I remember reading an interview with Sting some years back in which he said that great art doesn't have to come from suffering. This was back in the days when Amy Winehouse had started to derail. It was in the heyday of Pete Doherty, who never seemed to manage a day without getting caught with drugs. That alone used to make me wonder what kind of grim PR was at work; it wasn't like he was the only celebrity who heavily indulged in the old class As, after all. But I digress.
Sting's was an interesting point of view in a culture that romances the relationship between suffering and art. It seemed as comical at that time as it had when he talked about the rainforest the previous decade ('look who's laughing now', I like to imagine he thinks as he sustains another apocryphal 7 hour erection). Time was when a rock musician couldn't be taken seriously unless they had a deviated septum or an arm that looked like the Orion constellation was imprinted on it. And this glorification of self-destructive tendencies isn't a new thing; Byron remains the most exciting of all the Romantic poets, not like Keats with his tubercular lungs or the later-life tory sellouts Wordsworth and Coleridge. Give the public a poet who shags his sister and is eternally at the whim of his compulsions, and his place in history is assured.
In a roundabout way, I suppose, the sentiment behind this idea is that happiness isn't the hallmark of greatness. I used to feel the same way about cynicism as I did about smoking in school; everyone told you that it wasn't cool, but really, everyone knew damn well that cool is exactly what it was. The earth was never moved by people proclaiming that animals are cute (try as the internet does) or that being in love is fun and productive. Cynicism displays a certain amount of wordliness, I always believed. A cynic has the courage to view life from an outsider's perspective, practically a pre-requisite for someone who wants to write about- and in particular, make fun of- the world about them.
It's kind of a British thing, too. Broadly speaking, we sure are suspicious of anything joyful or victorious. They could do away with the citizenship test by asking potential new subjects their views on things like superheroes, good-looking people and anyone who wins things without being the underdog first. That would show you exactly how much they've integrated into British culture without having to ask them pointless, difficult questions like where the Iceni tribe came from. Where did the Iceni tribe come from?!
As a teenager, listening to Morrisey and Radiohead and taking lots of drugs seemed like the perfect antidote to the utter hypocrisy of this thing called life. I wasn't alone there; it was the nineties; sewer systems across the UK were laced with opiates, MDMA and shattered dreams. But my gloomy outlook was the fuel for my creativity, and it was certainly the fuel for my comedy many years later. The greater the distance between the lie and the reality, the louder the laughter becomes, or so it seems.
But here's the thing. Can you be both happy and cynical at the same time? And is happiness really Kryptonite to the creative life? Some years back, I stopped performing standup comedy relentlessly on the open mic circuit because I felt (amongst other things) that it was turning me into a person I didn't recognise, and not in a good way. If I'm honest, in spite of all the crazy things I've done in my life- and there have been many- my drive has always been far more to be happy than it has to be another skeptical voice in a culture already mired in skepticism; it was ego that always told me otherwise. By the same token, however, creativity is at my heart. I don't want to throw the baby out with the bathwater. The challenge, I guess, is to figure out how to successfully combine a happy life with a creative one. The challenge is to be a little bit more Sting. But maybe just a teensy bit less earnest.
My nineteen year old self would be disgusted to her core to hear me say this. But my nineteen year old self was two years away from rehab, so probably wasn't in a position to judge. The artist formerly known as Gordon Sumner seems to have got something right. He is one of the richest musicians in England. He has tantric sex. He is fitter than most people half his age. Which is more than can be said for poor old Amy Winehouse. Or Byron. Or Hendrix. Or Cobain. Or Morrison. Or Joplin, Or Thomas... I think you get the point.