The Living Anonymous

Advice for a young, unpublished writer is not to have a picture of your literary hero on your desk because, chances are, they committed suicide. It is almost cliché to link the creation of art and madness. A common parlance by writers and artists is to describe at some point in their artistic life, the process of creation as torturing. Art is infuriating; at some point you have to realise that whatever you create will never be a perfection. You may create your masterpiece that may define a movement at some point in time, but that Is what it is – a fixture in time only to be succeeded by the next defining monument of a period.

Perhaps this is slightly cynical but the link between mental illness and creativity, no matter what the cliché is, has a very sombre truth to it; that even the most successful artists are sometimes tortured minds who sometimes cannot bare the thought of living. Groucho Marx’s funny, yet horribly pertinent quip that “all geniuses die young” asks whether to be a genius you have to be of a certain tragic age. Let’s look at some famous examples in the writing world; Melville, Woolf, Plath, Foster-Wallace. All can arguably defined as movement definer’s, initiating movements, and retrospectively being heralded as such (i’m not wanting to discuss the contentions of this, you may argue they’re under/overrated but that’s not the point). Moby Dick, Mrs Dalloway, The Bell Jar, Infinite Jest; all key texts in key movements. I include the Bell Jar mainly for it’s head on tackling of the mental state Plath was in, not necessarily as a defining movement, but seems to have been adopted by the feminist cause, amongst many others. Melville didn’t commit suicide but is famous for dealing with depression.

Artistic creation is torturing though. You’re battling yourself, your own capacity to create, and the intense cerebral nature of it does question the existence of genius; if you can immerse yourself in your own world and other people’s created worlds for so long, and then want to create your own world whether it be on canvas or page, and can accept that what you create will still be nowhere near as good as the masters you emulate, that you can only strive and work hard, and look at more of the masters, just some day you may get there, stand remotely near, be for once considered in the same sentence as them. You have to accept this. “If you knew how much work went into it, you wouldn’t call it genius” apparently said Michaelangelo, an undisputed genius.

Camus stated “I don’t want to be a genius – I have enough problems just trying to be a man” which arouses an interesting proposition. Zadie Smith in her essay on David Foster-Wallace remarked that in his deep, exhaustive, postmodern stories that he was “always trying to place relationships between persons as the light at the end of his narrative dark tunnels” and as Wallace once claimed “banal platitudes can have a life or death importance”; she then asks “what are those…stories but complex re-enactments of platitudes we would otherwise ignore.” Now Camus’ quote comes in to the frame, the way we interpret the world now, the western one, with tricksy postmodernists like Wallace only playing with language rather than giving us wholesome narratives with beginning, middles and endings points to this torture of art; it is a response to the world we live in, and Wallace’s stories are tortured response to this world where meaning has been distorted to the extent that any trace of depicting those banal platitudes will be rendered as sentimental. How do we get to the essence of life now? How is it possible? How do we try and be men, women…humans.

Camus’ absurdist theory uses suicide as a key example of how we live, or not live in this world. The absurd refers to the conflict between the human tendency to seek inherent value and meaning, and the inability to find any. In this Nieztchean world, where god is dead, and now, when art is pushed to the fringes, where monetary value and positivistic science takes precedence, where is the meaning and human value of life? Where are we supposed to look for it if our artists, and potential artists are given little room in this commercial world

Suicide for Camus was the result of this meaningless dissonance – a rejection of freedom. Of course it is damagingly reductionist to attribute suicide to this, but there is some kind of truth in Camus’ quote about being a man, being a person, that our most humane investigators of human experience (artists) ultimately fail to find. There is no moral, universal code in this godless world; a Christian always something to aspire to, a perfect big other, where the artist has not, and perhaps has to live with the fact that he is that other, or desire to be the other.

Let’s also not be caught up in the idea that art fails us, or we fail art. Mental illness is a deeply complex issue, and we’re no nearer to comprehensively treating it than we are to understanding it. As a student of community and critical psychology, approaching the end of my masters, indeed I am nowhere nearer, favouring the political argument perhaps generated by Foucauldian thinking. Because if anything arts saves us, and it’s now time to look at how it does that.

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As a part time reviewer of books, i’ve received a number of publications, mostly from smaller, début artists. Some of these have gone on to big things (Donal Ryan, Eimear McBride for example), some haven’t. I always try and treat books with respect, and appreciate that whatever the book is, at the heart of it is a remarkable intelligence that wants to be some way dissected and understood. This kernel of intelligence/spark/throb/intention, whatever it was, has been so powerful, and overwhelming that the person has thought it appropriate to articulate this over a lot of pages in the form of a narrative, that not a lot of people have the comprehension, or stamina/will to even consider doing. I don’t think it’s a matter of intelligence; if you read enough, you can write enough. Obviously there are more factors than that, but if you have a vision, a belief, you’re getting there.

On my desk I received By The Light of The Silvery Moon: Inside the Schizophrenic Mind (Austin MacAuley publishers). A slim volume with only ‘Anonymous’ accredited as the author. The blurb describes what follows as an account of an ‘ordinary girl’ arriving in the London in the nineties, with ‘unclear aspirations’ but ‘with a determination to enjoy life’. After a bout of using recreational drugs the author developed paranoid schizophrenia.
What follows in the next sixty pages or so is entirely the authors words. The first page, ‘About the Author’ is clearly the wording of Anonymous.

Paranoid Schizophrenia could afflict anyone. Could be anyone. A disease that happened in her late 20’s, due to certain life choices. Recreational drugs. Relationship deaths and self-destruction.

There are many famous accounts of mental illness, ‘real-life’ struggles; William Styron is famous for accounting it. This thin book points to a more rounded idea though; the use of art when the person involved is not an artist. The struggle to grapple real life, to depict the real is on the problems with narrative; how real and truthful is this account? With By The Light…, you feel it as truthful as it’s ever going to get.
The choice to remain anonymous is justified by the fact that ‘growing up is hard enough these days without having a paranoid schizophrenic for a mum’. Indeed the stigma of mental health is still so prevalent. No matter how benevolent a title may be of having a mental illness is, it remains a stigma. The prevalent discourse seems to be that physical illnesses you cannot help, or at least anything that you are seen to be helpless with are given a fair ride. Everything in this society is predicated by a choice though; if you ‘choose’ to be obese, to lead that consumptive lifestyle you’re damned with what you get from it. And that, I still believe, is the case with mental health; if you choose to be unhappy, if you choose to take drugs, you deserve what happens. That is our society – the illusion of choice.

By The Light…instead brings into light those ‘other’ things that we should look at, in the environment. For a start there is a Anon’s abusive partners (which ironically she refers to one as ‘Crow’, evocative of Ted Hughes poetry collection after the death of Plath) which our mainstream media, so damning of the single mother, would again, suggest it is down to her choice of partners.

“Crow came to see his son for a week…One visit he brought drugs which I freely smoked and suddenly all the old fears came flooding back, leading to a frightful night when Babe was 9 months old, when I slipped into a psychosis. I was unaware of becoming aware.”

There is one of the true moments when Anon, clearly not a writer, writing this account with purpose of getting a truth out there, slips in those moments of poetry, that we are all capable of – ‘unaware of becoming aware’. It speaks on so many levels, and reaches out to a capability that we all have, to invoke poetry at desperate moments in life.

I’ve just finished reading George Saunder’s Tenth of December. Saunders critically acclaimed stories,of which Foster-Wallace is aSilver Moon p42rguably a precursor, are battling with this idea of coming out of the postmodern age. They have a distinctive style, and like Foster-Wallace was, they’re trying to get to grips, to a truth of an age that does not like dealing with truth. Saunder’s style, no matter how valiantly can only mimic; accounts like By The Light…in their imperfect style, regardless of the amount of clichés they use can be said to be closer to that truth. Cliché here speaks truth. In a novel, a piece of fiction, it speaks of a failing, that people like Martin Amis would not allow us to use. If on a graph, it could be depicted as truth on the x axis, and imitation on the y axis. The more imitation the lesser the truth. It comes down to what our artists are rendering and as Smith said of Wallace’s stories, they are accentuations of banal platitudes that are postmodern age will not allow us to observe, they will not permit us any sentimentalism.

Now it could be perceived that i’m piggy-backing Anon’s account on the back of these big names. Far from it. This is nowhere near them obviously, because it is not even an attempt at that. This isn’t a review of a novel, because it’s not a novel, and it’s something that does not render reviewing, because for the first time I find myself touching on a truth. Instead Anon’s account sheds light on mental illness over art, what can be brutal, horrific and demonising. As you go through it however with the interstitial pictures of art that Anon has produced, one comes near the end, amidst the other messy, complicated acrylics; a set of swirly blues and whites, simple and fresh. And it is here comes the realisation, or the epiphany if we’re talking in novelistic terms; instead of art torturing us, art ultimately saves us, and has saved Anonymous here, and as we hope will save many other Anonymous’ in the process. Art rescues us, and the artist just wants to rescue others.

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Inkwell Arts is perhaps the embodiment of this. Here at Inkwell, positive mental health is promoted through the use of artistic creativity. This is not art therapy. Instead Inkwell offers a place to explore your mental health (and let’s not get carried away with the idea that ‘mental health’ denotes a negative term, it’s an all encompassing one). Inkwell shows how through the arguably individual nature of art, that it allows people to connect through its community. It is a place to explore your mental health and those of others, in a place that devolves any barriers that society would normally have us upholding. Art allows you to connect with yourself and others.

“Only connect! That was the whole of her sermon. Only connect the prose and the passion, and both will be exalted, and human love will be seen at its height. Live in fragments no longer. Only connect, and the beast and the monk, robbed of the isolation that is life to either, will die.” – Howards End – E.M Forster.

By The Light Of The Silvery Moon – Inside A Schizophrenic Mind (55pp.) is published by Austin MacAuley Publishers and is out now (£6.99)

Inkwell Arts is based in Chapel Allerton, Leeds, and is part of the Charity Leeds Mind. This post was also featured on Inkwell’s website and you can visit their website at http://www.inkwellarts.org.uk

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Sea of Ink by Richard Weihe, a Review.

Whenever I see that quote about Peirene Press from the TLS “two hour books to be devoured in one single sitting: literary cinema for those fatigued by film”  I feel Peirene should see injustice. Why must it be done in one single sitting. Obviously its the marketing of these books by Peirene, but the connotations of these books to DVD’s and cinema is detrimental. Once again, it has been proven that Peirene’s title have a more enduring legacy than a DVD with their number 9 title Sea of Ink, by Richard Weihe, exquisitely translated from the German by Jamie Bullock as these contemporary titles continue to emerge in the market under the Peirene Banner.
The tastes continue to be as eclectic as ever, because this time, fact and fiction are blended in this historical novella of the life of the iconic Chinese artist – Bada Shanren. Weihe, does not expect the reader to be an expert on the history of Chinese art as he guides and narrates this understated tale of artistic endeavour and prestige. In fact, it could be argued the more naive the better and undoubtedly gives Weihe some breathing room to fictionalise the story, the antithesis of Laurent Binet’s HHhH if you will. Comparatively little is known about Bada Shanren, apart from his legacy of ink pieces, some of which are interpersed throughout the short, rarely more than a page long chapters/sections.
It opens in 1644, with Zhu Da, not Bada Shanren. Zhu Da, or Bada Shanren’s life depending which way you look at it, is succession of name changes and pseudonyms, and Zhu Da is the Prince of Niyang, 17th son of the founder of the Ming dynasty. He was born in privilege, little exposed as Weihe puts it ‘a sheltered childhood in the palace, surrounded by splendour and wealth’. There is no mercurial, prodigal talent hinted at Weihe, which is good to see, avoiding cliche success story, instead Zhu Da must achieve his legacy through hard work and dedication, unbound from his political heritage. His father is the talent, a much revered painter at the time, but it is his grandfather who exposes him to art,
“Zhu’s grandfather made him a scroll painting of a dragon for his bedroom. The young Zhu, thought this was the largest creature that ever existed….In his dreams the fire-spitting monster broke free from the paper and little Zhu had to leap into the water to save himself”.
It is this moment, early on, that seems to instigate Zhu on his artistic pathway to Bada Shanren, as the metaphor of the dragon is purposefully overbearing and scuppered by Zhu. The dragon, such a formidable image in chinese culture is effectively abandoned, seemingly down to its potential political connotations. As Zhu leaps into the water in to his dream to save himself, you see the fish become the most recurring allusion for the rest of the novella. Indeed it is the ‘biggest creature that ever lived’ and the fact that the mythological creature could live in Zhu’s world speaks volumes. Psychological dragon-slaying. The constrains of his political upbringing are enunciated when ‘the sun extinguished on the Ming dynasty’ later on in the story, causing the prince to flee to the mountains.
The contemporaneity of the story, is thanks to Weihe’s message of how Zhu Da becomes Bada Shanren – how do you become the artist? Before the artistry, Bada Shanren  immerses himself in Buddhism, then alias Chanqi and on mastering it, Xeuge (the straight line linearity of the novell avoids any confusion with the name changes). This allows for Confucian philosophy to be entwined in the story, most memorable for the descriptions of the ink paintings after Bada Shanren learns the way of the artist and the Buddha as if they’re linked in some transcendent way. At first there is the slightly humorous metaphor of the young Bada Shanren painting with an overly large brush, physically overwhelming him, and being dominated by the implement. Of course it becomes him dominating the tool…
“When you have  my brushes in your hand then remember my words” the master said. “The water that flows beneath the mountains and the sea will teach you all that you need to know to understand about the world. It has the rare quality of being able to fit all beings without dispute. Knowing the functions of the mountain without knowing the functions of the water is like the man who sinks into the sea without knowing its beaches or stands the beach without knowing the immense spaces which fill the sea”.
Still, Bada Shanren must continue to fight other external intrusions in his recluse, or ‘vagabond’ as Weihe puts it. Bada Shanren is subject to commercialism in the form of ‘Nobles and rich men everywhere began to venerate the creations of the brush’ and hitting notes of the rampant monetary exploitation of artists today in any kind of form and the need to make a living. The political backdrop also lingers on the periphery, threatening to affect Bada Shanren’s equilibrium as the new rulers are greatly interested in classical Chinese culture; ‘the new rulers wished to write the history of their empire and for this they needed experts on previous eras’ and offer Bada Shanren ‘ to colloborate on the great history project’. It sounds very Orwellian and only now as we see artists and novellist from China breaking the political dogma and censorship to leak through into the western market. Of course there are the high profile cases like Ai Wei Wei, but one has to question how many incidents like these do not get coverage, it is a timely reminder by Weihe, of the past he is creating is still a big issue today (and its also vital to remember that Weihe is not Chinese as well).
Weihe reconstructs the life of Bada Shanren avoiding cliche and his realist prose carries the lucidity of the story. It is linear in realist fashion, with no room for flashbacks or retrospect, just the calm eddying flow like the rivers and mountains he keeps alluding to, such is the way of his understated and soothing pen. Interestinly, as you look at the copies of Bada Shanren’s art, and the use of only black ink on white paper (which is not just down to the printing, and would have been a very odd situation had it been colourful) there is a cohesive effect of the art, the words, and the prose creating an image as the relative minimalism of the paintings, the light and shade mimicking the tonal productions of Bada Shanren’s art like that defined in the following passage,
“When he placed his right hand on the white, unpainted part of the paper he noticed that the stem and the lower part of the flower traced the outline of his thumb and wrist exactly. With ink he had painted a flower, and with the area he had left blank he had depicted part of his hand”
It is what Weihe’s prose, Bada Shanren’s art, implicitly and explicitly say. He manages to keep himself detached both emotionally and politically as the contemporary aspects of it are visceral, which could be down to Weihe not being chinese, or just the historical era it is set in. Its an Orwellian back drop essentially, but devoid of the irony and menace in Orwell’s great works. In Weihe’s afterword he speaks of how the pictures aroused his curiosity – their basic ambiguity and how little is known about Bada Shanren. Sea of Ink is about Zhu Da, Bada Shanren, his art and endeavour and the subjugation experienced by artists. If it is no good, at least let it be yours and at the very least it will be original which is spoken by Bada Shanren, one way or another in the story. This could also be said of Peirene Press that have reproduced a book that truly is art. Whilst being slightly averse to the historical novel here, this book proves that there are some parts of history that need to be rewritten.

Sea of Ink,  118 pp. by Richard Weihe is out now and published by Peirene Press. Thank you to Trip Fiction for providing this review copy, and a smaller version of this review features on their website.