“A great deal of poetic work has arisen from various despairs,” wrote Lou Andreas-Salomé, the first woman psychoanalyst, in a consolatory letter to the poet Rainer Maria Rilke as he was wrestling with depression. A generation later, Humphrey Trevelyan, a British diplomat and author, argued that great artists must have the courage to despair, that they “must be shaken by the naked truths that will not be comforted. This divine discontent, this disequilibrium, this state of inner tension is the source of artistic energy.”
Few writers have articulated the dance between this “divine discontent” and creative fulfillment more memorably than the poet, novelist, essayist, and diarist May Sarton (1912–1995). In her Journal of a Solitude (W.W. Norton, 1993), Sarton records and reflects on her interior life in the course of one year, her 60th, with remarkable candor and courage. Out of these twelve private months arises the eternity of the human experience with its varied universal capacities for astonishment and sorrow, despair and creative vitality.
In an entry from September 15, 1972, Sarton writes:
It is raining. I look out on the maple, where a few leaves have turned yellow, and listen to Punch, the parrot, talking to himself and to the rain ticking gently against the windows. I am here alone for the first time in weeks, to take up my “real” life again at last. That is what is strange—that friends, even passionate love, are not my real life unless there is time alone in which to explore and to discover what is happening or has happened. Without the interruptions, nourishing and maddening, this life would become arid. Yet I taste it fully only when I am alone…
In another journal entry penned three days later, in the grip of her recurrent struggle with depression, Sarton revisits the question of the difficult, necessary self-confrontations that solitude makes possible:
The value of solitude — one of its values — is, of course, that there is nothing to cushion against attacks from within … But the storm, painful as it is, might have had some truth in it. So sometimes one has simply to endure a period of depression for what it may hold of illumination if one can live through it, attentive to what it exposes or demands.
Perhaps Albert Camus was right in asserting that “there is no love of life without despair of life,” but this is a truth hard to take in and even harder to swallow when one is in the throes of depression. In an entry from October 6, still clawing her way out of the pit of darkness, Sarton considers the only cure for despair she knows – nature:
Does anything in nature despair except man? An animal with a foot caught in a trap does not seem to despair. It is too busy trying to survive. It is all closed in, to a kind of still, intense waiting. Is this a key? Keep busy with survival. Imitate the trees. Learn to lose in order to recover, and remember that nothing stays the same for long, not even pain, psychic pain. Sit it out. Let it all pass. Let it go.
Brief Biography of May Sarton
Born in Belgium. May Sarton (1912 – 1995) emigrated to the US where she gained recognition as a gifted and sensitive writer of poetry, novels, and journals. Although at first overlooked by literary critics, in the later part of her career, Sarton’s work was rediscovered, with many critics lauding her as an important contemporary American writer. Her fiction and autobiographical writings have been described as inspirational, touching, honest, and thought-provoking. She examines such universal themes as love, friendship, relationships, and the search for self-knowledge, personal fulfillment, and inner peace.