The Suffering Hero

Edward Hopper (1882-1967)

Robert Johnson used a fascinating model to illustrate the progression from what he called unconscious-unconsciousness to conscious-unconsciousness to conscious-consciousness. He used literary heroes exemplifying each stage of awakening—Don Quixote, Hamlet and Goethe’s Faust. “Hopper’s pictures truly seem to be located in a twilight zone, a state of innocence, but has not yet reached the point of self-destruction.”  In a state of what Johnson would call unconscious-unconsciousness, author Ivo Kranzfelder seems to see Hopper’s painting expressing the naivete of the hero from La Mancha.

Hopper strikes us as a person who lived in his “head.” That is to say he approached the world and the process of painting with his intellect and because of this he had a decidedly dark worldview.  “The world full of facts, with their equally factual reasons and explanations, forms a context which, legitimized by its mere being and actual characteristics, is self-sufficient.”  These words of Arnold Gehlen, German philosopher of culture, might be applied to Hopper’s art. As we know, the context or worldview is all important not only in the creative process but to the quality of life of the individual as a whole. The indecisive Prince of Denmark, striving to wake up to the reality of his situation had a decidedly dark worldview.

Referring to Hopper’s etching Evening Wind (1921), Kranzfelder observed that: “The actors do not actually feel emotions, but feign them. In this sense, the feelings seemingly triggered by Hopper’s paintings are pure fiction; neither the emotions of the protagonists nor those of the viewer who sees them are real.”   Hopper approached his art with the same lack of “feeling” that he lived his life. We are, of course, speaking of feeling as it manifests in the conscious person as opposed to the emotions of the unconscious person. Hopper undoubtedly was a stranger to the present moment except when in the “flow” of the actual creative process and even then his awareness was dulled by his worldview.

Being in touch with one’s inner life or being able to live in the NOW influences the creative process in a profound way. “German Romantic painters, for example, placed great emphasis on the ‘inward view’ or introspection, convinced as they were that the human mind or soul reflected the universe. This belief was quintessentially expressed by Caspar David Friedrich: ‘The artist should not merely paint what he sees before him, but also what he sees within himself. But if he sees nothing inside himself, let him desist painting what he sees outside.”  German Romantics may have been willing to make “Faustian” bargains with their muses but Hopper was trying to paint a more mundane reality.

Hopper probably did not often attain present moment awareness or conscious-consciousness as he painted but he nevertheless was able to express the reality not only of his life but to capture an aspect of the American soul in his captivating paintings. His paintings speak as eloquently as Cervantes, Shakespeare or Goethe that life is suffering.

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References and notes are available for this essay.
Find a much more in-depth discussion in books by Roy Charles Henry. 

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