Magazine article The Spectator

Getting on and off the Treadmill of Creation

Magazine article The Spectator

Getting on and off the Treadmill of Creation

Article excerpt

What makes us happy? What makes us depressed? I do not know, but for most of us both have something to do with activity, or inaction. I can think of only one person I have known who was genuinely happy doing nothing at all. The reason I am pondering such things is that I am on holiday, or supposed to be. That is, I get up each morning planning to spend an idle day. Then, within half an hour of breakfast, I am starting to write something, or doing a bit of research, or painting, or charging off on a ten-mile walk. What impels me to do these things is not guilt or an ungovernable work ethic, but fear: fear of the gloom, which in my case, and I think for millions of other people too, is invariably induced by lack of occupation.

The horrible thing about life on earth is that we are chained to a perpetual treadmill from which release is even more painful. This melancholy fact was borne in upon me with great force earlier this year, when I finished my huge History of the American People. I had been accumulating material for this project since the early 1970s, and many millions of words of typewritten notes piled up relentlessly. Just reading them through was a major task. Sorting them out was an agony, and putting together from the results a detailed structure for the book demanded prodigies of intellectual sweat. After that, the actual writing of a text well over 900 printed pages, with thousands of footnotes, was comparatively easy, but toilsome all the same, week after week, month after month, the seasons rolling past almost disregarded. Writing a book is like being in prison. There is no escape, no remission, no respite until the sentence is served and, the last page written, the whole is dispatched to the publishers. Then the cell door suddenly springs open.

But it is at that point, when the professional difficulties are over, that the psychic problems begin. On this occasion, the task having been particularly onerous and lengthy, the reaction was fearsome. Almost instantly I plunged into a vertiginous pit of horror, a black hole which seemed to have no floor on which to crash, just an endless precipice of slithering cadence towards nothingness. I thought of Gerald Manley Hopkins's phrase `cliffs of fall', and actually found myself reading his Dark Sonnets, experiencing the shock of recognition as he faced and recorded identical frissons. My wife, Marigold, always calm and practical, said, We will go to a health farm.' So we did, to a place on the edge of a vague, sandy heath, fringed with pine trees, which seemed to stretch to infinity on an unfeatured horizon. This environment, initially at least, intensified my depression. I wanted only to sleep, awakening to groan at the leaden sky and scowl at the harmless, dressing-gowned figures padding around us.

I had brought with me the four volumes of Ernest Newman's great Life of Richard Wagner, and became quickly engrossed in the endless political and financial misfortunes, compounded by artistic frustrations - mostly of his own making -- which kept this much-loved yet (to me) unlovable genius in a state of frenzy. Normally, the well-merited miseries of Wagner would have cheered me up. But I found myself reluctantly sympathising with the man, identifying with him, growing enraged at the machinations of his enemies and the indifference of the multitude, so that, having as I thought reached the dark basement of my own depression, I discovered beneath it a lower cellar occupied by Wagner's dismal grievances, which I found myself gloomily sharing. …

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