Beyond The Scream of Edvard Munch, into Reflections on Identity

The other day I was reading through the typescript of the novel I wrote about my university life, finished a few years after I graduated:
 it was called “A Degree Without Honour“.
The Scream by Edvard Munch
The Scream by Edvard Munch
I had some astonishing shafts of self-knowledge from it… things I was entirely unconscious of whilst writing it. I was trying to see what I could learn from it, though I admit I meant initially to pick out a passage which might help in my current novel.
But then the ms had to be put away in the bottom drawer of the filing cabinet again – I could bear only so much of delving into the past like that!
Anyone reading an old journal, or looking through old photos, might feel the same.
The sometimes unwelcome light of self-knowledge, in extreme cases, may make us feel like the tormented figure in the famous painting “The Scream” by Edvard Munch.
 

“The Scream” is uncomfortable viewing. Through his art, Munch’s fascination with self-image, and obsessive self-expression are themes that still resonate today.

It occurred to me, that humans desire more than anything else, “to be known”. The current passion “to become a celebrity” and for social networking are just two of the many contemporary phenomena that express this.

But we can bear only so much knowledge – either of ourselves, or of others.

As I read in a recent article on “The Scream” from the London Institute of Contemporary Christianity, we seek “an identity that gives us a unique sense of belonging and a connection to others. Knowing this, in modern life, truly sets us free.”

An Owl in the Starry Night and a Lost Friend

Owl in the Starry Night
Owl in the Starry Night, oil on canvas, by Sophie Grandvall (2007)

In Birmingham Art Gallery shop I found a card with a picture called “Owl in the Starry Night”. Immediately I saw it I thought, Pam. And I bought the card. The image is from an oil painting on canvas by artist Sophie Grandvall (2007) which is in The Bridgeman Art Gallery. And this one image made me think how – in any field of creativity – it is never possible for the creator to anticipate the impact their creation might have on those who receive it.

Pam is a friend I first met when we were both aged five, who died of a severe illness seven years ago. She loved owls. They became her symbol, her motif. She surrounded herself with pictures of them, went to see them in bird sanctuaries, bought owl ornaments and owl-themed household objects, and she gave them as gifts too.  And when I think of her – intelligent, sweet-natured, generous, full of wit and wisdom, I can identify her with the symbolism of the owl and can understand why she loved them.

During the time of our friendship, Pam was a constant through every season. She was often a reassuring presence in my life. If not for her untimely death she would have been a lifelong friend.  When I think about what she meant to me I see her as someone who set my life in perspective: bringing moral and emotional support and a sense of belonging.  She met life’s twists and turns with a mischievous humour, giving me the heart to take up the journey afresh. 

Now I think how lucky I was to have had a friend like her; and that she was someone whose memory could be brought alive again by an image of  an owl in the starry night.

 SC Skillman