The Luxury of Sadness

What poets know . . .

Cynthia Giles
Dec 15, 2020 · 5 min read
Photo by Simon Berger on Unsplash

Now

I wrote this story in stages over the first half of 2020. But worse-than-usual things kept happening in the world—and it never seemed like the right time to publish a story about sadness.

Now we are almost at the end of the year, and everything is much worse. It’s not just what has happened, or what might. It’s what we know.

So perhaps this may be the right time.

January

The luxury I’m thinking of is to be sad without having to explain — to yourself or to others. To be sad without needing to justify the awareness of a feeling that is always just beneath the surface of other emotions.

Poet Richard Wilbur observed . . .

“When art is morose, we want to know why, but joy requires no reasons.”

And the same is true of everyday life — which is its own kind of art in a way, though we aren’t trained to think of it that way.

So if you seem happy, people rarely ask why. If you seem sad, they will wonder “what’s wrong with you.”

If you seem sad without an obvious reason, and it lasts for more than a day or two, people will begin to suspect that you are “depressed.” And you may begin to worry about that yourself. Depression seems like a dark and slippery slope — easy to slide down, hard to climb up.

If there’s no obvious reason for your sadness, you will likely be alone with it. Socially approved grief is shared, even admired; but unexcused sadness often goes unacknowledged and unrespected.

As with many subtle things, the Japanese have an expression that lends dignity to unexcused sadness: mono no aware. It is sometimes translated as “pathos” or “awareness of impermanence,” but there is no explicit definition, no attribution to a cause. It’s just a quality of feeling that sometimes surfaces, not only in literature but in one’s own sensibility.

The ancient Romans seem to have known such a feeling also. This famous passage from Virgil’s Aeneid has been given many translations, but here is a nearly literal one:

sunt lacrimae rerum
et mentem mortalia tangunt

there are tears of/for ordinary things (rerum)
and human things (mortalia) touch the mind

In part, the passage is about impermanence, the inevitable passing away of all things. So in that sense it is very close to mono no aware. But in the context of the Aeneid , as the protagonist gazes upon the depiction of a historic battle, it is also about the things humans do to one another, in love and in war.

There is much sadness about being human. If you are not grieving something today, that’s lucky — but there’s always tomorrow. And if you don’t grieve something for yourself tomorrow, there’s always the opportunity to share in someone else’s grief.

As Madame de Florac observes in Thackerey’s 1854 novel The Newcomes:

“One supports the combats of life, but they are long, and one comes from them very wounded.”

On the day I started this story, I was sad for two people I never knew. One was the writer Elizabeth Wurzel, whose death on January 7, 2020, had been the subject of several heartfelt essays by friends and admirers. Wurzel was 52 — three years younger than my cousin’s boyfriend, who died two days later.

Both the departed had “lost” what is always described as a “battle” with cancer. But they had lived worlds apart. He was a California dessert-dweller, she was a consummate New Yorker. He was well-known in his field, but not famous. She had once been famous, but wasn’t any more.

I was sad because I never knew, never even met my cousin’s boyfriend. They had been together for years, but though I was once close to my cousin we had drifted apart over the years, and now have only a little contact.

She’d told me about this boyfriend a few weeks ago, so I knew he was ill. And she told me he was a “good guy,” which seemed so simple and sincere that it said more than a long description might have.

Now I’ll never meet him, and that seems unexpectedly sad.

I would never have met Elizabeth Wurzel under any circumstances — and in truth I hadn’t thought about her almost ever. I might have recognized her name as the author of Prozac Nation, a highly publicized memoir written when she was just 27. But I had no ideas about her at all until I read what others were saying about her life and her writing.

Now I’m sad that I didn’t gain those views of her sooner, while I could still think of her as alive somewhere in the world. Which seems odd, but that’s what it feels like.

On the day in question, I was also sad for the innocent people aboard a Ukrainian airliner, shot down by the Iranians on the same day my cousin’s boyfriend died. And for the Iranian soldiers who will have to live with their mistake forever. And for the people of Puerto Rico, which was struck by another large aftershock that morning, following a week of devastating seismic activity.

Days later, when I returned to this story, I could have been just as sad about earthquakes in Turkey, the rising toll of a “new virus” in China, the dismal political situation in America, and animals trapped by the vast, unstoppable fires in Australia. Although we generally pretend to reside in a local bubble, the reality is that we live on a planet. A planet populated by billions of people — all of whom deserve, on one day or another, to be excused for feeling sad about something.

June

I set the story aside in January, because I wasn’t sure where to head next, or what audience (if any) would want to read it.

Although I couldn’t have foreseen what would happen over the next months, I must have had a foreboding. And now it’s half a year later. By the end of October, there will likely be a quarter of a million Americans dead of COVID. Our social fabric is rapidly fraying, our fellow citizens are besieged not only by illness but by floods and fires, despair over racial injustice, the looming threats of eviction and food insecurity.

So how can we live with the knowledge of so much sadness? Do we need an excuse to feel it?

This is where literature comes into its fullness — by making a place for feelings we are told to avoid or ignore. By creating perspective.

From Richard Eberhardt’s “Anglo-Saxon Song” . . .

I must think of man as a suffering being.
Happiness, the bright boon of warriors, disappears.
I must think; I have felt over-much; love
Drives into the heart the poisonous shaft.

I take him to mean: When feelings of sadness eclipse reasoning, that way lies despair. So like all luxuries, sadness should be given a modest place in life — it shouldn’t be a constant indulgence, but it also shouldn’t be dismissed.

Poets teach us this.

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