That there could be a relationship between two such disparate elements of the human experience as “suffering” and “beauty” might seem nonsensical or at least paradoxical. In any case, it is a relationship that is seen as very profound in the realm of metaphysics and in Eastern religions.
For us to make the connection between beauty and suffering in a Western context will only be understood in the West by mystics but since our numbers are growing it may be a worthwhile connection to make. We will combine mythology and art to enrich and illustrate our thesis.
Our essay begins with the Trojan war and a warning from the Trojan priest Laocoon to the Trojans to not accept the giant horse offered by the Greeks and in which Greek soldiers were hiding. Since Laocoon had offended the gods who wanted to see Troy destroyed, the gods sent two gigantic snakes which catch the priest and his two sons and kills them. E. H. Gombrich continues the story: “It is one of the stories of senseless cruelty perpetuated by the Olympians against poor mortals which are quite frequent in Greek and Latin mythologies.”[i] See Laocoon and his Sons (25 CE).
“One would like to know how the story struck the Greek artist who conceived this impressive group. Did he want us to feel the horror of a scene in which an innocent victim is made to suffer for having spoken the truth? Or did he mainly want to show off his own power of representing a terrifying and somewhat sensational fight between man and beast? But I cannot help suspecting sometimes that this was an art which was meant to appeal to the public which also enjoyed the horrible sights of the gladiatorial fights. Perhaps it is wrong to blame the artist for that. The fact is probably that by this time, the period of Hellenism, art had largely lost its old connection with magic and religion.”[ii]
As a priest, Laocoon plays the archetypal role of prophet. Since he is contained in an unconscious community, he can only intuit that something is wrong. He doesn’t know what that something is. But certainly—to advance their agenda—as unconscious, ego-driven human beings, prophets always promise the alleviation of suffering if the misguided listeners will do their bidding. The hidden agenda is, of course, power over and control of their followers.
What all prophets (and this includes artists who unknowingly act in the role of prophets through their art) are saying unwittingly, is that “You must wake-up. Your behavior is unconscious and self-destructive and insane.” In effect, prophets are always calling for a paradigm shift to a sustainable, more realistic worldview and the accompanying change in human behavior.
Did the artist want to show off his considerable skills as a sculptor? Of course. We all have egos and it is only natural to seek admiration and there is nothing wrong with that if we are aware that we are doing it. Since most of us lack that awareness, that approval seeking behavior can cause us suffering. We suffer because there is no ultimate satisfaction in being admired by others since it is a false-self driven behavior, not an expression of our True self. In other words, it is an illusion. Only compassion, which is an expression of an awakened individual brings genuine meaning and satisfaction.
Was the artist appealing to the public’s appetite for violence? Again, of course. Artists have to make a living and have to have some awareness of what “sells” if they want to continue making art. The appetite in question is the sensation-seeking energy center of the false self which is universal. Lacking awareness, the false self will seek meaning wherever it seems to be. The Colosseum in Rome or a NASCAR race in Georgia are all expressions of our unconscious desire to escape from our personal suffering—they are distractions. We will not often find beauty in such places, but we will find the illusion that feels like a temporary escape from the pain of being unconscious. We know something is wrong—we just do not know what it is.
Is Laocoon an innocent victim worthy of our compassion? It is easy to feel pity for the three victims portrayed in this breathtakingly beautiful sculpture, so we must look more deeply past the obvious agony to the beauty contained beneath the surface so to speak. Pity is not compassion. Compassion is a universal response to human suffering, but it also comes from the realization that suffering is universal and omnipresent; although we are not saying that it was the artist’s conscious intention. He could have created a work of art which symbolized the suffering of an unconscious humanity suffocating in its resistance to reality—the snake. In such a case, he might have intended the Laocoon to be a symbol of universal human suffering.
What would a conscious artist creating in the present moment have intended with the sculpture? “Relax and accept reality and the snake will leave you alone.” Much of the beauty in suffering is its power to teach us about our own transcendent nature and the joy and peace found in the response of compassion—for ourselves and for others.
[i] Gombrich, E. H. “Art for Eternity.” The Story of Art. London: Phaidon Publishers Inc., 1966, page 74.
ILLUSTRATION: Gombrich, E. H. “Art for Eternity.” The Story of Art. London: Phaidon Publishers Inc., 1966.
- Laocoon and his Sons (25 CE), page 75.
Find a much more in-depth discussion in printed books by Roy Charles Henry.