The Power of the Bittersweet: Susan Cain on Longing as the Fulcrum of Creativity

In quest of probably the most transcendent answer to “the issue of being alive in a deeply flawed but stubbornly stunning world.”

The Power of the Bittersweet: Susan Cain on Longing as the Fulcrum of Creativity

“Oh, there should be a bit little bit of air, a bit little bit of happiness… to let the shape be felt.. however let the entire be sombre,” Van Gogh wrote to his brother as he exulted in the great thing about sorrow — not in that wallowing means some have of constructing an id of their struggling, not in the way in which our tradition has of fetishizing the tortured genius fantasy, however in the way in which of Whitman, who noticed the plain equivalence between feeling deeply all of life’s hues and so touching its magnificence extra deeply, the contact we name artwork: Those that attain “sunny expanses and sky-reaching heights,” Whitman knew, are additionally apt “to dwell on the naked spots and darknesses.” He had “a idea that no artist or work of the very first-class could also be or might be with out them”; his personal life was dwelling proof of that idea. Two millennia earlier than him, Aristotle too had puzzled why an undertone of melancholy appears to reverberate throughout the personalities of probably the most fertile minds, the best leaders, and the best artists.

Moonlight, Winter by Rockwell Kent. (Accessible as a print and as stationery playing cards.)

I too have puzzled this whereas falling in love with the folks I stay with — Rachel Carson, together with her unusual grasp of the sweetness contained in the tragedy of transience; Rockwell Kent, who went to the remotest wilderness to find loneliness as a catalyst of creativity; Beethoven, who turned a lifetime of sorrow into common pleasure; Lincoln, who made from his melancholy a supply of poetry and energy; and Emily Dickinson, who turned the interleaving of affection and loss into an everlasting backyard of enjoyment.

I think that beneath all of it is just not an acceptance of however the eager for an acceptance of the fundamental interaction between darkness and light-weight, magnificence and sorrow, mortality and that means — the longing we transmute into that means, that nice act of creation.

Virginia Woolf known as this the “shock-receiving capability” crucial for being an artist — the willingness to see the totality of life, in all its syncopations of grief and gladness, of magnificence and brutality, and really feel the shock of all of it, and make of that shock one thing that shimmers with that means. Susan Cain calls it “the bittersweet” — “an inclination to states of longing, poignancy, and sorrow; an acute consciousness of passing time; and a curiously piercing pleasure at the great thing about the world.” Whitman and Woolf, Carson and Kent, Lincoln and Dickinson have been all paragons of the bittersweet.

The Dreaming Horses (1912) by Franz Marc, a traditional bittersweet kind. (Accessible as a print and as stationery playing cards.)

First woke up to it by a curiosity about her personal disproportionate love of music in a minor key, Cain realized that “the music was only a gateway to a deeper realm, the place you discover that the world is sacred and mysterious, enchanted even” — a realm we will enter by means of music or a stroll in an old-growth forest, by means of poetry or prayer. She started seeing echoes of this nebulous but surprisingly frequent capability for noticing within the lives of artists and thinkers she admired — Beethoven and Buckminster Fuller, Rumi and Alexander the Nice, however none extra exemplary than the artistic patron saint of her life: Leonard Cohen.

So she gave that taste of the spirit a reputation, then got down to perceive it by following a procession of researchers who research its kaleidoscopic aspects throughout neurobiology, psychology, social science.

In Bittersweet: How Sorrow and Longing Make Us Complete (public library), she writes:

The bittersweet is… an genuine and elevating response to the issue of being alive in a deeply flawed but stubbornly stunning world. Most of all, bittersweetness reveals us how to reply to ache: by acknowledging it, and making an attempt to show it into artwork, the way in which the musicians do, or therapeutic, or innovation, or the rest that nourishes the soul. If we don’t rework our sorrows and longings, we will find yourself inflicting them on others through abuse, domination, neglect. But when we understand that every one people know — or will know — loss and struggling, we will flip towards one another.

Artwork by Margaret C. Prepare dinner for Leaves of Grass. (Accessible as a print.)

There may be on this notion an echo of Oscar Wilde’s stirring jail letter, during which he resolved to show his struggling into transcendence; an echo of Beethoven’s resolve to “take destiny by the throat” as soon as he started dropping his listening to; an echo of Marina Abramovič, who turned a harrowing childhood into uncooked materials for artwork.

On the coronary heart of all of it is an impressed inquiry into “remodeling ache into creativity, transcendence, and love,” posed with sensitivity to the realities and types of ache we stay with, not all of them simply mutable right into a poem or a portray or a music.

It’s an act of quiet braveness for Cain to reckon with these questions in a tradition that so readily cosigns the decision on issues of complexity with a bellicose X illiterate of nuance. For these are certainly complicated, nuanced issues past straightforward binaries, murky at the same time as a spectrum — the place do the fertile blues of melancholy finish and the deadening black of despair start? The bittersweet — this enchanted loom of longing on which we weave the tapestry of that means — exits within the liminal area between the non secular, the physiological, and the psychological. It’s an orientation of the soul laced with neurochemistry and probability.

That’s the place Cain’s notion of longing because the litmus check for the bittersweet turns into helpful — there’s a subtlety in it that units the non secular other than the scientific. Throughout languages and cultures, throughout epochs and sensibilities, we’ve all the time longed to call our longing. It’s encoded in one among Sappho’s most ravishing surviving fragments and bellows from Beethoven’s “Ode to Pleasure” and radiates from the whole lot Nina Simone’s gum stands for. In a passage evocative of Woolf’s “shock-receiving capability,” Cain writes:

C. S. Lewis known as it the “inconsolable longing” for we all know not what, or Sehnsucht, a German time period primarily based on the phrases das Sehnen (“the craving”) and sucht (“an obsession or habit”). Sehnsucht was the animating pressure of Lewis’s life and profession. It was “that unnameable one thing, need for which pierces us like a rapier on the odor of bonfire, the sound of untamed geese flying overhead, the title of The Nicely on the World’s Finish, the opening strains of ‘Kubla Khan,’ the morning cobwebs in late summer time, or the noise of falling waves.” He’d felt it first as a younger boy, when his brother introduced him a toy backyard within the type of an previous biscuit tin full of moss and flowers, and he was overcome by a joyous ache he couldn’t perceive, although he would attempt for the remainder of his life to place it into phrases, to search out its supply, to hunt the corporate of kindred spirits who’d identified the identical wondrous “stabs of pleasure.”

One in every of teenage artist Virginia Frances Sterrett’s century-old illustrations for French fairy tales. (Accessible as a print.)

The bittersweet, Cain observes, is most palpable in “these out-of-time moments while you witness one thing so elegant” — one thing like, say, a shimmering pink leaf twirling in midair with out falling — “that it appears to return from a extra good and exquisite world.” Capturing with extraordinary precision the dual realities between which a few of us spend our lives interpolating, she writes:

At their worst, bittersweet sorts despair that the right and exquisite world is endlessly out of attain. However at their greatest, they attempt to summon it into being. Bittersweetness is the hidden supply of our moon photographs, masterpieces, and love tales. It’s due to longing that we play moonlight sonatas and construct rockets to Mars. It’s due to longing that Romeo cherished Juliet, that Shakespeare wrote their story, that we nonetheless carry out it centuries later.


Once you went to your favourite live performance and heard your favourite musician singing the physique electrical, that was [the bittersweet]; while you met your love and gazed at one another with shining eyes, that was it; while you kissed your five-year-old good night time and he or she turned to you solemnly and stated, “Thanks for loving me a lot,” that was it: all of them aspects of the identical jewel. And sure, at eleven p.m. the live performance will finish, and also you’ll have to search out your automobile in a crowded car parking zone; and your relationship received’t be good as a result of no relationship is; and sooner or later your daughter will fail eleventh grade and announce that she hates you.

One in every of artist Rosalind Hobley’s haunting cyanotype portraits of flowers.

On this sense, then, longing turns into not the longing for perfection — for the shimmer of glory, for the parable of closure, for the fortunately ever after — however a type of tenderness for imperfection, for the popularity that the place between no extra and never but is the place the place the chance-miracle of life lives itself by means of us, and that may be a stunning place. Cain writes:

Longing is momentum in disguise: It’s lively, not passive; touched with the artistic, the tender, and the divine. We lengthy for one thing, or somebody. We attain for it, transfer towards it. The phrase longing derives from the Previous English langian, that means “to develop lengthy,” and the German langen — to achieve, to increase. The phrase craving is linguistically related to starvation and thirst, but in addition need. In Hebrew, it comes from the identical root because the phrase for ardour.

In a sentiment evocative of Rosanne Money’s transcendent science-laced reflection on what it means to be an artist, lensed by means of Adrienne Wealthy and Marie Curie, Cain provides:

The place you endure, in different phrases, is identical place you care profoundly — care sufficient to behave.

Bittersweet is an exquisite learn in its entirety. Complement it with poet and thinker David Whyte on the deepest that means of longing, then revisit Rilke — a traditional bittersweet — on the connection between solitude, longing, and creativity and Nick Cave — the monarch of the fashionable bittersweet — on hope, cynicism, and the salve for despair.

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