Virginia Woolf And Using Love, Death & Other Emotions

Virginia Woolf

An illustration I saw on the anniversary of Virginia Woolf’s death made me feel uneasy. I won’t link to it because I’m not writing this to critize or hurt the artist but to understand the motive behind it and to understand my own feelings as well.

The artist wrote the lyrics “Pockets full of stones” from the Florence And The Machine song which is inspired by Woolf’s death. Of course the image seems pretty and I have no problems with the song, they’re both beautiful tributes. But for some reason, when they were so neatly put together it didn’t feel right to me.

When you beatifully paint the words that describe someone’s death on her smiling image, there’s a weird contradiction there. How do those things mix? Doesn’t it seem like trivializing and romanticising something that wasn’t meant to be so? It’s a tragic suicide. Why would we need to beautify it to honor it? Writing songs, making art for her isn’t wrong in any way. There’s truth and even comfort in art and music when they reflect the mostly unhappy subjects like death. Yet making those words pretty don’t feel truthful. Putting stones in your pockets to drown yourself isn’t pretty. It’s not romantic.

The image isn’t sad by itself. It’s a lovely portrait of Woolf and she’s smiling. The lyrics aren’t necessarily disrespectful either, it’s the way she killed herself and the song doesn’t present it as a beautiful thing at all but when they’re combined, there’s a sense emotional manipulation.

I know people should express their feelings and pay tribute in whatever way they like so I thought maybe I was internalizing and empathizing a bit too much. To me, especially the pain of a tragedy like that shouldn’t be considered beautiful because when I imagine myself losing someone dear to me, it would be horrible enough on its own. And especially more so if it were a suicide.

I know that I would expect distance, privacy and even silence from people. I would appreciate them remembering and making beautiful things as a tribute for someone I love but I wouldn’t appreciate them beautifying the act. And I definitely wouldn’t be able to write lyrics about someone’s suicide around their image. Doesn’t that make it seem like something trivial when it’s irrevocably real?

Maybe there’s nothing really wrong with that. Maybe the feeling there is just as sincere and well meaning and it’s simply a way of remembering someone and I know there is this weird entitlement no matter how someone feels about an issue like this. Particularly when it’s about a famous person you don’t even know personally. Even with the way I defend my opinion or the way that image was created, the entitlement is there. They seem like opposite ideas and approaches but they are about a more common feeling of possessiveness.

When I looked at that image what I saw was someone using and commodifying the pain it evokes in people which feels like a stranger bawling their eyes out at your mother’s funeral when they barely spoke a word with her while she was alive.

That reminds me of The Good Wife scene (spoiler alert) when a secretary who’s been there for only a week starts crying very loudly at Will Gardner’s death and Diane (who’s been his best friend and partner for years) tells her to never come back to the firm. It’s how it feels like to me. I don’t know if Woolf or Will or anyone else (fictional or not) would appreciate the sentiment but I just imagine losing someone dear to me that way and I know I wouldn’t like anyone commodifying it. So I understood Diane’s reaction perfectly.

I guess it’s a thin line and finding things like this distasteful depends on your emotional attachment to the issue and the person.

The thing is I feel like we have this habit of using everything, consuming eveything to a point where nothing stays as it is. Not private or sacred. It could feel disrespectful and distasteful when it’s done to you or what you truly love, what truly hurts you, when we manipulate these sort of emotions.

When everyone uses them for their own satisfaction everything becomes simple and superficial. Even death, even pain… which is deeply real in someone else’s life.

I know I’m doing something similar by acting possessively about something that doesn’t belong to me. But this isn’t simply about other people. It’s just a reminder of a more common, more real feeling. It’s about our shared pains, losing people we love, the sadness of death and suicide, the sadness of someone having so much pain that they can’t live anymore.

I think that is not to be manipulated or made pretty. Because why do you need to? Making it more seem so makes such a contrast with the reality of it that it becomes unbearable to look at.

We learn from each other’s experiences, we relate to each other’s suffering and I know art has the power to create such a communication, a private and unique connection between all of us. This communication is authentic when the artist isn’t trying to manipulate the audience but only seeks to relieve themselves of their own burdens. The create because they can’t afford to do anything else. There’s a simplicity and honesty in works of art like that. Movies, music, paintings, books create this kind of network for us.

So if we continue from the Virginia Woolf example, it’s interesting to me to realize I’ve had no problems with the movie The Hours. Her suicide is shown, there is drama, alterations, emotional music carefully placed to get a certain reaction from the audience. So all that could also be considered manipulation. But there’s no song about the stones in her pockets. It’s not pretty. So even if this counts as manipulation, it’s one I’m personally comfortable with. Which means this issue is absolutely subjective. To someone else, the whole movie could be offensive. Maybe if she could see it, Woolf would find it ridiculous. Maybe she’d like it. I personally think there is a fine balance between the amount of drama and honesty about life itself in it to move the viewers.

Moving on to different examples, some artists like to provoke and challange on purpose. What we might find distasteful could also make us think and understand ourselves better. As long as there’s honesty in it I appreciate this challenge. The difference lies in the intention.

Some might claim no one truly owns works of art and maybe artists are also perceived this way. Everyone takes whatever they can from any piece of art and literature and they might feel free to consume public figures the same way they consume their creations.

Why do we deliberately seek what will move or challenge us? Sometimes we depend on a fictional character to live what we can’t personally experience, sometimes it’s easier to cry over fictional events and fictional characters from the safe distance it provides us. It’s less scary, less personal. Sometimes we see something about ourselves and we need to own it. We might try to protect the dignity of a dead person we never even knew. We relate to others so strongly we love them for a single sentence that explain our feelings in a way we couldn’t. Some days, the emotions we repressed or didn’t even know we had could surface while we’re reading or watching a show. A song could make us feel something new and we’ll exhaust it, listening to it over and over again. We consume emotions art evoke in us. We have the ability experience life through each other, through our individual expressions, by communicating through art. This way, life doesn’t go only as far as we can personally experience it. We also see each other, ourselves in eachother and we grow with every new contact like the merging of water drops. So there are no certain lines when it comes to making a distinction between what should make us feel what each of us needs to feel. We all stand at a different point in life.

So even though I find something like this inappropriate, I realize we all satisfy our need to experience emotions in different ways. I can’t protect Virginia Woolf. I can’t even protect myself if someone decides to paint words on an image of mine after my death. Maybe we do belong to each other in this way. In teaching us about ourselves.


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