There are questions about what Edvard Munch’s painting The Scream actually shows. Possibly someone screaming. The original German title was The Scream of Nature, so perhaps that and the strange sky, and Munch’s statement that he had been out for a walk at sunset when he sensed ‘an infinite scream passing through nature’, indicate a primeval source. His sister had been committed to a lunatic asylum, so perhaps it was her, or someone trying not to hear her screams.
Sometimes art captures something inside us, a moment, a feeling, a need. I’ve always been a WH Auden fan. When I had the first of three miscarriages, the first real bereavement I’d ever had, what I couldn’t understand was how the world went on just the same as ever, when obviously nothing was the same as it had been before. The world had changed, but no-one else seemed to have noticed. This was nearly thirty years ago, so people didn’t recognise miscarriage as a loss in quite the way one hopes they do now. One of Auden’s poems, Musee des Beaux Arts, came to mind, and comforted me. It’s about Breughel’s painting Landscape With The Fall Of Icarus:
In Breughel’s Icarus, for instance: how everything turns away
Quite leisurely from the disaster; the ploughman may
Have heard the splash, the forsaken cry,
But for him it was not an important failure; the sun shone
As it had to on the white legs disappearing into the green
Water; and the expensive delicate ship that must have seen
Something amazing, a boy falling out of the sky,
Had somewhere to get to and sailed calmly on.
I loved the poem when I first read it for A Level, and when I went to Brussels, years before the miscarriage, I visited the Musee des Beaux Arts specifically to see the painting. At that later time of loss, I found comfort in the fact that what I felt wasn’t new, or unrecognised. Auden had recognised it, and Breughel before him. Your life stops, your world ends, but everyone else’s just goes on. I felt less alone with the feelings. This was part of life, and it would resolve.
So something happened recently, to someone I love very much, something horrible and nightmarish. It isn’t something I can do anything about, and it isn’t a pain I can take away from them, although I would lay my guts out on the pavement and invite the world to cut them into ribbons if that would work. The laying out of guts is not actually what’s required: calmness, strength, practical help and knowledgeable advice, the last of which I can actually offer, are what’s needed. So that’s what I do. In the immediate aftermath I made up my mind not to waste time on anger, because that simply distracted from the person who needs my support. I would not waste time on fear, because the person doesn’t need to see my fear and add that to their own. I would keep in mind that this is their trauma and not mine, and I would follow the path they want to tread in dealing with it, wherever that goes and whatever turns it takes.
I want to scream. I want to howl. I want to unsheathe my claws and my fangs and savage somebody, for causing this much pain to someone who, until now and against some odds, has believed that on the whole the world is a good place. I want to raise my head, my fangs still dripping blood, and smile at the world, showing them that this is what I do when someone I love is injured. I want to rip out the heart and liver and spleen of the causer of pain, preferably while they are still living, and see fear and pain and horror in their eyes. And then I want to howl again, in triumph, so that the world can hear.
Well, I can’t do that, and neither can I scream so loud that I can’t hear the sound of the other person’s pain. I will do what I always do: be as calm as I can be and as rational as I can be, because anything else is self-indulgent and not helpful. There have been a couple of days, when a kind of paralysis grips my mind and I want to slump in a corner and gibber, but it passes. I’m a writer, so now I put fingers to keyboard and try, not to make sense of it, but to get it out, before it eats me. I don’t know why putting black marks on a piece of paper helps, but it does. I am perfectly aware that putting it out in public, on a website, is an ultimate form of self-indulgence, an attention-seeking scream. I further indulge myself by saying, ‘Lots of people do it. The papers are full of first person stories of pain and anger and the rest of it. It’s what writers do.’ Yes, but normally there’s some sort of redemption, some sort of self-help lesson. It isn’t just someone raging about how they want to shred skin from a carcass with their teeth.
I suppose this is just my howl. My scream. Not so much a piece of writing as something a bit more guttural. Just as a silent howl doesn’t quite do it, somehow the black marks on the paper need to be out there to fulfil their purpose. I wish I could be like Munch and produce something ambiguous and mysterious, and maybe I should wait until I can put this into fiction. But I don’t want to wait. I want to howl, and scream, and bare my fangs.
And then, proceed. As normal. Fangs retracted, scream neatly packed away. And perhaps a printout of the Munch, to carry along with me, like a shamanic animal spirit who will do the screaming when I can’t.