Dirk De Wachter about “Hope and Despair”

Psychiatrist Dirk De Wachter, professor at KU Leuven and affiliated with the University Psychiatric Centre of Kortenberg, has made a name for himself in Flanders and the Netherlands with books such as Borderline Times (2012), Love? An Impossible Desire? (2014) and The Art of Being Unhappy (2019). In his writings and in the many interviews he gives, the special relationship he maintains with the arts always stands out. When Dirk De Wachter was faced with cancer in 2022 - a true sword of Damocles hanging over his head ever since - he set about writing the book Consolations, in which he stresses the importance of the Other, evokes rituals and togetherness, and describes Bach as the ultimate consoler. We met him in his office in Kortenberg to talk about the seasonal theme 'Hope and Despair'.

In the Middle Ages, the metaphor of the Wheel of Fortune symbolised the vicissitudes of human happiness. Left to the whims of the goddess Fortuna, people had no choice but to hope that the wheel would turn in their favour, and were reduced to despair if their luck ran out. Do you think this is an appropriate image?

I never lose sight of the tragic and fortuitous nature of our existence. As human beings, we are thrown into life without having asked for it. Each of us ends up on a path where you don't see the end. Sometimes disastrous situations happen, things you cannot prevent. That is the subject of my latest book. But beauty can also be born precisely out of the despair a person feels. This is where I think the arts originate - a view shared by many. We became human when we became psychically aware of death - and the horror of death. How terrible it is to lose someone dear to us! And to realise that the same fate awaits us. So, around the remains of the deceased, people started dancing and making music. By coming together in this way, the loved ones of the deceased were better able to cope with their despair. Sculpture, storytelling and retelling fulfil the same function: to create a ‘supportive environment’, a kind of intra-uterine environment that makes it possible to return to life. The arts in general, and music in particular, are essential ‘support structures’ for getting through periods of despair.

Yet the arts as we conceive them today have not existed for long. In the past, people might have talked about religion ...

That's right, the origins of art are inextricably linked to religion. However, in our regions today, religion seems less and less to be a support, a comfort in times of despair, especially if we talk about the Catholic faith. I myself live in Antwerp, near De Singel. In my parish church, St Laurentius' Church, there are hardly more than a dozen elderly people at 11am on Sunday for the weekly Eucharist. On the other hand, at De Singel, the halls are packed, including for performances of Bach's works by my fellow psychiatrist Philippe Herreweghe. Isn't it remarkable that music that was originally very religious – the passions, masses and cantatas, for example – now strikes a universal chord in a concert hall, both literally and figuratively, and allows people to connect with something higher, something greater, something that transcends our own smallness?

But art is not a cure, as you write in your book Consolations. Instead, you place more emphasis on connecting with other people, don’t you?

Indeed, when a patient comes to me with a problem of depression, I am not going to prescribe music. Things aren’t that simple. At decisive moments, I myself just need contact with people I love. But I do think music is something that can support you throughout your life. It is not the icing on the cake, but the bottom of the cake, its flour. For the philosopher Levinas, being thrown into existence is in itself something threatening. We all struggle with the unbearable gravity of life, with the anonymous formlessness of being. He calls it 'il y a'. The first step out of that horror, Levinas argues, is enjoyment: 'la jouissance'. More precisely, to escape the sticky bogginess that clings to being, we need to enjoy the beauty of things, of nature, of birdsong and of the setting sun. As far as I'm concerned, it's above all the beauty of music. "We are so small between the stars," sings Leonard Cohen, "so large against the sky". That is always a comforting thought.

Is classical music for everyone? Or is the experience of culture mainly a privilege of a certain elite?

Education plays a key role in this. Even though I had no talent, I'm really glad I went to music school. We cannot ignore the fact that classical music has a high degree of complexity, which means that there can be obstacles to overcome. But that is not necessarily a bad thing, because it provides the necessary depth. However, you need to have the tools to grasp that complexity, and these tools can only be acquired by attending music school, for instance. In other words, by grinding your teeth on an instrument for years. In an instant culture like ours, a fast-food culture of convenience, I think it is the duty of a civilised society to equip young people the tools they need to access complex forms of expression such as contemporary art, literature and especially classical music. I am not necessarily thinking of schools – they already do a lot – but mainly parents, grandparents and relatives. They have a huge responsibility here, because if children are not given these tools, there is a good chance that they will remain stuck in a kind of consumer culture in which they will quickly lose their way.

You are an avid CD collector, with an extensive collection of recordings of Bach's cello suites... What dimension does a live performance add?

For me, the Henry Le Boeuf Hall is inseparable from the Queen Elisabeth Competition. Witnessing live how very young people venture into Rachmaninoff's Third Piano Concerto, a piece that is literally unplayable, is an incredible experience. I have been attending the Queen Elisabeth Competition for 25 years, preferably from the front row. A live orchestra can swallow you up like a monstrous, gigantic animal, in a cloud of sublimation where despair is transformed into pure beauty. One of my favourite composers is Shostakovich. It is incredible how he manages, in his Cello Concerto for example, to leave everything behind – i.e., the suffocating nature of the Stalinist era – to reach unspeakable heights. The most beautiful music is that which manages to sublimate the most terrible despair and thus achieve ultimate beauty. 

What musical experience has moved you most in the past few months?

A fortnight ago, a friend of mine died and I went to his funeral. When we entered the church, the choir was singing Wir setzen uns mit Tränen nieder from Bach's St Matthew Passion. The music combined with the grief of those present had a profound effect on me. As I myself have been very ill, and my prognosis is still uncertain, I naturally wondered what my funeral would be like. Who will be there? What will people say? What music will be played? At such times, music is absolutely essential. I am very critical of funerals where there is a Powerpoint showing a series of holiday photos of the deceased. It is very touching, of course, but it only focuses purely on the existence of the individual, whereas funerals are the ideal time to talk about what’s essential, to get to the bottom of things. To talk about community, about our history, about the Wheel of Fortune, about the Nietzschean concept of Eternal Return, about our futility, and so on. Classical music understands the art of talking about all these essential things, linking us across time to the great mystery of life.

By Mien Bogaert