“Wounded healer” is a phrase that has been used to characterize the shaman of traditional cultures who undergoes a time and trial of suffering as an initiation into his calling as a healer. The archetypal wounded healer of classical culture is wise Chiron the Centaur. He was the teacher of Aesculapius, among others, to whom he imparted knowledge of both music and medicine. Accidentally wounded by Hercules, Chiron could not heal himself. The immortal Chiron would have suffered unendingly had he not offered to die for Prometheus, himself condemned by the gods for his theft of fire. In honor of Chiron’s nobility, Zeus granted the centaur the release of death. The mythic resonance between Chiron, Aesculapius, music, medicine, empathy, suffering, and the creative heat of Prometheus suggests that the suffering body and mind are also sources of their own transformations. Imagination and suffering alloy to make something other.
Authors, poets, and playwrights—from Homer to Sophocles, whoever wrote down the great Hindu epics, Kierkegaard, to any modern artist, whether it be George Eliot, John Keats, Emily Dickinson, Eugene O’Neill- among them, or nearly any composer or painters such as Goya or Picasso, has not looked clear-eyed at grief, aging, illness, and loss? Great modern mythmakers, such as Friedrich Nietzsche, Sigmund Freud, Carl Jung, Albert Camus tell of the human spirit facing itself naked, alone in a world without the consolations of religion.
Few works, for example, assert themselves with the stark immediacy of “The Scream (or “The Cry”)” by Edvard Munch. It appears on everything from ties to T-shirts, satirized and referenced by artists of all sorts. The print of an anguished figure howling in front of a sky that seems in parallel tumult, grips the imagination and speaks to something unshakably real about the human condition. Most people appreciate the work as a wrenching depiction of existential, or “neurotic,” anguish. What few may know is that tuberculosis was fatal to Munch’s mother during the Christmas season of 1868, when the boy was only five years old. Munch’s beloved sister died of the same disease a year after young Munch, at age thirteen, himself contracted and nearly succumbed to it. It is likely that the horror of “The Scream” has some grounding in these most personal facts of illness, loss, and grief.
Art, of course, cannot offer, nor does it attempt, to give to either the creator or the viewer a guarantee of escape from suffering. At times, sorrow can only be endured. Much art, great as well as ordinary, exists as a memorial to those whose voices were strangled or stilled. Nevertheless, art can bring the possibility of healing to those living with illness. It gives form to that which is unspeakable, renders coherent the shattered and broken. Just as illness can be a vitiation of experience, art can give it both spirit and flesh. Art is a medicine for the suffering we call illness, just as it may function similarly for those afflictions known as meaninglessness, despair, poverty, abuse, exile, and war.