An Inaudible Chorus of Howls

Anxiety (1894) by Edvard Munch

Anxiety (1894) by Edvard Munch

Robin woke up from a five-year slumber in the body normally occupied by its host personality, a cold and strait-laced company director who swore that he would have killed him had they not been one and the same person. As an alter that formed part of their dissociative identity disorder though, he was a bubbly and free-spirited webtoon artist who went to great lengths to rescue people the host personality abandoned or would have abandoned. Exhilarated at his reawakening, he took a deep breath of the air for the first time in years, revisited the spaces and memories he left behind, and learnt that his webtoon was picked up for a drama adaptation during his absence. Then, he saw his (and the host personality’s) kindly mother and quickened his steps towards her in delight, but she, having caught news about his re-emergence, shuddered at the sight of him and took a step backwards half-apologetically instead, such that he could only stop in his tracks and greet her silently with a resigned bow. His father, whom he met next, was blunter, stating that he was not his son, his son’s twin or even the “Robin” he called himself but a mere parasite and illusion created by his true son. Throwing a bottle of pills at Robin, he ordered him to lie down as if he were dead and sleep it off.

For several nights to come, Robin strung together a blithe but tenuous life from post-evening hours begrudgingly allocated to him by the host personality, not seeing the daylight, not having a real name or identification, not being able to share his personal background freely, not comprehending the psychological threat looming ahead of him and not knowing whether he would ever wake up as himself again when he lay down to sleep. In this mirage-like existence, the one thing that kept him feeling real and alive was his palpable love for a girl.

Robin and Hana's Puppet Scene in in Hyde, Jekyll, Me (2015 Korean Drama)

Robin (left) and Hana (his romantic interest, right)

This vignette of mental isolation, distorted life and psychological abnormality in the drama Hyde Jekyll, Me is found to a terrifyingly magnified degree in Edvard Munch’s most famous painting The Scream. Declaring that he would no longer paint “interiors with men reading and women knitting,” but rather, “living people who breathe and feel and suffer and love,” Munch decided some years into his life as an artist to portray the psychological landscape of human lives. The works he churned out at the mature stage of his career depicted not the reality visible to the eyes, but the reality experienced by the heart. The Scream came into conception one day when he was walking down a road with two friends. As he recalled, “suddenly, the sky turned as red as blood. I stopped and leaned against the fence, feeling unspeakably tired. Tongues of fire and blood stretched over the bluish black fjord. My friends went on walking, while I lagged behind, shivering with fear. Then I heard the enormous, infinite scream of nature.”

Munch poured those emotions fervently into his masterpiece. Blood red swathes of color and yellowish and orange flames curved wildly across the sky overhead, while large parts of the natural landscape seemed to be rising in contorted shapes. A ghoulish figure with hollow eyes, gaping mouth and a face so misshapen that its gender was indecipherable held its head in horror in front of this scene. The straight lines of the fence and road served as a heavy contrast to the swirling energy of the shriek vibrating through sky, land, water and human. Still, these artificial structures too were not spared from the radiant streaks showing up jarringly almost everywhere. The two friends, however, might be distant enough that their facial features could not be seen but they remained unmistakably human in form and outwardly unaffected by the miasma.

The Scream in Hyde, Jekyll, Me (2015 Korean Drama)

Hana under hypnosis

Munch’s scream of psychological anguish echoed the harrowing experiences of mental health patients and struck a note of terror in some viewers. Hyde Jekyll, Me capitalized on this effect when its heroine, in her tussle with the misanthropic director, who had no qualms telling her to live like a ghost, got embroiled in a cascade of crimes involving his psychiatrist and had to undergo hypnotherapy to recall the face of a murderer. In her hypnotized state, she found herself walking through an imaginary gallery of Edvard Munch works (Ashes, Dance of Life, Anxiety, etc.). She stopped in front of The Scream and stared at it. Soon enough, the murderer’s face bobbed above the ghoulish head. A few beats later, his arms suddenly stretched out from the painting and started strangling her. It was a creepy nightmare few would want to experience.

Yet Munch’s scream was also a cry of mortal suffering and existential angst that resonated with many ordinary people. While we may not experience a sensation identical to Munch’s, we have most probably felt distressed and helpless at some point in our lives. Some constant source of conflict, worry or fear may even niggle at us in the background. In a survey on violence in healthcare professions, for instance, nurses selected the painting as a representation of their work atmosphere. For others, the shriek may come from emotional scars, loss of a loved one, debts, futility in the search for purpose in life, etc. Even with a broad description, it is hard to delineate the contours of the extensive problems life can confront us with and the fine ways they can go wrong for different individuals. As art connoisseur Simon Shaw observed, “we all have our own personal ‘Screams’.”

The Scream in Hyde, Jekyll, Me (2015 Korean Drama)

Hana under hypnosis

On a broader level, the painting has also been perceived as a collective scream of despair for Man and Nature. As a species, our heightened consciousness forces us to grapple with uncertainties and, along with our sense of self, sensitize us to emotional hurt. Indeed, Munch’s later work Anxiety featured similarly ghoulish figures moving as a flock in the same scene, as if they were propelled by dark elemental forces. At the same time, for all the material progress it brings, modern life poses tremendous challenges to ecosystems, spirituality and our social fabric. This results in the irony that while human vulnerability is universal, mutual empathy and support are far from so. In fact, one alternate interpretation of The Scream is that the shocked, ghoulish figure was not screaming himself but covering his ears from the howls around him. The test for modern civilization, a commentator remarked, is the quality of responses it gives to screams.

So far, however, the elephant in the room has not been addressed—that is, intriguingly enough, Munch’s iconic cry is also a scream of joy. The Scream, together with similar paintings like Anxiety, surprisingly elicit feelings of elation in many viewers. There may be an element of schadenfreude at play, as people take delight in the knowledge that they are not alone in their misery or that someone has it worse than them. On the positive side, though, the paintings offer catharsis, giving form to suppressed emotions that have been felt by almost everyone but verbalized by very few. They strip off our tiresome masks of confidence, orderliness and gruffy nonchalance to reveal us for who we really are: clueless, wide-eyed beings struggling to find our way through a chaotic world, united by our suffering yet thinking we were alone. Munch’s works are howls of triumph—triumph at our partnership in crime and triumph at overturning claims like philosopher Arthur Schopenhauer’s that assume images can never convey a scream.

The Scream (1893) by Edvard Munch

The Scream (1893) by Edvard Munch

All the same, human beings probably have a long way to go before we can fully and accurately relate our states of mind to one another. As a semiconscious patient lies on his deathbed heaving his chest with tremendous difficulty, for instance, onlookers can imagine the pain he is going through but barely experience it for themselves until their own time comes. Even medical professionals, with their extensive clinical knowledge, have been seized by sudden feelings of trauma and empathy when they develop severe illnesses they treat in patients on a regular basis. In mundane matters, too, there are too many specific experiences that individuals struggle to understand: a poet incapable of appreciating the poetry an accountant can find in his discipline, a conscientious academic high-flier failing to comprehend why anyone can possibly churn out mediocre grades consistently in spite of hard work, etc. In fact, to take things literally, we can hear the voices of people conducted through the air, but not their voices as they are heard in their own heads. In that light, no real-life scream, in the precise manner it is played in a speaker’s mind, has ever made itself heard! Fortunately, arts, brain communication technology and even machine simulation of skull-conducted voices look set to improve this state of affairs. Until we perfect our crafts, however, we must acknowledge that we are inhabiting a world where we are not alone in our misery yet alone in experiencing it.

Gu Seo-Jin (Hyun Bin) and Jang Ha-Na (Han Ji-Min) in in Hyde, Jekyll, Me (2015 Korean Drama)

Hana (left) and Seo-jin (Robin’s original personality, right)

If there is anything that can immediately ameliorate the pain of this solitariness, it is perhaps love. Knowing that someone is rallying for us outside our impenetrable cells can bring comfort and cheer, whether or not he or she truly understands our agony. Rallying for people in other impenetrable cells, whether or not we see their agony, can take our minds off ours. This conjures up a romantic image of individuals trapped together in a grim prison yet isolated within separate cubicles, separated by the cold stone walls between them yet warming up invisible fellow inmates with words of encouragement, which is evocative of a scene from some fairytale-like drama. Yet, is not the point of dramas like Hyde Jekyll, Me, for all their imperfections and supposed frivolousness, the same as Munch’s artistic missions: exploring other paradigms, other lives and other sides to these lives?

Seo-jin, the host personality, was tormented by feelings of guilt, regret and self-hatred over a childhood incident in which he left a young friend in the lurch. In his struggle with this mental trauma, he inadvertently created a buoyant and lionhearted alter ego who performed heroic deeds for those in need. However, this other persona’s volatility eventually posed danger to people around him. To prevent tragedy from recurring, Seo-jin tried to damp down his excitability, which triggered the switch of personas, by, among other things, maintaining an icy facade and eschewing warm relationships. He lived like a ghost, not seeing, not hearing, not trying to see and not trying to listen. In this half-dead existence, the one entity that gave him a flicker of hope for happiness was a girl who believed in the intensity of his troubles even when he could not disclose them.

Evening on Karl Johan (1892) by Edvard Munch

Evening on Karl Johan (1892) by Edvard Munch

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3 thoughts on “An Inaudible Chorus of Howls

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