcast but you will never be alone”; and “The son becomes the father and the father the son” etc, all have such strong biblical rings in them, that it is impossible to imagine the creators of the comic strip character, but more so those of the movie versions of the same character, did not have Jesus Christ in mind when they went about their job. Not just Superman, but it is indeed fascinating to note how many comic strip characters are actually model on immortal themes.

Be that what it is, but we are here also interested not just in the loneliness of the Superman character, but a peculiar brand of loneliness that he and many famous artists before him share with Jesus Chist. They were not obsessed with Christ per se, but with the loneliness of Christ. For this loneliness is one born out of a sublime sense of superiority rather than the usual self alienation that results from an overriding feeling of littleness and inferiority before the immensity of creation. Indeed, many famous European painters, including Paul Gauguin, a contemporary and friend of Vincent Van Gogh, was one of those who was wont to either liken his self-portraits to the intensely lonely face of Christ, or to add features of his own face to the suffering visage of Christ on the cross. Gauguin incidentally is the man on whose tortured life writer Somerset Maugham based his famous novel “The Moon and Sixpence”.

The protagonist of this novel is a man who abandons the material comfort of an affluent home and well-paying profession as a stock broker to chase his dream of ‘owning the moon’. Through this romanticised portrait of the painter, Maugham gives us a glimpse of the artist’s loneliness as something unique and different from the loneliness as we generally understand. The artist’s suffering is also a different kind of suffering. He does not think or see like everybody else, hence he cannot be one with them, although one of them. Like Superman, he is destined to feel like an outcast, although never alone. All of these senses of suffering amidst plenty seem to be in some ways or the other, derivatives of the sense of the sublime loneliness of Christ who too was born amongst humans but cannot be a human. He is God’s Son, but the Son is the Father and the Father the Son. He cannot possibly be merrymaking, flirting, bingeing, cracking jokes, partying occasionally etc, as all ordinary humans, do therefore he is destined to be lonely.

The loneliness of Christ, we would say is a uniquely awesome loneliness. A sense of this comes across strongly even in Superman’s loneliness, and so also of many artists. Often however, this loneliness can degenerate and manifest as acute neurosis. This is disturbingly visible in the works of another famous Norwegian painter, Edvard Munch, especially in his celebrated painting “The Scream”. Munch however kept his own loneliness distinct and distant from the possibility of where this loneliness can lead his life to, and thus maintained sanity.

Another famous painter, Vincent Van Gogh was unsuccessful in keeping this distance. In one of his intense moments of aloofness and self-exile, he ended up cutting off an ear. At another, he committed suicide. Loneliness for him was like a passionate energy beyond his control that gripped and wrung his soul, and this intensity is evident in all of his works, including his many self-portraits. Even the bunch of ordinary flowers in his timeless masterpiece “Sunflowers”, shrivelled and dried as they were, had this quality of intense angst questioning the meaning of life and existence.

Even in its shrivelled state, the flowers seemed in the grip of some supernatural cosmic energy torturing the artist’s being. Lot many such flowers probably would have ended up in the dustbins in most households, but the hyper-sensitive painter saw his own sufferings in the visage of these withered and lifeless flowers, their once radiant beauty now having so cruelly evaporated. A work of art thus came to be born. Perhaps, the loneliness of Christ, so evident in so many of the most creative of arts also show that the beauty of life is in is vulnerability.

There are also indeed works of art that celebrate life and its abundance. In Western literature there is even a genre such arts fit in – comedy. While they too are a joy, the genre directly its opposite – tragedy – in which the artist fights against an overwhelming sense of meaninglessness are the ones that leave the deepest cuts in human aesthetic sensibility. Hence, as in paintings, Hamlet contemplating suicide and ruminating on whether ‘to be or not to be’ or MacBeth coming to the conclusion life is ‘a tale told by an idiot’ are ones which have earned themselves a firmer place on the hall of humankind’s artistic immortality.

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