The polyrhythms of despair

A New Wave of anxiety

I’m not 100% happy with my two posts on university. Obviously it’s an area that can’t be done justice in a few off-the-cuff thoughts. I’m also finding that I’m just not good at being autobiographical; the way in which ideas and trends of thought wash through our lives is difficult to convey in a synoptic manner without appearing trite (and, of course, how the Church wound up stepping into all this was something I couldn’t bring myself to touch on).

Anyway, I’ve been rereading some of Kierkegaard’s The Sickness Unto Death lately – a book which was really important to me in my freshman year. Kierk, like Schopenhauer and Nietzsche, is a thinker who goes seriously off the rails in many aspects. But also like them he has a good feel for the more frightening issues of our existence and is willing to stare at them with a sort of steely eye. Plus, he has an interesting style to boot.

I was listening to the Talking Heads album Remain in Light, and it occurred to me that the paranoid atmosphere of the album makes a neat illustration of Kierkegaard’s examination of despair. Take, for example the hit song, “Once in a Lifetime”:

And you may find yourself living in a shotgun shack
And you may find yourself in another part of the world
And you may find yourself behind the wheel of a large automobile
And you may find yourself in a beautiful house, with a beautiful
And you may ask yourself-well…how did i get here?

Letting the days go by/let the water hold me down
Letting the days go by/water flowing underground
Into the blue again/after the money’s gone
Once in a lifetime/water flowing underground.

Compare with:

But to become fantastic in this way, and therefore to be in despair, although usually obvious, does not mean that a person may not continue living a fairly good life, to all appearances be someone, employed with temporal matters, get married, beget children, be honoured and esteemed – and one may fail to notice that in a deeper sense he lacks a self. Such things cause little stir in the world; for in the world a self is what one least asks after, and the thing it is most dangerous of all to show signs of having. The biggest danger, that of losing oneself, can pass off in the world as quietly as if it were nothing; every other loss, an arm, a leg, five dollars, a wife, etc. is bound to be noticed.(Kierkegaard, Soren. The Sickness Unto Death. London: Penguin Books, 1989. Pg. 62-3)

Now this form of despair goes practically unnoticed in the world. Precisely by losing himself in this way, such a person gains all that is required for a flawless performance in everyday life, yes, for making a great success out of life. Here there is no dragging of the feet, no difficulty with his self and its infinitizing, he is ground as smooth as a pebble, as exchangeable as a coin of the realm. Far from anyone thinking him to be in despair, he is just what a human being ought to be. Naturally the world has generally no understanding of what is truly horrifying. The despair that not only does not cause any inconvenience in life, but makes life convenient and comfortable, is naturally enough in no way regarded as despair. (Ibid, Pg. 64)

Not to mention the weird spoken word track (“Seen and Unseen”) with its talk of people changing their faces also fits into the notion of despairing over oneself.


About Josh W

A Catholic. Likes to write stuff and draw pictures.
This entry was posted in pop culture and its discontents, Stuff other people said, this seemed important to say at the time, What Is This Beast Called Man. Bookmark the permalink.

One Response to The polyrhythms of despair

  1. Pingback: Just incredible math | Zoopraxiscope

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