“Nothing is more real than nothing.” — Samuel Beckett, Malone Dies
“Poetry…belongs in its own right to the Library of Hell.” — Maria Negroni, Dark Museum
1. The Blind Spot in Optimism
Has there ever been a more strangely optimistic culture than ours here in the U.S.? In the States, depression and melancholia are elements to be “battled” against — and we frequently use such metaphors of war when discussing them. We treat depression with medication, or shopping, or self-help books, or a better diet, more sleep. As soon as the melancholic opens his or her mouth, some solution is thrust upon them. What we seldom do is let the melancholic speak. Even in some of the memoirs and novels about depression, the writer couches the narrative in the language of salvation and/or disease, as if melancholia itself has no intrinsic worth, and is best seen from the proverbial rear view mirror. (Of course, the best novels about depression, such as Suzanne Scanlon’s Promising Young Women, have a much more complicated approach.) This isn’t to say, of course, that clinical depression isn’t real, and shouldn’t be treated with therapy and medication. But I suspect that U.S. culture is peculiar in its fear of/ disgust toward melancholia.
Against the grain of this optimism, I would argue that melancholia sometimes leads to insights and ways of thinking not accessible to joy, and that poetry especially is richer when the voices of melancholy are not shouted down by the voices of optimism. There are few works of intense melancholia in American poetry, but the ones we do have are crucial. U.S. poetry would be greatly diminished without Dickinson’s death poems, or Eliot’s “The Wasteland,” or Berryman’s The Dream Songs, or Baraka’s “Cold Term,” or Reines’ The Cow.
Latin America poetry has never had such an anxious relationship with melancholy. In its poetry, melancholy is usually not considered a weakness, or a form of self-indulgence, and some of the most brilliant poets of Latin America in the last century have at times written under the light of Nerval’s “Soleil noir de la Mélancolie.” Vallejo, di Giorgio, Saenz, Pizarnik, Peri Rossi, and Negroni have all produced poems that speak forthrightly from melancholy, and even despair.
2. What the Melancholic Sees
they’ll dress me in ash for the sunrise,
they’ll fill my mouth with flowers.
— Alejandra Pizarnik, “Shadow from Days to Come” (trans. by Yvette Siegert)
Santiago Vizcaíno’s relentless Destruction in the Afternoon (Diálogos Books), beautifully translated by Alexis Levitin, is part of this tradition. The collection consists primarily of two long poems whose titles immediately tell us we are in a bleak, elemental space — “Hands in the Grave” and “Dark Water.” These long poems begin and end the book, but they are not long poems in the heroic, Whitman-ian sense. Rather, they are fragments, accumulations, as if the poet wrote each in a brief burst before sinking back into the silence so often mentioned in this book. Here, we are entirely in Dickinson’s “hour of lead,” a time of heaviness and density and enervation. In “Hands in the Grave,” Vizcaíno writes, “We are sunk in lethargy. / The monkeys stretch their limbs and there is a series / of sickly screams. // To react is as stupid as suicide.” As the last line suggests, there is no easy remedy for the despair of this vision — “to react” is stupid — and there might not be any remedy at all.
One of the essential motifs in this collection is life-in-death and death-in-life. The speaker appears to be inhabited by death. Or maybe the speaker is a figure who actually is dead but who continues going through the gestures of life, like a marionette that only seems alive. In section XIV of “Hands in the Grave,” the poet writes:
as if we were alive
we walk up to the wall,
a sad spectacle
of scarecrows in the sun.
And in section XXX of the same poem:
“You are a frightening mummy,” I tell myself.
You ought to dig a grave and bury yourself,
and take along your smell, your tongue.
The poet is simultaneously the corpse that must be buried, and the one to do the burying: the fact that the poet is talking to himself emphasizes this sense of doubling.
In several of the poems, an “other side” is referenced, an “other side” that is just beyond a wall. This other side could be the other side of life (death), or the other side of human perception, or related to both. But whatever this “other side” is, it stores a sort of vitalistic negativity. In the opening of “Hands in the Grave,” Vizcaíno tells us that on the other side there is “an enormous hungry blowfly, / a smiling bluish corpse…a hand that longs for an arm, / a stomach full of worms.” Hunger, smiling, longing: this other side might be outside the human conception of life, but it is not simply dead. This other side is shot through with elements we associate with life, with energy, even if what is being shot through (a corpse, an arm) is dead. (This undoing of an absolute opposition between “life/death” finds echoes in modern philosophy too, where writers such as Nietzsche and Kristeva have tried to have a more nuanced approach to the issue. Nietzsche: “Let us beware of saying that death is opposed to life. The living is merely a type of what is dead, and a very rare type.”)
In contrast to this “other side,” our side — the side of the known world — often appears sapped of its will, its force. In section VI of “Hands in the Grave,” Vizcaíno writes, “We are vacant, / abandoned to a feeble will. // How have we gotten here, / so surfeited with death?” “We” are empty husks, here without explanation. In section XXII, the poet tells us his wish to end his suffering: “One of these nights, / I’ll manage to choke myself with tears.” Yet even this requires too much will. In the last lines of the poem, the poet tells us, “I stay like this, / picking at the wound of my world.” The lethargy of the melancholic, this emptiness and stillness, mirrors the emptiness and stillness of death.
Like Beckett, Vizcaíno emphasizes inertia and pointlessness. If Beckett’s narratives tend toward the circular, with his characters wanting to leave and yet not leaving, wanting to go and yet not going, Vizcaíno’s poems also refrain from the linear trajectory of salvation narratives (no matter if that salvation is religious, psychological, or political). As Estragon says in the famous first words of Waiting for Godot, “Nothing to be done.” Because of this lack of trajectory, works like these bracingly remind us of our precarious state, our nothingness, and by doing so they operate like a modern memento mori — being modern in sense that they are not meant as reminders of an eternal life that will come after this transitory one, but instead make us viscerally aware of how everything is transitory.
But works by writers like Beckett and Vizcaíno shouldn’t simply be seen as reminders of mortality. There’s a huge difference between a Vizcaíno poem and a skull on a desk, and it has to do with the thoroughness with which nothingness is explored, and how writers such as Vizcaíno leave us no stable ground, no safe harbor from which to watch the world and its history float by. These works of melancholia reveal something almost Buddhisttic in its nature, or at least the type of Buddhism discussed by the philosopher Keiji Nishitani, who claimed one of the positive aspects of nihilism is that it allows us to see “the ground beneath our feet.” The language of melancholy lays bare the writer’s being in the world (and, by implication, ours). As Vizcaíno writes in section XXX, “I exist, / I people the nights with birches.” The markers of contemporary life — our current debates and anxieties, the issues we discuss at work and at home — are drawn into the background, and we’re instead left with a vision of nakedness, doubt, and non-being. All the usual answers to the question of our being here — no matter if they’re religious or ideological — are forsaken. “Maybe meaning is in gazing till it hurts,” Vizcaíno writes, suggesting that by gazing at something long enough for it to hurt us in its nudity and its meaninglessness, a new, more haunted meaning emerges. For the melancholic, ontology is a process of perpetual subtraction.
3. Disgust, Revolt
I was the source of discord, the owner of dissonance, the girl of the harsh counterpoint.
— Alejandra Pizarnik, “Density” (trans. by Yvette Siegert)
I don’t want to push the comparison between Vizcaíno and Beckett too far, though. They are similar in the scope of their despair, and in how they reduce their art to elementals (rocks, hair, blood, emptied landscapes, the human body in its fragility). But Vizcaíno is very un-Beckett-like in his disgust. In Beckett, inertia is so embedded in his characters that rage, even when it flares up, often quickly dissolves. In Vizcaíno, however, there is a vivid undercurrent of disgust, one that reminds me of Baudelaire and Vallejo and Artaud. In “Ideology,” he writes, “I drink from the luminous drivel / flooding the world.” And later in the poem, he tells us, “I think that I will have to measure out my hatred and scream / until I stain the moon with my breath.” Such unapologetic rage echoes Artaud’s claim that all writing is pig shit, and it’s a type of rage that is rare in U.S. poetry, where rage is accepted as long as it is being directed at specific political or social targets, but where rage at large — a rage against life, or language, or humanity as a whole — is seldom expressed. If U.S. poetry tends to refrain from the negativity of melancholia, it also tends to refrain from the negativity of incalculable rage.
This anger seeps into the despair in this collection, giving the images and metaphors of despair a lacerating quality. Vizcaíno writes:
My face will be a nauseating stain.
Enormous lizards will lick my brow,
exhibit their blackish snouts
and stretch themselves to sleep their glorious siesta.
In the meantime,
the desert opens its jaws,
its burning dunes,
and carries off my panting
and my writhings
like a lethargic amphibian.
The vitriolic intensity of these lines, with its “nauseating stain” and giant lizards and devouring desert, reveals the venom of this despair. At such moments, we are far from the classical, almost Olympian melancholy of Sebald (which is by no means a criticism of him — there are many shades of melancholia). The despair in Vizcaíno is messy, irritable, and dissonant: very much a despair of “harsh counterpoint,” to use Pizarnik’s phrase. In section XII of the same poem, the poet tells us, “My heart is a bed / of copulating scorpions,” and the image brilliantly captures both the uncanny vitalism of this melancholy (these creatures aren’t sleeping or waiting: they’re fucking), and the poisoned quality of it (the choice of scorpions seems incredibly precise). Like Artaud, like Pizarnik, this is the poetry of metaphysical revolt.
But in its very revolt, this collection holds a mirror up to the reader. This isn’t a misanthropic poetry that lifts itself above the audience in exalted disdain; rather, Vizcaíno writes in the spirit of Baudelaire’s “mon semblable, — mon frère.” We are all in this exhausting “day of never-ending sun,” and we are all “just an ornament in god’s hair, / a silent rooster, / a lethargic olive tree.” To pretend to somehow be above this “we” is only another expression of illusory vanity. In “Desert Poem,” Vizcaíno writes, “That’s how we are born, / shamelessly indifferent, / filled with blood like torpid leeches.” Not you, not I, but we: all of us are “like torpid leeches.” In Destruction in the Afternoon, self-loathing and misanthropy are not opposites, but twins. We becomes the mirror of I.
If some U.S. poetry has a tendency to shy away from negativity — the negativity of melancholia, the negativity of disgust — too often the implicit comradeship of this poetry strikes a shallow note (to me, at least). If we’re all basically good-natured and amiable, if our basic attitude toward life is one of good cheer (with the occasional lapse here and there), it makes liking “us” really damn easy. But this tireless repression of negativity comes at a cost, aesthetically and imaginatively. After a while, such easy-going geniality seems suspicious and one-dimensional. When reading certain books of U.S. poetry, I ask myself: Does this poet’s persona ever have an ungenerous thought? Or is the writer too busy having morally laudable insights to ever drift into human fallibility?
Not so, a poet like Vizcaíno. There’s no cheap idealism in his work. And that’s what makes the rare glimpses of comradeship in his book so charged and unexpected. There’s no question that melancholia can turn one away from others, or, at its worst, turn melancholia itself into a kind of race (my depression is worse than yours). But sometimes despair has the power to tune us in to the despair of others. And at the very furthest extreme, it can tune us in to the suffering of other (non-human) creatures. In the “Dark Water,” Vizcaíno writes:
Because I don’t know how to say it,
Because this suffering of the world turns to suffering in the flesh.
That is to say the suffering of a fish or of an octopus.
This isn’t a human, contained suffering, a suffering that can ever find an answer. Rather, it is a “suffering in the / flesh” that includes not only human concerns such as age, death, and disease, but animal suffering too. A vision of cosmic despair occasionally dovetails into a vision of cosmic compassion. We see this in the Mahāyāna school of Buddhism and in some of Schopenhauer’s philosophy. We see it in the relationships in Beckett’s plays, where cruelty gives way to brief moments of creaturely sympathy. As Vizcaíno writes in “Hands in the Grave,” “What can we do with ourselves if not console each other, / make of this emptiness a sentence.”
Not too much should be made of this. These moments of compassion in Destruction in the Afternoon are rare glimmers, and by no means should they be seen as a cure for anguish. This harsh and beautiful onslaught of a book offers us no antidote. Instead, these moments of radical compassion complicate the picture of this anguish, suggesting not a glib breakthrough but a way to continue on.