In Defense of Despair: A Reaction to J.David’s “In Defense of Joy”
by Alex DiFrancesco
This morning, I am watching the sun rise over Lake Erie after a horrific month in a horrific year for the entire world. It’s been particularly bad for me, encompassing a bad health scare, a serious drug relapse, several suicide attempts, and reactionary behavior that lost me some friends. Serendipitously, Brain Pickings has a thoughtful and carefully curated selection of Albert Camus’ thoughts on suicide. Camus rejected suicide, but he did not do it without carefully considering it himself. In fact, he based all his subsequent philosophies on this as the basic question. For me, it is a question that has no firm and lasting answer. Often, my actions and my behavior have pointed to despair and the ending of my own life. Fortunately, which Camus believes is a basic function of life and the human body, I have rejected this over and over. I have made a decision to keep living, though the torment of the notion of suicide as a sane reaction to an insane world has never been something I’ve eluded for long. I originally read Camus far too young, and far too wrapped up in my own despair to not focus on the darkness he insisted was important to look in the eye. I was marked as chronically depressed in mental hospitals through my 20s because I would say things like, “If one doesn’t think deeply about death, every day, how do you find your approach to life?” But that was and wasn’t his point. It is also not my point that this darkness is, will ever be, or should be continual or cultivated. This is a mistake I still make, and I am well-aware of, when not in its throes. But I do defend this darkness as inevitability and something that great understanding, compassion, empathy, and intellect can be derived from. Just as I am finding great joy in the Lake Erie sunrise, I can find deep introspection of this broken Midwestern city night’s dark and desperate hours; just as some are predicated towards, to borrow a phrase on absurdity from Camus, “a donkey eating roses,” some of us are donkeys feasting on garbage. Both, it seems, could lead, if unchecked, to a spiritual and intellectual death. Neither is the right way, or sustainable.
Life is clearly not just these opposites. For most of us, many of us, there are long periods when life is waking up, suiting up, clocking in to something that sustains us but brings us neither joy nor despair, finishing, finding ways to go on with it the next day. Camus saw this too, obviously, in his exploration of the myth of Sisyphus, a man condemned by the gods to push a boulder up a hill, to have it roll down, to be forced to push it up again. Camus imagined Sisyphus beginning to smile, but I do not believe, nor did I ever believe, that this was because he ever stood at the top of the mountain defying the boulder’s nature to roll down again (nor do I think J. David does, in their essay that this essay responds to). For a long time, I genuinely believed this was the case, and my inability to find moments of release in joy free of the nagging despair was a personal failing that defied this philosophy. No, what he was really saying is that the work of humanity, the work of the thinking and caring individual who is striving always to be better, is to reject both the top and the bottom of the mountain as you embrace them, to put your real moments into the thought and care and eternal decision-making and inquiry of the world and one’s place in it that comes in the between-times.
I think both the original essay that this is in response to and this essay agree that joy and despair are fruitful. While I have always been more of a donkey feeding on garbage than one feeding on roses (here I’ll mention that J.David is a dear friend, and I do not assume or read uncritically enough to think they meant that one should always engage in a facile joy), I do not deny that my nature has its flaws or place it at a premium. Certainly mental illness has lead both of these pieces’ authors to think far harder about suicide than the average person does. I cannot count the suicides of friends and my own attempts on both hands. I think that the focus on despair, while providing me with many great and wonderful things in life, has been a detriment. But I also recognize that humans can’t live without the sun as well as the nighttime to curl into themselves and dream. I do, I have always, believed an excessively dark nature can also lead to an excess of dreams.
When I was very young, I also read a great deal of Buddhist texts, attended a local temple for meditation in New York City, and went to lectures. Buddhism teaches mindfulness. A personal hero and long-time Buddhist monastery dweller, Leonard Cohen, has described that mindfulness as going through all your top fantasies in life, finding yourself an incredible bore, and eventually focusing on what lies deeper. (I gave Buddhism up because I thought I’d be a lousier writer if I couldn’t focus on my dreams of it for a long time). Perhaps the real answer here (I am quite convinced Albert Camus would agree) is finding meaning in everything, the joy, the despair, but especially the large amount of hours you will find in neither, that you will be hopelessly or hopefully trudging along, doing your condemned and, if you are lucky, fruitful time, your curse from the gods. We grow into our curses. Our middle moments do not always have to be a condemnation, even if they are intended that way, even if we lean towards the equally foolish joy or despair. In the last month of my life, I have done things, said things, engaged in things, that were the negation of anything but despair. I have written suicide notes leaving my Vespa to my niece, I have smoked meth with a full-time junkie, and tried to take enough pills to end my body’s will to live. My demons will never go away, and learning to play nice with them is a life-long process. I refuse to deny them, either. And as this period recedes, my job, as I move away from it, is to look at each one of these actions with the notion that I can and will keep fucking climbing. I will figure out how. And I will hope that my inevitable despair, when it all proves easily taken away and fruitless, is never the thing that ultimately defines me.
The fact that I’m “cursed” with an inability to look away from suicide as a very distinct possibility in life is a blessing, to me, as much as the fact that I am sitting here watching a hopeful sun come up over a still, glassy Great Lake, around a cloudy sky that is obscuring it and making more precious and golden its reflection on the water. I do admit fully to finding more of value in my darkest moments, because these are the moments I must push away from, work to better myself from, parcel out as the contradictions to my professed core values of my absurd human life. Our contradictions make us as much as the things we deeply believe; this is more of reading too much Camus, too young. Our bad moments give us raw material to better ourselves from. It is the work, the intention to get better, to match our conscious and unconscious decisions with our moral compass and our intention for some kind of perfection or even goodness from ourselves and the world of chaos around us, that matters much more greatly than either the fleeting and inevitable joy and despair.
Alex DiFrancesco is a writer and editor who lives in Cleveland, OH. They drive a pink Vespa and will bake for you when you are sad. They run the interview column “We Call Upon the Author to Explain” at Sundress Publications, where they are also an assistant editor. Their Gothic-inspired short story collection, TRANSMUTATION is forthcoming from Seven Stories Press in June of 2021.
Image original: Dana Corbin/Unsplash