The Artist as Exemplary Sufferer

One of my very niche interests is following the fine line between heroism and masochism. So much glory is just a thin veneer over gleeful suffering.

Susan Sontag, in The Artist as Exemplary Sufferer, explores the interaction of love, art, suffering and Christianity:

The cult of love in the West is an aspect of the cult of suffering—suffering as the supreme token of seriousness (the paradigm of the Cross). We do not find among the ancient Hebrews, Greeks, and the Orientals the same value placed on love because we do not find there the same positive value placed on suffering. Suffering was not the hallmark of seriousness; rather, seriousness was measured by one’s ability to evade or transcend the penalty of suffering, by one’s ability to achieve tranquillity and equilibrium. In contrast, the sensibility we have inherited identifies spirituality and seriousness with turbulence, suffering, passion. For two thousand years, among Christians and Jews, it has been spiritually fashionable to be in pain. Thus it is not love which we overvalue, but suffering—more precisely, the spiritual merits and benefits of suffering.
The modern contribution to this Christian sensibility has been to discover the making of works of art and the venture of sexual love as the two most exquisite sources of suffering.

I’m less convinced than Sontag that this cult of suffering is purely Western, or purely Christian. Strands of Hinduism, for example, put a value on suffering which can outdo even Catholic hagiography. It’s a basic tendency which seeps out, in one form or another, from just about any cultural environment.

Leave a comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *