Archives for category: Art & Suffering

Being able to ‘read’ and to understand the language of pain and suffering is for me an essential life goal.

Below is a link to a recently published personal reflection on how I started on this journey.



One of my absolute favourite poets.

And thus, in the aftermath of watching Night Will Fall, I looked to Szymborska for a redemption of sorts, a rekindling of my faith in humanity and in life.

This is what I found.


The Ball


As long as nothing can be known for sure

(no signals have been picked up yet),


as long as Earth is still unlike

the nearer and more distant planets,


as long as there’s neither hide nor hair

of other grasses graced by other winds,

of other treetops bearing other crowns,

other animals as well-grounded as our own,


as long as only the local echo

has been known to speak in syllables,


as long as we still haven’t heard word

of better or worse mozarts,

platos, edisons somewhere,


as long as our inhuman crimes

are still committed only between humans,


as long as our kindness

is still comparable,

peerless even in its imperfection,


as long as our heads packed with illusions

still pass for the only heads so packed,


as long as the roofs of our mouths alone

still raise voices to high heaven –


let’s act like very special guests of honor

at the district-firemen’s ball,

dance to the beat of the local oompah band

and pretend that it’s the ball

to end all balls.


I can’t speak for others –

for me this is

misery and happiness enough.


just this sleepy backwater

where even the stars have time to burn

while winking at us


The current production of Beckett’s Happy Days at London’s Young Vic Theatre is an impressive one.

As one enters the performance space, the actress Juliet Stevenson – Winnie – is already in position: buried up to her waist in sand, boulders and rocks forming her backdrop in this isolated desert of sorts. As if this was the most natural place in the world to be, Winnie opens the performance brightly and cheerily, with an optimism that needs to persist, though with increasingly less plausibility and much more fragility as time passes, to the very end of the play:

‘Another heavenly day!’

Winnie then spends a few moments in silent prayer. For the next 90 minutes or so, there is little room for silence as Winnie conducts a monologue for almost the entirety, with very occasional interjections by Willie, who appears to be nearby, lying in a subterranean cave. Willie is a presence that feels necessary throughout, yet he seems of questionable significance in his own right.

Winnie chastises herself at times for her gabbling: ‘Stop talking and do something’. What ‘something’ is or might be is unclear, stuck as she is, waist high in sand. Yet she is continually ‘doing something’ – the act of talking itself, while at the same time also ‘getting ready’. She continually dips into the large black bag beside her, taking in and out the tools she uses to do her makeup and to fix her hair. The objects in the bag appear to serve an important function in terms of Winnie’s need to repeatedly take them out and put them back into the black bag, as well as her need to arrange them neatly before her, perhaps incongruously, on the hot sand. The objects, and how they are used by Winnie, also serve to frame her day, the ‘normality’ of mundane tasks affording a reality that may reassure, as well as serving as memory props from another time.

Day and time passes, a fact that Winnie draws our attention to, alluding frequently to change and the effects of ageing, moments of physical realisation interrupting the stream of consciousness that escapes her psychical entrapment.

Winnie initially appears isolated and alone, trapped as much in her mental meanderings as she is in her bed of sand, a self imprisonment in every sense of the word. But then Willie appears from his hole beneath the rocks. We learn little about Willie, but his role and function in Winnie’s life becomes clear. She needs him, repeatedly calling on him to confirm his presence, and when he, perhaps reluctantly, answers, she feels reassured:

‘You are there’

Winnie speaks to us, the audience, and we, like Willie, are essential witnesses to her spoken thoughts:

‘Someone is caring for me still’

In Part 2, Winnie has sunk further into the sand, which now reaches her neck. In Part 1, she had reassured us that she needed the sand, it anchored her; otherwise she would merely ‘float up’. This reassurance is now hard to believe as, while Winnie remains outwardly optimistic and positive – ‘Another Happy Day’ – it is acutely and painfully clear what a struggle it all is for her tortured physical and mental self.

I was surprised by the humour in Happy Days. Yet, a sense of bleakness and tragedy underpins the laughter. At the end, the title of the play, ‘Happy Days’, reverberates with a pathos that is almost palpable. Beckett’s ultimate irony shocks one into the surreal reality of witnessing the almost unbearable extent of human anguish. As Willie crawls towards the drowning Winnie, a pistol lying between them, it is hard to believe that happiness exists at all.




Descent from the Cross

The German artist Max Beckmann was born on this day, February 12, 1884.

Beckmann suffered for his art, his work ultimately labelled ‘degenerate’ in his homeland by Hitler and Nazism. Forced to leave Germany as a result, he lived in relative poverty in Amsterdam for 10 years. Finally, his visa for the US materialised. His fortunes improved in America, but he died within a few years, in 1950 at the age of 66, from heart disease.

Descent from the Cross intrigues and fascinates me. It epitomises the notion of (almost) unbearable suffering, where others, although present, cannot truly bear witness, and avert their gaze. Christ’s body, although pale, emaciated and wounded, seems perversely supersized, as if to emphasise that suffering, represented by perhaps the ultimate icon of human suffering, can overshadow and overwhelm that which it encounters.



I have seen such great theatre in London of late, tonight absolutely included.

I rarely go to large venues these days, instead loving the intimacy that smaller theatres offer and so often deliver.

This is probably my third or fourth time at The Print Room, and as a space to visit I love it more each time. Within the building I have been entertained in different ‘rooms’ on different occasions. Tonight, we were treated to a glass of wine in a little candlelit ante room (with piano), before moving up (narrow) stairs to the performance.

The play was performed within a relatively narrow rectangular space. There are three performers, Catherine, Joshua and Simon, all of whom are present for the 90 minute or so duration of the piece. The actors were uniformly really impressive.

Simon is a psychiatrist – of the ‘old’ school, a ‘pedantic piece of shit’ as named by Joshua – who is simultaneously seeing/treating both Catherine and Joshua.

Catherine has amnesia. Simon, who has become ‘bored by suffering’, is nonetheless interested in Catherine and her psychiatric state. His goal is to ‘remove the plaster’, thereby liberating her memory. The amygdala of the play’s title is the part of the brain that has come to be viewed as the centre of emotional memory.

The story that predated Catherine’s amnesia gradually unfolds. Catherine is a middle class lawyer who lives in Hampstead with her French lawyer husband, who seems to spend more time in Paris than in London, and their two young children. Joshua’s life rests at the other end of the spectrum, as a musician (saxophone) who takes the bus rather than black cabs, and who lives a life devoid of books. Yet, a series of (seemingly) chance encounters brings Catherine and Joshua together.

As Simon works on removing Catherine’s ‘plaster’, the traumatic and tragic story behind her memory loss is revealed. Many themes and threads pervade this short work of art, all of which weave together to create a story of humanness with all its inherent and inevitable flaws, frailties and vulnerabilities.

All three characters, most especially Simon and Catherine, are alone, lonely and vulnerable. Inside, but most especially outside the courtroom, truth is questioned and sought. Amygdala is a story of need and of desire, and of the reality and consequences of love, and the living of it, that is both beautiful and tragic.




I love The Shed, a temporary (or at least that is what I assume…) theatre on the Southbank, which successfully manages to combine impressive creativity with the intimacy of a small(er) venue.

nut, by debbie tucker green (lower case deliberate), which currently plays at The Shed, exemplifies this achievement. Relatively short at just 75 minutes, nut is a moving, unsettling, and thought-provoking poetic piece. Twenty-four hours after I saw it, I am still considering what it was that I experienced last night.

On one level, the play might be read as a relatively straight-forward narrative, but then, it isn’t. The central character is Elayne, who we are introduced to at the outset as she plans her funeral. We gather that Elayne is on medication, and we presume that this is for a ‘mental illness’ as self-harm is revealed.

Elaine is never alone on stage. This is a polyphonic piece, and throughout the play we are introduced to 6 other voices and characters, all of whom are integral to Elayne’s life. What is less clear, is whether these others are external or internal to Elayne’s world and psyche. Whichever, it matters little as we watch a fragment of Elayne’s life (and suffering) unfold before us.

I loved how the dialogue overlapped, creating a seamlessness between all the characters. Elayne’s world, with all its ‘players’, felt tangibly real, and authentic. The acting was hugely and uniformly impressive throughout.

In Scene One, Elayne considers what might be said at her funeral:

‘It would start with something bout how I am…

…Not no shit about how people think I am but

how I (am) how I really / am.’

‘They’d know cos I’d tellem. What bits I did

and what bits I didn’t. I’d leave a taste, leave

an odour somethin that’ll linger longer than

the service – an emotional stain -‘

Amidst the pathos there is also much humour, and we laugh, when invited to do so.

nuts is a mysterious piece, mysterious in the sense that it is obtuse and delivers no easy answers. That is also its strength, as it thus reflects the lived complexity of life, which is never straightforward.

‘…If there ent no bell. People get confused.

It’s confusing…

No bell is like no interest. Not interested.

Don’t care – don’t wanna / know.’

‘If you had an outward view, a curiosity, a

natural curiosity like normal people – …

…by havin no bell that works – and it’s not

bullshit – is confusing. Says something

about you – …

…says confusion, says you don’t give a shit…’



As I write, I am listening to Tavener’s music, some of which I have found relatively impenetrable, but much of which is sublime.

Tavener died earlier this week. He had Marfan’s syndrome, which explains his ‘ethereal thinness’, and had a long history of illness, including a heart attack six years ago from which he almost died.

Tavener recently commented that he had lived longer than anyone, including himself, had imagined possible.

He was 69.

Today, I listened to what came to be his final radio interview, which took place last month from his home in Dorset with Radio 3’s Tom Service (
In the interview Tavener, who sounded frail, spoke of his physical suffering, and also of his spirituality within the context of such suffering, which constantly informed his writing and his perception of life.
For Tavener, in the context of not knowing what comes after death, faith and doubt co-existed. Such non-knowing necessitated a humbling of the mind, and Tavener, who was deeply religious, believed that life and death, doubt and darkness, all existed alongside each other.
Illness, and particularly the almost fatal heart attack six years ago, facilitated a renewed seeing of the world and 0f Tavener’s place within it, with an enhanced clarity.
Rather than escaping from suffering through his writing, Tavener, throughout his life and career, chose to deal with issues such as death head-on. Thus, his music was informed by suffering, but, perhaps perversely, the creativity thus produced served to energise.
Of late, his music, as stated by the artist himself, became more terse and austere. He expressed a wish to be remembered as an austere composer.
God returned to Tavener in a distinctly different way following his heart attack. This was no longer an external deity, but an internal one. Since then, every piece he wrote was informed by this, and by via negativa – ‘where there is nothing, there is God’.
In recent years, as illness escalated, Tavener felt much closer to the non-knowing, and faith became more complex for him, and much influenced by pain and suffering.
Pain significantly affected his capacity to work, struggling of late to work for more than two hours at a time. Tavener believed that his last pieces were particularly important, not least because of the physical effort they involved. When unable to work due to illness, he described such times as days of darkness. When he could work, a divine darkness was alive within.
Tavener quoted Tolstoy, who believed that one had to suffer to be heard as an artist. The composer clearly subscribed to a similar view.
I was impressed and moved by the clarity of Tavener’s vision himself, and of his life and work. Tom Service commented at the end of the interview that, despite the seriousness and darkness of the topics that Tavener spoke of, the composer smiled as he spoke. Tavener concurred, and laughed at this observation…

This book comes recommended, mostly notably perhaps by Hilary Mantel, who describes it as ‘an astonishing and luminous novel’.

I liked it. It resonated with me in ways that were not initially obvious. It grew on me, as did the main character, ‘The Professor of Poetry’ Elizabeth, who I empathised with much more with as I progressed through the book than I had at the outset. There is much to consider here, even after, or perhaps particularly after, reading the final sentence.

Elizabeth is an academic, a serious academic in her early 50s whose single life revolves around her work, which is poetry, particularly Milton and Eliot. She becomes ill, and is subsequently diagnosed and treated for a brain tumour. Her post treatment scans reveal a remission, something Elizabeth was not expecting. In the light of this news, and reprieve, she decides uncharacteristically to do something different, to be spontaneous, and to seize something from the gift of time that she has just been granted. She decides to revisit her past, the university of her younger years, and also her tutor of that time, who still teaches there.

‘The day was perfect and it was her own, had been wrapped and presented to her, and she smiled at the pleasing coincidence: the present, for once, being precisely where she found herself.’

We learn much about Elizabeth’s character as she commences her journey, and as she reminisces on her present and on her past. We discover that, for example, ‘Elizabeth doesn’t ‘do’ love poetry’. She also doesn’t ‘do’ summer. But we also learn that as a child growing up, her mother used to retreat ‘from the everyday world by a process of not-being, not-saying, not-doing’.

Elizabeth has mastered, at least in her professional life but one also suspects in her personal life, ‘The Art of Detachment’:

‘It was easier to eschew human beings than interact with them.’

She had a troubled and a tragic childhood, memories of which flood persistently Elizabeth’s consciousness.

‘The sea taught the child that pain takes place only in time, that it was impossible to hurt and be truly occupied, but if your hours were empty, pain could be felt very clearly indeed. Pain had much in common with the sea. Both ebbed, both went unnoticed for hours on end, then reared up and took your breath, and neither pain nor the sea was ever completely at rest.’

From an early age, poetry was her consolation, her safety net.

‘A poem could usually be counted upon to shatter the quiet, carry them through the wilderness and bring the knight back safe.’

As she considers her childhood, lost moments and regrets of her time as a university student, and also explores the poetry of Eliot, Elizabeth gradually experiences an epiphany of sorts:

‘What must it be like to produce a living creature instead of one made of paper and ink? A creature that became a real entity, no longer merely an appendage to its creator.’

 ‘She was suddenly reminded of something Eliot had written somewhere, that most people were ‘only very little alive’. Eliot was obsessed with buried lives, unlived lives, the life of the living dead.’

This realisation culminates in one night of inescapable and painful self-reflection:

‘It suddenly occurred to her that she had travelled further this night than she had her whole life.’

Speaking to her body, which she mostly ignored all her life until illness happened (although ‘For as long as she could remember Professor Stone had lived with a pain in her chest’):

‘I am sorry, hands, because you served me well and I have not been good to you.’

‘And I am sorry, arms, because you never wore bracelets and never hugged and never saw much of the sun.’

‘And I am sorry, heart, because you beat fast for fear many more times than for joy, and never for love.’

There is much tenderness in the book’s denouement, and McCleen’s style throughout is as poetic as the poetry she refers to. So much of the prose passages made me stop and think, not just about Elizabeth, but also about who or what I might be and have become:

‘It was strange to see people one had known a long time ago: they were always unchanged and changed completely, and somewhere within that contradiction lay the state of ourselves, she supposed.’



This documentary film, directed by Dirk Simon, focuses on the Tibetan movement to free Tibet.

Seven years in the making, it is an ambitious piece of work, and one that doesn’t quite deliver. The most interesting sections are those involving interviews with the Dalai Lama. His calm, pragmatic and charismatic approach to a non-violent way of living is truly impressive. This approach, which is mirrored in his followers, has, however, failed to provide a solution to the Tibetan problem, and Tibetans, both those who remain in their native land and those in exile, appear torn between their loyalty to the Dalai Lama and their frustration at the lack of any resolution of the political situation.

There are numerous comments from Tibetan activists, as well as Chinese people who seem to be equally entrenched (and totally lacking in any insight or empathy).

I was particularly struck by the non-involvement of the US (and everywhere else) when China invaded Tibet in the late 1940s. The film claims that at the time the US was trying to woo China away from Russia, and therefore did not want to jeopardise the relationship by involving itself in the Tibetan situation.

There is much passion, and distress, to be witnessed in this film. Overall, however, despite its earnestness and its well meaning premise, it felt like an overlong meandering through Tibet’s history post invasion. In terms of the movement to free Tibet, I was left with the depressing sense of a ‘political’ activism that does not seem to be going anywhere.



I have some thoughts on what I would like to experience, and to hopefully share, over the forthcoming week:

The Professor of Poetry by Grace McCleen

This work of fiction focuses on Elizabeth Stone, an academic (primarily of Milton) who has been diagnosed and treated for advanced ovarian cancer (thematically reminiscent of the play W;t, previously discussed here Unexpectedly given an ‘all clear’ following treatment, the protagonist re-explores her life, and her loneliness.

The Testament of Mary by Colm Toibin

This will be my 6th read from the Booker Longlist. Described as a book depicting ‘overwhelming grief’ and ‘suffering’, it promises to be suitably apt for this blog…

Love’s Work by Gillian Rose

I have just started re-reading this hugely impressive book by the philosopher and writer. It impressively covers many issues, including death, illness and Judaism, in such a short text. One sentence in the book:

‘It was the occasion of my initiation into the anti-supernatural character of Judaism: into how non-belief in God defines Judaism and how change in that compass registers the varieties of Jewish modernity.’

prompted the next item on my list:

The Story of the Jews by Simon Schama

This is a current BBC series that I have started to watch, in order to redress my ignorance of the history of Judaism.

Alexis Hunter and Jo Spence Art Exhibition

This exhibition, at the Richard Saltoun Gallery until September 27, focuses on the development of feminist art. I have previously discussed Jo Spence in the context of the art she created around her diagnosis of breast cancer, and her living with, and dying from, the condition (

When The Dragon Swallowed The Sun

This film screens at the Lexi Cinema on Wednesday. Seven years in the making, it tells the story of the Tibetan movement, and struggle, to free Tibet.

Finally, a thought

Something I came across today, and am still considering, from Nietzsche:

“We possess art lest we perish from the truth”