David Berman #

On August 7 2019 the world lost a great poet, musician and observer of life, Silver Jews frontman David Berman. Berman was 52 years old and committed suicide, hanging himself in his Brooklyn apartment.

I’ve always liked the Silver Jews, and was surprised by Berman’s return this year as Purple Mountains, which has become one of my favourite albums of the year. It was great to hear his unique voice again, and the enjoyment from the new album had me revisiting all his older material. I was truly shocked and saddened by the report of his death, and listening to the new album again has a very different, eerie feeling to it in light of his suicide.

I’m not going to try and write critically about Berman’s oeuvre; many people have done this far better than I can, from the perspective of fans who have followed his work for decades. But his death brought to the fore a question that I’ve often wondered about, and struggled with the answer to: is suffering through sadness and pain a prerequisite for meaningful and original creative output?

Most of the artists - musicians, authors, poets and visual artists - that I admire could be classified as troubled. It’s definitely a well-known trope that suffering creates great art. But why is this?

A theory that’s developing in my head at the moment is that both suffering and creative output are themselves by-products of something else: emotional sensitivity and awareness. In order to observe the world and its people, and to make meaningful and moving statements about them in some medium, requires a certain level of emotional attunement and awareness. One cannot wander blithely through the world, ignorant to everything that is happening and that one is feeling, and expect to comment on it in an interesting and original way.

And of course there is a flipside to this sensitivity: the more you let in, the more you let in, for better or for worse. In order to observe, one must open an eye that is directed back upon oneself as often, or probably more often, than it is directed outwards.

Of course there is the question here of whether introspection leads to suffering. I’m sure it’s not universally true. I can imagine people and scenarios where introspection leads to growth, and improvement, and a desire to be better. But it also certainly leads to a more brutal and sharp appreciation of the difficulties and sadness and grief of everyday life, and there is a reason that humans are fantastic at building mental defence mechanisms to block these things out.

Is this just the price of art? I think that’s a flippant answer and one that devalues the lives of great artists like Berman, because it creates a transactional question: should that price have been paid. Maybe, though, artists bear this burden collectively for all of us. The fact that Berman has thought so deeply and personally about death, and penned songs about it, allows me to connect with it too, but more removed from the rawness of his personal experience. It is a wonderful and treasured gift that David Berman has left us: his music and his words. I am very grateful that he lived and that he found the strength and the inspiration to create.