Saturday, November 9, 2013

Freud, Woolf: Art as a palliative measure

In this essay, i discuss Freud's notion of art as a “palliative measure” and examine it along with Virgina Woolf's writing. I argue that while i am in agreement that art is indeed palliative, however, it serves various other purposes, some of them go beyond mere pain relief, even help us in being more civilized.

Sigmund Freud in Civilization and its discontents [1] claims that “The life imposed on us is too hard for us to bear: it brings too much pain, too many disappointments...”. He claims that arts offers a means to make life more bearable. Arts provide a mental and intellectual stimulation that we forego our inherent suffering associated with our existence.

According to Freud, art plays different roles in alleviating us from our pain. In the hands of the artist, creator of the art, art makes one discover the joy in the process of invention, to create something anew, to reach to boundaries previously unknown. However, Freud writes -”The weakness of this method, however, lies in the fact that it can not be employed universally, as it is accessible only to the few”. But Freud addresses this limitation, by highlighting another aspect of art wherein the viewer, audience of the artwork, can still derive satisfaction using his own imagination. The artwork allows him to escape the quotidian reality and provides a sensory illusion making him forget the perennially existential pain.

Virginia Woolf faced a lot of suffering in her early life. When she was only a teenager, she had to deal with loss of her mother and half-sister causing her nervous breakdowns and depression [2]. For her, writing, her art, was definitely palliative. Her stream-of-consciousness style of narration is highly inventive. Writing helped her cope up with her bouts of illnesses. As readers of her work, we are all drawn towards the tiny delightful observations, the innocence and clarity of her characters, the charm and ease in her depiction of complex relationships, that we forget ourselves.  Hence, Woolf's art aligns with Freud's view – Both the artist and its audience are transported to a completely different world thus serving the “palliative effect”.

However, Freud does not go in depth on the artwork itself or about the nature of the art. In addition to forgetting pain, art can be used to explain our origins, to understand who we are and where do we come from like in the case of Darwin. Art could be used to put forth a new model of society or it can serve a means to raise awareness about various political and social issues.

For example, in To The Lighthouse, Virgina Woolf uses her novel to comment about the Victorian prejudice prevalent in her time, where women were considered inferior to men. Mr. Tansley, a self-made man from humble beginnings, remarks to Lily in [3] “... women can't paint can't write”. Later in the novel, at the dinner table, he thinks to himself - “They never got anything worth having from one year's end to another. They did nothing but talk, talk, talk, eat, eat, eat. It was the women's fault”. Virgina through Mr. Tansley is critiquing this condescending attitude that men had at her time. Being a women herself, she had to overcome such biases. By writing about it, she is raising the social consciousness of her readers, a notion not everybody will find inviting. She is using her art as means to depict inherent inequalities in our society and hence contributing, in her own way, in shaping up what kind of civilization we want to be.
In summary, while art indeed offers us an immediate solace against a cynical world, its impact is not merely limited to it. Sometimes, the artwork can also cause pain, to few, for a short while, but in the grand scheme it has the potential to shape what we want to be, thereby making us better. 

[1] Civilization And Its Discontents, Sigmund Freud, 1930
[3] To The Lighthouse, Virgina Woolf

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