My Latest: On the Other Side of Despair
How to resist nihilism, and why, with some help from Camus.
What counts is no longer respecting or sparing a mother’s suffering; what counts is securing the victory of a doctrine. And human pain is no longer an outrage, but just a figure on a bill whose dreadful total is not yet calculable.
–Albert Camus, “The Crisis of Man” (1946)
I have a new essay for The Baffler about a certain writer named Albert Camus and his continuing, almost uncanny relevance to our own moment. As you may have noticed, he’s had something of a revival in the past few years, helped in no small part by renewed interest, during the worst of the pandemic, in his novel The Plague. It’s a remarkable novel, but my immediate interest in Camus — a writer I’ve found myself returning to again and again for many years — has more to do with my own country’s democratic unraveling and the rise of right-wing political violence, even the threat of something like sectarian civil war.
The essay is 5,000-plus words, and I don’t know how many will care to read what I have to say about Camus’s response to political nihilism, his break with Sartre and the French left, and his lonely stand on Algeria (where he was from). So here’s the opening section, in which I explain what impelled me to write this piece, and if you feel like reading the entire essay, I hope you’ll find it worth your while (and perhaps worth sharing)…
THERE WAS A TIME, perhaps as recently as two or three years ago, when I could still persuade myself, if I really wanted to, that there were arguments for resisting despair of my country and world. I still believed, or wanted to believe, that there was a chance, however slim, to turn things around politically before the clock ran down on our converging crises of democracy, social and economic injustice, and climate catastrophe. This was back when something like a comprehensive climate, jobs, and social policy framework still appeared at the outer edge of the possible, so that, the thinking went, with enough pressure from a coalition of emboldened social movements we might actually, not solve our compounding emergencies at one stroke, but at least, maybe, turn the tide.
This was before the precipitous downward spiral of American democracy was an established fact; before the brazen lie of a stolen election and the cynical manipulation by elites of an armed white-nationalist movement itching to kill in Jesus’s name; before a maniacal Oval Office cabal conspired to violently obstruct the constitutional transfer of power and before the murderous assault on the Capitol that the Republican Party declared a legitimate form of protest. It was before a high court packed by that same authoritarian party stripped half the population of fundamental bodily autonomy and bent the Constitution to serve criminally reckless corporate interests in guns and oil. It was before the so-called reasonable adults controlling Congress and the White House allowed the carbon lobby to eviscerate the only legislation in three decades that might help slow the accelerating climate breakdown—at the cost of countless lives, the vast majority among the global poor and marginalized. And it was before the groundwork had been laid for electoral chaos in the next votes for Congress and President. Before all the talk of “civil war.”
There are professional optimists, ingenuous merchants of magical thinking, who treat other people’s despair as either irrational catastrophism or, among activists, a kind of moral defect—as if despair is a matter of just not trying hard enough, not caring enough, rather than a natural and entirely sane human response to empirical reality. I refuse to apologize or seek forgiveness for my despair in the face of plain facts, scientific and political, or to condemn others for theirs. My despair is not the sort that says, fatalistically, there’s nothing left to be done, and walks away. If only it were so simple. There’s much to be done—if only to salvage what we can, and to survive.
And yet, there’s something about despair that the hope-mongers may indeed grasp, something I’ve sensed viscerally for a long time. Despair is dangerous. Not in itself a character flaw or moral failing, it can nevertheless lead to some very dark places. And so, even as I accept my condition and the facts of our situation, there’s a question that—as an engaged citizen and as a human being who doesn’t want to give up on human beings—won’t let me rest: What follows despair?
If despair is an experience one passes through, a frontier one crosses, what’s on the other side? Is there nothing but an endless wasteland of fatalism, meaningless futility—a chilling, inevitable nihilism? If all dreams of a “better world” for generations to come have died—if all that’s left is the brute, life-or-death struggle for power and survival, rationalized and sanctified by cynical ideologies of “us” and “them,” “freedom” and “justice,” or whatever you choose—then what’s to keep me, in the midst of such a world, from becoming that which I’ve long rejected and struggled against? What’s to keep me from joining those who abstract and dehumanize the enemy, the collective other, and meet fear with fear, hate with hate, violence with violence?
So, yes, if I’m honest, I’ll admit that my despair scares me. I can try to ignore it, distract myself, pretend it’s not there or that it will somehow go away, but the truth is I’m constantly aware of its dark gravitational pull, drawing me toward a desolation in which anything might happen—in which the perceived imperatives of the historical moment and the rationalizations of ends and means might justify anything, any price, any sacrifice, mine or another’s.
Against this fear, I can only ask myself, is there still something within me, here on the other side of despair, with the power to resist the cold undertow of nihilism? I still cling to the belief that there must be. But what is it? And whatever name I give it, how do I know it’s real? …
Again, you can read the full essay at The Baffler. As always, I'm interested in what you think.
Until next time, take good care of yourselves. And please never forget that your life is precious, you are not alone, and you are loved.
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