Russell Davies

  • Short Lives by Katinka Matson
    Picador, 366 pp, £2.50, February 1981, ISBN 0 330 26219 X

There is nothing very mysterious about the interest we take in self-destructive personalities. To be callous about it – and we are all callous when it comes to disasters relived on the printed page – their lives make excellent biographies. Not only do they suffer in a dramatic way: they do it more purposefully than the rest of us, with our dull sense of un-satisfactoriness, can manage. Sequences of chaos and catastrophe in the life of an artist maudit, which to an eye-witness must appear so messy, pointless and wasteful, are revealed by the historical assessor as deliberate strides towards the goal of oblivion. Death becomes, unmistakably, an achievement, if only in the sense retained by that useful French word achevé, meaning both ‘brought to completion’ and, in a more brutal tone, ‘finished off’ or even frankly ‘killed’. Linguistically, the French are well-equipped to examine these morbid processes, and with perplexing modern exemplars like Artaud and Simone Weil to go at, they need to be.

The spectacle of ‘creative’ people destroying themselves is a modern entertainment. We sense a pleasing paradox in it – or, more accurately, a contrary motion away from the morally neutral point of ‘normality’. People enjoy believing that the more urgent and ecstatic the artist’s drive into the gratifications of creativity, the more desolating his equal and opposite emotional knock back into perplexity, incoherence and helplessness. The suffering – this is where we in the spectatorial mass are truly callous – is seen as the necessary penalty of the gift: a penalty silently exacted by the rest or us who have no gift to exercise. Be the protagonist Van Gogh or James Dean, the message from the public is the same. We love you for your talent, but we will love you doubly for dying of it. The proof that we are better off without it is a comfort. It helps to make the complacency of an unrisked life that much more bearable.

One can even smuggle a little contempt into this point of view, for the notion of the Holy Fool comes readily to hand: a respectable disguise for the subtly belittling anecdote casting the artist in the role of perpetual adolescent. Nobody doubts that Dylan Thomas died of drink and a regressive, infantile personality: but the thing that is remembered about his last days is a remark (‘I’ve just had 18 straight whiskies, I think that’s the record’) which superbly typifies the kind of thing his public would like him to have said. Recent biographies deny that he said it at all, but the remark will survive, because it encapsulates so well that combination of bravado and pathos which gives a reader the feeling he’s got the artist’s measure. Indeed, Thomas’s whole career in America – the well-authenticated outrageousness at academic receptions, the nuzzling up to repelled and fascinated ladies, even the bow-tie and cigars – is a sort of gift package to collectors of the artist-image, as no doubt Thomas at the time intended it to be.

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