In 1893, Norwegian Expressionist artist Edvard Munch created a composition which was titled “The Scream.” In it, in the foreground, a person is seen holding his/her head and screaming. In the background, a blood-red sky can be seen, and two other people are standing on the boardwalk, some distance away.
It has been theorized that the painting represents the anxiety of the human condition. It has also been theorized that, at the time Munch created the painting, his sister was committed to a mental asylum, and the painting was Munch’s way of capturing his, and her, anguish.
Munch offered this explanation: “I was walking along the road with two friends – the sun was setting – suddenly the sky turned blood red – I paused, feeling exhausted, and leaned on the fence – there was blood and tongues of fire above the blue-black fjord and the city – my friends walked on, and I stood there trembling with anxiety– and I sensed an infinite scream passing through nature.”
As with so many iconic paintings, interpretation is in the eye of the beholder.
A Powerful, Personal Reaction
Few paintings have touched me as much as this piece. To borrow from a much-too-often used phrase, it speaks to me on an almost primal level. On only one other occasion, in all of my seventy-one years, has that sort of reaction happened to me, and that occasion happened when I was in college attempting to gain some semblance of intelligence.
I was haunting the college library one night, reading random poems, and came across a stanza by Tennyson in his work “Ulysses,” which I now share with you:
“That which we are, we are
One equal temper of heroic hearts
Made weak by time and fate
But strong of will.
To strive, to seek, to find,
And not to yield.”
Perhaps They Are Related?
I memorized that stanza back in 1969 and have never forgotten it. Why is that? Why is it so important to me?
I believe, and again this is just my interpretation, they both speak of the human condition and the constant struggle within us all.
There have been days in my life when I have literally screamed from emotional/psychological pain. I had no other outlet other than to scream. The walls I had built in an introverted frenzy kept people out. I did not trust others. I could not possibly share my torments with others and hope for understanding, so I made the walls higher, fortified them so they could not be breeched, and then sat behind those walls screaming silently.
A Painful Song
Give a listen someday to “Vincent” by Don McLean.
“Now I understand what you tried to say to me
And how you suffered for your sanity, and how you tried to set them free
They would not listen - they did not know how
Perhaps they'll listen now
“For they could not love you - but still your love was true
And, when no hope was left inside on that starry, starry night, you took your life as lovers often do
“But I could have told you, Vincent, this world was never meant for one as beautiful as you.”
I get it!
No, I am not depressed and no, I am not suicidal, but I understand the depths of despair, been there, done that, and hopefully never returning, and truth be told it is that dark side which delivers to me, and feeds, whatever writing talent I may have.
A Hard Program to Watch
I was watching a news special, a series of conversations with health care professionals who were working in one health care facility in Kirkland, Washington. Their descriptions of twenty-hour work shifts, of fearing the possibility of catching COVID-19 themselves, of worrying about their families, of being surrounded by illness and death and feeling so damned helpless, AND getting up each morning and doing it all again because they were needed. And you could see it on their faces, the abject weariness which can only come with an overload of emotions.
The Scream in real life!
The Oregon Trail and the Great Depression
Take a moment to browse the internet in search of photos from the Oregon Trail and The Great Depression. There is one photo in particular, of a mother holding her infant, a Depression photo I think, possibly breast-feeding the child, and the expression on her face was one of total defeat. The light of life was gone, the switch had been flicked, she had given up on life at the moment that photo was taken. The farm has been taken by the bank, the old truck might not make it to California, the dust stings the eyes, is in the food, and coating her soul.
The silent scream.
And I am absolutely certain that today, August 6, 2020, there are millions of people, around the world, screaming silently as their life savings disappear and their dreams with them, as the plans for next month and next year evaporate, and they are faced with the very real possibility that they will never again have firm footing as they walk through life. You know it’s true. Perhaps you are one of the struggling masses. Whether you believe in the severity of COVID-19 or not, the outcome cannot be debated: people are struggling mightily and there is great loss all around us.
The silent scream.
The Inward Struggle
I know a man. Late-twenties. Suffers from clinical depression.
There are days when his personal darkness appears to have weight, defying the laws of physics, an oppressive, smothering weight pushing down on him, preventing him from rising from bed, preventing him from facing people and functioning with the most basic of tasks.
I am not depressed, but I felt exactly that way my final months of drinking. Alcohol had taken complete control of me. I had no desire to do anything other than drink. I did not care if I ruined my life. I doubt I even cared if I lived. I just wanted to be left alone and be allowed to drink myself to death.
The silent scream.
Thankfully, there were two friends who would not allow me to follow through on my desire, and nearly fourteen years later I love my life, can’t imagine that kind of darkness every again falling down upon me, but still . . .
I have had friends commit suicide. They haunt me still. How could I not have seen it? How did I not know?
The answer is in the painting: their screams were silent!
There is no grand message here. I have no answers. I give no advice. I am a simple man who observes life and my fellow human beings, and my observations often find their way into pieces like this one, tossed out onto the waves of the internet, flotsam rising and falling, drifting through your lives for a brief moment and then gone. My only goal is to stimulate thought in this ten-second-stimulation, convenience world we live in. If I can entice a few people to take a time out, consider these topics for just a moment, I will have accomplished what I set out to do. Not a terribly lofty goal, but a goal nonetheless.
May your week be filled with happiness and purpose, and may you never again experience The Scream in your life.
And for the love of God, if you are feeling depressed, overloaded, or on the edge of a cliff, reach out to me. I’m a damned good listener and I will make time for you.
Pax Vobiscum, my friends! Be kind to one another!
2020 William D. Holland (aka billybuc)