I had never heard the phrase before and then (how does this happen?) I came across it again within twenty-four hours. ‘Happiness writes white,’ he said. ‘When I am content, I have no inspiration. Ease causes the muse to fly.’ I didn’t want to believe it, that one needs to be tortured in order to write, or paint, or sing – or whatever artistry it is that requires stimulation and imagination. Surely not all creative expression is a manifestation of channelled pain? But then again…
When I was much younger, someone once said to me that ‘everyone has a Michael Furey.’ Michael Furey is a character from James Joyce’s short story, The Dead. We never meet him in person in the story because he has died young, but he is remembered by Gretta to her husband when they return from a party at which a song, The Lass of Aughrim has been sung. Listening to it sends Gretta into a melancholic reverie. And so, the story comes out, late at night as she wistfully tells her husband that Michael Furey had courted her in her youth and that he used to sing her that song. She loved him and he died when he was only seventeen after coming to meet her in the winter, in the rain, while already sick, causing his untimely demise. She had never forgotten, had carried him with her silently until now, and he had shaped her way of being.
I believe it. Everyone has a Michael Furey in the form of some deep sorrowing. Maybe it’s a person, although it might be a time or a place, a sadness quietly carried, not broadcast or necessarily known to others; and although it is painful initially, it is also a gateway to peace. Gretta’s old wound was opened by listening to music, something beautiful that triggered her sweet pain. Beauty does this to us: a stunning landscape, a new baby, songs and poems, exquisite dance. But for the fault line of pain running through us, we might not recognise the beauty in such an acute way. Our own personal Michael Furey gives us a deeper appreciation of the world, opens our eyes to life’s transient gifts.
These thoughts all come from me not wanting to believe that ‘happiness write white’. Surely one needs to be steady and centred in order to be coherent and lyrical? In the midst of an emotional disintegration, wouldn’t it be the case that ‘sadness writes splurge’? Gretta needed space from the pain of losing Michael to reflect calmly. Wordsworth spoke of poetry was, for him, ‘emotion recollected in tranquillity’, pain remembered from a now peaceful place.
My friend sent me a journal of writhing this week – a collection of different writers’ poetry and short stories – and yes, some expressed sadness about death, divorce, ageing, but many more broached happy subjects: romance, hopes, nature, celebration. Perhaps though, happy or sad, it is all born out of the same fracture within us, the same tiresome heart, the same quest to understand melancholy and capture happiness for just a little longer.
Wild Swans, Edna St Vincent Millay
I looked in my heart while the wild swans went over.
And what did I see I had not seen before?
Only a question less or a question more;
Nothing to match the flight of wild birds flying.
Tiresome heart, forever living and dying,
House without air, I leave you and lock your door.
Wild swans, come over the town, come over
The town again, trailing your legs and crying!