How figures of despair unexpectedly encourage us to process rejection

Processing unrequited love through the medium of art

Jodie Steer
20th February 2024
Image Source: Wikimedia Commons
Valentine’s Day fast approaches with unbearable tenacity: filled with grand, romantic, yet ultimately shallow gestures and declarations of love. But there are those of us who are single, face sinking into a quicksand of despair and bitterness at the prospect of another year alone, scrolling through sickening social media posts whilst resisting the urge to smash our phones with a hammer. Decidedly worse than the vast abyss of loneliness, however, is the utter soul destruction of unrequited love.

Rejection is something we will all experience in life – a crush on a co worker who doesn’t seem to notice you, that mate who never quite lets you make it out of the friendzone; these are fleeting attachments which fade with time, and ice cream, and alcohol. True unrequited love on the other hand, runs so much deeper. To the point where it is often almost irreversibly suffocating. This is when we must turn to art, to poetry and plays - full of dramatisations which encompass the passions of our suffering. Specifically, the figure of Ophelia, drowned in the lake after Hamlet’s reprehensible rejection, never fails to provoke a genuine pang of sorrow from my otherwise cold heart. 

It is in these figures of anguish that we find comfort from unrequited love, as we both empathise with and relate to them in a way that cannot be matched by any other medium of communication. The connection between creator, character and audience is forged through this pain of unreciprocated emotion: each line of drama, stroke of a paintbrush, meter of poetry maps out a journey to recovery, to emotional redemption. Wallowing in pain, the human psyche almost wears itself out to the point of recovery, as we become sick of our own internal whimpering. Artists and writers, the real kind, are often tortured souls, driven to the most divine creation by their agony.

Frida Kahlo.*gelatin silver print.*Oct. 16 / 1932 from Wikimedia Commons

Frida Kahlo’s The Wounded Deer is particularly poignant in encompassing the feelings spurred by unrequited love. Her self portrait depicts a young deer, laying fatally wounded by arrows which have often been interpreted as symbols of rejection and failed relationships. Similarly Goethe’s semi-biographical autofiction Die Leiden des jungen Wethers (The Sorrows of Young Werther) depicts in poetic letters the anguish and eventual suicide of a young man in unreciprocated love with a married woman. It is art such as this which allows the recipient to identify with the doomed protagonist. It is only after we successfully acknowledge our feelings before we can move on from them, and I am a firm believer that nihilistic art enables this in its own strange, backward way.

Image Source: The Wounded Deer Wikimedia Commons
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