In 1957, Charles Mingus released his album, The Clown. The title track is over 12 minutes long, and includes an improvised spoken word narrative by Jean Shepherd. I must have listened to this one track dozens of times in less than a week. Just listening to it on repeat.
I get caught up in particular stories, musical pieces, visual art and/or places during particular times. I’ve learned to try and figure out what it means to me. With “The Clown” and where it’s led me, it’s been glaringly obvious.
I’ve had the luxury of time recently, and I’ve been writing a lot. Going through my previous writing as well, sorting through hundreds of pieces and analysing them. Examining myself as a writer, identifying my strengths and weaknesses and trying to determine where my journey is supposed to lead me next.
I’ve come to understand that my fascination with “The Clown” is because of several things: Shepherd’s every-day voice and clear enunciation make him an easy-to-listen-to storyteller, and an incredibly skillful one to be able to improvise on the recording; the way the music sets the scenes, replaces thousands of words, and manipulates emotion in classic Mingus style; but most of all, it’s the story.
Obviously, different stories appeal to people at different points in their lives. Different themes, narratives, characters, and writing tones will captivate during certain moments in time. In “The Clown”, the protagonist is a clown who is genuinely happy (“he had all these greens and all these yellows and all these oranges bubbling up inside of him”), but only achieves career success when he compromises his artform. In the end, the clown dies in a tragic accident on-stage, miserable and unhappy. And as he’s dying, he finally figures it out. While it’s not explicit in the piece, it’s implied that what the clown now knows, is that his audience wasn’t really interested in what he had to present, but that they wanted to be entertained at his expense. He literally had to kill himself on stage to give his audience what they wanted.
ODB, anyone? (RIP).
Looking more into the clown, Shepherd’s work and investigating the idea of artist as sacrificial lamb led me to Antonin Artaud’s “Van Gogh, le suicidé de la société”, a study of the painter’s work which explores madness/genius and audience, that begins with the lines:
“One can speak of the good mental health of Van Gogh who, in his whole adult life, cooked only one of his hands and did nothing else except once to cut off his left ear”
Having been drawn into themes of madness, artistic expression and the romanticism of artist as martyr, I’ve been looking at my own experiences in terms of my work. A couple of years ago, I had stopped writing because I was tired of being told that what I was writing wasn’t what people wanted to hear from me. On the flipside, the support and encouragement I received for my writing was when I explored themes of identity, Othering, Orientalism, “home”, hip hop, and political resistance. While those are a part of what I choose to write about, they are definitely not the whole. I have also written about visual art and culture, privacy, philosophical explorations, environmental issues, space (in a stars and planets sense), cryogenics, and post-nature.
Reading between the lines, I had felt that being a young black Muslim woman excluded me from writing about science, philosophy, nature, and French literature. Bugger that.
It makes sense that “The Clown” and “Van Gogh” appeal to me now, as I gear up to present myself once again as a writer. Shedding restrictions and expectations placed upon me (and I do take responsibility for other people’s expectations hindering me), I’m studying the pieces and my relationship to them, and learning the lessons they offer.
I’m tired of being a Possibility Girl, and so I begin. I’m looking forward to being more public with my writing, and I’m slowly working through the fear that’s been holding me back.