SATURDAY READING: Despair by Joyce Carol Oates

Despair by Joyce Carol Oates

From Deadly Sins

What mysterious cruelty in the human soul; to have invented despair as a “sin”!  Like the Seven Deadly Sins employed by the medieval Roman Catholic Church to terrify the faithful into obedience, despair is most helpfully imagined as a mythical state.  It has no quantifiable existence; it “is” merely allegory, yet no less lethal for the fact.  Unlike other sins, however, despair is by tradition the sole sin that cannot be forgiven: it is the conviction that one may be damned absolutely, thus a refutation of the Christian savior and a challenge to God’s infinite capacity for forgiveness.  The sins for which one may be forgiven – pride, anger, lust, sloth, avarice, gluttony, envy – are all firmly attached to objects of this world, but despair seems to bleed out beyond the confines of the immediate ego-centered self and to relate to no desire, no-thing.  The alleged sinner has detached himself even from the possibility of sin as a human predilection, and this the church as the self-appointed voice of God on Earth cannot allow.

Religion is organized power in the seemingly benevolent guise of the “sacred” and power is, as we know, chiefly concerned with its own preservation.  Its structures, its elaborate rituals and customs and scriptures and commandments and ethics, its very nature, objectify human experience, insisting that what is out there in the world is of unquestionably greater significance than what is in here in the human spirit.  Despair, surely the least aggressive of sins, is dangerous to the totalitarian temperament because it is a state of intense inwardness, thus independence.  The despairing soul is a rebel.

So, too, suicide, the hypothetical consequence of extreme despair, has long been a mortal sin in church theology, in which it is equivalent to murder.  Suicide has an element of the forbidden, the obscene, the taboo about it, as the most willful and the most defiantly antisocial of human acts.  While thinkers of antiquity condoned suicide, in certain circumstances at least – “In all that you do or say or think, recollect that at any time the power of withdrawal from life is in your hands,” Marcus Aurelius wrote in the Meditations – the church vigorously punished suicides in ways calculated to warn others and to confirm, posthumously, their despair: bodies were sometimes mutilated, burial in consecrated soil was of course denied, and the church, ever resourceful, could confiscate goods and land belonging to suicides.

Yet how frustrating it must have been, and be, the attempt to outlaw and punish despair – of all sins!

(In fact, one wonders: is “despair” a pathology we diagnose in people who seem to have repudiated our own life-agendas, as “narcissism,” is the charge we make against those who fail to be as intrigued by us as we had wished?)

At the present time, despair as a “sin” is hardly convincing.  As a state of intense inwardness, however, despair strikes us as a spiritual and moral experience that cuts across superficial boundaries of language, culture, and history.  No doubt, true despair is mute and unreflective as flesh lacking consciousness; but the poetics of despair have been transcendentally eloquent:

The difference between Despair
And Fear—is like the One—
Between the instant of a Wreck—
And when the Wreck has been—

The Mind is smooth—no Motion—
Contented as the Eye
Upon the Forehead of a Bust—
That knows—it cannot see—
(Emily Dickinson)

This condition, which might be called a stasis of the spirit, in which life’s energies are paralyzed even as life’s physical processes continue, is the essence of literary despair.  The plunging world goes its own way, the isolated consciousness of the writer splits from it, as if splitting from the body itself.  Despair as this state of keenly heightened inwardness has always fascinated the writer, whose subject is after all the imaginative reconstruction of language.  The ostensible subject out there is but the vehicle, or the pretext, for the ravishing discoveries to be made in here in the activity of creating.

Literary despair is best contemplated during insomniac nights.  And perhaps most keenly savored during adolescence, when insomnia can have the aura of the romantic and the forbidden; when sleepless nights can signal rebellion against a placidly sleeping – un-conscious – world.  At such times, inner and outer worlds seem to merge; insights that by day would be lost define themselves like those phosphorescent minerals coarse and ordinary in the light that yield a mysterious glimmering beauty in the dark.  Here is the “Zero at the Bone” of which Emily Dickinson, our supreme poet of inwardness, writes, with an urgency time has not blunted.

My first immersion in the Literature of Despair came at a time of chronic adolescent insomnia, and so the ravishing experience of reading certain writers – most of them, apart from Dickinson and William Faulkner, associated with what was called European existentialism – is indelibly bound up with that era in my life.  Perhaps the ideal reader is an adolescent: restless, vulnerable, passionate, hungry to learn, skeptical and naïve by turns; with an unquestioned faith in the power of the imagination to change, if not life, one’s comprehension of life.  To the degree to which we remain adolescents we remain ideal readers to whom the act of opening a book can be a sacred one, fraught with psychic risk.  For each work of a certain magnitude means the assimilation of a new voice – that of Dostoevsky’s Underground Man, for instance, of Nietzsche’s Zarathustra – and the permanent altering of one’s own interior world.

Literary despair, as opposed to “real” despair, became fashionable at mid-century with a rich, diverse flood of English translations of European writers of surpassing originality, boldness, and genius.  Misleadingly linked by so-called “Existentialist” themes, these highly individual writers – among them Dostoevsky, Kafka, Kierkegaard, Mann, Sartre, Camus, Pavese, Pirandello, Beckett, Ionesco – seemed to characterize the very mission of literature itself: never in the service of “uplifting,” still less “entertaining,” but with a religious ideal of penetrating to the most inward and intransigent of truths.  Despair at the randomness of mankind’s fate and of mankind’s repeatedly demonstrated inhumanity was in a sense celebrated, that we might transcend it through the symbolic strategies of art.  For no fate, however horrific, as in the graphically detailed execution of the faithful officer of Kafka’s great story, “In the Penal Colony,” or the ignominious execution of Joseph K. of Kafka’s The Trial – cannot be transmogrified by its very contemplation; or redeemed, in a sense, by the artist’s visionary fearlessness.  It is not just that despair is immune to the comforts of the ordinary – despair rejects comfort.  And Kafka, our exemplary artist of despair, is one of our greatest humorists as well.  The bleakness of his vision is qualified by a brash, unsettling humor that flies in the face of expectation.  Is it tragic that Gregor Samsa is metamorphosed into a giant cockroach, suffers, dies, and is swept out with the trash? – is it tragic that the Hunger Artist starves to death, too finicky to eat the common food of humanity? – no, these are ludicrous fates, meant to provoke laughter.  The self-loathing at the heart of despair repudiates compassion.

I would guess that my generation, coming of age at the very start of the Sixties and a national mood of intense political and moral crisis, is the last American generation to so contemplate inwardness as a romantic state of being; the last generation of literary-minded young men and women who interiorized the elegiac comedy of Beckett’s characters, the radiant madness of Dostoevsky’s self-lacerated God-haunted seekers, the subtle ironies of Camus’s prose.  I doubt that contemporary adolescents can identify with Faulkner’s Quentin Compson of The Sound and the Fury as, a Harvard freshman, he moves with the fatedness of a character in a ballad to his suicide by drowning in the Charles River – “People cannot do anything that dreadful they cannot do anything very dreadful at all they cannot even remember tomorrow what seemed dreadful today,” Quentin’s alcoholic father tells him, as if urging him to his doom.  For even tragedy, in Faulkner’s vision of a debased twentieth-century civilization, is “second-hand.”

That this is a profound if dismaying truth, or an outrageous libel of the human spirit, either position to be confirmed by history, seems beside the point today, in a country in which politics has become the national religion.  The Literature of Despair may posit suicide as a triumphant act of rebellion, or a repudiation of the meanness of life, but our contemporary mood is one of compassionate horror at any display of self-destruction.  We perceive it, perhaps quite accurately, as misguided politics; a failure to link in here with out there.

For Americans, the collective belief, the moral imperative is an unflagging optimism.  We want to believe in the infinite elasticity of the future: what we will, we can enact.  Just give us time – and sufficient resources.  Our ethos has always been hardcore pragmatism as defined by our most eminent philosopher, William James: “truth” is something that happens to a proposition, “truth” is something that works.  It is a vehicle empowered to carry us to our destination.

Yet there remains a persistent counterimpulse; an irresistible tug against the current; an affirmation of those awkward truths that, in Melville’s words, will not be comforted.  At the antipode of American exuberance and optimism there is the poet’s small, still, private voice; the voice, most powerfully, of Emily Dickinson who, like Rilke, mined the ideal vocabulary for investigating those shifting, penumbral states of consciousness that do, in the long run, constitute our lives.  Whatever our public identities may be, whatever our official titles, our heralded or derided achievements and the statistics that accrue to us like cobwebs, this is the voice we trust.  For, if despair’s temptations can be resisted, surely we become more human and compassionate; more like one another in our common predicament.

There is a pain—so utter—
It swallows substance up—
Then covers the Abyss with Trance—
So Memory can step
Around—across—upon it—
As one within a Swoon—
Goes safely—where an open eye—
Would drop Him—Bone by Bone.
(Emily Dickinson)

The self’s resilience in the face of despair constitutes its own transcendence.  Even the possibility of suicide is a human comfort – a “carrion” comfort.  In the poetry of Jesuit Gerard Manley Hopkins, extreme states of mind are confronted, dissected, overcome by the poet’s shaping language:

I am gall, I am heartburn. God’s most deep decree
Bitter would have me taste: my taste was me;
Bones built in me, flesh filled, blood brimmed the curse.
Selfyeast of spirit a dull dough sours. I see
The lost are like this, and their scourge to be
As I am mine, their sweating selves; but worse.
(“I Wake and Feel”)

Not, I’ll not, carrion comfort, Despair, not feast on thee;
Not untwist—slack they may be—these last strands of man
In me, or, most weary, cry I can no more. I can;
Can something, hope, wish day come, not choose not to be.
But ah, but O thou terrible, why wouldst thou rude on me
Thy wring-earth right foot rock? lay a lionlimb against me? scan
With darksome devouring eyes by bruisèd bones? and fan,
O in turns of tempest, me heaped there; me frantic to avoid thee and flee?
(“Carrion Comfort”)

These poems are among the most unsettling ever written; yet, in the way of all great art, they so passionately transcend their subject as to be a statement of humankind’s strength, and not weakness.


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