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.