Sunday, June 17, 2011

The artist Keith Vaughan wrote his last diary entry on November 4, 1977, the day he committed suicide. He had just taken the capsules and whisky:

‘I am ready for death though I fear it.’

’65 was long enough for me’

When he commenced the diary, at the age of 27 in 1939, he felt alone and with ‘no great liking for life’, yet with a ‘mule-like persistence in continuing the struggle.’

The diary entries over the next 38 years or so document this personal struggle, the written record growing out of a sense of ‘failure to live my life.’

Vaughan’s eventual suicide is perhaps not so unexpected, as death is a prominent and recurring theme in his writings. Throughout, he feels under the sentence of death, his heart ‘beating like a metronome in a coffin.’ His role in life, he judged, was to survive, belonging to the Survivors group, whose energy has been exhausted by the struggle of surviving, leaving in its wake an ‘apathetic existence’. Even before he entered the ‘Cancer Era’ in 1975, he mused on voluntary extermination camps, for those who have just had enough…Yet, with the cancer diagnosis, the proximity of death seems to take on a calmer, less threatening significance for Vaughan.

Though death and mortality feature prominently in Vaughan’s writings, there is also much more. Particularly in the earlier postwar years, up to 1965, Vaughan’s poetic prose allows the reader to see the art, even before it happened. His exquisite descriptions of both (male) strangers and of landscape shows what an observer he was, perhaps proving his own view of himself as one of life’s spectators rather than participants. He describes wartime London, and the arrival of sand, imagining how it must increase the weight of the city…and Hampstead Heath, near where he lived all his life, ‘blighted by a plaque of bull-dozers, their grinning steel faces burrowing into the sand like diabolical ostriches.’

Art, to some extent, equilibrated his life. It commenced as an escape from life itself, then functioned to sublimate ‘sexual energy.’ Later, as he struggled to create and to paint, he blamed his decreasing libido, which left nothing any longer to sublimate…He mused on what art does to its creator. Does it destroy him? Or is creating an alternative for those who are otherwise disqualified from life?

Vaughan has much to say about war. He was a conscientious objector, joined the St John Ambulance, and later was a translator in a POW camp. For him, war was an abomination, a tragedy:

‘Just call at the office and sign your name and immediately you’re somebody instead of nobody. The diabolical deception of war.’

He was profoundly affected by war, and it left him with a deep sense of death’s decay, amongst many other emotions. It also left him with the sadness of partings, the many friends he made during the war, and also the death of his brother Dick.

Vaughan read widely, and deliberated much on what affected him. Thus, his diaries share his thoughts on Rimbaud, Freud, Laing, and many others.

He was also aware that he was repeating himself. He re-read his diaries, and was struck mainly by two recurring themes: firstly, the mismatch between his creative outpourings and ‘success’, and his overwhelming and persistent sense of personal frustration, emptiness and creative lethargy; and secondly, the ‘blanket of depression and boredom’ that enveloped him and that featured so prominently throughout.

Life, to Vaughan, at least in a biological sense, was overvalued. It was also a cheat, and a game that was impossible to win: as you climbed further up the ladder of success, you look down and see how much you have lost.

Keith Vaughan, Journals, 1939-1977. London: Faber & Faber, 2010 (Kindle edition 2012).

Next, the art…

CQ

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