WHAT TO READ WHEN YOU ARE SAD: HOW EXISTENTIALIST NIHILISM IS A NICE STEP ON THE WAY TO HUMANISM
Back in September I was having a very sad day; George Zimmerman had just been found not guilty of anything at all after shooting Trayvon Martin, and wherever your opinion happens to fall in regards to that verdict, it was a rough, dispiriting day to be on Facebook– so many people were really angry and hurt, and even the people who were angry and hurt for the same reasons were lashing out at each other for not expressing their hurt and anger in the “right” ways, or for being too angry and hurt about one thing and not angry and hurt enough about another closely related thing. I was very sad. I read (for maybe the 3rd or 4th time in the last 5 years) Crow with No Mouth by Ikkyū (an eccentric, iconoclastic Japanese Zen Buddhist monk writing poems in the 1400s) while sitting on my tiny balcony with tea. What tends to comfort me about these poems is that they reject the idea of human betterment through discipline/ meditation/ eventual enlightenment. They insist: “This world is a bunch of garbagetrash, my death is inevitable, and I’m rotting already!”
For instance, these lines:
“I’m alive! right? don’t we say that?
we don’t see the bones we walk on”
“suddenly nothing but grief
so I put on my father’s old ripped raincoat”
“nobody knows shit nobody lives anywhere
“don’t hesitate to get laid that’s wisdom
sitting around chanting what crap”
Why do I find such things comforting, you might ask? Maybe because so much of what is intended to be encouraging or inspirational feels as insubstantial as the powder at the bottom of a cereal sack or a sheet of off-brand toilet paper in a puddle. When things feel horrible, and then someone who you don’t know very well insists that things are actually not horrible, or that they are horrible, but soon will feel less so because our bodies and brains are designed to help us forget pain over time so we can at some point “decide” again that it is good to be alive, and that we should, consequently, keep eating, stepping outside to see the sky, and washing our hair…We can know it’s true, but we (I, anyway) feel no immediate relief.
Why mightn’t I? Well, imagine that sad me is a me inside under a quilt, looking out my window, feeling no joy despite the fact that I can see the sun. I feel alone in my sadness—I’m alone with my thoughts of how things are horrible. Then a person, hair shining in the sun, shouts through my half-open window that it’s a beautiful day. I still feel very alone with my sadness, because that person has just established herself as an outside-enjoying-the-sun-person, and we can all see very well that I am currently an indoors-aware-of-the-sun-but-not-enjoying-it-because-everything-feels-horrible person.
If a person were to come inside and get under my quilt with me, and say something about how everything felt horrible, at least I would not feel alone in my sadness.
What have I concluded? That it is good not be alone, even if you are not-alone with a person in sadness.
Back on that day in September, Ikkyū was with me in sadness, (as many of my favorite writers, musicians, and film-makers are) but I still felt alone and in need of comfort.
I sent an emergency email (the subject line actually read “emergency email”) to Brandon Brown whom I’d gotten to hear read at the Poetry Foundation in Chicago just about a week prior; he’d read a poem called “My Favorite Things” that really blew my heart out.
“plz plz plz” I wrote, “send me your fave things poem, brandon! i’m sad today about the sad world and sad america and i need to read it. xoxooxox, hg.”
Brandon Brown sent me the poem and I read it and felt kept-company. This poem (a big ol’ 3-pager) is not in any of his books (or even a magazine) yet, but he said I could print a slightly shorter version of it here:
MY FAVORITE THINGS
Everything would be easier if I could simply oppose
what I love to what I fear, but sometimes it’s hard
to tell which is which.
It would be so much easier with magic glasses.
Like those ones that let Joseph Smith see the words
that salamander wrote on invisible gold
Do re me fa so my face always looks like
somebody stinks. And it does, they do,
my favorite things.
When dogs drool all over the divan I intend to sleep on
when I realize my love is bird puke
then I try and docent the meanderings of psychic life.
When the knee breaks, when the cop knocks, when
my book busts. When my dentist friend can’t cop
me parlor tanks of Novocaine. Then I think
I think of my favorite things.
Poetry, oysters, idle talk, Dee Dee Ramone
barking 1 2 3 4, astrology, the way teeth feel fucked
after a long floss. Getting weird on the walk to the party.
Sometimes I get so sick of my crazy friends,
walking together on the sidewalk totally absorbed
by their own literally epic narcissism
but to live with them in a communist world
is one of my favorite things.
The poem won’t
overthrow the government, but the poem
is one of my favorite things, and can be considered
when the friend dies, when the neighbor
is an asshole to you on the stairs. When you’re feeling sad,
stop watching The Office. Touch my taint and I’ll touch
yours. But do stop watching The Office. Let’s do it
in the Mormon Tabernacle. Yes we’ll get arrested
but then we can write prison poetry. One of our
My friends are actually considering the idea
that dachshunds are better than pathetic liberals.
When you think of your favorite things in the middle of an
event that is terrifying or disgusting it is of course
an act of total denial.
You know, I feel Joseph Smith, who only wanted direct contact
with the prosody of heroic critters. You think it’s fun to be a
Mormon? You think it’s fun to be an oyster fuck no.
Those freaky white people in the Mormon Tabernacle Choir.
Singing in eerily perfect harmony.
In a sodaless utopia I sing
from the far periphery. Rubbing softest ass. Licking the
backs of my molars. Loving how nasty it is
to be embodied and how better it is to be nasty than dead.
Do you know what’s true? That poem gave me comfort.
It got with me up under my quilt of sadness, but it also was funny, and celebrated sex and friends and music. It was the last line that had initially thrilled me so much when I heard Brandon read this poem: “how nasty it is to be embodied and how better it is to be nasty than dead.”
Part of existential nihilism is being realistic about what humans are… (My friend once said that although he had many sexual feelings towards the beautiful Hunter Parrish—the actor who plays Nancy Botwin’s blond son in Weeds—he would not actually want to hang out with him because in his presence my friend would feel like a “garbage bag full of hair.”) Humans as horny, lonely, hungry, scared garbage bags of hair…
Kurt Vonnegut (Papa Vonnegut, I think of him as) tells us again and again in his very good sort-of memoir A Man Without a Country that this world is a horrible place: we have squandered our planet’s resources [“We are all addicts of fossil fuels…and our leaders are now committing violent crimes to get what little is left of what we’re hooked on”]; crews are ready to, at a moment’s notice, “turn industrial quantities of men, women, and children, into radioactive soot and bone meal by means of rockets and H-bomb warheads;” and the people in charge just want to be listened to and hate wise humans.
As an example of a hated wise human, Papa Vonnegut cites Ignaz Semmelweis, a doctor (working in Vienna at the time) who suggested to the other doctors (his social superiors) that they wash their hands in between sticking their hands into corpses in the morgue and sticking their hands into the delivering mothers in the maternity ward (1 out of every 10 mothers in the ward had been dying, you see). It was only “in the spirit of lampoonery, of satire, of scorn” that the viennese doctors eventually washed their hands. And then of course the dying stopped. And then of course Semmelweis was sent away by the viennese leaders in his field—exiled from Austria completely—sent to rural Hungary for the rest of his career. Vonnegut (papa of my heart) insists that though the world is inhospitable (in this case, to a person with a simple, brilliant, life-saving idea), we should “do it anyway: be honorable.” Earlier in the book, Vonnegut has asked his son (another doctor, and another wise man) what life’s all about, and the son replies “Father, we are here to help each other get through this thing, whatever it is.”
Vonnegut’s sort-of memoir has basically the same message as Albert Camus’s The Plague, maybe not surprisingly. The message is, more or less: This fucking garbage world!!! And there’s probably not even a god or a heaven—this fucking horrible garbage life is all we get!!! I’ll tell you what, though; we probably should make the most of this little turd of an existence and be good to each other here, sweet little dumpling horny, lonely, hungry, scared, noble, kind, gentle garbage bags full of hair!
I give the last word to Ikkyū:
“sick of it whatever it’s called sick of the names
I dedicate every pore to what’s here”