While I stand with Elizabeth Barrett Browning in her exquisite admonition against the dangerous myth of the suffering artist, it has always seemed to me — both from a deep immersion in the personal histories of long-gone artists and from direct experience in contemporary creative communities — that artists are more porous to the world than other people and therefore more vulnerable to suffering. To be an artist is to be a human being who feels everything more deeply, the beautiful as well as the terrible, and builds of those feelings bowers where others can safely and sacredly process their own. Whitman intuited this when he observed that those capable of “sunny expanses and sky-reaching heights” are also apt “to dwell on the bare spots and darknesses.” Tchaikovsky articulated it in his touching resolve to find beauty amid the wreckage of the soul. Nietzsche knew it when he traced the wild oscillations of depression and hope.
Among the artists who plummeted to such depths of darkness while buoying the spirit of their times was Lorraine Hansberry (May 19, 1930–January 12, 1965) — the visionary playwright and civil rights activist, who revolutionized our cultural landscape of possibility and from whom generations of artists and ordinary people alike, including other visionaries like James Baldwin and Nina Simone, drew courage and inspiration.
For all her soaring intellect and trailblazing genius, Hansberry’s heart sank low with alarming regularity. In a diary entry from 1955, penned just as her star was beginning to rise and included in Imani Perry’s excellent biography Looking for Lorraine: The Radiant and Radical Life of Lorraine Hansberry (public library), Hansberry observes her depression with that hollowing detachment so familiar to those who have been severed from themselves by this unforgiving malady:
It is curious how intellectual I have become about the whole thing… [about] what I apparently am. My unhappiness has become a steady, calm quiet sort of misery. It is always with me and when for a moment something or other stirs me from its immediate ravages (thank God that is still possible) — I wonder at its absence.
To be sure, much of Hansberry’s depression was rooted in the dissonance of her being a gay woman (“what I apparently am”) in a heterosexual marriage that was a great creative and intellectual partnership but not her great love. Even so, depression is an illness in which we can never speak of causality — only of contributing factors, of which there are always many, both psychological and physiological, present in varying degrees and intricately intertwined. But beneath the particulars of any life, there beats a common heart of experience, which Hansberry channels with devastating candor. From the pit of another depression, she writes to her husband:
I am sitting here in this miserable little bungalow, in this miserable camp that I once loved so much, feeling cold, useless, frustrated, helpless, disillusioned, angry and tired. The week past that I spoke to you about was the height of all those things to the point where I didn’t care too much a couple of times whether or not I woke mornings.
In a redemptive passage, she turns to nature for the most reliable, perhaps the only, salve:
Hills, the trees, sunrise and sunset — the lake the moon and the stars / summer clouds — the poets have been right in these centuries darling, even in its astounding imperfection this earth of ours is magnificent.
Perhaps she was thinking of the poet Keats — another artist of towering genius, whose spirits often sank to unfathomable lows — who a century and a half earlier found kindred solace in his own experience of depression and the mightiest remedy for a heavy heart; or perhaps of Whitman, who pondered what remains when the world has lost its sheen and answered: “Nature remains; to bring out from their torpid recesses, the affinities of a man or woman with the open air, the trees, fields, the changes of seasons — the sun by day and the stars of heaven by night.”
Complement this fragment of the thoroughly inspiriting Looking for Lorraine with Jane Kenyon’s stunning poem about life with and after depression, then revisit poet May Sarton’s cure for despair.