CategoryMental Illness and Art

NFC Podcast #9 – Sad Horses

The ninth Never From Concentrate podcast where we talk about horses, artists and what it means to feel happy.

Some Notes:

Pain without meaning

Can you have good without evil? Pleasure without pain? Do you need a spice of anguish to really appreciate the romance of life? A classic philosophical question that’s been raised and asked throughout human existence. And as you mention, on one extreme, a life devoid of the understanding of sorrow, suffering, a broken heart, one without a little Toska Seasoning (trademark pending), reeks of boredom. But on the other end of this imagined dichotomy, a life with a constant slew  of anguish is by in it’s own accord, insufferable. So here, we arrive at this ‘b’ word again. Is there a happy balance somewhere in between? Let’s say there is. The obvious follow up is how do we get there? We often discuss these conceptual dichotomies. And a general, and obvious understanding is we can’t balance a weightless idea: there isn’t a scale that measures 50 pounds of suffering to 50 pounds of joy. So how do you actually go ahead and evaluate something that isn’t quantifiable?  Here’s my stab in the dark. Much like you have to put yourself in the position to appreciate a piece of art, you need to put yourself in a position to reflect, create, and internalize the story of your own anguish and happiness. It needs to be interpreted through a romantic lens, different for each person, with their own hindsight story telling.

But how do we look through the right lens to colour meaning in our lives to begin with? In a world with no clear message of why, without a faithful dive in an imagined explanation, ultimately, we are left to make meaning in life by our own convictions. There are tendencies in our programming that incline us to stamp meaning on certain things more easily than others: babies, love, food, and babies, to name a few. But beyond that, and even within that, lies a rainbow of possibilities to make meaningful. We can romanticize Toska, and I am definitely in that ship called Titantic. But what if you aren’t? What if you don’t? What if art doesn’t tickle your fancy? Then what? Then, that Toska is just pain without meaning. And pain without meaning is gruesome.

The Axiom

You’re right, it’s easy to romanticize this particular idea so it’s good we have some research to back up our claims. The actual depressive episode itself is not very conducive to creative outbursts; that seems straightforward to understand. Nevertheless, I’m not convinced that creativity has to come from ‘elated’ moods that follow. Many artists use the feelings of sorrow and longing as the outline of their work, exploring and projecting their emotions onto their metaphorical canvas. Their mood certainly doesn’t have to be one of elation – though perhaps more ’stable’ than one of manic-depression. Further, the word ‘creativity’ here would be useful to define. One person’s creative work is another’s drudgery. My intuition is that for many people who deal with intense unsettling feelings, the work that results does not feel terribly ‘creative,’ though the end product may be original. The feelings of Toska do not inspire the creativity, they are the creativity. It’s only a matter of channeling the complex, multi-layered emotions into some medium other people can consume. “Let it all out,” if you will.

To address your last, more direct, point, I want to clarify something. You paraphrase my question to you as, feeling Toska sporadically, and intensely, and often, worth giving up your own definition of happiness?

I think you are jumping to conclusions here. I don’t think you have to give up any feelings of happiness at all – just spice them up with some freshly ground Toska. A ‘fulfilling’ life, a life that you would be willing to repeat, shouldn’t be prescribed as one that is unequivocally happy. In a sense, I am directly opposing what many Buddhists, Hindus, and Epicureans seek – a life of pure nirvana, free from pain. Is this what we really want? To just feel happy and content all the time?

I think pain, both emotional and physical, is the spice of life. Without it, our lives may be perfectly nutritious, and satisfying – but ultimately, dull. To quote the captain of the spaceship Axiom, from the film Wall-E: ‘I don’t want to survive, I want to live.’

Toska kinda sucks

Before we romanticize, lets speak some science. The link between creativity, in its more raw form of coming up with novel ideas frequently, and mental illness is an established one. However, your interpretation is ever so slightly off. This correlation is typical between manic-depressives (bipolar disorder), and not depressives (unipolar). The evidence for the former is almost overwhelming in case studies from history (Ernest Hemingway, Virginia Woolf, Beethoven, Mozart, Vincent van Gough, to name a few), and even from just a quick Google scholar search of the topic. The unipolar depression topic is one up for debate on the merits of whether it should be considered a separate disorder altogether, or if it should be considered on the spectrum of bipolar disorder. However, what does remain clear from the evidence is that the creative process does not occur during the depressive episodes themselves. It comes from the elated moods that follow them. It’s a subtle difference, but an important one. And it’s a bit easier to express from the romantic spin of the conversation..

The tortured soul saunters the emotional playground of the human cavity. The wandering above a comfortable height, and down beneath a comfortable bank, flutters the psyche with a variety of human experience to pick and play from. When swimming below, the pressure of existence and the worthlessness that follows does not contextualize itself in usefulness to produce art. It pokes. It slices. It bleeds. And the blood flows as relentless as gravity forces a feather to fall. It drowns up the emotional void with a sludge of despair, draining and swallowing. A sudden blissful gasp of air to see the sun shining above you, the clouds floating gleefully in the blue sea sky, offers up a sense of temporary release. Here, you are free to float in the sea of emotions’ past below you. You have a necessary push to express the volcanic spectrum of possibilities, ultimately realizing it won’t be there for long. The outlet becomes a channel for the whirlwind explosion that rumbled below clogged up all the while.

So now we’ve cleared up the ordering of the creative release, lets discuss another point you bring up, and that’s about worth. Is going through the despair worth the potential creation you can output? It’s difficult to determine really. Ultimately, it’d be determined by the artist / do-er themselves. To go back to the discussion we had last month about the pursuance of originality in art, we concluded that the journey of the artistic adventure is the ultimate reward. Realizing and internalizing this as a way of living, however, is not simple. And especially not simple when swimming with mountains of pressure weighing you down sporadically Tuesday through Friday. People get lost, and to some degree understandably so, in finding a meaning of their outputs, often through the judging eyes of their peers, or their targeted audiences. And here, a ruthless world of worth arises. For all the Justin Vernon’s out there, there are thousands of “untalented” bipolar artists. Are their lives not fulfilling if not successfully distilled into acclaimed form? The other layer of this discussion is the layer of what we want to describe as a fulfilling life. You chose to use the word ‘happiness’ to define this fulfillment. And it gets thrown around a lot to coincide with states of being, from moksha, a buddhist, Eastern religious concept of eternal content-ness, to a general feeling of euphoria, achieved by sex, laughter, drugs, in it’s more raw sense. It’s become so loaded that I don’t know how to really define it myself – so I won’t define it just yet. But to answer your question more directly, is feeling Toska sporadically, and intensely, and often, worth giving up your own definition of happiness? No. It’s fucking miserable, and I’d like to hope I’d pursue my artistic desires regardless of what they produce, and for whatever audience that would drown me with boo’s or cheers.




Bon Iver is one of my favourite bands. They’ve released two fantastic albums, but have been on an extended break since 2012. I was listening to the most recent recording of Justin Vernon (Bon Iver’s lead singer) and Sean Carey (the drummer) on YouTube, when I stumbled onto this comment:

I know this is awful, but I’m kind of hoping his girl breaks his heart and his band breaks up. What would Van Gogh have been if he hadn’t been so damned depressed? I think Justin just moved on from Bon Iver because his life moved on. I doubt he’ll ever be back in that place where his music is all he has. As a man, I wish him all the best. As an artist, I hope he’s starving.
– Queen Rexy

The last sentence stood out for its gravitas. As an artist, I hope he’s starving. She doesn’t just recognize that artists starve, she hopes he starves. Sure, the starving artist is a well-worn cliche – everybody knows it’s difficult to make a living producing art. But does starving really serve a purpose? I think it does, and I think we don’t give starving enough credit.

Starving for what, exactly? It’s difficult to write music when you haven’t eaten. We don’t want the artist to literally starve. What artists need is to long: to long for times past, to long for love lost, and to long to be a better artist. In art, it pays to be unhappy.

In Russian, there’s a word that describes this state of mind a little more aptly: toska (pronounced tah-ska, with the stress on the second syllable). Vladimir Nabokov says this about it:

No single word in English renders all the shades of toska. At its deepest and most painful, it is a sensation of great spiritual anguish, often without any specific cause. At less morbid levels it is a dull ache of the soul, a longing with nothing to long for, a sick pining, a vague restlessness, mental throes, yearning. In particular cases it may be the desire for somebody of something specific, nostalgia, love-sickness. At the lowest level it grades into ennui, boredom.

Some of the greatest thinkers, philosophers, artists and (ironically enough) comedians have been in one of the states of toska at some point in their lives. From Nietzsche, to Van Gogh, to Robin Williams, some of the world’s best art has been produced by the deeply distressed.

Ok, so many artists produce their best work when their life is in turmoil. So what? Well, I think this is an important point in the context of mental health.

With the advent of positive psychology, and an increased societal focus on how we can live fulfilling lives, I want to highlight this point: a fulfilling life does not have to be an unequivocally happy one. The state of longing and toska can be an incredible tool for creating powerful pieces of emotive expression. Perhaps toska can also be a drug, a constant state of darkness that is unsustainable for a lifetime if left unchecked. We must be able to recognize and disconnect from it when we feel it overwhelms us. As a temporary state of mind, however, I think it is perfectly natural, healthy, and inspiring.

For those of us whose lives are (for better or for worse) benign, and for the most part satisfactory – we may need to access toska through sheer imagination. Maybe Justin can try that, so Bon Iver can make a brilliant third album without his life falling apart.