The Courage to Despair: Goethe, the Inner Tension of Creativity, and What It Takes to Be a Great Artist
“[The artist] must be shaken by the naked truths that will not be comforted. This divine discontent, this disequilibrium, this state of inner tension is the source of artistic energy.”
By Maria Popova
“A great deal of poetic work has arisen from various despairs,” wrote Lou Andreas-Salomé, the first woman psychoanalyst, in a 1914 letter to a depressed Rilke. “Great art was born of great terrors, great loneliness, great inhibitions, instabilities, and it always balances them,” Anaïs Nin observed a generation later in contemplating why emotional excess is essential for creativity.
This capacity to wrest meaning out of inner turmoil and transmute darkness into light is perhaps the defining feature of the creative spirit, and no one has captured it more beautifully than the British diplomat and writer Humphrey Trevelyan (November 27, 1905–February 9, 1985) in his introduction to the 1949 edition of Goethe’s autobiography, Truth and Fantasy from My Life (public library).
With an eye to Goethe’s remarkable longevity as an artist who continually reinvented himself within his lifetime and went on to influence generations beyond, Trevelyan considers the two key qualities an artist must possess in order to maintain lifelong creative vitality. Echoing Rilke’s notion that the creative person must “live the questions” and Georgia O’Keeffe’s conviction that art is a matter of “making your unknown known… and keeping the unknown always beyond you,” Trevelyan writes:
It seems that two qualities are necessary if a great artist is to remain creative to the end of a long life; he must on the one hand retain an abnormally keen awareness of life, he must never grow complacent, never be content with life, must always demand the impossible and when he cannot have it, must despair. The burden of the mystery must be with him day and night.
In a sentiment that calls to mind Virginia Woolf’s insistence on the shock-receiving capacity necessary for being an artist and Martha Graham’s notion of the “divine dissatisfaction” at the center of the creative life, Trevelyan adds:
[The artist] must be shaken by the naked truths that will not be comforted. This divine discontent, this disequilibrium, this state of inner tension is the source of artistic energy. Many lesser poets have it only in their youth; some even of the greatest lose it in middle life. Wordsworth lost the courage to despair and with it his poetic power. But more often the dynamic tensions are so powerful that they destroy the man before he reaches maturity.
Complement with Marina Abramović on turning trauma into raw material for art, Rilke on what it takes to be an artist, Robert Walser’s poetic portrait of the creative spirit, and E.E. Cummings on the agony of “the artist with capital A,” then revisit Goethe himself on beginner’s mind and the story of how he helped pioneer the cloud classification system we use today.