Misery Chic

October 26, 2008
German philosopher, Friedrich Wilhelm Nietzsche, expressed in his 1886 work, Birth of a Tragedy, that contrary to Aristotle’s definition of tragedy, the psychology of the tragic poet comes not from the desire to unshackle himself from his misery, or to purge himself of his sorrow, but from the desire to glorify it, or as Nietzsche so eloquently put it: “In order to celebrate oneself the eternal joy of becoming, beyond all terror and pity—that tragic joy included even joy in destruction.” Tragedy emerges out of a fascination for human suffering and the dichotomy between the Apollonian and the Dionysian. In Greek mythology, Apollo and Dionysus are both sons of Zeus—Apollo, the sun god, “the shining one”, representing clarity, light, music, and poetry; Dionysus, the god of wine, representing ecstasy, inhumanity and intoxication. Tragedy arises out of the search for a medium between the Apollonian, in all of its fresh-faced refinement, and the Dionysian, in all of its drunken incoherence; lightness versus darkness, sweetness versus immorality.

For the many people who rise and shine every morning only to find themselves stuck, yet again, in the deep trenches of mental malaise—Good morning heartache / Thought we said goodbye last night¬—happiness, paradoxical to common belief, is something that is not always welcomed with arms wide open. Often, a person who is
clinically depressed or mad will think so insignificantly of themselves, that they will come to believe that the only thing justifying their existence is their constant sorrow; a phenomenon known as the participation mystique: a term stemming from anthropology and primal psychology studies, implying some type of mystical connection, “the subject cannot clearly distinguish himself from the object, but is bound to it by a direct relationship which amounts to partial identity” —Good morning heartache / You’re the one who knows me well. For this reason, disorders like depression and madness are so frequently romanticized by civilians; they are thought to be the controlling forces behind the art; madness as method.

In Beyond Good and Evil, Nietzsche wrote: “He who fights with monsters should be careful lest he thereby become a monster. And if thou gaze long enough into an abyss, the abyss will also gaze into thee.” People enjoy the idea of glaring into the eyes of darkness. The realms of agony and human suffering inspire such fascination because they are just so down-right mysterious. Anyone with a basic knowledge of relationships will do their absolute best to enlighten you of the fact that emotional neediness is universally unattractive, whereas lack thereof is extremely enticing. This is because the unknown always more exciting; it never fails to arouse interest. Imagine a brainy Asian dressed in khaki shorts and a white polo, clutching his TI-83 Plus graphing calculator, standing alongside a brooding and effeminate self-proclaimed poet with a choppy haircut, and clad in nothing but black and a pair of thick-rimmed glasses. It goes almost without saying which one all the teeny boppers are most-likely to flock towards and swoon over. He has so much depth; he’s a non-conformist, he’s atypical. He spends his nights painting in his studio apartment, sipping black coffee, and chain smoking cigarettes by the pack. Tragedy confronts the sickness and moral deficiency of human nature head on; the black abyss is symbolic of that darkness. Aeschylus, Sophocles, and Euripides gazed into that abyss long and hard.
Self-discovery and reversal of situation are the attracting elements of any tragedy, often involving sharp and arch displays of wealth, power, and hubris—three subjects which never fail at manufacturing fascination—followed by an extravagant and catastrophic fall-from-grace. Oedipus, in all of his decadence and pomposity, never fathoms the possibility that it could have, in fact, been he who killed his father, and not some criminally insane lunatic. Toward the closing of Oedipus the King, our tragic hero is finally clued in, and learns of his wicked and brutal act against his father, whom prior to the story’s present, was virtually non-existent. The knowledge of his beginnings, the guilt of his actions, and the anxiety of his inevitable fate, all prove to be much more than Oedipus can politely chew. Oedipus the King grabs two golden brooches, and proceeds to gouge his eyes out, and whine incessantly for the last few pages.
In Max Nordau’s Degeneration, an analysis of societal degeneration as response to the fin de siècle, and artistic movements, he accuses society of becoming inclined to imitate what they see in art. “Every single figure”, he writes, “strives visibly by some singularity in outline, set, cut or color to startle attention violently and imperiously to detain it. Each one wishes to create a strong nervous excitement, no matter whether agreeably or disagreeably.” The world loves anything and everything that is, to some degree, melancholic. This infatuation can be observed in various movements in pop culture, such as the grunge and heroin chic movements of the 1990s and present day. After posing for a 1993 Calvin Klein ad campaign, Kate Moss, looking emaciated, drug addicted, and down-trodden, brought “heroin chic” onto the scene, making it the idiom of choice for the fashion industry, at and around the same time grunge-rock band, Nirvana—along with the entire Seattle-based alternative subgenre—and now Generation X icon, Kurt Cobain, were rising to the heights of success. Suddenly everyone developed this unnaturally grotesque preoccupation with trying to look as miserable as humanly possible. Not much has changed since then. In fact, it is almost as if an object, a person, or a work of art—basically anything, does not come across as morose, then it will also fail to be seen as beautiful or desirable.
For example: a 2007 ad campaign, titled “Fashion Junkie”, featuring a couple of frail models with black kohled eyes, looking totally strung-out and whacked out of their minds, leaning over a shiny black table top with straws to their noses, descending to inhale what are meant to look like lines of cocaine, but are actually the white straps of a tank top, is an ad meant to coax consumers into wearing Sisley. Being young and depressed in America—and as photographer Andrew Macpherson would say, and rock band INXS would later sing on their album of the same name: “elegantly wasted”—just oozes sex appeal. Delightfully disheveled and distraught, one must, when pondering the allure of heroin chic, ask the question: is the drug fueled by fashion, or is fashion fueled by the drug itself? With models being the natural candidates for substance abuse, “some girls are even more attractive to photographers when they are high than when they are straight:”, writes Stephen Fried in Thing of Beauty, “certain drugs produce certain faraway looks or stroke certain inner fires that work for certain pictures.” The state of being physically and mentally altered by a substance is that of enchantment. From an outside perspective, it would seem reasonably safe to assume that same enchantment could and would be felt upon peering into the eyes of a depressive, for their disillusionment is congenital; it is unpolished and unpretentious.
The fashion industry gave birth to heroin chic in the same way the fin de siècle off-sprung degenerate art. In all of its brilliance and decadence, heroin chic gave life and resonance to emotional emptiness; it made helplessness seem glamourous. There lies an unerring vulnerability in despair; a certain fragility and world-weariness. “The nineties,” wrote Amy Spindler in The New York Times in May 1996, “may well be remembered as the decade when fashion served as a pusher—a pusher of what appears to be the best-dressed heroin addicts in history.” The grunge and heroin chic movement of the nineties, and today, are the modern day paradigms of Max Nordau’s degeneration theory: Americans love to imitate what they see in art and music. Nietzsche believed that music played an influence on the Dionysian form. The creation of “Dionysian art” involves the metamorphosis of one’s own life into a work of art, not only for the sake of the art itself, but to rendezvous with the corruptive forces that obstruct or thwart the burgeoning of the art to begin with. Take Rock and Roll for example: With its dark poetry, Dionysian rhythms, beaten-down glamour, and drug fueled incoherence; with its acid casualties and dope fiends, rock music delves deep into Abaddon to embrace the salacious depravity, the pagan Saturnalia, and the heathen Bacchanalia of the human condition—the sinful and the impure; the utterly wicked and wrong—with a manic intensity monstrous enough to wipe out all of Europe, and an energy mighty enough to send the world up in flames. The untidy suicides of your degenerate children.
Punk rocker, Graham Fellows, otherwise known as Jilted John, once stated that he believes in what Keats said about melancholy, “that all that is beautiful is sad, and all that is sad is beautiful”, but they are both wrong. While mental illness or sadness of any kind may serve as a cathartic force, it is the struggle against it from which the art is manifested, not the pain itself.
Sylvia Plath was a great American poet, novelist, and world-famous depressive until she killed herself on the morning February 11, 1963, by sticking her head in an oven with the gas turned on. Since her suicide, Plath has received much more fame and notoriety than she would ever have experienced while alive and kicking. For this reason, she is better off dead than alive. Her suicide has immortalized her. What amazes so many people is, that with what little bit of life that she lived, she was able to overcome so much adversity. With what little bit of light that shone though the tiniest cracks of the ceiling and into the damp and dank basement that was her mind, she was able to do so much. Sylvia Plath wrote The Bell Jar, composed her Pulitzer Prize-winning poetry, put together a collection of short stories, had a Fulbright Scholarship at Cambridge, graduated Summa Cum Laude from Smith, taught two semesters at her alma mater, had a couple of stays in a mental hospital, managed to have many love affairs that ended badly and one marriage that was on its way to ending badly, had two children, and still managed to kill herself by age thirty; right on schedule. Elizabeth Wurtzel claimed in Bitch: In Praise of Difficult Women, that “If behind every great man there is a woman, then behind every great woman there is a madness.” For Plath, her depression served insofar as a motivator; it was the force that kept her going for as long as she did, until the vicissitudes of existence became too much for her to handle, and she finally did herself in. Plath fought back against her illness with accomplishments. She fought back by perfecting every sentence she wrote with a razor sharp precision. For Plath, her work is what kept her alive for so long.
If Sylvia Plath had never become so drearily depressed, then she would have never composed her Pulitzer Prize winning poetry or her much celebrated novel, The Bell Jar, but that does not mean that her depression was the definitive element of her craft. While poems such as Plath’s, “Lady Lazarus”, or Anne Sexton’s, “Wanting to Die”, may well detail depression, while simultaneously providing narrative accounts of two women coming undone, the raw emotion they express comes not from the illnesses themselves, but from each Plath’s and Sexton’s struggles to overcome their illnesses; the struggle to get out of bed in the morning, the struggle to live and love with a power that rockets to the moon and back.
Sylvia Plath’s life was formed out of the perfect balance between the Dionysian insights into the implicit chaos and suffering of the human condition and the polished discipline and clarity of the Apollonian form; which is to say that Plath’s perfect balance of manic-depression and talent are what formed her legacy; one without the other would have rendered her rather boring and cliché. Plath’s ability to celebrate and revel in her despair was the destructive force that allowed her poetry to resonate. Eventually, Plath wandered too far into the desolation of her mind, and was never able to return. Sylvia Plath, like Kurt Cobain and so many anonymous others, not only lived in tragedy, but subsequently died in tragedy long before their time—sadly, before any of the societal momentum that qualifies someone as a cultural phenomenon could be felt.

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