How to stop worrying and love winter

“In the midst of winter, I found there was, within me, an invincible summer. And that makes me happy.”  

–  Albert Camus, The Outsider

“Hello darkness my old friend,” sung Simon & Garfunkel on ‘The Sounds of Silence’. Winter is here again. The days shorten. The spirits sag. We sink into a paralysed state of apocalyptic dread. While some psychologists and scientists believe that seasonal affective disorder is an exaggerated phenomenon, it exists, and it is very, very real.

Recent years have seen the rise of the unpronounceable Danish concept of hygge to become a seasonal buzzword and a 21st century marketing fad. Lighting fires and candles and submerging ourselves in a cocoon of creature comforts is undeniably beneficial, but it is also important to stimulate our minds and massage our souls. One of the most effective ways of embracing the onset of winter is to immerse ourselves in art, music and literature.

Great art can also teach us to relish the darkness. Thanks to a sensational essay by Simon Reynolds on Burial last week, I went down a rabbit hole of listening to his peerless back catalogue. Burial is music for the night, or as Dorian Lynskey beautifully puts it: “Some records are like vampires: they shrivel on exposure to daylight. Play an album like Burial’s self-titled dubstep masterpiece or Frank Sinatra’s In the Wee Small Hours beneath bright blue skies and hear its power drain away – but put it on in the dead of night and it will engulf you.”

My favourite Burial track (and for my money one of the most hypnotic and original pieces of music of the 21st century to date) is ‘Distant Lights’ from his aforementioned debut album. It possesses a wintry grit that truly comes alive at this time of year.

In a wonderful piece about the relationship between winter and art, Jonathan Jones wrote: “As the world gets darker it also gets more interesting. That is what many artists find, anyway.” He cites works by Edvard Munch, JMW Turner, Marc Chagall, Louise Bourgeois, Vincent Van Gogh, Edward Hopper as proof.

Jones is also fascinated by cave paintings. “Why is the oldest art in the world shrouded in permanent night?,” he asks. “It has to be that our imaginations crave darkness. Only in the dark can we forget the banal distraction of day-lit reality and enter a visionary realm of dreams. Art is a creature of the night. The night is full of terrors, from witches to loneliness, yet it is a labyrinth of mystery and beauty.”

In another piece, Jones points out how so many popular paintings are winter scenes, for example, Pieter Bruegel the Elder’s masterpiece Hunters in the Snow, or Turner’s Snow Storm: Hannibal and His Army Crossing the Alps. The wintry darkness of Northwestern Europe inspires its own mysteries and unique art.

Snow Storm: Hannibal and his Army Crossing the Alps exhibited 1812 by Joseph Mallord William Turner 1775-1851
Snow Storm: Hannibal and his Army Crossing the Alps exhibited 1812 Joseph Mallord William Turner 1775-1851. Turner Bequest 1856

Rather than cower in the darkness, or surrender to our primal animal instincts to hibernate (we wish) winter is a golden opportunity to explore new possibilities, or simply get lost in the spectral beauty of a masterpiece like Faith by the Cure, Music Has a Right to Children by Boards of Canada, 50 Words for Snow by Kate Bush, or Kid A by Radiohead.

Let this not be your winter of discontent.

Gilbert & George, Postal Sculpture, 1969

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