Amy Winehouse and Dostoevsky

Our last post was a quote by Dostoevsky, and it bears repeating. “The man who bows down to nothing can never bear the burden of himself.” By a strange synchronicity, following straight on from the discovery of that quote came our discovery of the documentary on Amy Winehouse, a tragic real-life illustration of the truth of Dostoevsky’s insight.

The film is a brilliant and moving portrait of a sweet yet spirited and extraordinarily talented young woman – and what the fate of such creatures can be in an indifferent, cruel and corrupt society.

At a young age, Amy’s father walked out of her life, and she felt about it then as we should surely all feel at that age: “Thank Christ! Now I am free to do what I want!” And do what she wanted is precisely what she proceeded to do. She bunked off school to mess around with boyfriends in the house. Later, after a modest first success with her music, she moved in with a friend, and took advantage of that newfound freedom to smoke pot all day and have fun. As her career as a singer became more established, she turned to drink and drugs and dysfunctional love affairs as a solace for her ambivalent attitude to success and fame. An early problem with body image led to bulimia. The combination of all these things eventually killed her at the age of just 27.

Of course, what Winehouse was doing is just normal. It’s the job of the young to go a bit wild and the world would be a duller place if they weren’t given the freedom to. We would for a start have been denied Winehouse’s wonderful songs. Her problems with her body image are tragically common in women – and increasingly in men – in a society increasingly obsessed with image over substance. Taking to consumption to cover up our suffering is a common strategy of our monkey minds.

But what normally happens, even in a society that’s entirely lost touch with wisdom, is that the young grow up. Perhaps the responsibilities of jobs or children intervene. Perhaps they just get tired of seeking happiness in sensual pleasures – an ultimately futile road, as anyone who has travelled it can tell you. Perhaps the suffering gets so bad that it just cannot be born anymore and so we shrug off the burden of ourselves.

But Winehouse found herself in rather different conditions from the rest of us. Rather than responsibilities putting a rein on her living, she found herself living a life where such wild behaviour is expected, even considered heroic. No reins, but a spur. Her growing fame added to a sense of alienation – she says at one point she would trade it all just to be able to walk down the street unmolested by a media mob. The wonder is, not that Winehouse paid the ultimate price for living such a life, but that more don’t.

By Winehouse’s own admission, what she wanted more than anything was a father to tell her to stop: someone in her life who had authority based in love, and who, out of that love and a wiser understanding of what was best for her, give her the guidance and instruction she needed. If the hints in the documentary be true, I suspect that Russell Brand attempted to step in to provide something like this, though I don’t follow the gossip columns closely enough to know just what happened there.

It is a terrible story, but a brilliant film, and for me one not so much one limited to the tragic story of one brilliant singer, as an indictment of our whole society. To see this troubled woman struggle with the burden of herself, with little help but that provided by people with an interest in exploiting her, or who were as confused and burdened as she was, and to see her hounded by the pack of ravenous wolves that is the media, and be chortled over in lame gags by Frankie Boyle, Graham Norton and Jay Leno and the like, and reported on as if a newsworthy event by breakfast news shows, makes one sick to the stomach. Our society is cruel and insane and ill.

And you, gentle reader? You who read those gossip columns and buy those newspapers and chortled over those gags and watched this documentary? You are as responsible for Any Winehouse’s death as anyone. Let us ponder on how many Amys are living just down the road from us – how many of them we hurry past on our wearily familiar route into work. Let us ponder and hang our heads in shame.