On Sadness


Mine is a long and sad tale. -The Mouse, Alice in Wonderland

I am among those who are most free from this emotion. I neither like it nor think well of it, though the world, by common consent, has decided to honor it with special favor.
-“On Sadness,” Michel de Montaigne

There are two kinds of sadness. There is the pain of loss, and there is the pain of renunciation. Loss, which is to say grief, eventually changes into sweet, sustaining memory. Grief does not end with the “acceptance” of a loss, as the “stages of grief” would have it. It evaporates into joy. Eventually, the pain of losing someone to death, or even to distance, becomes less important than having known them and remembering who they were.

The same is true of disappointment. Unrequited love, for example — who really regrets being in love? In hindsight, being rejected seems vulnerable, comic, and worth the risk, all at once. I once tried out, unsuccessfully, for the Stanford baseball team. At the time, I was disappointed when I failed. Later, I couldn’t believe I’d even made the attempt. Now the whole thing seems like a great lark, and I would do it again in a second. I would also try, again, to gain anything from taking a seminar with Gayatri Spivak. Again I would fail, mystified by the sense that Spivak was waiting for one — just one — brilliant student comment that never arrived. I would gladly sit down and re-write my terrible little paper on Alice In Wonderland and the “(k)not of virginity.“ “You seem to manipulate texts a bit to fit a foregone argument,” Spivak would comment, just like before.

Sadness is kerneled into the very heart of things; being sad quiets down the rest of the world, and makes it easier to tell what is necessary and what isn’t. Montaigne writes that great sadness looks impassive, recalling that “Psammenitus….remained unmoved by the fate of his son and daughter” since “these misfortunes….were way beyond expression.” Montaigne describes, with admiration, the “sad, deaf, speechless stupor that seizes us when we are overwhelmed by tragedies beyond endurance.” Then he boasts that “violent emotions like these have little hold on me. By nature my sense of feeling has a hard skin, which I daily toughen and thicken by arguments.” He does not realize — or pretends not to notice — that his tough, thick coat of cheer is the mirror image of Psammenitus in hell.

If sadness becomes quiet and numb in extremis, then to be indifferent, and coldly reasonable, must also be a type of sorrow. Because I love books, I get a lot of them as gifts, and I almost never read the ones I receive. I love books too much to read books that seem inessential, and the inessential texts are somehow always the ones people give each other. Then these gifts, which were acts of love, sit on my shelf and make me sad. Or try walking through a cafeteria, picking out an apple, and eating just the apple, nothing else. It seems like an arrogant thing to do. No matter how bad the main course gets, it is at least part of a recognizable meal. Fine, don’t eat it, but don’t just ignore it! Don’t walk past it like it’s dirt!

Try going to a bar, ordering a beer, and then doing nothing but drinking it at an easy pace. You’ll feel obligated to swerve your head, rapidly, grinning at everyone, as if to say, “Hey, this isn’t some sad country song! I’m doin’ alright! This is refreshing!”

Every time you resolve some quarrel with yourself, by making what Montaigne calls “arguments,” the certainty is like nightfall. Were you wrong before, or just confused? Either way, it’s a pale celebration. Wouldn’t it be warmer — and more human — to keep careening along, never arriving at the answer? This problematic is what, in Resistances of Psychoanalysis, Jacques Derrida calls a “double bind.” (“Insufficient and inadequate ‘explanation,’” writes Spivak.)

There is no solution, except to recognize that the opposite of sadness is not bliss. The opposite of sadness is fear. We feel sad once nothing more, nothing worse, can possibly happen. We renounce things once we are no longer afraid to be seen in public without them.

My paper received the lowest grade in the class from Gayatri Spivak. From the start I knew she would hate my paper. I wrote it with disappointment, and freedom, tangled up in the pit of my stomach. I found it again, today, in a couple of minutes. I scored higher on other papers, in other classes, of course. But where are those essays now? I couldn’t say.


(This concludes the second essay in the Montaigne series. -Kugelmass)