Thursday, April 18, 2013

On the morbid and mistaken

Sadistik--"Virginia Woolf"

A rap piece written about Virginia—or rather, loosely inspired by her death. The artist explains on his website: “For those of you who aren’t familiar, Virginia Woolf was a very famous writer from the early 1900s who ended up committing suicide by putting rocks in her dress and walking into the ocean. I always thought this was morbidly poetic and I even found myself really inspired after reading the letter she left behind for her husband, so I decided to write a song about it.” Initially I was taken aback by his error and by the lack of thorough research (his decision to read her suicide note seems oddly flippant?), but it did prove thought-provoking for me. He does a lot of guesswork and includes imagery predicated on her walking into the ocean instead of the river: seashells, messages in bottles, even going so far as to establish the disappearing coast as the last thing she saw. I’m not especially interested in bashing him for his mistake; what does interest me is the instinct to write about a tragic event that one doesn’t really understand, or the death of a person whose full history one doesn’t know, and the afterlives of famous figures in a shared public consciousness. I think there’s a kind of cultish fascination with the suicides of artists—Sylvia Plath is, I think, another example of an artist whose fame in certain demographics is largely due to shock factor and the draw of the macabre. Their deaths precede their lives and their works, to some degree. This not a unique or surprising phenomenon by any means, but I am uncomfortable with the appropriation of someone’s moment of deepest pain as a sort of creative prompt or a curiosity for grisly enjoyment, and especially as a shorthand to evoke emotions from an audience. Normally I’m deeply interested in creative ‘recycling’ and the conversations or lineages that emerge in intertexts, but when one of the ‘texts’ is someone’s life (or death? Can someone’s death be a text distinct from their life?)—and inaccurately rendered at that—I find that to be more than a little unsettling. Are we entitled or allowed to try to creatively enter someone else’s headspace when they have occupied such a visible position in the cultural consciousness? Is there an ethics to inspiration?

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