On Despair

 ‘No. I didn’t cry … I just kept thinking that when human beings get that way, they’re no good for anything.’

Osamu Dazai, No Longer Human pg. 176

Human suffering romanticised; a genre of drama which entertains the misery of the unfortunate, that of the tragedy. Consistent in the human condition is the notion of sadness, best embodied by despair. Though painful, it’s a necessary aspect of living. In this article, the theme of despair in the arts will be explored: through an analysis of the nuances of the Athenian tragedy to better comprehend the roots of despair in western literature; specifically referencing the tragedy of Icarus through the lens of a renaissance artist. Followed by a short discourse on Dostoevsky’s Notes from the Underground, a novel that has been a foundation for modern psychology. Lastly, engaging in an evaluation of Osamu’s No Longer Human, to understand a non-western approach to despair.

Throughout, a strong reference to philosophical understandings of despair will be made to better grasp the complexities which these stories entertain. Eventually, a consolidation of the despair presented will conclude the article and highlight the nuance of suffering in literature.

On the Athenian Tragedy

Cascading towards the water, casting a shadow like that of a dying swallow; we find Icarus. Though we’ve heard his story, I do not wish to entertain it. His death, as far as I’m concerned, was a trivial one. As depicted in ‘Landscape with the Fall of Icarus’, Icarus is known to none. Hanging in Belgium’s largest museum, the Musée des Beaux Arts, the painting is a dedicated copy of the lost original by the Flemish artist Pieter Bruegel the Elder.  

Oil-tempera, 29 inches x 44 inches. Museum of Fine Arts, Brussels.

Pieter Brueghel, The Fall of Icarus

Throughout the landscape our eyes are guided from the forefront of the ploughman with his steed, the shepherd anticipating the weather, then towards the backdrop to an orderly city. After careful meditation do we notice the drowning boy. The Tragedy of Icarus here is portrayed as little more than a drop in a pond. Though I’m sure we are to lament his story, as a metaphor of pride or naivety, I’d rather take this opportunity Brueghel has presented to admire it as one which should reassure us of our own misery.

Ancient Athenian dramatists took great pride in writing tragedies; using plays to portray charismatic individuals with endearing characteristics and express fatal flaws which would amount to their downfall. In a society where being ostracised or sentenced to death was common, a form of communicating the idea that horrible things happen to virtuous people was in good health. Ancient Greek culture embraced struggle and conflict, tragedy without resignation. Icarus was no less immune to these dramatists; however, Brueghel’s portrayal of the tragedy follows a more comforting sentiment. For we know too well, despair can happen to anyone – as the dramatists would admire – but in the perception of any bystanders, it is of no real implication. The plough stops for no dead man.  

The Underground Man

Entangled mice scurry along interwoven tunnels compressed by the gravity of his thoughts; this is the mind of the Underground Man. Addressing concerns about the rationale, Dostoevsky in his 1864 novel Notes from the Underground highlights the idea of suffering as an act of liberty. Though shallow and spiteful, the narrator (the Underground Man) offers a clear criticism of enlightened, egalitarian philosophy. As depicted in chapter VII part 1 of the novel, the Underground Man explains:

“Shower upon him every earthly blessing, drown him in a sea of happiness, so that nothing but bubbles of bliss can be seen on the surface; give him economic prosperity, such that he should have nothing else to do but sleep, eat cakes and busy himself with the continuation of his species, and even then, out of sheer ingratitude, sheer spite, man would play you some loathsome trick.”

 “He would even risk his cakes and would deliberately desire the most fatal rubbish, the most uneconomical absurdity, simply to introduce into all this positive good sense his fatal fantastic element.”

In this, Dostoevsky criticises the utopian doctrine which was prevalent among many Russian intellectuals during the mid-1800s, but also in this small discourse, ideas of existential and Nietzschean ethics are provoked. If we follow what naturally pleases us, in a utilitarian sense, we cannot be truly free; within this, the Underground Man highlights the desire –the necessity, of spite, suffering, and caprice, as a form of existential defiance. Accentuated is the providence in which suffering occurs; suffering will always pursue us. As our grandfathers before us suffered through hunger, we suffer through consumption. 

Regarded as one of the original existential novels, the story was also fundamental to modern psychology, being influential to both Jung and Freud. Where the Underground Man’s rejection of utilitarianism evokes similarities to the Jungian shadow and the Freudian Thanatos Drive. Condemned by freedom, we should live authentically, any meaning our life has, is what we give it; therefore, we require an inquisition into our subconscious, as the psychologists would insist. Ultimately, the novel criticises human reason as a means to human happiness; we will always have something to suffer from.

No Longer Human

Suffocated by an air of his own contempt; a hyperawareness which feeds only the suffering of his existence, that is Ōba Yōzō. Received as a narrative of Osamu’s own life, No Longer Human, published in 1948 is a semi-autobiographical account of the fictionalised life of Ōba Yōzō. The novel, in its entirety, is the pinnacle portrayal of suffering; horribly depressive in nature. Progressively deteriorating the moral, physical, and emotional livelihood of the protagonist, Osamu portrays the story in a first-person narrative, deepening the psychological intricacy.

‘All that can happen now is that one foul, humiliating sin will be piled on another, and my sufferings will become only the more acute. I want to die. I must die. Living itself is the source of sin,’

Influenced by Dostoevsky, Osamu creates a similar air of psychological existentialism. In a society based on politeness, Yōzō is critical of Japanese culture. Feelings of disassociation build upon further social anxiety, maintaining solipsistic tendencies. Unlike the Underground Man, Yōzō is unable to address his inner shadow, using material abuse as a form of escapism. Suffering is here presented not as inescapable, but rather as the route which must be taken. Further alluding to the criticism of the rational man, as depicted Yōzō ensues further steps to worsen his misery; to end the pain of a sore, you cut off the limb.

Published after the second world war, Osamu represented a generation of malaise.  A country at loss, with nuclear horrors unprecedented even to this day; an experience only of unrequited defeat can manifest itself in the glorification of despair and misanthropy. In the novel, the theme of despair is explored through the experiences of the individual, and not necessarily the misery within but the misery that society has produced for Yōzō. To accept defeat is worse than death. A poignant note is that nobody chooses to be this way, Osamu accentuates this notion.

‘And now I had become a madman. Even if released, I would be forever branded on the forehand with the word “madman”, or perhaps, “reject.”

Disqualified as a human being.

I had now ceased utterly to be a human being.’

A Concluding Note 

Tragedy, as Schopenhauer once wrote, is the summit of all poetical art. Unapologetic in nature, it portrays human existence in the way in which we experience it. As Christ was crucified, the goodness of humanity is not always respected. As explored in this article, despair and suffering in literature can offer guidance to our own misery. Through Icarus, we find solace in the triviality of pain. With the Athenian Tragedies, we have learnt that despair can befall the best of us. As an act of freedom, the Underground Man offers emotional suffering as the salvation of our liberty. Importantly, we experience through Yōzō, that contempt and suffering do not always have an answer; tragedy is without resignation.

Of course, there are still vast arrays of niches which despair can entertain. It is prudent to note that the literature provided here are ones which stories I found compelling. Other authors have managed to illustrate pain in other endearing ways. Take for reference Slyvia Plath with her confessionalism within poetry; or with Yukio Mishima and his assertion of eroticism and death. Psychology is nuanced, and there is more to learn about the human psyche, but engaging with art that contains elements of deepened human pondering, can we offer a better insight into ourselves.

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