The Perverse Pleasure of Despair


John Webster, contemporary and sometimes equal of Shakespeare, could paint sickliness of spirit in living colour. In The White Devil, he captured one such curious sickness and displays it to us like a moth pinned behind glass.

In the snares of her enemies, the tragic villain-heroine Vittoria laments:

Oh, the cursed devil,
Which doth present us with all other sins
Thrice candied o’er, despair with gall and stibium;
Yet we carouse it off…

Makes us forsake that which was made for man,
The world, to sink to that was made for devils,
Eternal darkness!

In plain English, “Most sins are pleasant; that’s why we do them. The sin of despair, however, feels awful, and yet we wallow in it.” This is one of those passages that stares back at the reader. The audience fears they have been photographed in their most private moment, so perfectly does the passage reflect a past or current sickliness.

There is something perversely pleasant about melancholy; or at least when we are melancholy, there is something abhorrent about high spirits. Sitting in the tar of sadness, one refuses to get up, one refuses to swim up and out of the pit — and not for lack of energy.

The way out, the way to at least an hour when you do not mutter to yourself your self-hatred and world-hatred, may be a few simple steps away. Those steps, however, we turn away from. And why?

For me, at least, there is a self-conscious pride in my despair, alloyed to a perverse sense of individuality. In the depths of despair, there seems something elevated about sadness and hopelessness.

And what’s more, to cut off my despair seems as terrible a task as cutting off my own cataracts. The sadness is part of me, and I love it like a worthless child.

This idea I have found in another poet, though he is better known for his novel The Red Badge of Courage. Stephen Crane wrote:

In the desert
I saw a creature, naked, bestial,
Who, squatting upon the ground,
Held his heart in his hands,
And ate of it.
I said, “Is it good, friend?”
“It is bitter — bitter,” he answered;

“But I like it
“Because it is bitter,
“And because it is my heart.”




Random things are posted here, from an unusual attic.

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Robin Berry

Robin Berry

Random things are posted here, from an unusual attic.

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