The Book of Human Emotions: From Ambiguphobia to Umpty - 154 Words from Around the World for How We Feel - Tiffany Watt Smith 2016


A man lies dead in the street. A fox saunters past. In an upstairs apartment, a prostitute entertains her client. This scene in George Grosz’s Suicide (1916), painted in Germany during the First World War, expresses the kind of nihilism that few of us are willing to reflect on for very long. Not even granted a name, the man lies unnoticed. And the world barely breaks its step.

The sensation that your life no longer fits you drifts in so slowly you hardly notice it coming. The clothes that seem to belong to someone else. The job that once seemed satisfying, but is now to be endured. What might begin as alienation or a sense of purposelessness can quickly dissolve into shame of the most claustrophobic kind. You imagine your family’s CONTEMPT and DISAPPOINTMENT. You see looks of PITY and DISGUST in the eyes of strangers. Once it gets going properly, despair, from the Latin de (without) sperare (to hope), crashes in your ears. You hear your own heartbeat as you stare into the empty sink. You are unable to bear yourself any longer but unable to abandon yourself either. Despair is a gnawing sensation, a torturous vacillation.

There is some relief in recognizing the futility of our attempts to change things (“She never empties the dishwasher. I despair!”). But the despair we feel in our deepest selves is different. It tucks itself in behind expertly conducted polite conversations. It stays hidden. In 1849 the Danish philosopher Søren Kierkegaard wrote in The Sickness Unto Death that “the greatest hazard of all, losing one’s self, can occur very quietly in the world as if it were nothing at all. No other loss occurs so quietly; any other loss—an arm, a leg, five dollars, a wife, etc.—is sure to be noticed.”

From its earliest writings, the Christian tradition had depicted despair as something you give in to, a sin and temptation, otherworldly and barely seen. The hermits who lived in the Sinai desert in the first centuries after Christ thought it was carried by noonday demons who infected them with malaise (see: ACEDIA). In later centuries despair was depicted as a beguiling creature who lured men and women to their deaths. In Edmund Spenser’s The Fairie Queene, Despair is a shrunken man living in a hollow cave in a gray, desolate landscape. Though miserable in appearance, he can twist arguments into fantastical shapes, coaxing the Red Cross Knight with the promise of “eternall rest / And happie ease, which thou doest want and crave.” Despair differed from the illness of melancholia, though both were characterized by deep sorrow and the threat of suicide (see: MELANCHOLY). The despairing were healthy. It was their souls’ ability to withstand temptation that had failed.

In the early twentieth century Existentialists such as Sartre and Camus suggested a different account of despair. For them, it was not an irrational crisis, and certainly not a sin. Rather, they saw it as a fundamental condition of living in a universe without fate, without God and without purpose. For this reason, they saw despair—losing hope of ever finding meaning in life—as both painful and liberating; the source of both terror and great happiness.

For Camus, the Greek myth of Sisyphus expressed this optimistic aspect of despair. The mortal Sisyphus, for his impudence and overreaching, is condemned by the Gods to a hopeless labor. He must roll a huge stone up a slope, his face screwed up with the effort, his shoulder braced against it. Up and up he pushes the rock, until at the top the rock rolls back down, at which point Sisyphus must begin to push it up again. Camus is most interested in the moment when Sisyphus walks back down the hill to begin again. What does he feel during that pause? Most of us might imagine weeping in frustration, raging with indignation. And then, eventually, on realizing that the task will never end, and that it is entirely without purpose, falling backwards into a dark silence.

But for Camus, it was precisely by losing hope in ever finding a meaning that Sisyphus became free. “I see that man going back down with a heavy yet measured step toward the torment of which he will never know the end,” he wrote. Sisyphus realizes his fate is simply the sum of his actions, a life created by him. Rather than giving up, he simply adjusts to the pointlessness of it all. And out of his despair at the futility of his predicament, a strange lightness comes. He becomes, writes Camus, “stronger than his rock.”