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The Incommunicability of Despair

Louise Glück

Do you know what I was, how I lived? You know
what despair is; then
winter should have meaning for you.

I did not expect to survive,
earth suppressing me. I didn't expect
to waken again, to feel
in damp earth my body
able to respond again, remembering
after so long how to open again
in the cold light
of earliest spring--

afraid, yes, but among you again
crying yes risk joy

in the raw wind of the new world.


Silence is the language of despair.

In "Snowdrops," Louise Glück describes what is otherwise indescribable in so many words. How does one speak about this "sickness unto death"? The more interesting question is not the "how" of the saying but the "when." As the persona tells us, it is only after the mute experience of despair that one can finally begin to speak; it is only when one has gone through it that words may finally bless the suffering soul like the last snowdrops of winter breathing its last before the coming of spring.

Because to despair--to lack hope absolutely and indefinitely--is to bear the silence of the world. It is to listen no longer to the harmony of things but to its deafening discord. Nothing bedazzles the eyes anymore as everything is blanketed with the thick gray haze of vanity. And when the world no longer offers its secrets and answers, the mind, too, grows silent with the absence of an interlocutor. This is despair: to hear nothing, to see nothing, to speak nothing. Like rain, everything is drowned in the hollow monotony of falling raindrops; like snow, everything is submerged in neutral white; like death, I can no longer think, feel, speak.

To despair is to experience death while living. Epicurus was wrong. To despair is to (weakly) affirm pure negation: listening to nothing but silence, feeling nothing but absence, suffering (carrying) nothing but the Nothing.

This is why it is impossible for me to answer when you ask me how I feel. Never ask that question.

Because you will never understand. Your despair is yours; my despair is mine. Do not take away the last thing that I possess; I can afford to be selfish this time. Do not explain it to me--I know more than you do. You insist. I do not wish to talk to you now as I do not even wish to talk to myself. Do not disturb this music while it plays. If you wish, wait until it ends.

And when it does end, I will tell you how I survived. Now I have a story to tell. Listen closely for it may happen to you--and when it does it won't be pretty.

You see, despair is the sleep of the soul under a sleepless sun. The world--my enemy--offers no consolation with its wide-eyed mornings and absent evenings. If only it stopped turning when I started dying--then I would have no experience of time and my death would neither be too fast nor too slow. But the sun is indifferent to the pouring rain.

But I woke up. This is why I can speak to you now. The difficulty was in the beginning and we get through the hellish nights. I wish I could tell you how I felt. I wish you could experience it as well--not that I wish you to suffer but because I wish you could be stronger. Stronger, I say. You know better. We do not get through despair because we are strong. Should I have insisted so I would not have survived. I survived because I was weak.

I do not know what this means to you. I do not wish that you understand. I only wish that you hold my hand. Walk with me, tell me a story, smile for me as I have forgotten how to smile. When my dimples show, no longer do they tell the story of a happy childhood; they are wounds. Wounds between which my silent lips are buried.

So tell me a story. I have not forgotten how to listen.
This was despair's only lesson: listen.

The end of despair is not its inverse, hope. The end of despair is the presence and voice of an Other. Afraid, yes, but among you again.


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