Wednesday, January 23, 2008
Joy and Despair: Stranger than Diction
They sat, two broken souls trading cracks, with torsos on their knees. Taking that sullen trip from intimacy to estrangement, they shared one last revelation, though it remained unspoken: the person I am today is going to die. Eyes ran with rivulets of troubled water. Hands went limp with aches.
Soon, both he and she would begin killing the being they had become; each would painstakingly unwire the DNA they’d so meticulously developed. The tragic vicissitudes that rule relationships would leave them no choice. But both boy and girl would still be the perpetrator and the victim of their own murder, and neither had anybody to tell.
These are the days of post-love.
Despair is a tricky thing to write about. Like melancholy and rage, abject sorrow is a difficult experience, and to conjure it for the purposes of articulation in a written piece is masochistic and miserable. The sages of emotion have claimed that happiness and grief are but two opposite ends of the same feeling, and that both are equally exhilarating and addictive.
These philosophers have erred tragically, no pun intended—dejection and elation have nothing in common besides the “tion” suffix. Elation is writable; dejection is nearly impossible to grasp. For instance, a celebratory passage involving those same two lovers from above might read as follows:
They made love under the old oak, the weight of the world, for a few ecstatic instants, shrinking behind the voice of their honesty. The dust around them caromed in the wind, and as they gave themselves to each other, there was but one thing to say.
“Awesome!” he said.
“Yay, awesome!” she agreed.
A little love, a little nature, a little descriptive narrative. Easy.
Considering that those selections are so obviously different, are we really to believe that happiness and sadness are connected? Opposites are only connected semantically—we group them together in a category we call “opposites,” but they have no inherent likeness. Happiness is the product of, and impetus for, productivity, while sadness is emotional flagellation. These two states are members of the same metaphysical country club—“Club Inexplicably Overwhelming Feelings”—but, again, that is a matter of wordplay.
In practice, the chasm that separates all positive emotions from all negative emotions is wider than the bridge called “opposites” could span.
In the movie “Stranger Than Fiction,” one of Will Ferrell’s most underrated performances, Dustin Hoffman’s character tells Ferrell that every story is either a comedy or a tragedy. A comedy ends in a wedding, while a tragedy ends with death. The premise of the movie, more or less, is that Ferrell, who plays a mundane I.R.S. auditor, must work to change his life from tragedy to comedy before it’s too late.
The genius of the movie is that it doesn’t attempt, as so many movies do, to show that comedy and tragedy are interrelated. Rather, it exemplifies the notion that they are two separate, opposing forces, with the former clearly preferable above the latter. The movie repudiates the pundits who claim that misery—real, true misery—is something in which one would want to wallow.
In a world of comedy, there is little room for tragedy. And in a world of tragedy, comedy can never truly exist. There are lighthearted moments that resolve some of the pall—hence, “comic relief”—but the air of despair is pretty monolithic. It’s difficult to pen, sure, but once its intractable aura starts to pervade the air, misery stands alone.
It does not, as those sages of emotion say, love company.
Stay Sagacious, Stranger Than Fiction