One look at a photograph of Samuel Beckett tells you everything you need to know about the man: he possessed, amongst other notable characteristics, the ability to make a turtle-neck appear trendy, and had a fabulous head of hair. Neither might appear particularly relevant, but both are significant to those of us with wide necks and receding hairlines. I imagine him sipping pastis in a smoky Paris brasserie, penning Nobel-worthy plays on the backs of serviettes, the Latin Quarter’s cafe society marvelling at his casual sophistication.
Vincent van Gogh, too, would surely have turned heads on the streets of Arles, in southern France, but for entirely different reasons: a fondness for Tweed and, two years before his death, a giant bandage covering much of the left-hand-side of his head. An extended period in his company would surely have felt like being trapped in a phone booth with a grumpy honey badger. And, unlike Beckett, the impact of his temperamental shortcomings weren’t softened by personal aesthetics.
I was troubled by the notion of a life lived in a state of constant and perpetual joy.
I thought of both men when filming the interviews for our recent insert on the “The Book of Joy”. Without wanting to over-simplify what is actually a complex and persuasive thesis, I was troubled by the notion of a life lived in a state of constant and perpetual joy. I wondered how this was possible given the enormous suffering experienced by others. How, for example, could a joyful state-of-mind be attained while acknowledging the horrors of Aleppo and Hurricane Matthew? Would it not be an act of extreme selfishness to talk about a personal passage to joyfulness when people are routinely exploited, brutalised and killed in every corner of the world? Would it not be patronising at best, treacherous at worst, to assume that those bearing the brunt of political expedience, criminality and indiscriminate natural disasters should likewise be embarking on a similar passage?
All of these questions are pre-empted by the book and answered by its subjects, Archbishop Tutu and the Dalai Lama. My knowledge of the former helped temper (to some extent) my cynicism. The Arch is, after all, one of the world’s more joyous individuals while, at the same time, preoccupied – burdened, even – by global suffering. If he has been able to reconcile the two, who am I to argue it isn’t possible?
The thing is, I remain unconvinced we’d be better off – more peaceful, more prosperous, more understanding – if we were all a little more joyful. In fact, I’d go as far as suggesting we might be the poorer for it.
What would life be without Neil Young’s grouchy folk, laying bare the misery of the human condition? What would the literary tradition have bequeathed us had Beckett’s Vladimir and Estragon been waiting for sunshine and daisies rather than Godot? And how much poorer would Post-Impressionism have been had a bossy Gauguin not tormented a mentally fragile van Gogh?
The world is often a desperate and pitiful place, lurching from man-made catastrophe to natural disaster with dizzying regularity. But, isn’t it the most marvellous of things that there are people able to paint and sing and write in a way that makes the light shatter the gloom? And isn’t it even more glorious that they are able to do that while bearing the weight of their own frailties?