In the opening scene of the movie “High Fidelity” John Cusack’s girlfriend has just broken up with him. He’s miserable and listening to his vast record collection, endless sad songs about breakups. Staring at the record player and smoking a cigarette, he wonders, “Do I listen to pop music because I am miserable or am I miserable because I listen to pop music?”
It’s a question I asked myself recently when I thought about my college experience. I majored in English, which meant I read an endless series of books. Allow me to run through a few with quick summaries and tell me if you notice a theme:
‘Night, Mother – a play about a woman who debates with her mother about the value of killing herself, which she does at the end.
Hamlet – Shakespeare’s famous tragedy where the main character asks the eternal question, “To be or not to be?” and everyone dies in the end except Hamlet’s girlfriend who kills herself midway through.
Death of a Salesman – a great play about a man broken by the system who kills himself. I actually read this one twice for two different classes, a double dose of sadness.
The Spy Who Came In From the Cold – a great modern novel about a man who dwells on the coldness of modern life. He gets shot and dies on the last page.
All Quiet on the Western Front – a great modern novel about a German soldier in World War I. He gets shot and dies on the last page too.
The Stranger – a short novel by the existentialist Albert Camus which examines the pointlessness of life. The main character senselessly murders someone and is executed at the end. If you like this one, pick up Camus’ other novel “The Plague.”
Waiting For Godot – an absurdist play about two hobos who wait in vain for the arrival of someone named Godot who will save them. It features the line, “They give birth astride a grave, the light gleams an instant, then it’s night once more.”
A Clean Well-Lighted Place – Hemingway’s short story about the absurdity of life and the pointlessness of it all.
Pretty cheery stuff. But we’re just scratching the surface. There’s no need for me to go into detail of Faulkner’s “As I Lay Dying”, Marquez’s “Love in the Time of Cholera” or any short story by Raymond Carver. Trust me, they are even more crushing and bleak. Ever see the scene in Spinal Tap where the guitarist has a guitar amplifier that goes to 11? Carver wrote stories that set bleakness on 12.
And don’t get me started on the authors themselves. Hemingway killed himself with a shotgun, Fitzgerald did it more slowly with alcohol. People at the top of the great writers hierarchy all seemed to live short, miserable lives. In our English department you never heard about a happy writer – you only heard about them living lives of poverty except if they got famous, at which point they spent all their money on drugs and died.
After a couple of years of studying this, I began to think of my University’s English department as the Cult of the Severely Depressed. There seemed to be a department-wide bias against anything fun. For a work to be considered great and worthy of study, it had to be grim and dark and the main character died in the end in some tragic fashion.
This steady diet of books about suicide, death, and the meaninglessness of life profoundly affected my character. A friend of mine in college told another friend, “Dave is the kind of guy you see outside a coffeehouse, reading some novel, smoking a cigarette and brooding.”
It was true! That was me. I ask you – how can you read a story called “As I Lay Dying” and not be miserable?
But then again, how much of this misery was my doing? How much of it was self-inflicted? The choice to major in English was *my* choice. I was the one who chose the classes. I could have easily chosen “Humor and Comedy in Literature” but didn’t.
Actually there was an underlying reason for my choice of majoring in despair. Without going into too much detail, I went through fairly significant family issues in college. These issues made me ponder the meaning of existence. It was a dark time. It’s fair to ask the question John Cusack posed in “High Fidelity” – was it the music or was it me? Where did art end and where did I begin?
What I didn’t see at the time was I had some say in the matter. In college, when I was young and immature, I saw events happening to me and felt I was powerless against them. What I didn’t see was I had a *choice* in how I reacted. In short, I gave in to the depressive state of mind.
Because, let’s face it, sometimes it feels good to wallow in sadness. It explains the popularity of blues music. Think about the first person to break your heart. Do you remember the feeling? I remember I broke up with a girl and felt horrible. But as time went on and life went on, I realized I missed that feeling more than I missed her. There’s a very human attachment to those feelings, one that you can revisit through songs, or books, or any art really.
It turned out my study of bleak and depressing works wasn’t a complete waste of time. In addition to be cathartic, I became more empathetic to the suffering of others. Tales of woe made me willing to accept the fact that life often doesn’t turn out the way we want it.
But I don’t have a lot of use for depressing writers any more. Recently I picked up an author my depression-era self used to adore. I tried to read one of his novels, which is weird and wacky and way-out there, but I couldn’t get past page six. He was too weird. Weird wasn’t a problem for me before. It made me realize the art didn’t change, I did.
Right now I’m more interested in inspiring works, stuff that would never make the English major approved reading list. In January I read a book “Unbroken” which I decided, despite it being the first month of the year, was the best book I’d read in 2013.
A true story, the hero in “Unbroken” charges from one adventure to the next – from running in the Olympics, to being a bomber pilot in World War Two, to being interred in Japanese POW camps. He endures unbelievable difficulties through sheer willpower. Some of the scenes are so absurd you wouldn’t believe them if it this was a work of fiction.
The author who wrote this book, Laura Hillenbrand, also wrote “Seabiscuit” – another inspiring story frowned upon by gloomy English majors. What’s fascinating to me is her biography. Hillenbrand dropped out of college after contracting chronic fatigue syndrome. She’s struggled with it ever since. Because of the disease she rarely leaves her house and is largely confined to her bed.
It’s no surprise to me she chooses the subjects she does – inspiring figures who triumph over long odds, managing through sheer persistence and willpower. She’s quoted as saying, “I’m looking for a way out of here. I can’t have it physically, so I’m going to have it intellectually. It was a beautiful thing to ride Seabiscuit in my imagination.”
Although chronic fatigue syndrome is something I would never wish on anyone – how different would Hillenbrand’s life be if she had not contracted it. If it were not for the disease, would she have written such inspiring works? Confronting a debilitating illness, Hillenbrand had a choice – lapse into despair or make the best of her situation and write beautiful novels about heroic, inspiring figures. I’m glad she chose the latter.