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That’s Despair?

Of crawfish, beer, and living with love and hope in the ruins -- according to Walker Percy

A reader, responding to my account of my fun weekend in New Orleans, comments:

Rod, you’re an interesting character. On the one hand, you are sounding the alarm about the flood of modern culture. And yet your personal tastes are epicurean. Fine cuisine, pop culture. This is not a criticism (at all), but it’s interesting to see the tension between your jeremiads and your pieces about enjoying the world around you. I don’t think it’s contradictory but there is a tension.

That’s a fair comment, but the view from inside my head is like what Walker Percy said to this interviewer:

Q: From the outside looking in, one might raise the question: you’ve lived a fairly privileged life: why such despair?

A: Who says I despair? That is to say, I would reverse Kierkegaard’s aphorism — the worst despair is that despair which is unconscious of itself as despair — to: the best despair and the beginning of hope is the consciousness of despair in the very air we breathe and to look around for something better. I like to eat crawfish and drink beer. That’s despair?

Kierkegaard had a specific idea of despair. It is not an emotion, but a state of being. You can read more about it here, but in brief, to be in despair is to live alienated from God, in relation to Whom one can only know oneself. There are, in Kierkegaard’s thought, three kinds of despair:

  1. Not knowing that you are alienated from God, and that you need to be reconciled with him to know who you are, and to live a fully human life; in other words, to be a complete stranger to yourself and to the world, and therefore not aware of one’s own Selfhood (which can only be known in relation to the infinite God); you can be in despair and still think of yourself as happy; this is the most common kind of despair;
  2. Knowing that one has a Self, and that that Self is incomplete without God, but arranging one’s life in such a way as to keep God at a distance; the despair is the anxiety of knowing that one is living inauthentically, but lacks the will or the courage to live in truth (this was basically me from ages 17 to 25);
  3. Knowing that one has a Self, and that one is in despair, but refusing to accept that God loves one, and that one abides in that love; it is the kind of despair that loves itself, and in which one identifies one’s own Self through the Self’s relationship to that hopelessness

The interviewer was trying to ask Percy why he was so gloomy about the state of the world, when his own life has been pretty good. Percy’s sly, philosophical response turned things around on the interviewer, in a very Kierkegaardian way. Percy’s answer means something like this, I think:

You think I despair because I take a dim view on the ways of today’s world. But lack of anxiety can in fact be evidence of despair, if you understand despair as a lack of hope resulting from an imperfect, or non-existent, relationship to God. In fact, the people who are really in despair are those who are happy-go-lucky because they don’t understand that there is something wrong with them, and something wrong with the world. The eternal God exists, He loves us, and He created us for fellowship with Him. Our inability to love each other perfectly and selflessly is a consequence of our aboriginal separation from Him. To refuse to acknowledge God is to live in unreality. God exists no matter how we feel about Him. Any kind of “hope” that depends on ignoring God, and ignoring the human condition as a falling-away from Him, is false hope, and worse: it is despair.

A child whose happiness is in large part because he does not see or understand the darkness of the world is not living in despair. He is a child. An adult who lives that way is childish, and stuck in a kind of despair.

In fact, real hope — not optimism, but hope — requires living in reality. It requires being able to look around at this world, to see its brokenness, acknowledge it, and begin to look for something better. That “something better” is not utopia; there are no utopias. The “something better” is a way of life that is saturated by the presence of God, and one’s awareness that He is everywhere present and fills all things, and that He loves us and desires us to live in communion with Him. When one knows God, one can be with Him in the plainest of everyday rituals: eating crawfish and drinking beer, for example. It is not despair to look out at the world, affirm its brokenness, howl at its injustice, and yet enjoy the ordinary graces the infinitely loving God pours out on His people.

In fact, a sense of well-being purchased at the cost of one’s consciousness, of one’s knowledge of the truth of things eternal and temporal, of right and wrong, is to sell one’s Self for the sake of peace. It is to purchase despair. It is to will to live in untruth. On the other hand, to look out at the world, even if one in some sense affirms God’s reality, and to see nothing but crucifixion, and no resurrection, is also to live in despair. W.H. Auden wrote:

‘O look, look in the mirror,
O look in your distress:
Life remains a blessing
Although you cannot bless.

‘O stand, stand at the window
As the tears scald and start;
You shall love your crooked neighbour
With your crooked heart.’

If you are a Christian who cannot affirm that “life remains a blessing, although you cannot bless,” then you are in despair, and should seek repentance. If you are a Christian who cannot love his crooked neighbor with his crooked heart, then you are living alienated from reality, and should seek repentance.

To live in hope is to be completely aware of the divine blessing that is life, even if one is a poor conduit for that blessing. To live in hope is to love your broken neighbor as you love your broken self, because you are both shipwrecked wayfarers lost in the cosmos.

This way of seeing the world — Percy’s — is also mine. It goes so deep in me that I am perpetually puzzled by why people think I’m a depressive. To me, the real depressives are the Power Of Positive Thinking™-like zombies. To me, the truly hopeless are those who are eagerly destroying the foundations of normal human life, and who tell themselves that we are on the verge of reaching the Promised Land.

For example: telling a troubled adolescent that he will only be himself if he cuts his penis and testicles off, begins injecting himself with female hormones, and demands that everyone call him female. The people who don’t see how insane that is, and even call it progress — they are living in an advanced state of despair. I would sooner live in a hut in the desert than accept what those death-eaters serve.

That’s just one form despair takes in our post-Christian culture. There are plenty others, including many within the Christian churches. I would rather live in a hut in the desert than affirm, or be seen to affirm, the corrupt political gospel as taught by Pastor Robert Jeffress.

Somehow, though, I’ve got to figure out how to love my crooked neighbor with my crooked heart, while not falling into the despair of calling any of that crookedness — in myself and in others — straight.

Yeah, I think the world is going to hell in a handbasket, and that our great civilizational refusal of God is a betrayal of ultimate reality, and that it will end catastrophically. Woe to the West! I say. I also love to drink beer, eat crawfish, and dance on a sunny day at Jazzfest with friends and family. That’s despair?

By the way, if you want to hear a live version of this, I invite you to come down to Walker Percy Weekend on June 1-2, in St. Francisville. On that Friday afternoon, around 4pm, Charlie Clark and I are going to hold forth at the Magnolia Café on the Walker Percy Option and the Benedict Option. TAC is buying the beer for WPW ticketholders. We’d love to see you. Plus, there will be lots of crawfish, beer, and bourbon, and genteel conversation with a bunch of people who love books and the South, and above all, Walker Percy. You really haven’t lived until you’ve shared a mint julep with Mary Pratt Percy Lobdell, who will be back this year, as ever. Get your tickets for the WPW here — but please don’t delay, because they are limited.

[youtube https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=OXWCOR7Dp6Q&w=525&h=300]



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