When Life In a Society As It Is and With People As They Are Seems Impossible

Eyes cannot see while opened widely, ears cannot hear while closed completely, mouth is opened wide but no one sound can come out of it. Communication is absolutely blocked and this creates an even stronger horror. When the freedom to scream is not allowed, the freedom to see, to hear and to understand doesn’t exist. Blindness and deafness correspond to muteness.

Edvard Munch, “The Scream”, 1893 (in unified/depressive tonality)

Edvard Munch, “The Scream”, 1893 (in shattered/depressive/multi-contrasted tonality)

For intensely creative person like Munch, for whom it’s very difficult to adapt to the people’s world, be it political reality, everyday life, personal relations or the reality of professional life with its rituals of hunting for success, arranging achievements and appealing to art fans and critics, to feel reality as antagonistic to his very existence is not an exception. How it could be otherwise – creative artists are much more sensitive than regular people, and much more ambitious. They want to grasp what nobody did before them, “to beat the human limitations”, but they want to achieve on their own terms, not on the conditions of the human world as it is. For them to feel that they are creatively potent they need to change the conditions of human understanding of what life and what art are about – what it means to be a human being in the world, and that is a barely possible task. Even exceptionally talented people (like Munch) sometimes have a feeling that they are drastically failing in these super-human efforts, and then the moments Munch describes in his “The Scream” inevitably come about.

The striking, even shocking feature of Munch’s depiction of despair in “The Scream” is the protagonist’s wide opened eyes without pupils in combination with his wide opened mouth with no tongue, no teeth, no gums, no opening into a closure. What seems important here is not only the protagonists’ goggled eyes and screaming convulsion of the mouth and their simultaneity but the fact that to this is added almost paroxysmally intense gesture of shutting ears with both hands, as if he couldn’t – refused to hear the noise of the world and his own scream. But what if this person who is refusing to see – who has a kind of temporary hysterical blindness (who feels that he doesn’t have eyes, that he got rid of his sight and that he is suffocated by the space around as by a giant multilayered, multi-bodied boa’s coils) – what if the person in this condition cannot scream? What if he cannot scream as he cannot see and doesn’t want to hear?

The eyes cannot see, the ears cannot hear, the mouth cannot scream. The eyes are blind, the ears are deaf, the mouth is mute! This human being is made tiny by his panicky fear of the world – he doesn’t want to look at it, doesn’t want to hear it and doesn’t want to talk to it, to confess, to belong to it and be in it. He doesn’t want to perceive it as if this world is not real, as if it doesn’t exist at all. And he doesn’t want hear himself screaming because it will remind him about the world, and this will make him even more horrified. It is the way little children close their eyes not to see darkness. Compare the degree of fear when you can grasp what frightens you, and when you are afraid to know, to see what’s going on.

What is this horror then that creates such extreme psychological defense as complete blockage of your perception of reality? It cannot be any realistic danger. It can happen only when the whole reality of your life has turned against you, when danger is not so much physical but psychological, not reducible to concrete circumstances, but symbolizes whole life, whole your being. It seems, that’s what Munch’s painting is about – the tormenting incompatibility between the human soul and life as it is, between what in us is shocked by the fact that the world exists in a condition it exists, and philistines try to survive by destroying one another. Munch’s “The Scream” is the self-repressed scream of the human sublime self facing the barbarity of human society.

Freedom to see the truth about people’s psychological condition and social life corresponds to and completes the freedom to “scream” – to express this truth amidst the triviality of dressed up lies. Blindness corresponds to muteness. It is the inability to feel horrified by the condition of the factual world the problem, not the tormenting gift of being horrified – that’s why to be able to express it is so important. A very significant motif of the painting is the difference between its horrified protagonist and the two figures of passer-byes (who don’t have a problem with the human world around and inside them and just lazily chatting with one another), whom Munch made a part of an apocalyptic convulsion of the world. The freedom of speech leads to sharpness of vision and muteness of speech to mental dumbness. If we live in a society when to say what we want to say become meaningless, when words lost the world and world became indifferent to words’ meanings – it means that we are not allowed to see and to hear what is there to see and hear – the truth. To put people in a condition of mental blindness, deafness and muteness – life has to be socially imbalanced, violent, instigating in people fear of tomorrow, humiliating them by reducing them to the state of creatures happy just to survive, as it was during Munch’s life when social inequality and blind aggression as a result of it ripped apart societies and human lives. In “The Scream” the straight bridge signifies “historical progress”, the “oily” area with tiny boats – human everyday survival, and the intensified skies and waters – the “predatory” whirlpools of the bigger world.

The traditional interpretation of Munch’s painting as an expression of an inadequate fear of the world by an individual in a moment of mental disturbance (by somebody with idiosyncratic perception of “normal” by itself reality) is inadequate and cannot be sustained anymore when the crisis between those who need to keep people in ignorance and irrationality and those who, indeed, become dumb, on the one hand, and, those who want to be mentally sharp and intellectually vital, on the other, is becoming obvious again in history. Munch’ “The Scream” is about us in the beginning of 21st century. Munch is we today. We follow the path between Munch’s protagonist (a desperate weakling we sympathize with) and him as the master who was able to contain his fears and reveal the truth.

Edvard Munch, “The Scream”, 1893 (in shattered/maniacal/multi-contrasted tonality)