Human history is abundant with figures who have gazed into life to see beauty, hope, and possibility, often in the face of tremendous adversity. Though it’s impossible to sum up the body of one’s work in a quip or quote, a brief glimpse into the minds of historical creatives and intellectuals gives us a chance to see the world with reverence and fascination.
“I wish I could do whatever I liked behind the curtain of ‘madness’… I would build my world which while I lived, would be in agreement with all the worlds. The day, or the hour, or the minute that I lived would be mine and everyone else’s – my madness would not be an escape from ‘reality.'"
Kahlo was an iconic Mexican painter, famous for her portraiture. At the age of 18, she was nearly killed when struck by a bus. Her health suffered throughout most of her life, but she continued to pursue her passion without reservation. Influencing her art were a number of deep and volatile romantic affairs, perhaps most notably with fellow Mexican artist Diego Rivera. She was frequently described as a surrealist, though she rejected the title. Her retort: “I paint my own reality. The only thing I know is that I paint because I need to.”
“Your pain is the breaking of the shell that encloses your understanding... And could you keep your heart in wonder at the daily miracles of your life your pain would not seem less wondrous than your joy; And you would accept the seasons of your heart, even as you have always accepted the seasons that pass over your fields. And you would watch with serenity through the winters of your grief.”
Khalil Gibran was a Lebanese American famous for spiritual musings that drew from his Christian origins as well as Islam and Sufism – three inspirations that dominated the body of his work. Popular throughout the 60s, John Lennon adapted a line from one of his poems in the ballad to his deceased mother, Julia. In The Prophet, Al-Mustafa, a Christ-like figure, prepares to leave the city of Orphalese by ship but addresses a gathered mass to answer their questions of life and death. In On Pain, Al-Mustafa presents his reconciliation of suffering within the human condition.
“Without music, life would be a mistake.”
Nietzsche became a household name for revolutionizing German philosophy with his seething analysis of conventional morality, rejection of rationalism, and staunch advocacy of unwavering individualism. Like many philosophers of his time, Nietzsche drew heavily from Greek mythology and evoked a number of mythological figures throughout his works. One of his favored was Dionysus, the god of the grape harvest, fertility, and ritual madness. In Dionysus, Nietzsche saw an embodiment of the chaotic and painful realities of existence as well as the celebration and song that exploded from around them.
“It's hard to stay mad, when there's so much beauty in the world. Sometimes I feel like I'm seeing it all at once, and it's too much. My heart fills up like a balloon that's about to burst... And then I remember to relax, and stop trying to hold on to it, and then it flows through me like rain, and I can't feel anything but gratitude for every single moment of my stupid little life."
The multiple Academy Award-winning film American Beauty (1999) centers on themes of conformity, sexuality, repression, and redemption in suburban America. In the closing scene of the film, the main character, Lester, is murdered for false suspicion of homosexuality. At the moment of his death, his voice narrates his reflections on his life, now at its end. He speaks of the innocuous and quiet beauty of yellow maple leaves lining his childhood street and the creases of his grandmother’s hands, as well as flashes of watching his daughter grow and the ecstatic laughter of his wife from his now-troubled marriage; these illustrate his struggles with aging and identity now resolved in a moment of peace and clarity in awe of the gift of existence.