Monday, June 12, 2006

Gratitude and Despair

Another reason for gratitude is George Hunka’s decision to continue blogging, at least occasionally, at Superfluities. George is a playwright, and that work and other obligations weigh heavily on his time and energy. Thanks, George, for sparing a little room for us, readers who have come to depend on your insights, enthusiasm and taste. On Sunday, George linked to a BBC interview with English playwright Howard Barker, a writer new to me, and cited these lines in particular:

“I don't think [despair] is a negative quality in art. There are some times when one has to submit to despair, and I don't think I've ever heard a piece as despairing as [the lento from Bartók's String Quartet No. 2 (1917)]. ...

“Very desolate, utterly desolate. ... People don't particularly wish to be disturbed. One has to think about the theater and probably about music also not as entertainment, which is how it's regarded here from top to bottom virtually, but as a need, as a spiritual need, and that's a very different way to come at it. So if in a play of mine or in a piece of music as great as that, the experience is one of anxiety ... instead of saying, `Well, this just adds to the confusion and complexity of my life, I don't want it,’ but rather to say, `This deepens my feeling of life’ – that for every problem, we offer you another problem. That's not negativity. That's not pessimism. The whole idea of optimism and pessimism as critical terms of art seems to me to be completely redundant.”

I like everything about what Barker said, starting with the Bartok. How curious that a work so despairing, so diametrically the opposite of rousing (and what would that be: a Sousa march?) should be so piercingly beautiful. We might say the same of – what? Beckett comes to mind, yet I don’t think of his work as despairing. Grim, black, hopeless, but not despairing. I know at least one reader who, while seriously contemplating suicide, read Beckett, a writer he already knew well, and decided otherwise. Other factors influenced him as well, including biochemistry, and he never came to think of Beckett as the Hibernian Norman Vincent Peale, but there’s much in Beckett’s best work, especially the trilogy and the rest of the late prose, that is too funny, beautiful and stoically courageous to countenance suicide. A despairing work of literary art seems like a contradiction in terms – more so than music. To exert so much effort crafting words, arranging their music and meaning, would appear to refute despair, as Beckett does famously in the final words of The Unnamable: “you must go on, I can’t go on, I’ll go on.”

The most despairing poem I know is John Berryman’s “He Resigns.” He wrote it early in 1971 while sober but severely depressed, and it was published in Delusions etc. after his suicide on Jan. 7, 1972:

“Age, and the deaths, and the ghosts.
Her having gone away
in spirit from me. Hosts
of regrets come & find me empty.

“I don’t feel this will change.
I don’t want any thing
or person, familiar or strange.
I don’t think I will sing

“any more just now;
ever. I must start
to sit with a blind brow
above an empty heart.”

Chilling words from so garrulous a poet: “I don’t think I will sing/any more just now;/ever.” And yet, Berryman did sing – in this poem and the others he wrote in his final year, and on until his final day. In 1970, in his last book published during his life, Love & Fame, Berryman grappled with his faith, trying to find strength, meaning and purpose in his Roman Catholicism. The last section of that book is a heartbreaking poem titled “Eleven Addresses to the Lord.” In the first address he writes:

“You have come to my rescue again & again
in my impassable, sometimes despairing years.
You have allowed my brilliant friends to destroy themselves
And I am still here, severely damaged, but functioning.”

By January of 1972, the irresolvable contradictions proved too burdensome for Berryman. He could neither stay sober nor continue to drink, believe nor disbelieve, despair nor exult. His heart, at last, was empty. It sounds cold, but reading Berryman, as Howard Barker puts it, “deepens my feeling for life.”

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