The painting is untitled (as far as I could determine) but its subject is clear; it evokes a sort of child-like fear by depicting primal and inexplicable violence. Though its setting is historical, its style is hallucinogenic; its goal is not to achieve the sort of ‘perfect’ mimesis we might associate with realist paintings – an important fact in that it means we are invited to stray from literal interpretations. We might interpret the painting literally, but we might also ask questions of it like, “Who is the crowd, and what do the lions represent?”
I want to speculate for a moment about this crowd, and these lions, in the context of Barrett’s personal history. There is always a risk, when speculating, that what you impart to the object of your speculation will be a projection of your own imagination, rather than actualities. But there is also value in speculation, provided that it springs from a sincere impulse (even a sincerely ironic impulse), and that it relies on arguments about which the arguer does not feel sentimental. In any case, speculation is necessary if one wants to discuss a subject about which few facts are known.
Pink Floyd is famous, but Syd Barrett is less famous. That is, while his fame is cult-like, the band’s fame is more mainstream. I mention this only to put Barrett in perspective. Because what I want to say about him – and about the painting, in particular – can’t be understood except through his relationship to fame.
It would be simplistic to say Barrett left Pink Floyd for any one reason, but there is little question he disliked stardom. He quit the band in 1968, after only four years, despite the fact that he was the primary reason for the band’s initial success. It is generally stated that mental illness, exacerbated by the use of LSD, contributed to his departure, but this explanation, while relevant, has been criticized. According to his sister, who was the only person to have regular contact with him after he quit the band, neither medication nor formal therapy were deemed appropriate for him, even after he saw a psychiatrist. He was never institutionalized. He led a normal life, making acquaintances with people in the town in which he lived. This isn’t to suggest he was entirely sane, but rather that he seems to have chosen the conditions by which people would judge him insane. In other words, his behavior was more inexplicable than abnormal. After his death in 2006, his sister told the Sunday Times, “[He] may have been a bit selfish — or rather self-absorbed — but when people called him a recluse they were really only projecting their own disappointment. He knew what they wanted but he wasn’t willing to give it to them.”
It’s in light of this view of Barrett that we might reconsider the painting – in particular, the crowd and the lions. Because it is the crowd that can represent the “people” Barrett’s sister mentions, and the lions that can represent fame. Together they oppress the artist, symbolized here by the children, who retreat toward the mother (or the mother figure). The artist is thus endangered, rather than glorified; fame is a killer, and crowds are only interested in spectacle; they would call a “recluse” he who retreats. Seen this way, Barrett’s departure from Pink Floyd has less to do with mental illness, or with drug use, than with the need to survive.
Barrett is one of those figures (like J.D. Salinger) whose withdrawal from society contributed to (rather than diminished) his fame. Below are two pictures of him, young and old. Notice the shaved head, which first appeared after he left the band, and which was maintained for the rest of his life.
Like Salinger, Barrett broke with society in a way that suggested a sort of religious asceticism. Whether the break was in fact religious is beyond speculation, but insofar as the pattern of his life suggests certain religious archetypes, it may be useful to discuss the possibility of it as such. For instance, consider how his departure from the band occurred. There were no histrionics, instances of violence, or even drama. He simply became disinterested in playing. Stories are told about how, during lives shows, he would strum one chord, repeatedly, or would put down his instrument mid-song, and quietly leave the stage. This didn’t sit well with his bandmates, but for the most part they were sympathetic, because Barrett wasn’t impolite or self-righteous, and because he appeared to be suffering. There doesn’t seem to have been that typical moment of confrontation, when he quit, or was asked to quit. No one quite knew what was wrong with him. One day, on the way to a gig, the band simply decided not to pick him up. In this way, Barrett’s departure had the inevitability of a vocation. After hanging around London for several years, and having run out of money, he walked back to Cambridge (a distance of 50 miles), where he’d grown up, and where he remained until his death, devoting himself to painting and gardening.
This isn’t to say Barrett had no options. More than once he was offered recording contracts, but he turned them down. He changed his name back to his given name, Roger (Syd was his stage name). And the royalties he continued to receive from his Pink Floyd days accrued largely without being spent, so that by the time of his death his estate was worth £1.7 million. In this way – in his apparent willingness to make do with little – his indifference seemed less that of the burned-out rock star than that of the contemplative monk.
My intent is not to romanticize Barrett, or mental illness, but rather to suggest the possibility that his path, and the paths of similar artists, are progressive rather than regressive, or that his particular brand of regression was, in fact, a kind of progression. Consider the ‘second naïveté,’ a theological concept derived from the French philosopher Paul Ricoeur. It refers to a stage of belief that, in contrast to the ‘first naïveté’ (characterized by uncritical, childlike acceptance), can only be achieved after passing through an intensely rational or critical stage. So that three distinct stages can appear – the first naïveté, the critical distance, and the second naïveté (a sort of return to, and maturation of, the first).
The trajectory of Barrett’s life can be described by these stages. Consider his name. In the first stage, as a child, he was known as Roger. In the second stage, as a young adult, he went by Syd. And in the third stage, he returned to Roger, though not without absorbing the consequences of the first two stages. This adaptation of Ricoeur’s concepts to the changes in Barrett’s name might seem simplistic, but more so because it represents a simple, archetypal pattern, as opposed to a disregard for complexity. The name Roger has a conventional quality that the young adult tends to rebel against. Thus, Barret’s assumption of the name Syd (which he appropriated from another artist) suggests a departure from conventionality and innocence, a need for the ‘critical distance’ that, in Barrett’s case, was exemplified by his early days in Pink Floyd. It’s important to note that this ‘critical distance,’ in Ricoeur’s view, is neither objectionable nor unnecessary, but rather something a person must process in order to advance to the second naïveté. Thus, Barrett’s return to the name of Roger can signify a progression rather than a regression. So can the shaving of his head, and the return to his hometown, both of which have the outward appearance of regression, but which, in the context of Ricoeur’s stages, suggest a reconciliation of faith and skepticism.
It’s possible to understand Barrett outside of this context; and insofar as the second naïveté is characterized by a revaluing of intellectualism, to dwell on it might seem absurd. Yet still there is some value in doing so.
Many lives can be described in stages, but the lives of the mad, the saintly, and peculiar kinds of artists, bear a striking resemblance to the stages defined by Ricouer. In such lives, there is an emphasis on unlearning, dispassion, and the creation of art for art’s sake. Like Salinger, who is said to have continued writing following his withdrawal from society, Barrett continued to paint without selling or exhibiting his work. He burned most of his paintings when he’d completed them, not because of bitterness or regret, but simply because he was involved in art primarily for the process. He took photographs of them for mementos. Through this sort of non-ambitious ethic, he recalls not only Salinger, but one of Salinger’s most important characters, Seymour Glass, who advised his younger brother to shine his shoes, even if no one is looking.