The art of dark­ness

The trope of the an­guished artist ro­man­ti­cises the acute men­tal suf­fer­ing that af­flicts some of those who find an es­cape in creativ­ity

Mail & Guardian - - Mental Health - Rofhiwa Maneta

‘Idon’t know, it’s prob­a­bly just the hu­man con­di­tion. Maybe we’re all just fuck­ing de­pressed,” says Charl Blig­naut. He throws up his

hands.

Blig­naut, a writer and pop-cul­ture afi­cionado, nar­rows his eyes and stares into the dis­tance. Hill­brow Tower looms large be­yond the win­dow of his quiet, neatly fur­nished Park­town apart­ment. Only the oc­ca­sional sounds of traf­fic from the street be­low or chat­ter from the hall­way out­side dis­rupt the seren­ity.

His com­ment about the hu­man con­di­tion and de­pres­sion is in ref­er­ence to his friend and one-time lover, the au­thor Ka­belo Sello Duiker. Be­fore tak­ing his own life, Duiker pub­lished two crit­i­cally ac­claimed, award-win­ning nov­els, Thir­teen Cents and The Quiet Vi­o­lence of Dreams. A third novel, Hid­den Star, was pub­lished posthu­mously.

Duiker, in life, not only gar­nered praise for the two nov­els but was also hailed as the lit­er­ary voice of the black post-apartheid gen­er­a­tion. In death, his work has at­tained cult sta­tus and in­spired other black artists to em­u­late its pub­lic dis­plays of fragility.

Ac­cord­ing to re­ports, shortly be­fore his sui­cide, Duiker was in the throes of de­pres­sion and had stopped tak­ing his mood-sta­bil­is­ing med­i­ca­tion be­cause “it was tak­ing too great a toll on his artis­tic creativ­ity and joie de vivre”. It is at this point of his bi­og­ra­phy, per­haps, where we should be cau­tious.

The idea of the tor­tured artist is a com­mon trope that has come to be ac­cepted as fact. “Per­haps it’s good for one to suf­fer,” Al­dous Hux­ley once wrote. “Can an artist do any­thing if he’s happy?”

Au­thor Zakes Mda was a close friend of Duiker. “I have al­ways said that, if Sello was still alive, he would go on to be a greater au­thor than I am,” says Mda.

The echo over the phone line am­pli­fies his words. “He had achieved so much more than I had at his age.”

Mda says Duiker would of­ten call him when he was de­pressed. But noth­ing about Duiker’s con­di­tion sur­prised Mda.

“It’s not ro­man­ti­cism, it’s a re­al­ity — most artists are an­guished. There’s noth­ing ro­man­tic about it ei­ther. Freud came to a sim­i­lar con­clu­sion dur­ing his time. In­stead of show­ing their neu­roses through self­de­struc­tive means, artists chan­nel it through their art.”

His voice trails off. A pause.

“You know ... I wrote an au­to­bi­og­ra­phy called Some­times There Is a Void and for the long­est time I would ask my­self what the void was. I have now come to iden­tify it as this very melan­choly we’re speak­ing about.”

Mda’s words bring to mind a pas­sage in The Quiet Vi­o­lence of Dreams. After suc­cess­fully es­cap­ing from Valken­berg, Tshepo (the novel’s pro­tag­o­nist) runs to the cor­ners of his mind be­fore ru­mi­nat­ing on the na­ture of the void:

“I am not the first per­son to feel like this nor am I the last. There are le­gions of other peo­ple like me out there, slowly get­ting on with the quiet­ness of their lives. And when they crum­ble, our paths cross at places like Valken­berg.”

That may be so. Men­tal ill­ness is com­mon and only re­cently has it be­come more of a main­stream topic, es­pe­cially among a younger gen­er­a­tion of black artists, each of them in their own way heirs to Duiker’s le­gacy. Do th­ese artists be­lieve men­tal ill­ness is a nec­es­sary pre­con­di­tion for creativ­ity? And, if they do, how do they es­cape the pain without los­ing the artis­tic in­spi­ra­tion? How do they es­cape, that is, other than self­harm?

Jour­nal­ist and au­thor Phum­lani Pikoli is one such artist who broaches the topic of men­tal health in his work. The Fatu­ous State of Sever­ity, his self-pub­lished book of short sto­ries, was writ­ten while he was be­ing treated for de­pres­sion and anx­i­ety at a psy­chi­atric clinic. He wrote the sto­ries as a form of ther­apy and a sec­ond edi­tion of the book is due for re­lease with Pan Macmil­lan in 2018.

“I’m not sure if I be­lieve in the idea that all good lit­er­a­ture needs to be mined from pain,” he says. “That kind of down­plays the se­ri­ous­ness of men­tal ill­ness. Be­sides all of that, there’s noth­ing sexy about need­ing help and not get­ting it.”

To Shy Away in Si­lence, a short story in his col­lec­tion, deals ex­plic­itly with sui­cide. We find a name­less pro­tag­o­nist con­tem­plat­ing whether to take “their” life. After fail­ing to hang them­selves, the pro­tag­o­nist ban­dages them­selves up be­fore go­ing to see their friend Mma­batho. At the end of the con­ver­sa­tion, Mma­batho tells the pro­tag­o­nist “to take care of [them­selves] be­cause it makes peo­ple un­com­fort­able to see the wounds and pain of oth­ers”.

Is this what makes Duiker’s oeu­vre such a dis­com­fit­ing read? Be­cause, it’s there, you know? The pre­fig­ured sui­cide, the dis­il­lu­sion­ment with med­i­ca­tion and the sense of feel­ing all at sea. The wound was there for all to see; skin hang­ing loosely from the bone.

Were any of us ac­tu­ally look­ing? And, if we were, what did we see? Did we see Duiker’s cries for help, or were we too in­ured to the idea that “art is pain” to see he was in dan­ger?

Cul­tural critic and au­thor Bon­gani Madondo be­lieves we lost Duiker from the be­gin­ning. Madondo was a close friend. Parts of The Quiet Vi­o­lence of Dreams were writ­ten at Madondo’s flat in Yeoville, Jo­han­nes­burg.

“On one hand, I be­lieve you can­not be a true artist and sto­ry­teller (that in­cludes jour­nal­ism) without be­ing con­cerned or tor­mented by so­cial and per­sonal demons. The blues are part of your per­sonal pact with the God/Devil of the art. But I’m also loath to triv­i­alise psy­chic pain.”

There are writ­ers such as South African au­thor Mo­hale Mashigo and singer Msaki, a poet in her own right, who carry Duiker’s man­tle. Mashigo, who won the de­but cat­e­gory of the Univer­sity of Jo­han­nes­burg Prize for South African Writ­ing for her novel, The Yearn­ing, is can­did about her own strug­gles with men­tal ill­ness as well. “I wrote The Yearn­ing as a story of heal­ing pri­mar­ily for my­self. The en­tire book is about se­crets and how we heal our­selves from our past.”

To­wards the mid­dle of the book, there is a mo­ment when the pro­tag­o­nist has a seizure and wakes up with ban­daged wrists, un­able to ex­plain what hap­pened.

“That was me ref­er­enc­ing the first panic at­tack I had at 17. I had no idea what was hap­pen­ing. Was I dy­ing? Was it a heart at­tack? I wanted to por­tray that sense of help­less­ness in the book,” she says.

Bet­ter known as a singer, Msaki’s gift as a poet is clear, as a close lis­ten to the lyrics of her de­but al­bum Zanel­iza re­veal. Re­leased in 2016, it was writ­ten in dif­fer­ent phases of Msaki’s ca­reer, and re­flects her rise from be­ing an as­pir­ing singer with no mu­si­cal train­ing, only hope, to com­mand­ing a stage a few weeks ago at the Lyric The­atre, backed by a 15-piece band.

In her Yeoville flat, where Lawrence Hill’s The Book of Ne­groes sits in a corner on a stack of other books next to other book stacks, Msaki says she has found her ver­sion of peace as an artist by re­mem­ber­ing that she is merely a ves­sel, a medium through which an un­seen force, a muse, amad­lozi (an­ces­tors), if you will, speaks. She is at­tuned to Blig­naut’s view of the hu­man con­di­tion and the harsh re­al­i­ties of life as a black per­son, es­pe­cially a black woman, in South Africa. In fact, her next project, Plat­inum Heart, is an al­bum of protest songs. But her cre­ative process re­lies on the muse show­ing up (or not), rather than dwelling on or draw­ing on the pain of life for artis­tic in­spi­ra­tion.

Back in Park­town, Blig­naut re­flects on the bur­den of Duiker’s celebrity. “He had turned into this lit­er­ary icon and with that came the need to turn him into a seer or a mys­tic.”

Ul­ti­mately, ac­cord­ing to Blig­naut, Duiker didn’t en­joy any of the pres­sures that came with be­ing la­belled the voice of a gen­er­a­tion, or work­ing as a com­mis­sion­ing ed­i­tor at the SABC, his job at the time of his death. Be­cause with th­ese pres­sures came the mid­dle-class ap­pendages he spoke out against in his work — fancy apart­ments, cars and such. He hated it.

“One of the last times I saw him, we were driv­ing to his place at night and I just re­mem­ber him cry­ing and say­ing just how trapped he felt by his job and his life. He couldn’t get out,” Blig­naut says.

He cau­tions that, what­ever our in­ten­tions are when speak­ing about Duiker, we need to re­mem­ber that a hu­man be­ing ex­isted out­side of the myths and ab­strac­tions.

“We have to be care­ful not to weaponise his death for our own causes. He was an ac­tual per­son. Sello loved him­self, he loved peo­ple.”

He pauses, search­ing for the right words. “Maybe that’s what made him so re­lat­able — all of his crises were ours as well.”

“It’s not ro­man­ti­cism, it’s a re­al­ity — most artists are an­guished. There’s noth­ing ro­man­tic about it ei­ther”

An­guish: Tal­ented nov­el­ist Ka­belo Sello Duiker took his own life on Jan­uary 19 2005, at the age of 30. Photo: Ray­mond Pre­ston

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