November 9, 2016
It is because I’m an incredibly privileged person that I’m able to say that I woke up this morning and felt for the first time in my life the particular despair that comes along with living in a country that seems to reject my kind. Perhaps, one must consider, it always has. My kind, in this instance, would be those who (at the very least) cannot tacitly abide vehement racism, sexism, homophobia, and xenophobia as the guiding lights of public discourse, and who therefore chose to vote otherwise. Maybe a lot of you feel this way, too. Maybe a lot of you have lived your entire lives amid this despair, and worse—maybe you and yours have always existed under some kind of actual threat.
Despair, as Kierkegaard argued, is the sickness unto death. Once you’ve got it, it’s there forever. This isn’t my introduction to the emotion, naturally, but it strikes me that despair is perhaps a fundamental component of the American fabric. How could it not be, when the promise of the Experiment engenders a hope so large that reality will never be able to fully accommodate it? It is at a moment like this when you can be forgiven for wondering what the hell all that hope is good for.
Today, I also feel a specific despair as an artist, more specifically as a writer.
I’ve never been one to believe unreasonably in the power of the written word; but neither am I as cynical as the writer Andre Dubus became—he faulted literature because The Iliad failed to prevent future wars. But the dread, last night, that came with seeing those many millions tally on the TV screen, ushering an avowed proponent of sexual assault into place as the leader of the free world, really does call into question whether any of this is worth it—writing, reading, making art that you hope will be shared.
What possible effect for good can any of it have?
Here’s what I’ve got, for now. If you are a reader, writer, artist, if you find yourself despairing about this very thing—I offer that you need to look no further than yourself for proof of the written word’s capacities.
Meager or not, solace is no small thing, and the solace I’m finding today is the same I’ve found many other times, by returning to words that have informed who I think I am—words that, on my better days, help me to be.
Below, I offer just a handful of passages that are helping me again, today. If you have any you’d like to share, I’d love to see those, too.
“…there is a point at which even grief feels absurd. And at this point, laughter gushes up to retrieve sanity…It is only later, when the pain is not so direct a threat to one’s own existence, that what was learned in that moment of comical lunacy is understood. Such moments rob us of both youth and vanity. But perhaps they are also times when greater disciplines are born.”
– Alice Walker, “Looking for Zora”
“And yet it may be that what we have is a world not on the verge of flying apart, but an uncreated one—still in shapeless fragments waiting to be put together properly. I imagine that when we want something better, we may have it: at perhaps no greater price than we have already paid for the worse.”
– Katherine Anne Porter, “The Future Is Now”
“Hatred, which could destroy so much, never failed to destroy the man who hated and this was an immutable law…It began to seem that one would have to hold in the mind forever two ideas which seemed to be in opposition. The first idea was the acceptance, the acceptance, totally without rancor, of life as it is, and men as they are: in the light of this idea, it goes without saying that injustice is a commonplace. But this did not mean that one could be complacent, for the second idea was of equal power: that one must never, in one’s own life, accept these injustices as commonplace but must fight them with all one’s strength.”
– James Baldwin, “Notes of a Native Son”
“We teach our children one thing only, as we were taught: to wake up. We teach our children to look alive there, to join by words and activities the life of human culture on the planet’s crust. As adults we are almost all adept at waking up. We have so mastered the transition we have forgotten we ever learned it. Yet it is a transition we make a hundred times a day, as, like so many will-less dolphins, we plunge and surface, lapse and emerge. We live half our waking lives and all of our sleeping lives in some private, useless, and insensible waters we never mention or recall. Useless, I say. Valueless, I might add—until someone hauls their wealth up to the surface and into the wide-awake city, in a form that people can use.”
– Annie Dillard, “Total Eclipse”
“Old bureaucrat, my comrade, it is not you who are to blame. No one ever helped you to escape. You, like a termite, built your peace by blocking up with cement every chink and cranny through which the light might pierce. You rolled yourself up into a ball in your genteel security, in routine, in the stifling conventions of provincial life, raising a modest rampart against the winds and the tides and the stars. You have chosen not to be perturbed by great problems, having trouble enough to forget your own fate as a man. You are not the dweller upon an errant planet and do not ask yourself questions to which there are no answers. Nobody grasped you by the shoulder while there was still time. Now the clay of which you were shaped has dried and hardened, and naught in you will ever awaken the sleeping musician, the poet, the astronomer that possibly inhabited you in the beginning.”
-Antoine de Saint-Exupery, “Wind, Sand, & Stars”
And, for good measure:
“Every line of serious work that I have written since 1936 has been written, directly or indirectly, against totalitarianism and for democratic socialism, as I understand it. It seems to me nonsense, in a period like our own, to think that one can avoid writing of such subjects. Everyone writes of them in one guise or another. It is simply a question of which side one takes and what approach one follows. And the more one is conscious of one’s political bias, the more chance one has of acting politically without sacrificing one’s esthetic and intellectual integrity…”
– George Orwell, “Why I Write”
Nicholas Mainieri’s debut novel, The Infinite, will be published by Harper Perennial in November of 2016. Born in Miami, Florida, in 1983, Nicholas has also lived in Colorado and Indiana. After graduating from the University of Notre Dame, he earned his MFA from the University of New Orleans. His short stories have appeared in the Southern Review, the Southern Humanities Review, and Salamander, among other literary magazines. He currently teaches writing and literature at Nicholls State University, located in Lafourche Parish, Louisiana. He resides in New Orleans with his wife and son.