LET THERE BE DARKNESS
IN DEFENSE OF DEPRESSING LITERATURE
I. INTELLIGENT SUFFERING
“He speaks truly who speaks the shade.”
In the spring of 2000 I spent my final semester at Drew University studying the three behemoths of modern American drama: Eugene O’Neill, Tennessee Williams and Arthur Miller. The instructor had arranged for our class to attend the new Broadway production of A Moon for the Misbegotten with Gabriel Byrne and Cherry Jones; it would be my second O’Neill play in just six months. The semester before I had been to Manhattan to see the two most acclaimed revivals in New York: Kevin Spacey in The Iceman Cometh and Brian Dennehey and Elizabeth Franz in Death of a Salesman. It was a rare treat to experience these dramas in a Broadway theater with a Broadway audience, and a rare opportunity to gain a fuller appreciation of their beauty and trauma. The paradoxical effect was not lost on me, and, in fact, I welcomed it: I was willing to endure the trauma for the promise of something beautiful.
But each performance left me jaded, disturbed and incapable of recognizing any beauty whatsoever. There was an onerous weight in my heart and bones; I became oblivious to the lights of Midtown, dragging my boots across the concrete and asphalt. They were each of them some of the most grievous hours I had ever sat through. When the cast of Salesman did its curtain call, Dennehey and Franz were so shaken and tearful they could barely bow, Franz had to be helped from the stage and I had to be literally jarred out of my sorrowful stupor. When Byrne’s character, Jamie Tyrone, walked off the stage in the last scene of Misbegotten—to drink himself to death, to forsake the light of day and the woman he loves—I actually glanced around for a corner to cry in, certain sobs would overcome me. Like a hero of Greek drama, Jamie’s entire life had ineluctably moved toward this very moment, the moment he realizes he cannot continue another day. When Spacey’s character, Hickey, admitted to killing his wife to save her from the shame and humiliation of his infidelity and incessant pipe dreams, the man’s doom was so palpable the emotion tugged at the back of my throat. Like Jamie Tyrone, Hickey’s entire life had been a lie.
Though I felt bereaved, drained and in-over-my-head, this was, I figured, intelligent suffering. There was a wisdom and a resonance in these characters and situations, and aside from being completely absorbed into the dramas, saddened like never before, I felt as if I was learning something invaluable about the defeat and triumph of the human spirit. This was no cheap soap opera manipulation or gaudy sitcom bathos; this was the most noble kind of sorrow, penned by two of the most creative dramatic minds America has produced. This was something I could no doubt use in my life, if I could only stop bawling long enough to see straight.
By April of that year I had written two lengthy papers, one on the rape of Blanche Dubois and one on the almost unbearable desperation of O’Neill’s masterpiece, Long Day’s Journey Into Night. We had one more paper due before the end of term; I had planned an in-depth study of Miller’s The Price. But the tremendous grief of becoming engrossed in Long Day’s Journey rendered me incompetent to dissect another American play. I was now warding off an impending depression after inadvertently adopting the grief of the Lomans, the Tyrones and the Kowalskis. After making their grief my own, because I have never learned how to mitigate my passion for literature, because I for some reason like to suffer with the people in the pages. My guess is that assuming the sorrow of fictional characters is my way of assimilating the text, of making literature matter, of putting it to some use: I agonize with them as if they are loved ones, and the anguish I feel while reading a depressing play, novel or story is, in the end, akin to having actually lived the hurtful experience myself. It is the most meaningful and profitable sort of vicariousness. Willy Loman becomes my father, Mary Tyrone becomes my mother, Jamie Tyrone and Hickey are my brothers, Blanche Dubois is my sister. We are in it together, like a mostly poisonous marriage, for better or worse.
My own father would have probably balked at my so strongly identifying with the pathos of fictional characters, since there is more than enough actual pain to go around, and since he himself brooked more than his fair share of it: abandoned by a perfidious wife, raising three kids on his own, laboring twelve-hour days with hammer in hand, struggling to make it through a maelstrom of debt. Anyway, he wasn’t a reader because reading has no utilitarian function; why read when there are houses to build, cabinets to construct and lawns to mow. (The only book I can remember my father ever mentioning to me was the autobiography of Chuck Norris, the martial arts champion and B-movie hero. He told me one afternoon, “Chuck Norris says that Bruce Lee was pound-for-pound the strongest man he ever knew.”)
My father was an admirer of the strength and skill of manliness. I secretly suspected that he thought literature was for sissies, for guys who cannot deal with “the real world” and so retreat into stories, escape into fantasy. He would not have accepted the notion that fiction is truer than life, that literature is really the antithesis of escapism, and that the lessons learned between two covers are usable in the world. For him, and so many others like him—the mighty proletarian, the American male with a mountain on his back—the lessons learned from the everyday grate of being were more than enough to ensure survival, more than enough to callous his hands and heart against the world’s sharp sting. He was too tough for books, and I’ve spent most of my life wishing I were too.
When he crashed his motorcycle on a serpentine Pennsylvania road in the horrible heat of a May afternoon, I was about to sit down to begin work on The Price. I had just finished clearing my head in order to focus on it. I used to dread Sunday because it was the day my father and his cohorts raced through the brown and green countryside with their fierce screaming colors of red, silver and white. Those Japanese superbikes in concert must have seemed like an apocalyptic intrusion to all the fauna and farmers on either side of the road. My father had seen his buddies die on roads like that, and had been to a handful of funerals. He had seen his own father (the motorcycle patriarch of my family) crash right in front of him and then spend days in the hospital with broken bones aplenty. And he himself had crashed twice before: he walked away from the first unscathed and suffered only a broken collarbone from the second. His two brothers had stopped riding altogether, and sold their bikes, because they had wives and young children. Sunday afternoons were turning into deadly games of cat-and-mouse with Pennsylvania state troopers.
My father couldn’t quit, though. Perhaps because he was no longer married, because his children were grown, but mostly because he had the fever. And he knew the risk; he knew what could happen at 130 mph. I suppose it was that risk from an ungodly speed that made for the exhilarating surge of adrenaline. Riding that motorcycle was the closest thing to being an astronaut. I’m sure he thought he was living the only way he should, with a notion that the highest velocity can bring a man to the brink of godliness. Speed, like strength and stamina, is an attribute of the real man, an attribute that distinguishes survivors from failures, men from boys. But if I had had my choice my father would have been playing racquetball in ugly shorts, goggles and wristbands, stopping every fifteen minutes to sip bottled spring water. There are other ways to be a man.
Then it all happened much the way I had always imagined it would: I got a phone call at school, there appeared a buzzing in my brain, everything went numb, and then I went home. I was twenty-five years old, my father forty-seven. Before I left my dorm that day I called my professor to tell him what had happened, that I would not be able to finish the Miller paper. He said that the work I had already done on O’Neill and Williams was sufficient for completion of the course, and that my notes on The Price could serve in place of a polished paper. I would later discover that he had lost his own father at roughly the same age; his empathy would be a great help to me in the coming weeks. After the phone call my girlfriend drove me to my grandparents’ house and we both waited on the brick steps for them to return from the Pennsylvania hospital. Everything I was seeing—blades of grass, cracks in the pavement, the passing clouds and fluttering birds—I was seeing for the first time.
I spoke at his funeral. It was a last-minute decision made in the limousine on the way from the church to the cemetery. How I was capable of the decision to speak is confusing to me now, unless I wasn’t as incapacitated as I remember, unless the absolute need for expression overruled the burden of sorrow. Unless instinct took over and left me functioning on some kind of autopilot. Freud once wrote that the death of the father is the single most defining moment of a man’s life, and I was acutely aware of this. I was aware of the immensity. It is this very immensity that makes the brain buzz and the senses dull. It is an immensity both within and without. The immensity of the task upon us, the task ahead. The immensity of this naked truth, the appalling, irreversible loneliness of it. Over the course of those few intervening days poetry and prose had been sparking uncontrollably in my mind: a line from Tennyson, a stanza from Wordsworth, a sentence from Carver, a paragraph from Hemingway. The minuscule depression I had been suffering all semester as a result of immersion in the American dramatists—in addition to the writer’s common woes that have always affected me—seemed now like a laughable banality.
I remember telling the hundreds of mourners at the funeral that this grief felt like acid coursing through my veins, throughout each limb, destroying my organs and singeing my spirit. I remember telling them that no one had possessed the right to ask my father to stop riding that bike, and if he had stopped in order to mollify our concern it would have been a death of another kind. I of course told them that this felt like a nightmare, because it’s the easiest thing to say when a situation is too dreadful for words. I told them that this day, May 11, was my birthday, and to bury your father on the day of your birth is to become truly born.
If I was waxing poetic at the funeral it was only because I didn’t know what else to say, although I was somehow aware of not wanting to sound too Romantic, which is almost impossible when your young father’s casket is gleaming before you in the midday sun. I was falling back on all the words I had ever read, on all the enrichment I had gained from the years of reading and studying literature. The lines of verse and prose speaking inside my skull somehow made the whole calamity more endurable. The words were knowledge and consolation, they were the promise of a better day, and I felt their power right away, right in the midst of the worst week I am likely to ever know. The feelings were oddly similar to those I had experienced after seeing Death of a Salesman one year earlier. I couldn’t have guessed then that one was actually preparation for the other. That my intuitive defenses immediately sought poetic expression seems to me now extraordinary, although perhaps it should not: every piercing line of poetry and every songful sentence of prose becomes a piece of armor to fortify the soul against the horror of being alive, to aid the human animal in his ridiculous war against the stipulations of existence. If some feel that literature is nourishment, it is to me more befittingly battle gear. Willy Loman’s death was a Kevlar vest that would help protect me from the massive artillery of my own father’s death. I would be knocked down, pummeled, bruised and broken, but I would survive.
When I was finished speaking at the funeral I placed a rose on my father’s casket, and then walked over to kiss my grandmother. The following week I would learn that a longtime friend of my father, a fellow builder, after hearing my eulogy that day, said of me, “He’s a man. To stand there, to say those things. He’s a man.”
My girlfriend and I spent that summer at my godfather’s house in suburban Maplewood, New Jersey, and we resigned ourselves to a regimen of reading, watching films, walking into town, barbecuing and sunbathing in the backyard. And I waited, day after day, for the collapse. I waited for depression and debilitation to enter me like an arrow. And while I waited, my reading agenda was, incredibly enough, the entire canon of Eugene O’Neill, including volumes of criticism and the mammoth biography by Arthur and Barbara Gelb. This seems incredible now not least because O’Neill is the author of what Richard Eyre has called “the saddest play ever written,” the play Harold Bloom has said is “too painful to be forgotten by any of us.” O’Neill himself famously called it “a play of old sorrow, written in tears and blood.” In the abyss of my despair I was welcoming even more hurt into my life, the release of my own tears and blood, knowing full well how Long Day’s Journey had affected me just one month earlier. Rereading the play then seems like a step toward suicide, and yet that was exactly what I did, and not to further diminish my will to continue but, I realized later, to reinvigorate it, to somehow become refueled by O’Neill’s theater of pain. That I wanted to sit down again with Long Day’s Journey so soon after my father’s death is perhaps evidence that my judgment was daring and a bit self-destructive. Evidence that I wasn’t right.
But this was my impulse, knowing on some visceral level that the anguish of the Tyrone family would offer me an inkling of enlightenment. It was not a case of misery wanting company, but a case of misery granting the impetus to improve. If Long Day’s Journey is in fact “the saddest play ever written,” few can deny that it is also one of the most powerful and imperishable. Its anguish is almost addictive, one page to the next, and although I expected to put the play down with a head full of fog and a breast weighted with remorse, I wanted to emerge a more complete human being, with a hint of an answer under my belt, my universe enlarged, if only an inch. Therein lies the reason we read literature in the first place. Such sorrow is not merely depressing, as many people like to pretend—it is wholly constructive. Once the fog cleared I could begin the process of betterment, of taking into my own life the wisdom from fictional struggles now indelibly imbedded in my heart and mind. The anguish of the Tyrone family would intersect with my own, and from that intersection I would go on.
Still, O’Neill’s biography reads like a diagnosis of melancholia, like a list of reasons to suck on a tailpipe or take a power-tool to your arteries. His alcoholism and bout with tuberculosis; the deaths of his parents and brother, one immediately after the other; his hurtful marriages to women who resented him; the estrangement from his eldest son (who eventually killed himself); the rapid deterioration of his physical and mental health—O’Neill’s life was neither pretty nor enviable. It was invariably afflicted with self-abasement and a paralyzing depression, and it shows in his work. If any American writer “speaks the shade” it is most certainly O’Neill. Even his comparatively less agonizing work—A Touch of the Poet, Hughie, Desire Under the Elms, Mourning Becomes Electra—is fraught with an existential loathing and torment that often take his characters to the very threshold of desperation. And investing only an ounce of yourself in his life and work is an exhaustive expedition that brings to the surface your own family’s dysfunction and disappointment. It is a reliving of every hurtful holiday and every hateful feud; a reliving of every tear ever shed in your childhood home. I was trying to avoid becoming completely incapacitated, and perhaps hospitalized, by opening up before me this man’s hurtful life.
The impulse to gravitate to his work was much too strong to dismiss, and I didn’t spend any time debating its potentially adverse effects on my emotional health. Ours would be an affinity of anguish, a union where the nexus is indeed tears and blood. It would not be for any Romantic ethos, but for the goal of reaching the land of light via the only possible route: over the darkest sea of sadness. All of life is a perennial grasping after that light, a viewing of it from the shadows, a quest akin to Valery’s contention that “to live means to lack something at every moment.” What we lack is happiness, an absurd notion we just cannot dispose of, despite Swift’s defining it as “the state of being well-deceived.” Of course the “night” of O’Neill’s title is the permanent darkness of death, and the “long day’s journey” is the lifetime of hurt preceding that darkness. The irony is that a life’s search for light is a search for deception, a search that must always remain unfulfilled and must necessarily lead to darkness. But search we will.
I was at that time faced with the old cliché that one has to travel through hell to attain his heaven. Mine was not a fear of perdition or a pursuit of paradise. I wanted only to make sense of my father’s death and find a way to live with it, to digest it, and to overcome the torment of having to exist without him. I wanted to begin the long day’s journey to a possible recovery, to avoid the crumble and collapse I felt bearing down on me. And so O’Neill was my Virgil, and I was guided, again, through the inferno of the American family.
II. THE BIG FESTIVAL
“Tragedy is restful because you know that there is no more hope, dirty sneaking hope; that you are caught, caught at last like a rat in a trap.”
Many literary agents and editors refuse to invest in dark novels and stories because it is the safe route. Unfortunately, this is a vast underestimation of countless intelligent readers, and an insult to them as well. The notion that those readers cannot handle or do not want what is too bleak is as fatuous as it is condescending. If that were the case Salinger would have never published “A Perfect Day for Bananafish,” Max Perkins would have flushed A Farewell to Arms down the commode, much of Faulkner would have never made it out of Mississippi, Plath’s poems would be sitting undiscovered in some desk drawer, and Carver’s forlorn couples would have vanished into oblivion. And these are only the most obvious twentieth-century American examples. Once you get into names like Dostoevsky, Tsvetayeva, Beckett and de Sade—never mind the Greeks, the Hebrew Bible, Shakespeare’s tragedies and Holocaust literature—it’s one big festival of morbidity.
Intelligent readers, however, do not set the market standard, many as they may be, since they are far outnumbered by the sugar-dipped and delusive fans of Danielle Steel. It is false Romantic nostalgia to say that citizens and politicians were once upon a time much more literate, and cynical pessimism to believe that the American public has lost a great amount of brain cells in the last fifty years. Popular culture has always clashed with the more intelligent and literary endeavors of a society, and Americans have always been more or less disapproving of an artist’s gloomy portrayals, since they are an anathema to the founding ideals of positivity and progress—America itself exists as an entity of hope, and a work of art that runs contrary to that hope is quickly ostracized. Two centuries ago William Dean Howells quipped in a letter to Edith Wharton, “What the American public always wants is a tragedy with a happy ending.” And in his 1958 study of Hawthorne, Poe and Melville, The Power of Blackness, Harry Levin reminds us that “at least since the age of Howells writers have been under pressure to dwell on the smiling aspects of life. Their darker musings… have been further obscured by the reluctance of readers to look beneath surfaces and face diabolic meanings.” A depressing tale has always been a difficult sell.
But never before have there been such tempting and distracting alternatives to literature, depressing or otherwise. The phonograph, radio, telephone and television were only minor obstacles for the book to overcome. Add to the mix Nintendo, VCRs, DVDs, pay-per-view, CD players, CD ROMs, MP3s, hand-held organizers, cell phones, email, chat rooms, the dot coms and dot orgs, and the average individual has enough deflection from literature to last a complete empty electronic lifetime. These gadgets and services, while marketed under the beneficent guise of connection and communion, are really a headlong retreat from the world and from each other. They provide the exact opposite of literature’s healthy gains, depriving us of what we most need to endure. Mario Vargas Llosa, writing recently in The New Republic, theorized about an impoverished world that has pushed literature to the margins of its society, adding that “this cybernetic world, in spite of its prosperity and power, its high standard of living and its scientific achievement, would be profoundly uncivilized and utterly soulless—a resigned humanity of post-literacy automatons who have abdicated freedom.” Talk about grim.
When people do manage to drag themselves away from electronic distraction and finally pick up a book, it is likely to be saccharine fluff or a hardcore sob story swollen with spurious sentiment. At a recent house-warming party I strolled around asking people (mostly women) what they read, and if they would read a novel they knew to be depressing or joyless. Every individual confessed to intentional avoidance of stories that don’t offer hope or stories that might be too dark. One woman essentially told me that she prefers living life as an ostrich, her head down in a hole, simply ignoring the horrible truths of our existence, simply pretending that they are not there, that everything is peachy with the world. She didn’t want a novel or story to remind her that everything, in fact, is not so peachy.
Kafka wrote this in a letter to his friend Oskar Pollak:
I believe one should read only the books that bite and sting. If a book we’re reading doesn’t wake us up with a punch on the head, what are we reading it for?… We need the books which affect us like a disaster, which pain us deeply, like the death of someone dearer to us than ourselves, like being lost in the woods, far from everyone, like a suicide…
Agents and editors, though, know the book’s stiff competition, and if they are going to survive in a consumer TechnoLand that caters to self-esteem-starved people, they cannot be in the business of peddling sorrow. They cannot represent new work that punches people on the head, or depressing work that is going to force them to face what they spend a fortune on trying to evade. The recent rise of independent and university presses has toiled to balance the turf, to publish work that is darker and more daring than the mainstream product, but they simply do not have the influence and reach of the major houses, and it is unlikely that they ever will. The general trend continues to be toward stories that are light and easy, by writers who eschew their “darker musings” and can be easily packaged with a wink and a smile.
And yet a curious proliferation in a culture that does not wish to look upon the truth is that of Holocaust literature. Every week sees the publication of some new study of Hitler, Nazi Germany and the almost unutterable horror of the death camps. Agents, editors and readers do not object to this darkness because it is history, because it is fact and we have been given the opportunity to learn from it. We cannot as conscionable human beings deny the factual accounts of the Holocaust’s carnage, but it is for some reason acceptable to deny life’s other carnage if expressed in fiction. If that woman at the housewarming party had told me she chooses not to believe the Holocaust ever occurred—just as easily as she turns a blind eye to the other wretchedness in life—there would have been a unanimous request for a public stoning. People are erroneously hung up on the idea that fiction is not true, and if they are going to waste their time reading something untrue it better be uplifting. And since we are a culture that does not know how to deal with death, either in language or in conception (my father did not pass on or pass away; he was killed, plain and simple; he is dead, plain and simple), if we are going to read a fictional story about death, it better be draped in allegory and symbolism, which is how we digest the Greeks and Shakespeare. That mode of digestion does not and cannot apply to Italo Calvino, Paul Celan, Elie Wiesel and other Holocaust writers. The death camps are not mythos, they cannot be relegated to allegory, their reality does not lend itself to symbolism. We are stuck with their gelid actuality; we are sentenced to their incomprehensibility.
The translator Michael Hamburger, writing about Celan’s later poems, has said that the “darkness” is there “necessarily and genetically,” which is a startling concept even for poems that take as their subject the worst blight of the twentieth century. To contend that the darkness is necessary and genetic is to say that it is encoded in the very fabric of our being, that the human animal has no escape from horror and that our only mode of dealing is to express the fear and absurdity in a poem or other work of art. Upon expression the horror somehow seems more digestible. Literature then becomes our shield, and those who choose to read only happy-go-lucky fluff are not only deprived of imagination and wealth of experience, but wholly vulnerable to the worst blows life can deal.
The entirety of World Wars I and II, more heinous than The Iliad and The Odyssey, is a caustic reality that must be reckoned with, whether in a biography of Himmler, novels like All Quiet on the Western Front or The Thin Red Line, or a drama like Wiesel’s The Trial of God. If we cannot as a rule deny the hell of history we should as well not deny that hell when it is fictionally represented in everyday characters and situations; when it is expressed in a short story or novel. If darkness and horror are indeed genetic constants in humanity, then our stories and novels have the obligation to tackle them truthfully, to wrestle them down onto the page with the purpose of clarifying their meanings and learning to live with their implications. To do otherwise would be shameful cowardice. The entire reign of Homo sapiens is one long grim narrative, and a person would certainly have a comical time trying to prove that the history of the human being is not one horror story after another. The Crusades, the Spanish Inquisition, the Middle Passage, Gettysburg, Auschwitz, and ten thousand other examples… take your pick.
There are, of course, other non-Holocaust-related exceptions to the wink-and-smile ethos of publishing, and those exceptions are mostly writers who established their names and followings prior to the Great Distraction. Richard Ford, Russell Banks and Tim O‘Brien can all be pretty dreary. Cormac McCarthy’s early novels, like Child of God and Blood Meridian, are brutal stories that portray man as a primitive, inadequate animal doomed to nothingness. Suicide is a factor in nearly all of William Styron’s novels. The stories of Richard Yates are hurtful explorations of the small daily doses of anguish and disappointment that eventually accumulate to make a miserable failure of an entire life. Richard Russo, writing about Yates, has beautifully stated, “The excitement one feels reading these dark stories, I believe, is the exhilaration of encountering, recognizing, and embracing the truth. It’s not a pretty truth? Too bad.”
Russo couldn’t be more correct: there is indeed an exhilaration to be felt while glimpsing the opaque and often devastating truth of our lives. The exhilaration results from standing face to face with our adversaries—depression and death—and living to fight another day. There is also a bravery and dignity in knowing that you refused to stick your head down in a hole, that you refused to run away and be shot in the back.
Llosa has this to say:
The truths that [literature] reveals are not always flattering; and sometimes the image of ourselves that emerges in the mirror of novels and poems is the image of a monster. This happens when we read about the horrendous sexual butchery fantasized by de Sade, or the dark lacerations and brutal sacrifices that fill the cursed books of Sacher-Masoch and Bataille. At times the spectacle is so offensive and ferocious that it becomes irresistible. Yet the worst in these pages is not the blood, the humiliation, the abject love of torture; the worst is the discovery that this violence and this excess are not foreign to us, that they are a profound part of humanity.
When we open de Sade we are not only face to face with our adversaries, we are face to face with ourselves.
Once you leave the sunlight of American soil, the list of darkness and depression is long and impelling. The most important and influential writers, poets and dramatists of the Western world have made death and despondency their playthings. There is not enough room here to list every major writer who has forged a philosophy of despair, and in any case I would be certain to overlook many of them, since there are novels and plays I have yet to discover. The darkness does not have to be de Sade’s monstrous creed of flesh, or Poe’s danse macabre, but can be the quiet inner agony of Virginia Woolf. As Philip Sidney aptly wrote: “I sought fit words to paint the blackest face of woe.” And Thomas Wyatt put it this way: “Slaughter, wrath, waste and noise are my children dear.”
They are, like it or not, children who belong to each of us.
“In despair there are the most intense enjoyments, especially when one is acutely conscious of the hopelessness of one’s position.”
It is not my intention to be the Romantic aesthete who posits that the only worthwhile literature is dark and painful. Some people are decidedly more affected by comedy than tragedy, and so delight in the novels of Jane Austen, the plays of Joe Orton and the films of Woody Allen. (Horace Walpole: “This world is a comedy to those who think, a tragedy to those who feel”) Although I objectively recognize the value of Austen, and want to one day warm up to her novels, nothing bores me more than Pride and Prejudice. And although Orton and Allen make me laugh, the laughter is but brief. Loot is so funny I cannot read it without stomach cramps, but that play does not follow me into my dreams, it does not haunt my waking hours and force a reevaluation of my entire self.
Comedy is always incomplete communion, since we are constantly distancing and removing ourselves with laughter, and with looking over at the next guy to see if he got the joke or not. This is the reason why Long Day’s Journey Into Night appears to have a firmer connection with reality than does The Importance of Being Ernest. Even if we were to be completely consumed with sobs during the O’Neill play, those sobs would only serve to further deepen our relation to the drama. In this regard tears are truly the opposite of laughter. Of course we all enjoy a good laugh, and almost nobody can solicit one like the incomparable Wilde, but the tears inspired by Long Day’s Journey last a lifetime; with Wilde I’m done laughing before I even leave the theater. My suggestion is that some of us, for a multitude of reasons, have come to find more intrinsic value in suffering than in gladness, a tendency Harry Levin has called “the dark wisdom of our deeper minds.” A vast swaying field of tall sunflowers is a gorgeous sight, but flowers, sunsets and smiling babies do not hold the patent for beauty. An ashen field strewn with skulls under a blood-red sky can be just as beautiful if it offers an intimation of truth. We can sing with Goethe’s famous antihero, “Instead of all that life can hold / Of Nature’s free, god-given breath, / I take to me the smoke and mold / Of skeletons and dust and death.”
The seeming paradox here is that in a culture that goes to great extremes to rid itself of depression and all things depressing—think of how quickly images of the Trade Towers were eradicated from all signs, advertisements and movies—there exists such a proliferation of the darkest drama known to man: near constant nationwide revivals of Aeschylus, Sophocles and Euripides, Hamlet, Macbeth, Othello and King Lear, to say nothing of the film adaptations. The answer to this paradox, I think, lies in our collective apprehension of the Greeks and of Shakespeare. We have come to view them with such immutable reverence that their work has assumed the status of divinity, easily transposed to allegory and symbolism, easily distanced from our individual lives with the use of mythos and other languages, and with the steady passage of time. That they also have ancient historical elements to them is another effective tool for the distancing of their horrors: works of ancient history aren’t supposed to be depressing, they’re supposed to be informative. Students don’t read history in order to be personally moved, they read it in order to pass the upcoming test. Greek drama, Homer and Shakespeare have become so familiar to us, their stories so absorbed into the texture of our culture, that we no longer recognize them as bleak and ominous. So forget about being depressed by the suicides of Ophelia and Antigone. They are now only worthy of our study, not our emotion.
Yet a short list of characters from the extant Greek tragedies will serve to demonstrate the utter hopelessness of these stories, of lives with no chance of outrunning looming Necessity: Ajax, Oedipus, Jocasta, Hippolytus, Pentheus, Agave, Antigone, Iphiginia, Clytemnestra, Aegistus, Agamemnon, Hecuba, Andromache. The Iliad and The Odyssey are replete with violence and bloodshed, and still our high school teachers instruct us to search for what Homer “is really saying,” as if suffering merely masks an underlining of goodness and morality. As if the stories are in and of themselves worthless, a notion fifth-century Athenians would have scorned. After enduring countless hours of tragic trilogies at the Festival Dionysus, the Athenians needed satyr plays to help sober them from an intoxicating solemnity. The representations on stage, the stories before them, were an important preparation for life’s certain blackness; or as Aristotle famously argues, tragedy “effects through pity and fear the catharsis of such emotions.” Without this catharsis, without the rehearsal of this head-on confrontation with the world’s worst possibilities, we are festering cauldrons of dread and frustration ready to detonate at any instant. “Our deeper minds” atrophy in lassitude and false security, in delusion and inactivity. Tragedy is a tool; as Milton puts it: “things of melancholic hue and quality are used against melancholy, sour against sour, salt to remove salt humours.” The Athenians understood this perhaps better than any society since, and in their love of tragedy were not a negative or nightmarish people, but were in every way, as Nietzsche believed, ecstatic celebrants of life.
Arthur Miller wrote this in 1949:
There is a misconception of tragedy with which I have been struck in review after review, and in many conversations with writers and readers alike. It is the idea that tragedy is of necessity allied to pessimism. Even the dictionary says nothing more about the word than it means a story with a sad or unhappy ending. This impression is so firmly fixed that I almost hesitate to claim that in truth tragedy implies more optimism in its author than does comedy, and that its final result ought to be the reinforcement of the onlooker’s brightest opinions of the human animal.
In many ways drama is more naturally accommodating to darkness than is fiction, a legacy inherited from the Greek tragedians and then perfected in Shakespeare. The reason for this is because drama is movement, action, what the Greeks called praxis, and it corresponds to the central movement of all life, which is always toward cessation. Novels like James Agee’s A Death in the Family or Malcolm Lowry’s Under the Volcano are overwhelmingly sad, pervaded by heartache from cover to cover, but cannot rightly be called tragic, or even dark.
I was at Harvard Summer School studying Greek tragedy under Albert Henricks when John F. Kennedy Jr. crashed his plane into the waters off Martha’s Vineyard. The headlines were filled with the word “tragedy,” and Henricks had to remind us that what had happened was indeed unfortunate but was by no means tragic. As Miller suggested, there is a pervasive misuse of the term, and over time it has come to mean any situation that has to do with killing, dying or disfigurement. We also use the term to describe an awful event that was accidental or otherwise avoidable—a deadly car wreck, a madman on a rooftop with an automatic weapon, a child who could not get a heart transplant in time—whereas tragedy in the classical sense is the opposite of accidental: it is inescapable. Kennedy’s crash, then, has more in common with the melted wings of Icarus than the irreversible fate of Oedipus. Kennedy, like my father, had a choice in his demise. Oedipus did not.
Though many of these adjectives appear interchangeable—dark, depressing, tragic—what distinguishes tragic stories from work that is merely joyless is mostly the distinction of tone, and the central, irrevocable action toward a horrible destiny. The tragic hero is doomed regardless of what steps he takes to avoid that doom. He cannot outrun looming Necessity. But the term “tragic” has a curious power in our everyday affairs, and we will continue to use it outside the classical sense because it fits our needs of expression. Right after 9/11 we heard the term on an almost daily basis; if an event is tragic it means it is inexplicably grim. It means it is more than we wish to witness or live with. And Willy Loman’s death will always be tragic to us precisely because we wish to believe that his story didn’t have to end that way. The governing power has changed from the face of Zeus to the faceless bureaucratic entity that controls the common man; and if the Greek heroes had no chance of outwitting the gods, in our modern democratic society we need to believe that the Willy Lomans do have a chance. His failure is all the more hurtful to us because he tried so hard to succeed; his failure is our failure. That is another reason why stories of darkness and depression are such a turnoff to so many people: they are a slap in the face, they spit on our efforts to succeed despite the overbearing odds. If we identify too strongly with Oedipus, if we let his grief consume us, the fear is that we will recognize in our own lives the same futility and the same ineluctable conclusion.
Despite the old controversy about whether or not it is truly tragic in the classical sense, what is Death of a Salesman if not a two-hour mimesis of the most painful endeavors of being alive? There are no rays of hope there: Willy is dead, Linda will go the rest of her life engulfed by guilt and remorse, and Biff and Happy will never rise above the complacence and mediocrity that has so defined them. And yet the 1999 Broadway revival sold out nearly every performance, won Brian Dennehey the Tony Award for best actor, and is arguably the single most important piece of twentieth-century American drama. The triumph of that play, and of A Streetcar Named Desire and A Moon for the Misbegotten, is in its inspiration of catharsis: Willy Loman suffers so that we do not have to; Blanche Dubois goes mad so that we may stay sane; Jamie Tyrone drinks himself to death so that we may live. The experiences offered by the dramas are emotional and intellectual exercises, cognitive and visceral preparation, boot-camp for when the battle comes. Depressing stories, tragic novels and dark poems offer us the same salvation. Like Greek and Shakespearian tragedy, Miller, Williams and O’Neill are a chorus of despair, and they are never out of production; they are never in want of crooning.
We can vilify depressing art all we want, but we need it, and we love it. It allows us “the most intense enjoyments.”
IV. A REMINDER
OF THE SHADOW
“Dark memories, drop by drop, return,
Til stubborn hearts are schooled by pain”
When Goethe published The Sorrows of Young Werther in 1774 it is said to have sent a shockwave of suicides across the country. The novel is the story of a lover doomed to unrequited passion, who in his great grief ends his life with a bullet. The act must have seemed like a reasonable one to many a depressed individual, and yet any rational person knows that art cannot take a life, only enhance it. Perhaps Goethe’s novel nudged the suicides over the edge of their despondency, but they must have been inching precariously close to that edge for some time. Arthur Miller has written that “no power on earth can break the hold of a man with his hands around his own throat,” and I would bet that the poor souls who killed themselves after reading Young Werther would have strangled themselves to death regardless. Goethe’s novel is the presentation of free will, the presentation of a choice: we can choose termination or we can choose the battle. Termination will take with it all the heartache of the world, but it will also take away the occasional victories that make the battle worth our effort, and worth the gallons of blood we lose along the way. The battle’s outcome is predetermined in that we must necessarily be defeated; every organism must eventually cease. But in the meantime, we must let Werther die for us, we must accept his sacrifice for our present preservation; we cannot allow him to make the choice for us, we cannot allow him to kill us. His death, like Willy Loman’s, is the messiah’s death: it is the reason for our survival. When D. H. Lawrence wrote, “Ours in essentially a tragic age, so we refuse to take it tragically,” he meant we must refuse to let the tragedy destroy us. We must choose the battle and live for the small victories. Because there is a dignity in survival, because organic life is infused with the stubborn will to be, and nature is resolutely opposed to self-destruction.
Darkness in literature, the plays and poems and novels and stories that depress us, is perhaps a slippery topic if only because different people are depressed by different forces, or by different degrees of the same force. And if one is to define “dark” as any work that contains death and disfigurement, sadness and despair, depictions of man as a doomed and humiliated beast, then very little work, literary or otherwise, can escape that label. Count the corpses the next time you pick up David Copperfield. And if people so abhorred death and darkness, think of all the titles we would have to change: Death in Venice, Death in the Woods, Death in the Afternoon, Death Comes for the Archbishop, The Death of the Heart, A Death in the Family, Death of a Salesman, The Death of Ivan Ilyich, Death in the Andes, As I Lay Dying, Darkness Visible, Lie Down in Darkness, Heart of Darkness, The Power of Darkness, This Wild Darkness, and my favorite Bruce Springsteen album, Darkness on the Edge of Town. Go to Amazon.com, punch in death and then darkness and you will get a combined tally of over sixteen-thousand titles.
A title or body count alone cannot make a novel or play dark, and it is not the darkness of events that so disturbs us, but rather the darkness of vision. Even if by the end of Hamlet the stage were not littered with so many bodies, the drama would remain steadfast in its singular vision of tragic events befalling both the innocent and guilty, both the benevolent and malicious, and steadfast in rendering those labels useless. Shakespeare’s vision of the tragic is, like the Greeks’, one of Necessity: his personalities are all too painfully human, fashioned by the world, with no hope of besting their flaws. The flaws become not the great tragic flaws of the Greek heroes, but rather the quotidian flaws of all people. Shakespeare continues with the dark domestic dramas that we find in the extant Greek tragedies, especially in The Agamemnon, The Libation Bearers, and the Theban plays of Sophocles. The unraveling of Shakespeare’s families, though, is not ordained from above but instead brought about by the family members themselves, which is precisely what we see in the plays of O’Neill, Williams and Miller.
Indeed one of the most prominent common threads in all of world literature is the family, and it is most often portrayed in an unflattering and odious light, rife with jealousy, perfidy and confusion. Strindberg, in The Son of a Servant, wrote that the family is “the home of all social evil, a charitable institution for comfortable women, an anchorage for house-fathers, and a hell for children.” That pretty much sums up world literature’s consensus of family.
In a recent course book for Johns Hopkins University there is a class titled “Dark Stories,” which proposes to teach “the art and technique of writing essays about family, disease, death, and other emotionally extreme subjects.” I wonder if it struck any of the faculty and student body as ironic or hilarious that family is equated with disease and death, and is in its totality considered “dark” and “emotionally extreme.” That certainly is not the popular and Christian opinion of family; most people, at least publicly, tend to see it as a safe haven, as the breeding ground for morals and values, and many on the far right believe it is an inviolable place of love and tenderness. Pat Robertson obviously has not read Eugene O’Neill. Long Day’s Journey Into Night is the most scathing indictment of family that I know, dreadful in its relentless insistence that family is the poisoned womb from which we are sent forth into the world, aching and contaminated. Few of us can have it as bad as the Tyrones. Yet O’Neill was not exaggerating, or being merely iconoclastic, in his depiction of family as mostly hurtful and menacing, and almost anywhere you look in world literature you’ll find the same kind of familial darkness: Tolstoy, Shaw, Chekhov, Hardy, Gide, Balzac; the wicked aunts and stepmothers of fairytales, and all the way back to the first family in the damned Garden of Eden. Judging from the way those luckless fools started out—booted from paradise, one son killed and the other sentenced to wander the Land of Nod—we should have known our family lives were going to be a bumpy ride. Perhaps Philip Larkin put it best of all: “They fuck you up, your mum and dad.”
My father would have slapped Philip Larkin upside the head, since he was a firm believer that family, for all its obvious pitfalls, is a mostly helpful and loving affair. He had reason to believe that: when my mother abandoned him, his parents, siblings, aunts, uncles and cousins came together to aid in the rearing of his three children. Since his death I have tried to emulate his best qualities, and every day I can hear him in my voice, in the cadence of my speech; I can see him in the way I stand, the way I walk, the way I lean against the counter, cross my arms in front of me and tilt my head. This physicality is the most prominent resemblance (in addition to a dash of misanthropy and a disgust for the common driver), because otherwise my father and I had very little in common. He was a champion wrestler, a profoundly talented carpenter, an early riser and absurdly hard worker, a stoic, a guy who endured truckloads of physical and emotional pain and kept on ticking, never skipped a beat. I read books, write stories, can hardly wake before noon, yawn at the mere idea of manual labor and shake in terror at the thought of having a child.
My father would have said that what one takes from pain is the integrity, and glory, of having survived it. My own experiences have shown me that what is possible through pain is knowledge and the will for expression: the knowledge that prepares one for survival, the will for expression that prompts all art. Knowledge and art are survival, even if they were not my father’s. I do not pretend to know how he, or anyone else, could endure without them. He would be extremely grateful to O’Neill, Wordsworth and Keats if he could know what solace they have been to me in the time since his fatal accident. If he could know the human beauty I find in the bleakest stories, and the helpful lines from Wordsworth that always ring in my mind:
Nothing can bring back the hour
Of splendour in the grass, of glory in the flower;
We will grieve not, rather find
Strength in what remains behind;
In the primal sympathy
Which having been must ever be;
In the soothing thoughts that spring
Out of human suffering
To paraphrase Saul Bellow, all writers are merely students of the literature that has so affected them. When 9/11 happened, it was an afflictive reminder of the human being’s depressing status on this planet. A reminder of how turning away from reason and constructing false realities can almost effortlessly lead to mass murder. A reminder of the shadow, always looming, always creeping in to cover us. All darkness is interior, and in this way the personalities of writers and artists inform their visions, which paint the portrait of our world and set the tone of our story. If that portrait, like the universe that begot us, is a colossal black canvas with only the occasional dot of color, so be it. If that story is somber, fraught with loss and devoid of hope, best to hear it for what it is. Like Beckett’s characters, we can’t go on, but we will. We will swallow the truth like defective medicine and go on. Our fathers and siblings will die, our friends and lovers will leave us, we will be “schooled by pain” and then, against the odds, we will continue. We will remain to tell the dark tale.
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