"It’s better to burn out than to fade away," Kurt Cobain wrote in his suicide note, quoting a Neil Young Song. It isn’t, really, but it’s an incredibly attractive idea to the depressed. I’d rather go out like a supernova than a black hole, was my formulation of what is pretty much the same idea.
The single most accurate description of depression is perhaps—yes, indeed, I’m fucking going there—David Foster Wallace’s short story The Depressed Person. The titular person is a woman so utterly consumed with her own emotional pain that she completely lacks empathy for others—she cannot see her therapist, who will over the course of the story commit suicide, or her terminally ill friend as real people with their own stories, emotions, joys and sorrows and pains. Depression has made her what society would probably term “a narcissistic asshole.” She is an utterly unlikeable person, and she also believes this herself but fails to see completely how and why that is. To a person who has not experienced clinical depression, I suppose she is an asshole. And yet I like and identify with her.
To me, demanding empathy of a person so utterly consumed by their own pain is like asking a person lying between life and death at a hospital after a potentially fatal accident, bones shattered, to think of the poor children in Africa. Such a person is in so much pain that they become absolutely solipsistic—all that exists for them is their own pain. And yet obviously the reaction of others to this selfish assholishness is absolutely understandable, and it is something the depressed person halfway senses and therefore spirals further down. Frantically overloading her Support System—the clinical term Wallace’s fictional therapist invents to describe, basically, her friends, insofar as she has any real friends—with her own whining, she is consumed with emotional diarrhea. So consumed by her own pain is she, she can’t stop herself from being that person, and when she senses this, she only becomes more absorbed by the pain.
I can painfully recognize in myself these lines:
The feelings of shame and inadequacy the depressed person experienced about calling members of her Support System long-distance late at night and burdening them with her clumsy attempts to describe at least the contextual texture of her emotional agony were an issue on which she and her therapist were currently doing a great deal of work in their time together.
The depressed person confessed that when whatever supportive friend she was sharing with finally confessed that she (i.e., the friend) was dreadfully sorry but there was no helping it she absolutely had to get off the telephone, and had verbally detached the depressed person’s needy fingers from her pantcuff and returned to the demands of her full, vibrant long-distance life, the depressed person always sat there listening to the empty apian drone of the dial tone feeling even more isolated and inadequate and unempathized–with than she had before she’d called. The depressed person confessed to her therapist that when she reached out long-distance to a member of her Support System she almost always imagined that she could detect, in the friend’s increasingly long silences and/or repetitions of encouraging cliches, the boredom and abstract guilt people always feel when someone is clinging to them and being a joyless burden. The depressed person confessed that she could well imagine each “friend” wincing now when the telephone rang late at night, or during the conversation looking impatiently at the clock or directing silent gestures and facial expressions communicating her boredom and frustration and helpless entrapment to all the other people in the room with her, the expressive gestures becoming more desperate and extreme as the depressed person went on and on and on.
Text messages and Facebook chat have replaced late-night phone calls, but the issue is the same. The story, which deliberately overwhelms the reader by pounding the tragicomic pathetic qualities of the nameless depressed person into the reader, ends with the protagonist demanding, essentially, that her terminally ill “friend”—all her “friends”, all her Support System is something she secretly fears are a collection of characters who secretly loathe her but somehow tolerate her whining due to some sense of pity—tell her in detail what a terrible person she is.
And looking over my text and chat logs, here I sit, alone on a Saturday night, I recognize that all too well. But what the depressed person can’t see is that the way out of the self-conscious, solipsistic hell she is in lies in two simple things: first, she must somehow redirect her attention outwards, so that the pain fades away long enough for her to become a real human being with empathetic qualities, and second, that she must somehow let go of the fear that whatever person she burdens with her presence secretly loathes her and only tolerates her out of some sense of obligation—the latter, partially, by actually becoming A Real Person again, a person who is not a bore because they actually bring something to the table which is not simply a relentless focus on their own pain.
Both things are extremely hard, but extremely important. The temptation encapsulated by Cobain’s letter is to go the other way—in an attempt to redirect rather than deal with and make the pain away, turn the pain into pleasure. Rather than become an emotional black hole, to become a fiery hedonistic comet consuming and taking part in everything at once, drugs, sex, crime. To self-destruct gloriously, to go out blazing. Wallace didn’t go out blazing: he faded away and hanged himself. Cobain went the other way, with a shotgun and heroin and valium. The short story leaves the depressed person there, still alive, still desperately and pathetically attempting and failing to suck emotional energy out of her dying confidante.
The way to become A Real Person with both likable and empathetic qualities is to avoid either, to avoid both fading away and burning out. Sometimes, it seems easy. Other times, such as now, here I sit alone, remembering my attempts both at fading away and burning out—I have never attempted suicide, only vacillated between the two forms of self-destruction, the quiet solipsism and the loud hedonism—it seems awfully, terribly hard. I sit here looking at myself somewhat objectively as an accomplished, witty, engaging artist and writer with a score of followers on social media—and I see not A Real Person, but a fraud.
But this is hardly a public suicide note. I am not, in actual fact, a fraud. In actual fact, I am A Real Person convinced that I’m not. And so my attempt is to realize this by lying to myself until the lie becomes real, because the lie is real, it is a lie I can believe intellectually but have trouble accepting on an emotional level. And that is the sort of emotional failure that leads to the black hole—to the tragicomic depressed person so self-absorbed by pain as to become what she fears she is: a fraud, a drain, a bore, a black hole.
Some people find writing therapeutic. I’m not sure if I’m one of them. Perhaps it is because I don’t believe that thoughts are language; I don’t believe that, when I think I’m worthless, the words “I’m worthless” pop into my head. The thought happens on a much more primal level. And so while writing definitely requires sharper attention, it is not in itself the same as thought. And if it is not, then writing through an issue doesn’t necessarily think and process and finally, disassemble and eliminate the issue.
That doesn’t make writing worthless. Writing is communication, and good writing requires an attempt at making a sort of empathetic connection with the reader. One must anticipate, and therefore empathize, with the reader in order to communicate properly and eloquently what one has thought, and that is exactly the sort of exercise required to become A Real Person. To live the lie until it’s real.
There is no Nirvana. There never was. There is only life.
Yesterday, I was A Real Person and it went fine. Why not tonight?Apr 5, 2014
It’s the little things in life, no? How many people noticed this in a busy train station?Apr 2, 2014
Self portrait (broken mirror), March 2014Mar 31, 2014
Reinhard, a random guy I met at a bar. He works as a plumber.
Still getting over my fear of photographing strangers. He was nice. Nice light, too.Mar 31, 2014
osloMar 31, 2014
Les Revenants (2012).
It’s been a while since I ranted about zombie shows and how they fail to capture either horror or suspense. The idea of a half-human undead reduced to animal instincts and inexplicably drawn to human flesh is essentially boring. If you haven’t seen the stunning French drama The Returned, the screenshots above will have massively spoiled it for you. But it’s still worth a watch because the series is driven by characters, and the pictures above can’t do it justice.
I love how this series plays with and inverts horror tropes while building up an atmosphere of dread and quirky small town secrets unrivaled since Twin Peaks. The premise is simple: somewhere in the French alps, for no obvious reason, the dead are returning. Not all of them, and not en masse, just some of them, quietly resurrected by unknown forces and for unknown reasons. Where they’ve been during the limbo of death is unclear: the undead themselves simply return as if they had never died, expecting to carry on their lives as if nothing has happened. But things have changed.
The first episodes nod to zombies and ghosts: the groom to be who died on his wedding day is seen in the mirror by his ex-fiancé; when she turns around, he is gone, but only because he’s walked around front to knock on the door. A young woman is assaulted in an underpass, stabbed repeatedly with a knife before the murderer takes a bite of her flesh; it transpires that her attacker is not a brain-dead zombie, but simply a deranged killer who has returned and simply carries on where he left off. A fifteen-year-old girl returns after dying in a bus crash four years earlier; she is more concerned with her relationship with the boy she and her twin sister—who was not on the bus and survived—both love than she is with her mysterious resurrection.
Perhaps most affecting is the relationship between Victor—the creepiest little kid this side The Shining—and Julie, a nurse whom he attaches himself to after appearing from nowhere. Julie was a victim of the crazy flesh-eating killer, seven years ago, but survived, and she acts more dead than the boy who died thirty-five years ago. Accompanied by the gloomy, perfect soundtrack by Mogwai, we see the living more concerned with death than those who have returned from it.
Visually, it is as if the characters have been stuck in a Gregory Crewdson photograph. There is the suicidal bride-to-be who has second thoughts about her upcoming marriage to the local police chief when her groom from the past, the depressive musician who committed suicide on their wedding day, returns from the dead. He wants to run away with their daughter, the daughter who was still in the womb when he died, while she vacillates between her two suitors, and their daughter is caught between them: on the one hand, there is the father she knows, the father who raised her; on the other side, the “angel” who has returned, her biological father. Did he kill himself because of her? In an early flashback, we see Adele, the bride, tell Simon, her groom, that she is pregnant. It is the day of their wedding; hours later, Simon fails to show up at the altar, having chosen to end his life.
The town itself becomes a character: nestled in the Alps somewhere, below a great dam where the water is steadily disappearing. In town, people congregate around local islands of Americana. There is the Lake Pub, the local watering hole; there is an American Diner where Simon, broke and hungry and rejected by his lover, assaults the owner after he refuses to give him a piece of bread. The dam looms over the town; it transpires that thirty years past, the old dam broke and took the town and many of its inhabitants with it. The Sun is always setting; every scene is shrouded in twilight.
The living attempt to use the return of the dead for their own purposes. There is Pierre, a charismatic religious leader who runs the local shelter for the needy; he is convinced the dead are a sign of the Apocalypse, and attempts to use Camille, the revived teenager, to instill hope in the parents of the other children who died in the bus crash. But there is no hope in this town. Sandrine, mother of one of the other kids, views Camille as a monster and appears to blame her for the crash. Why did she return, and not her own daughter? When Pierre convinces Camille to lie to the parents about her experience, pretending to have communicated with the spirits of the other kids, two parents decide to end their lives by hanging, assured that they will be reunited with their dead son. And then there’s the clairvoyant woman, Lucy, who sees the dead relatives of the men she sleeps with, and who comes back from the dead herself after she is attacked by Serge, the killer—who was himself killed by his brother, who could not bear turning in his own kin to the police and decided to take matters in his own hands.
The tangled mess of character relations described above develops organically throughout the eight-episode series; no synopsis can do it justice. As the series approaches the finale, unfortunately, the plot starts veering towards the very tropes it had so much fun with in the beginning. More dead return, but they are inexplicably reduced to animals, foraging for food in the woods and lapping water from toilet bowls like dogs. I understand the need for resolution, but not why the perfect rendition of the dead as simply having come to life as if they never died is thrown out in favor of zombified animals. The revenants start rotting, becoming living corpses; the horde of undead, lead by Lucy, the sexually clairvoyant, start pushing to reclaim the revenants for their own nebulous purposes.
Overall, the show is stunning, sinister, moving—and ends on an unresolved note that begs for another season, unfortunately. Having binged on the first eight episodes, I’m looking forward to the second season which is reportedly in production, but at the same time, I wonder why the writers couldn’t simply wrap it up while they were still ahead. I hope they do; I hope they manage to tie the loose ends together in a way that rests on the characters and their relationships, the way it started.
My issue with zombies, in case you couldn’t be bothered to read my old rant, is that they’re boring. As monsters, they aren’t scarier than bears or Chupacabras; robbed of their humanity, they also lose all character, and although there is some emotional potential in the sorrow of seeing your own relatives reduced to mindless, flesh-hungry animals, it feels like an issue that is resolved before it’s even introduced. Shows like The Walking Dead are pulpy, boring apocalypses; I’d rather have the emotional ambiguity of Les Revenants.
Zombies are body horror. Revenants builds its horror on the scariest things in the world: the fear of the unknown, the chaotic world we live in which appears to have been left by any gods who may have once been present to set it all in motion—the feeling of wasting away not having lived while alive. July, the nurse, is perhaps the character I connect most with. In one of the last episodes, she confides to her former lover, police lieutenant Laure, that she fears she is one of the revenants. After all, she flatlined before reviving after having been attacked by Serge, many years ago. But more than being an undead, she fears life itself: because if she is not undead, if she is actually alive, then why does she live as if she were already dead?
I’m in my early twenties myself, but approaching the middle; in depressive moments, I feel like I’ve wasted my life, my potential, and soon I’ll be dead and I’ll have missed out on life while I had it. Religion doesn’t appeal to me, I have no purpose. At least if I were dead I’d have an excuse for not living.
Luckily, those moments are fewer now than they were some months ago; I’m making moves, picking schools, trying to do something in life. Impersonating a living, charismatic artist in the hopes that one day the fiction will have become real by osmosis with the lie. If you live a “lie” long enough, a lie that you are a real, successful person, at least a person going somewhere in life, perhaps one day you’ll realize—I’ll realize—that the lie was real all along.
Tapping into that fear is my kind of horror.Mar 25, 2014