The Wound and the Bow Revisited

Edmund Wilson

Edmund Wilson, author of The Wound and the Bow, argued that suffering was the mother of creativity. But what if suffering and creativity are actually siblings? (Image: public domain.)

Some argue that creativity and genius spring from a profound sensitivity to subtle differences. Such sensitivity, such fine perception, makes possible deep and powerful art. However, it also leaves its possessor wide open to pain and damage from life’s rough and tumble course. The less sensitive miss the subtle insults, the small slights by omission, and the finer points of innuendo. The more sensitive and perceptive do not.

One is, therefore, tempted to speculate that creativity does not, as is so often assumed, come from being wounded or mad or riddled with polarities, ambivalences, and conflicts, but that these difficulties are simply another product of being sensitive. Collateral damage, as the military types would say. Inner torment is not the parent of creativity; it is its sibling.

In the past, critics, psychologists, even artists themselves, have regarded the suffering of creative people as the motivator of creative striving. Art was a way of dealing with the pain, the human equivalent of the irritated oyster smoothing sharp edges by making a pearl. Writing was especially prone to such theorizing and it is not difficult to see why. For more than a century, famous novels have dramatized the lives of artists (tormented, naturally). These novels are regarded as being “deep,” the “deep” material springing from the writer’s own (tormented, naturally) experience. This plethora of agony seemed sure and certain proof that without inner torment one cannot write a profound novel.

The trouble with this seems obvious. Authors who possess the prerequisite sensitivity to subtle differences, yet remain quite normal, have written many powerful, subtle, and perceptive novels. It is entirely possible to be, at the same time, both perceptive and psychologically robust. Critics, psychologists, and many artists simply prefer the torment model. It is so much more interesting, so much easier to talk about, and best of all, so wonderfully Romantic. The whole notion of suffering as the wellspring of creativity stems from carefully selected evidence. A quiet life does not attract biographers, nor does it generate those juicy anecdotes which critics, psychologists, and today’s literary talk show hosts so adore. Art in general, like Christianity before it, has a strong bias in favour of misery and suffering.

Seen from the revised perspective, the view that says inner torment is merely sister or brother to the creative ability rather than its parent, we can look past the old creativity paradigm (Edmund Wilson’s famous, “the wound and the bow”) to form an entirely new one. First, we may assume that inner torment is not a requirement for the production of fine works of art. Second, we may say that where suffering does exist it can do no more than influence what such artists choose as their theme. These sufferers would have been equally fine artists without the pain; their work would simply have gone in another direction.

Author: Thomas Cotterill

I am a manic-depressive made philosophical by my long struggle with the disruptive mood disorder, during which I spent sixteen years living as a forest hermit. I write philosophical essays, fantasy, and science fiction. My attempt to integrate creativity, psychology, philosophy, and spirituality imbues everything I write. You will find hundreds of related essays and articles on my blog. I live quietly in British Columbia's scenic Fraser Valley, a beautiful place in which to wax philosophical.

4 thoughts on “The Wound and the Bow Revisited”

  1. I think everything said was actually very logical. But, think about this, what if you were
    to write a killer headline? I ain’t suggesting your content is not good., but what
    if you added a post title that grabbed a person’s attention? I mean The Wound and the Bow Revisited –
    Thomas Cotterill is kinda plain. You could glance at Yahoo’s home page and
    note how they write post headlines to grab
    viewers to open the links. You might try adding a video or a pic or
    two to get people excited about what you’ve written. Just my opinion, it might bring your posts a little bit more

  2. I’m looking for a more intellectual audience, metalframe, so I’m not big on flash. Let me remind you that the TV mini-series Brideshead Revisited got rave reviews, was very widely viewed, and won two Golden Globe awards. “Revisited” in the post title is a literary marker used to suggest sober second looks and, in this case, plays on the fact that Wilson’s The Wound and the Bow (1941) and Waugh’s Brideshead Revisited (1945) are from the same British intellectual milieu. When students and devotees of literature see my title they know exactly what kind of post to expect.

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