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English Version | Hello Darkness, My Old Friend

Curiosidades 7. 10. 2021

English Version | Between Shadow and Light

by Pureza Fleming

 

“Here's to the crazy ones. The misfits. The rebels. The troublemakers. The round pegs in the square holes. The ones who see things differently. They're not fond of rules. And they have no respect for the status quo. You can quote them, disagree with them, glorify or vilify them. About the only thing you can't do is ignore them. Because they change things. They push the human race forward. And while some may see them as the crazy ones, we see genius. Because the people who are crazy enough to think they can change the world, are the ones who do.”

Artwork by Mariana Matos

There is a relationship between the words “dimness” and “shadow”. In astronomy, darkness is defined as a shadowed area that exists between illuminated and completely dark spaces during an eclipse. Although, according to physics, there are differences between shadow and dimness. A shadow is an area unreached by light, when there is an opaque object in front of the source of light rays. Dimness, on the other hand, is the area surrounding the shadow, where there are some illuminated points. It’s that nearly dark area between shadow and light. It is also there – between darkness and light – that the majority of the so-called “society’s outcasts” reside. Outcasts might be too strong of a word. We’re referring to the system’s misfits, to the unadjusted. The “inadequate”. Those, that due to their “unusual” behaviors, or considered as “weird”, are not that well accepted by society – or not accepted at all. In the end, all of those who are “different” from the “ordinary” – in society’s lingo, of course. I put this vocabulary roll in quotation marks because, let’s be honest, such adjectives directed towards these types of people are nothing more than projections elaborated by society itself. They are, in fact, “different”, but only to society’s eyes. They are not, thus, automatically “weirdos”, nor do they carry a stamp branding them this way. Because they are just as they are (and that is called individuality). I recall my psychoanalyst who, every time I employed the word “normal”, used to reply, “but what is ‘normal’, Pureza? That doesn’t exist?”. Because I spent all my life hearing how certain behaviors and certain choices were not “normal”. It took me a long time to eliminate this word from my vocabulary, and more my life. But who are, and most importantly, what are, society’s misfits? No need for a specialist to explain it: such as the word itself indicates, misfits are all those that don’t fit; those that draw a path for themselves that is alternative to “normality” – because they wish to do so, or simply because they can’t fit the ruling scheme outlined by the system. And fortunately, so, because most times – and without any detriment to those that fit perfectly into the system -, these are the ones that end up building something beyond the obvious. Usually, a misfit is someone who thinks differently and because they do so, they act differently, bringing something truly original to the world. 

It’s common for a misfit to dress the part of an artist. Painters, writers, musicians, who have in common the virtue of being able to see things beyond the obvious or, at least, through an original angle, are oftentimes misfits. What happens is that many times, due to their characteristics as introverts and too self-focused, it can happen that their work only comes to light and is recognized after their death. It was the case for the XIX century painters, Gauguin, and Van Gogh. Both were socially marginalized, and their work was despised. When they died, the two were penniless, solitary, and isolated individuals, who tried screaming their message to the world, without hearing a single echo in return. Let’s also remember Isabel da Nóbrega, the Portuguese writer, not only because she died on September 2nd this year, but because she was an incredible woman and an even better writer, though most did not have the pleasure of meeting her. It is said that Isabel, the first wife of José Saramago, to whom he dedicated O Memorial do Convento (1982), served as inspiration for Blimunda, the central character of the novel, until the author erased/ altered the dedicatory and Isabel disappeared from his life forever – and from everyone’s life, in general. “I believe that the fact that, historically, there have always been fewer women writers with proper recognition is due to two major factors. Firstly, women have always had – and still today they do – fewer conditions to create. Virginia Woolf, one of the greatest writers of the XX century, exposed that situation in her essay A Room of One’s Own. With no conditions to write – time, a proper space, mental availability – it was necessary to feel a great drive to do it, fighting all the contrarieties. Secondly, those that effectively wrote had to fight the barriers of acceptance of their work, in a conservative and patriarchist society. Although today we are in a theoretically more advantageous situation, it is still harder for women to write and be recognized in their field and searched for by readers. It’s a struggle that lingers on and that should be stopped”, Clara Capitão explains, director of the editorial group, Penguin Random House. The writer João Tordo, on his side, points other factors: “In the first place, the ‘late’ arrival of women to literature – that still happens today – has nothing to do, obviously, with the feminine vs masculine talent, but with the living conditions and what is expected and demanded of a woman in society. Family life is determining; even though, nowadays, society is making its way towards a better equilibrium between both roles, it is still the woman’s onus to conceive (obviously) and to educate her children, which makes it so that their writing time is ‘pushed’ aside. In Portugal, many writers end up revealing themselves at the end of their 30s and 40s, when male writers tend to appear at a much younger age”. However, our point is more about tackling the question of why so many women live in the shadow of fame, like what happened with Isabel da Nóbrega. 

Let’s return to the initial theme then, that encompasses all society’s misfits, and not just the feminine talent that never sees, ever, the light of day. Why does a misfit live in the dimness, even when they have so much to say and express? Clara Capitão considers that “society is naturally conservative and against novelty, difference, disruption. The cultural environment, though in theory more avantgarde and open, always presents some lethargy in accepting difference, the things that don’t fit the canon and break the frontiers of movements or art theories. It is this way in literature, in painting, in music. There are more than a few cases of artists whose work can only be appreciated decades later. In Portugal, we have the case of Fernando Pessoa. In Europe, there’s Franz Kafka, regarded during his time as a mad man and, before him, Polish writer Bruno Schulz, which is said to be the disciple of Kafka’s style. In the United States, there’s the recent case of Lucia Berlin, ignored during her lifetime and rediscovered after her death. She was a free woman, who did not fit into any shelve or label. In dance, there is the paradigmatic example of Josephine Baker, who had to flee the United States to achieve recognition and fame in Europe. Nina Simone and the writer James Baldwin shared the same fate. They had to cut loose from the ties of their conservative and racist country to be able to create freely and enjoy the success they deserved.” And she concludes: “It still happens today, sadly. Perhaps even more so than before. In Portugal, there is little space for the counterculture. In Literature’s case, there are fewer and fewer means to create awareness to literary creation, thus, there is less and less space for the resurgence of alternative thinking, to talk about the different things that are coming along. On the other hand, readers don’t take risks. There is such a huge variety of books on the shelves of every bookshop that readers become lost and tend to choose the obvious, something that has already been confirmed as a safe bet”. For the writer João Tordo, Kafka is the exception to the norm: “I can’t think of many [writers] that have only become ‘known’ postmortem. Pessoa didn’t publish all that much, but he was a known figure in the world of literature. Salinger retired from the life. There are some isolated cases – [Edgar Allan] Poe, John Kennedy Toole, John Williams (apparently now everyone thinks that Stoner, 1965, is genius apart from me…) -, but I would say the vast majority, and I’m talking about 95% of writers, wants to be recognized during their life; there are others that say they don’t want to, or that they are no interested in fame and admiration, usually because they suspect they won’t be able to get it, and then there are others, a tiny percentage, that indeed want to live in the ‘shadow’. And there is still Kafka, who wanted all his work to be destroyed. But there was only one Kafka; I don’t know of any other who even came close.” João Tordo considers that a writer doesn’t become a misfit because they wish to be so, but because the particular and specific circumstances that surround them make them desire anonymity. And he adds: “Lastly, there is also the epitome of ‘genius’, which normally is employed by those who haven’t read enough and have understood even less (oftentimes with responsibilities of their own), who demerits the work of so many others and elects a few that, in fact, have done nothing but hide behind a smoke curtain. To this day, I am still to read one of those ‘genius’ that can’t even walk the same ground as Saramago, Roth, Bolaño or Greene, all of the above writers that experienced their due recognition and admiration during their lifetime.” 

In an article published by The Huffington Post, the art journalist Daniel Grant refutes the idea of an artist’s success after their death – he considers it a cliché: “Is an artist only appreciated after he dies? The concept of the starving artist whose death gives his or her works new life is more mystique than truth. (…) Someone important must have said that ‘an artist is only appreciated after he is dead’ (…) Whatever the source, it exists as a truism of the life of the artist and of the art market as well”, he states. Although there is a confirmed list of artists’ names that have only escaped the shadows after moving to “the other side”, this is nothing but an idea, a concept. The question of the misfits, on the contrary, is real and factual. On the website Psychology Today, a therapist explains that they are many more people who feel like they live in different synch than what one might be led to believe at first. They explain that “in almost every case, [these people] feel ashamed, isolated or lonely – as if they were squared pins uselessly trying to fit into round holes. Surely there are people (generally extroverted) who seem capable of adapting to almost anything and anyone. But without a doubt, the majority has faced, at some point in their life, situations where they have felt completely out of place from their surrounding environment. What I would like to underline here is that, although we can assume that misfits are strange creatures and so distant from the rest that they can’t connect adequately with others, the frustrating experience of feeling uncomfortably out of place is almost universal. And that has less to do with our personal peculiarities, and more with the clash between rules and social norms that are incompatible with our nature and ideals.” There is no such thing as two people alike and, as such, the right to peculiarity is universal. The shadows might be a comfortable place, but a bit of light is necessary to live. Hence the dimness. Because in the dimness, there is always a ray of light peeking through. 

Originally translated from the The Underground Issue, published in October 2021.
Full credits and stories on the print issue.