My Father: Intrepid Voyager of the World

“Come on in, sit down,” my father smiles, as he turns his chair to face me. Sunlight streams in through the study window, causing his shiny, egg-like head to glow. I sit in the warm sunshine, watching dust motes dance as I listen to Dad’s fascinating stories of travelling the world.

Earnest, impassioned, even fanatical, Dad fully commits himself to everything he is involved in, from cheering on my brother’s rugby games to preaching every Sunday. With a maniacally enthusiastic gleam lighting his green eyes, he regales me with stories of his wild travels. Born in Glasgow, my father was no stranger to change, having left Scotland with his parents at the age of ten to sail to New Zealand. “I often say that it was the best five weeks of my life,” he says, emphatically waving his hands about. With childlike glee, Dad tells me how he “never missed a breakfast” on the Canberra, even passing through a monsoon in the Indian Ocean with “80-foot waves!” Leaning over the side of the liner as it sailed up the Suez Canal, Dad watched the graceful sway of native women as they walked, effortlessly balancing large jars on their heads.  With the heavy cinnamon heat rolling over him, my father felt a great spark of wanderlust within his breast.

Dad’s greatest travels occurred at the age of twenty nine; prompted by a desire to drink a pint of beer in every European country, he embarked on an adventure around Europe, armed with a hardy rucksack, a Euro-Rail pass and an ever-dwindling supply of cash. Wearing a thin pair of slippers, my father navigated the streets of Rome for hours, only to be turned away from the Vatican City because he was wearing shorts. Frustrated and soul-weary, Dad arrived extremely early the next morning, enjoying the exquisite beauty of Michelangelo’s Pieta in relative solitude.

Interviewing Dad, I am again reminded of his stubbornness, a trait I encountered numerous times over breakfast wars and literary debates, but particularly in this tale of a bottle of wine. After touring a Bordeaux vineyard, Dad bought a vintage bottle of Chateau de Champion 1975. The bottle was placed in his rucksack, where it spent the next few weeks being carted all around Europe while Dad searched for the perfect place to drink it, finally settling upon the Jardin Des Tuileries in Paris. En route however, a rather unfortunate accident occurred in Koblenz, Germany. Under the “lashing” rain, my father was crossing a railway line, when to his absolute horror, his rucksack split open. Sodden medication and dirty clothes were the least of his worries; his precious bottle of wine was smashed, its vintage sweetness soaking his bedding.

Although never having traveled overseas myself, my father’s sheer enjoyment when reminiscing about his travels has made me want to explore the world in its entirety, from the dusty pyramids of Egypt to the hustle and bustle of Tokyo. I thank him for his time, but lost in his memories, he does not hear me.


Toddlers and Trolleys

It’s 3:45 pm on a Tuesday afternoon when chaos erupts in the Vegetables aisle of New World as a particularly mischievous child upends a display of Wattie’s baked beans. Clutching a shopping basket to my chest and brandishing a roll of Budget toilet paper, I summon my courage and wade into the throng of trolleys and toddlers. Six minutes later, I emerge virtually unscathed into the comparatively sedate toiletries aisle, having lost only a can of spaghetti and half my dignity on the way.

Grocery shopping wasn’t always this exciting. Back in the stone age of retailing, all one had to do was ask the pretty assistant in the greengrocers for a pound of pears and after two minutes of smiling small talk, a neat little parcel was ready. Moreover, prior to 1937, one did not have to negotiate the politics of trolley head-ons, let alone the intricacies of eftpos machines. Piggly Wiggly, the first self-service grocery store, was opened in 1916 in Memphis, Tennessee by the entrepreneur Clarence Saunders. Piggly Wiggly enabled a much smaller number of clerks to service the customers while also speeding up the shopping process. Very swiftly, supermarkets sprang up all over the globe, and with the proliferation of new technologies the grocery store evolved into the monstrosity we know it as today.

While one could argue the modern shopping experience is less personal than the good old days of silver scales, brown paper and string, the supermarket aisles of today undoubtedly abound with human interaction. Even Wallis Simpson, King Edward VIII’s mistress, acknowledged the allure of the supermarket, finding them “more fascinating than any fashion salon.” Flatmates debate the value of opposing noodle brands, while harassed young mothers chide their wayward, chocolate-clutching children. Sweet old dears toddle slowly down the aisles while anxious stockers eye teetering displays. The general hum of human interaction is interspersed with shrill beeps of the checkouts, culminating in rather awkward conversations with the cashiers.

For all the lost shopping lists, spilt milk and general hustle and bustle of the average supermarket, grocery shopping is undoubtedly integral to my life. As a rambunctious two year old, I sat in the front of a shopping trolley, gleefully throwing items out of the cart while Mum wasn’t looking. As a particularly sticky five year old, I relished the sugary guilt of the pic’n’mix corner, while Mum handed my brothers luncheon-sausage straight from the bag. As a sulky tween, I hounded my mother for the latest edition of whatever new fashion magazine was making the rounds. Now, as a half frozen and perpetually hungry university student, I relish the aromas wafting from the baking cabinet while picking up the flatting necessities. I may have outgrown the trolley and the pic’n’mix corner, but the casual pandemonium of the Vegetables aisle never fails to enthrall.

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Anxiety, absinthe and art: Considering the significance of the Tortured Artist Archetype

“Do you not see how necessary a world of pains and troubles is to school an intelligence and make it a soul?” – John Keats

Plagued by hallucinations, nightmares and intense anxiety, Van Gogh created the achingly beautiful Starry Night. Similarly afflicted by melancholy and an oppressive sense of his own mortality, John Keats composed the exquisite and impassioned Ode to a Nightingale. From the eerie atonality and floating chords of Debussy’s Etudes to the psychological turmoil of Poe’s short stories, the tortured artist archetype has amassed a cult following, generating endless commentary over the centuries. I believe it is wise however to consider the value of this trope; is suffering and pain necessary to create great art?

The archetype of the ‘tortured artist’, a genius who creates great art despite suffering great pain has been part of Western culture for thousands of years, from the passionate idolisation of the “mad, bad and dangerous” Lord Byron to the rabid curiosity surrounding various members of the ‘27 Club’. There has long existed a connection between ‘madness’ and ‘genius’; according to Plato, “Madness, provided it comes as the gift of heaven, is the channel by which we receive the greatest blessings.” This association gained strength in the popular imagination, particularly when embraced by the flamboyant Lord Byron and other Romantic artists. In his study of 40 American jazz musicians, Geoffrey Wills found that there was a notable connection between creativity and mental illness, especially concerning substance abuse. The psychologist J. Philippe Rushton also found a strong correlation between creativity, intelligence and psychoticism. Indeed, creativity and psychopathology share many common traits, including accelerated thoughts, a tendency to think “outside the square” and a heightened perception of auditory, visual and somatic stimuli.

How conducive therefore is pain and suffering to the creation of art? We would do well to consider the emotional depth and keen insight of the renowned author Charles Dickens. Dickens’ childhood was relatively idyllic until the age of twelve when significant debt thrust his family into the Marshalsea Debtor’s Prison. Forced into harsh working conditions, Dickens pasted labels on pots of boot blacking twelve hours a day, after which he would trudge home to his lodgings and swallow a meagre evening meal of bread and cheese. The strain and shame occasioned from such circumstances made a lasting impression on Dickens; he later wrote: “…the sense I had of being utterly neglected and hopeless, of the shame I felt in my position…cannot be written.”  A fierce critic of the poverty and social stratification of Victorian society, the squalid conditions and hunger of Dickens’ childhood manifest themselves in his poignant treatment of characters such as Oliver Twist and Little Dorrit.  In my opinion, without his own painful experiences of poverty and hardship, Dickens never could have succeeded in painting so touchingly the sad humanity of the poor.

Similarly, Vincent Van Gogh’s life was marked by tragedy, pain and misunderstanding. After a particularly tumultuous altercation with the artist Paul Gauguin, Van Gogh sliced off his own ear in a fit of self-loathing. Following this incident, Van Gogh suffered greatly from periodic seizures and depressions, and was confined in various psychiatric institutions. During the interstices however he painted with great vigour, imbuing his landscapes with an intensely passionate glow. Yet within a year, Van Gogh had committed suicide, fulfilling the Romantic vision of the anguished, tormented artist. This alienated and impoverished man however possessed a deep sensitivity for love, nature and beauty that manifested itself in the raw, rich strokes and colours of his paintings.

As evident from these examples and countless others, mental illness does not detract in the slightest from art. The coexistence of mental illness and creativity within an artist should be celebrated, as should the use of psychopathology to develop one’s creative potential. The human spirit can rise above all forms of adversity, and in particular, the mentally ill can produce great art that communicates meaningfully with the rest of the world. Arguably, those who refuse to accept the established associations between creativity and psychopathology actually perpetuate the stigma of mental illness. In their rejection of this relationship, they imply that it is somehow “bad” to be diagnosed with a mental illness, leading to the implication that the artist is in somehow responsible for being sick.

On the other hand, the tortured artist archetype is dangerous in that it tends to romanticise mental illnesses, poverty, addiction and depression, implying that the mentally ill should not seek help because their issues produce better art. The pretentious suffering artist routine upheld by many of today’s ‘misunderstood youth’ only serves to depreciate the real emotional turmoil experienced by some artists. Suffering and pain should not be a prerequisite for the production of art, and I believe it is reductive to believe that great artists secretly wallowed in their misery as a means of inspiration. Moreover, not everyone who suffers produces great art. This emphasis on the association between pain and creativity begs the question; what is the point of suffering if it does not produce great art? I have battled with anxiety in the past, and in times of low spirits, I cannot bring myself to create anything. When I am happy and well-adjusted however, my creativity knows no bounds. According to Gertrude Stein, the purpose of the artist was to find “an anti-dote to the emptiness of existence”. Romanticising or reducing a creative being to a mere ‘tortured artist’ belittles the struggle of trying to come to terms with existence, isolation, inner demons and the desire to be understood; in short, what it means to be human.

Ultimately, humans are incredibly complex beings; pain is not, and cannot be celebrated as the sole source of art. Vulnerability, courage, empathy, and cultural significance all inform art. I believe however that art produced from great emotion, whether it is suffering or joy, is likely to be more profound than that produced from a lack of emotion. Artists, writers and musicians have access to a creative and communicative way of life that can sustain them through pain and suffering. Fundamentally, the brilliance of the artistic process lies in its ability to transform the complexities of human emotion into works of great imagination and epic beauty.

Hello world!

“I’ll call for pen and ink, and write my mind.”

– William Shakespeare, Henry VI

Kia ora,

My name is Jean and I’m a girl far from home – a bedraggled jumble of messy hair, freckles, a love for old books, Fitzwilliam Darcy, John Keats, the Scottish Highlands, music and solitude. I like to speak my mind – and the medium of blogging gives me an opportunity for doing so without being interrupted. This blog will probably be a shambles – a mix of book reviews, pretentious musings on the beauty of nature and angst-filled rants. You are hereby warned, good reader.