Robert Lowell's Privileged Suffering
By Wendy Bourgeois
“Tamed by Miltown, we lie on Mother’s bed.” —Robert Lowell
f you wake up at seven a.m. after an uneventful Tuesday in your own bed with this pernicious little Lowell gem about the aftermath of a hideous marital spat careening around your inner ear, despite the fact that you’re divorced and sleep mostly alone, you can surmise that a) it’s time for a refill, or b) the full range of human emotions you were so excited to experience at ages 12-25 actually kind of still suck.
Miltown, a sturdy mid-century barbiturate, didn’t narrow Robert Lowell’s emotional range enough to keep him out of mental institutions, but pharmaceuticals have improved since then. A friend said the other day that SSRI’s ruin sincerity in art, because artists no longer have to suffer quite so deeply from the mental illnesses with which they have entertained us since the first caveman’s tears mixed with powdered ore adorned some rock wall in France. Okay, that’s not exactly what he said. He said something thoughtful. I turned it into the sweeping over-generalization you see before you. I won’t apologize; I bet Robert Lowell did it all the time.
I’m always insisting that artists as a breed manage to maintain just as much, or as little, emotional health as farmers or massage therapists, but I’m not sure I believe it. Lowell would never have gotten that bit about “mother’s bed” without the couch, but who knows if the couch ever did him any good? His image does me good in those early mornings when I think of it—gives me a context for a very particular kind of sadness. That it’s a boring sadness, numbed with routine and pills, sharpens the impact because I recognize it so completely that I barely even notice it’s there anymore.
The older I get, the more intolerant I grow of any kind of direct mimetic representation of violence. Emotional or physical meanness, even when illuminating, makes me bone tired, and I can’t take to my bed anymore—if I ever could—because people depend on me to show up and act sane. This is unfortunate, because it limits my ability to feel through art, and grow because of it. I read a lot of trash. I watch movies mostly from the Hays Code era—the ultimate advertisement for the tonic effects of repression in the creative process. It allows the pain of things to sneak up on you with a little joke or some Technicolor song and dance, and like a nurse with a good needle, you don’t feel it going in until it’s too late.
So yeah, maybe the culture’s current designated basket cases are less full-frontal in their basket-casery because of the miracle of modern science. Not all of them of course, but I tend to recoil quicklike from any direct Sturm und Drang—no Lars Von Trier, no environmental crisis documentaries. Mannered whimsy can break your heart too, maybe more when your kids have enough to eat and hot and cold running water and lots of shoes. One feels that Suffering, in the big sense, displays a gross lack of perspective.
So it makes sense then that Lowell’s kind of privileged sufferers speak to me more clearly in their inside voices, because I’m trained not to tune reasonableness out, no matter how eviscerating the content, as long as the tone is measured. They remind me that safety and misery are not mutually exclusive, despite my tedious guilty conscience. Most days now I feel almost thoroughly tamed. I have cried and been self destructive in a thousand ways, checkering my past for the experience or the anecdote, but I never got much work done. Eventually, though, Mother’s bed turned my bed. I try to get there early most nights, so I can wake up at seven a.m.
Wendy Bourgeois is a poet and writer. Her poems "Dear Beloved Other" appeared in the spring 2011 issue.