“Guilty As Sin"
‘…every saint has a past, and every sinner has a future’.1
Is the creative mind prone to sin? I must confess: I am not free of sin. My greatest fault? Grandiosity.
Artists are supposedly famous for their vanity, their pride and their lust. Picasso was an overbearing, egocentric bull. On the other hand, Van Gogh was a self-deprecating masochist. The brawling Caravaggio raged through the streets from Rome to Malta and Toulouse-Lautrec inhabited a demi-monde of sin and depravity. The syphilitic Gauguin died of a self-administered overdose.
The litany of sins of the artist goes on.
When God cast out Adam and Eve from the ascetic Garden and condemned them to this mortal coil they had committed only one sin. In Eden, there was no filthy lucre, no avarice or gluttony, no mirrors or cell-phones in which to indulge their vanity and no indolence or sloth (there were golden fields to plough and harvest). There was no wrath (except God’s) and no envy, just trees hanging with bulging ripe fruit and lascivious carnal snakes, flowing rivers of milk and blossoms thick with perfume. There was lust however; and a foaming sea of metaphor, a psychoanalyst’s wet dream.
One day, the ancestors had sex for pleasure without fantasising about God or procreation.
Tempted, they indulged in the pleasures of the human body with its curves and folds, its lines and extremities, its peaks and caverns, its muscles and pheromones. But the sins of the father are visited upon the sons. In an instant, as they gorge on the sweet flesh of the forbidden fruit, all hell breaks loose; the hand of God expels them from the Garden and they see for the first time that they are naked. Banished, they feel a kind of post-coital shame. A mere leaf couldn’t cover their disgrace.
Their lust, sated in a moment of carnal pleasure, brought forward the ignominious fall of Man - or was it the rise? Whatever, their punishment was eternal. God’s children would have to make it on their own in a cruel, drought-ravaged world haunted by the omnipresent spectre of death. And theirs was only the original sin. Although made in God’s image, his physical doubles, we deviate in fallibly human ways because according to Christian doctrine we inherit Adam’s sin.
A discourse is still being had among theologians as to whether we are born with a ‘sin nature’; they seem to agree that morality, the compulsion to be good, instructs us against the natural instinct to sin. Whatever your position on the nature of sin, it seems we can be nurtured against it. This contradicts one of the fundamental principles of Confucianism which denies original sin and instead teaches that we are born without sin and that human nature is inherently good. In 2008, the seven deadly sins were modernised to capture the breadth and complexity of sin in this great age. A senior Vatican official, in an interview with the official newspaper L’Osservatore Romano, revised the list to include stem cell research, contraception, obscene wealth, social injustice, environmental pollution and drug-taking2.
Let us go back into the nadir of sin. Narcissus, the vain youth of Greek mythology, exemplifies the worst of the seven deadly sins as catechized by Catholic theologians. His fall from grace, his sinking into the torpid pool of his own vanity, is retold by the Roman poet Ovid in Metamorphoses. If the seven deadly sins have an apical pagan ancestor, is it Narcissus. His blinding youthful pride, his lust for his own reflection in the mirror pool, his greed and gluttony in devouring his own image, his slothful disdain for the attentions of the pure mountain nymph Echo and the wrath he inflicts on himself by wasting his life transfixed on his own reflected beauty, all of them point to it - Narcissus is the sublimation, the end result, of the seven deadly sins.
That peacock of the decadent belle époque Oscar Wilde (who in his only novel recreated Narcissus in the psychologically flawed character of Dorian Grey) waxes lyrical on the subject of the vanity of youth in the poem ‘The Disciple’ from the cycle Poems in Prose, published in serial form in 1894. But Wilde departs from Ovid’s telling of the homoerotic Greek tragedy of Narcissus. Instead he imagines the mirror pool as a sentient being. One day the nymphs find the pool apparently mourning the death of Narcissus. Except the pool is mourning its own beauty, reflected in Narcissus’ eyes3.
In Freudian psychoanalysis, the narcissistic wound is at the core of most of humanity’s problems and if there is anyone who bears the wound most obviously it is the artist. Hypercritical but defensive, a radioactive temper that is quick to flare, a bitterly jealous, vengeful personality, self-obsessed; these psychological traits of the narcissist might also describe the characteristics of the artist.
Let us deal with each of the seven deadly sins.
If you imagine a Babelesque tower of sin, Pride is at the apex. Dante4 imagined it as a form of perverted self-love that leads to hatred and contempt for others. Pride is relational; it inflates our ego at the expense of others. Pride is the apex predator of sins; Pride enables them all.
The excessive desire for money, sex or food to satisfy our existential hunger for anything to fill the dark empty void within, Lust drives us to want, want and want. It is physiological, a tormented craving that pricks and bristles on the surface of your hungry skin.
Too much is never enough. I need more, more, more. I’ll do anything to get it. Greed is the mother of lust; unlike her naughty child who wears lustrous PVC ankle-high boots Mother Greed wears sensible shoes. She whispers ‘I covet you and your ass. My retinas burn with material desire’.
A perfect companion to greed, Envy makes me want what you’ve got. I find pleasure in the sorrow of others, it makes me somehow big. I wish I had your charm, your eyes, your Porsche, the keys to your penthouse apartment, your life. Let’s be honest, we have all flashed the monster’s green eyes.
Sloth is physical and spiritual, an indolence of the soul as much as the body. In Dante’s Purgatorio5, those guilty of sloth suffered the torment of running forever at top speed, an eternal punishment for doing nothing. In modern form, Sloth Hell is one of those fishbowl gyms where you can watch others exert themselves on public torture devices known as treadmills.
I rage for everything I don’t have; in the fire of my rage I can destroy, destroy and destroy. Godzilla is manifest Wrath; a horned reptilian beast who knows no other way to live. To breathe the acrid choking air of destroyed cities through his flared nostrils is to live like Godzilla - on the oxygen of pure unadulterated wrath.
The gastronome eats and drinks to excess, and never thinks of the hungry or the needy. Gluttony is the uncontrolled desire to consume everything. Overindulgent to the point of waste, the glutton just keeps on eating, filling the void. He doesn’t see the face of the starving in his mind’s eye, just the empty part of his stomach.
If the Seven Deadly Sins are our damnation from God’s fabled kingdom, then they are also eternal markers of the fallible human condition. But if you ask me, we’re better off here. No life was ever lived without sin. We’re not gods; to sin is to be human, to be human is to sin. My greatest fault? Grandiosity.
Attributed to Oscar Wilde.
3 Wilde, Oscar. Poems in Prose, ‘The Disciple’, 1894. 'But I loved Narcissus because, as he lay on my banks and looked down at me, in the mirror of his eyes I saw ever my own beauty mirrored'.
4 Alighieri, Dante. The Divine Comedy: Purgatorio, Canto X. English edition, translated by Henry Wadsworth Longfellow.