April Fool’s Day And The Cruelest Month

The contemporary comedic take on April Fool’s Day is that it is the one day of the year that we direct some skepticism at what we encounter on the Internet; it is the one day of the year that we exercise discretion and judgment over the content of the material we read and deign to ‘share’ with our ‘friends’ online. We are treated to news of disasters, absurd decisions, and perhaps even cosmic catastrophes; we hasten to spread the word, but our hands are stayed by a quick glance at the calendar, electronic or otherwise. If only we were so discriminating for the rest of the year–when we are busily and happily aiding rumors and conspiracy theories and even worse, destined-to-be-stale ‘hot takes’ go ‘viral.’

Comedy always being paired with tragedy it is but inevitable that we should peer at the dark side of such an understanding of April Fool’s Day. For it is on this day–thanks to the many faux news bulletins that make the rounds– that many, many of our hopes are raised, only to be cruelly dashed against the unforgiving rock of the cruelest month’s first day. We are told that corporations have acquired common sense and stopped polluting the world that contains their consumers, present and future; we are assured the substances we would most like to consume but which medicine claims are slowly killing us are actually harmless and might even be good for us; we learn of windfalls and literally unbelievable strokes of fortune; the list goes on. (The science fictionish April Fool’s announcement has its own pride of place here: we are informed that cold fusion will soon power our cellphones, perhaps setting us free from the onerous business of recharging batteries, or perhaps, as Google once claimed, we could even recall the emails we had sent.) Lies, all of them.

We smile ruefully when we learn we have been duped. We had dared to hope against hope, dared to believe that this promise-breaking world had changed its ways. All for vain. That little flight of fantasy, borne aloft on wings beating powerfully and hopefully, has been called back to earth; the gravity of the real world has proved irresistible. April Fool’s Day had animated it; it renders it moribund too.

April Fool’s Day is the perfect symbol of our civilization; it isn’t enough that we have been systematically duped into imagining salvation lies around the corner in some religious, political, or intellectual dispensation. No, we must also set aside a special day of the year when we can reenact, worldwide, a human simulation of the cosmic prank.  Ours is a species that dares to hope in the face of hopelessness; it is on this day that those hopes can be made to look even more forlorn.

Note: On this second day of April, residents of East Coast received their own particular notification from the cruelest month: a spring snowfall in the morning that snarled commutes and for a few hours made it clear that winter hadn’t gone anywhere just yet.

The Indifferent ‘Pain Of The World’

In All the Pretty Horses (Vintage International, New York, 1993, pp. 256-257), Cormac McCarthy writes:

He imagined the pain of the world to be like some formless parasitic being seeking out the warmth of human souls wherein to incubate and he thought he knew what made one liable to its visitations. What he had not known was that it was mindless and so had no way to know the limits of those souls and what he feared was that there might be no limits.

The ‘pain of the world’–its irreducible melancholia and absurdity, its indifference to our fortunes and loves and fears–can indeed feel like a malevolent being, a beast of a kind, one that may, if provoked, swat us about with a terrible malignity.  Here, in these impressions, we find archaic traces of an older imagination of ours; the formless fears of the child’s world have congealed into a seemingly solid mass, serving now as foundations for our anxious adult being. It is unsurprising that we have found ways to pay obeisance to this beast through prayer and fervent wishing and day dreaming and fantasy and incantations and magic and potions; we hope to pass unnoticed through its gauntlet, afraid to set astir the slumbering beast and provoke its attentions and wrath. As John Grady Cole, McCarthy’s character, notes, we fear two things especially about this beast: we suspect ourselves to be particularly vulnerable to its depredations, a particularly attractive prey for this predator; we fear we sport a bull’s eye on our backs, a scarlet letter that marks us out as an offender to be dealt with harshly; we fear there may be no limits to its appetites; we sense that lightning might strike not once, not twice, but without no constraint whatsoever; perhaps we ain’t seen nothin’ yet, and much more misfortune awaits us around the corner on life’s roads.

In our darkest moments we attribute a malevolent intelligence to this beast, but we know the worst eventuality of all would be a mindless beast, one whose ignorance of us and our capacity to tolerate pain could cause us to plumb unimaginable depths, to experience pain whose qualities defy description. (The fears of these sorts of mental chasms are expressed quite beautifully in Gerard Manley Hopkins’ mournful poem ‘No worst, there is none. Pitched past pitch of grief.’) McCarthy also seems to suggest the possibility of a presumption of ‘too much’ knowledge on Cole’s part–a la Oedipus, a possible arrogant claim to know the ways and means and methods and mind of the beast; but as McCarthy goes on to note, there is no mind here to be known, no rationale to be assessed, no strategy or tactic to be evaluated; there is merely being and man, caught up in its becoming. It is this irrelevance of man and his capacities and attributes to the working of this beast which is Cole’s deepest fear; it is ours too, the root and ground of the absurdist existentialist vision.

 

Kōbō Abe’s ‘Woman in The Dunes’ And The Scientist’s Existentialist Despair

Kōbō Abe’s The Woman in the Dunes wears and displays its existentialist, absurdist aspirations openly and transparently; this is its terse Wikipedia summation:

In 1955, Jumpei Niki, a schoolteacher from Tokyo, visits a fishing village to collect insects. After missing the last bus, he is led, by the villagers, in an act of apparent hospitality, to a house in the dunes that can be reached only by ladder. The next morning the ladder is gone and he finds he is expected to keep the house clear of sand with the woman living there, with whom he is also to produce children. He eventually gives up trying to escape when he comes to realize returning to his old life would give him no more liberty. After seven years, he is proclaimed officially dead. [citations removed.]

Yes, there is a Sisyphean task here; the labors are joint–crucially, involving both a man and a woman–but seemingly infinite and never-ending anyway. The mystery over why Niki is treated as he is by the villagers is never given a satisfactory solution, and indeed, as in the case of those who counterproductively continue digging in holes, efforts to solve this conundrum only heighten its inexplicability. Bafflement, bewilderment, anger, frustration are Niki’s primary responses, and they are all equally efficacious–that is, they are not in the least.

A perplexed protagonist, a brutal, unrewarding task, an unsolved mystery, the realization that deliverance is not forthcoming; yes, this is an existentialist novel.

There are two interesting embroiderings of these basic existentialist themes in Abe’s novel. First, the novel is set ten years after the end of the Second World War, ten years after hell was dragged  up from its depths and deposited on Hiroshima and Nagasaki, and thus, on the Japanese nation. This is a world in which the firmness of an older universe has been replaced by the shifting and transient sand of a new relationship with the world; sand, as Abe reminds us, is ‘fragmented rock,’ once solid and imposing, now beaten down. The Japanese, of whom Niki and the woman are as good representatives as any other, might yet be buried by this relentless invader of their older world. Second, Niki is not just any man, any Japanese. He is a schoolteacher, and moreover, he is a man of science. He is an entomologist; he studies sand as well, and is fascinated by its physical properties.

As a man of science, Niki expects his situations in this world to be infected by the same reason he sees underwriting the cosmos. He is, precisely because of this intellectual orientation, unprepared for the villagers’ mysterious, criminal behavior: Why have they kidnapped him? Do they really think they can get away with this absurd plot? The villagers do not care; they are absorbed in their task. The woman does not know and she does not too, seem to care too much. If there is a concern for consequences, it is a narrowly circumscribed one: what will happen if the sand is not kept at bay? This encounter, this futile dashing of the hopes of the man of science that a reasonable explanation will be found for all that afflicts us, that the methods which have made so much of the world comprehensible will make the villagers and their task less mysterious, gives Abe’s novel its most acute sense of desperation and despair.

Lars Von Trier’s Melancholia And The Insight Of The Depressed

There is a moment during the disastrous wedding reception that kicks off Lars Von Trier‘s Melancholia that you suspect the reason Justine the bride is being so mysteriously, bafflingly, awkwardly morose, is that she is aware of an impending apocalypse, the one made imminent by a beautiful blue planet approaching the earth on a collision course. She has good reason to be so sad, so distracted, so rueful. The world is coming to an end; how do marital bliss or discord, or effusive praise, or haute cuisine, or elaborately planned weddings, or anything else matter?

A little while later, we are made to realize Justine may well be a life-long melancholic, clinically depressed, sometimes to the point of catatonia, and that she is not the only one who is aware of the proximity of Earth’s new neighbor. Still, she might be the only one who has sussed out that the absurdity of existence must now be reckoned with, and cannot be postponed or consigned to the margins as is usually done. Perhaps the depressed have always known this. Which is why they cannot allow themselves to be distracted like those around them, who rush around engaging in one triviality or banality after another. They rightly perceive these activities as mere diversions. Perhaps it is the depressed who, when the time for death is at hand, find an equanimity that all too many ‘normal people’ find elusive. The worst is here; they have felt its shadow for too long; this final reckoning is at hand.

It is no surprise then, that in the second part of the movie, Justine and her sister Claire, who is worn down and edgy after years of sibling encounters with a mentally ill person, undergo changes in personality.  Claire becomes frantic and panicky; Justine is calm, matter-of-fact, serene. And Claire’s husband, standing in as the ostensibly cool, detached, skeptical and rational man of science, the one who has previously subjected his wife’s anxieties to some scorn and some invocations about the power of science to get things right, takes his own life, not deigning to involve his wife or son in this decision. The end of the world is here; what matter such niceties?

End of the world movies can emphasize both the triviality and banality of our daily lives as well as the primacy of simple human gestures and relationships; they can offer caustic commentary on our shallowness and pettiness and obsession with material reward as well as make poetic statements about the beauty around us that is soon to be consigned to the ashes. Melancholia manages to do all of this. We are reminded the world is a beautiful place, that startling glimpses of sublimity may be found all around us; we are reminded too, that such splendor often showcases conflict and discord and strife.

In the end, as Melancholia, the approaching planet, becomes malevolent, we find ourselves encountering a familiar question, one whose answer can only be imperfectly offered in the present without the actual grim reality of the end of existence upon us: How would we face such an eventuality? Would we put away pettiness and rancor? Would we remain distracted or would this concentrate our minds wonderfully?

Justine knows the answer: hold hands with the ones you love.

Unmasking our Self-Deception about Self-Improvement

In reviewing the incongruous medley of Dan Brown‘s Inferno and two new translations of Dante‘s classic (by Clive James and Mary Jo Bang), Robert Pogue Harrison writes:

Much of the fascination of the Inferno revolves around Dante’s probing of the covert psychic recesses of his characters’ inner will. The sinners’ great soliloquies are self-serving and fraught with irony. One cannot take them at their word. One must bring to bear on their speeches a “hermeneutics of suspicion” that is alert to the discrepancy between what they tell us and what they show us. Oftentimes the characters themselves are unaware of the way they are masking their true motivations, which makes it all the more imperative that the reader adopt an analytic distance from their self-presentations. In sum, the Inferno educates the reader in the ways of deception and self-deception, and in that respect remains one of the great archives of human psychology. (‘Dante: The Most Vivid VersionNew York Review of Books, 24 October 2013).

In my post on the ‘Sisyphus of sorts’ a couple of days ago, I had sought to provide an unmasking of projects of self-improvement, which all too many of us find ourselves engaged in with little hope–based on their persistent failure–of bringing them to completion. (I hesitate to say ‘similar unmasking’ for fear of being viewed as comparing my attempt to Dante’s!) That post–hopefully!–speaks for itself, but let me, at the risk of sounding excessively pompous, just embellish its claims just a bit.

Repeated, and failed, attempts at self-improvement and self-help display a familiar pattern: the old behavior is discarded in a burst of moralistic enthusiasm, the old lifestyle is deprecated and disdained, and enthusiastic reports are provided on the glories and attractions of the new path chosen. There is relief at a millstone discarded and this palpable emotion is loudly and visibly noted.

Yet, through all this, all too often, the attractions of the older way of being, which indeed, had made it such a persistently adopted mode of behavior, are not paid their due. We fail to recognize that that path had its own role to play in the forms of life we lived; we fail to note the deep habits it formed; no clean surgical excision of it from our selves has been effected. And then, there is the simple matter of the ‘sophomore effect’; the rapid gains visible in the early days of our new-found virtuous life are quickly replaced by the far more mundane, glacial increments of the life that comes about when such novel behavior has become commonplace.

We remain impatient; we miss the easy pleasures of the older way of being, which suddenly, now seems more attractive than ever. So we lapse. But now we encounter again its pathologies. And so we resolve to change again.

The self-deception here is that we do not seek the publicly avowed goal of self-improvement, but merely the movement away from a kind of stagnation, a state of wallowing. When we encounter yet another one, as is inevitable, for life cannot give us endless novelty, we seek out our ‘fall’ again, so that we may ‘climb’ again. In doing all this, we are reminded again, of Goethe, Burke and Freud’s claims that happiness, for most, is characterized by novelty and rapid transition, not by persistent, quiescent states.

A Sisyphus of Sorts

Here is a familiar enough occurrence: you set off on a journey toward a desired destination, perhaps a state of mind, perhaps a bodily accomplishment, a state of excellence in some manner, shape, form or fashion; you make good time, you travel many miles; you amaze yourself with your speed and the distance covered; you are exhilarated by the heights you now experience; you are no longer bound to the earth, the air is cleaner, more invigorating; you congratulate yourself on your journey thus far; you look back on how far you’ve come, on all those you left behind; the solitude of this seldom traveled road strikes you as splendid; you dare to dream of the now-visible goal.

And then, the upward gradient ceases; the plateau begins; the steps grow more measured, more tedious; the miles covered shrink slowly to yards and inches; the feet drag; the euphoria is gone, replaced by ennui; the formerly clean air is still so, but it has a staleness all its own; the novelty, the thrill, is gone. The goal is still visible, but now obscured by the dust kicked up by your dragging feet; the certainty about its attainment is now replaced by a nagging, persistent, doubt over the wisdom of ever having started this journey. The virtuousness that was once the consequence of declining indulgences now strikes you as a foolishness all of its own; what price this sustained flagellation, this persistent self-denial?

And so, you weaken, you hesitate, you seek diversion, an easier slope. The most facile of those is the path downward, the amble downhill. On it, the pace is greater; the wind presses hard against you, refreshing you once again. Soon enough, you are back in the lowlands. You refuse, guiltily, to look up at the tops again; you declined them once, why remind yourself of that turning away?

But soon, you find the air stifling; the oppression that animated you once returns; all is cumbersome. Whence the lightness, the fleet-footedness you had felt in the highlands? You remember the ascent, the coolness, the euphoria, the shedding of all that was heavy and bore you down. You remember the weightlessness, the sense of endless possibility. You regret the escape, the diversion, the flinching and turning away. You resolve to make the journey again.

And so you set off, rolling your rock back up the hill. Those familiar feelings return; you remember why you thought this was a good idea. You remind yourself the plateau awaits; you await its appearance warily; you stiffen your spine in anticipation. But when it does appear, a familiar feeling, a familiar dismay asserts itself. Soon enough, an old path downward is traversed.

Later, after the disgust of the defeat and the claustrophobia of the lower reaches have sent you back, yet again, on your old ascent, as you head upward, you realize that this is what you really wanted, the exultation of the pulling away, the steepness of the first few steps, the first movements upward. That elusive goal, its shape and location often obscured, only served to motivate the first journey. From then on, what you truly craved was the initial ascension, which had the most acute slopes of all, where you made the most accelerated, tangible progress.  Not for you the long plodding, slow, grind to the end; you always only sought only the path that made you feel the most fleet-footed.

You don’t really mind being a Sisyphus of sorts.