To Whine or Withstand
Existential despair is characterized by a feeling that life is void of meaning. Death, the final inexplicability, is a cessation of the only reality we’ll know; it’s best not to let our mind go there. Yet in Philip Larkin’s poem “Aubade” he does exactly that. The first two stanzas:
I work all day, and get half-drunk at night.
Waking at four to soundless dark, I stare.
In time the curtain-edges will grow light.
Till then I see what’s really always there:
Unresting death, a whole day nearer now,
Making all thought impossible but how
And where and when I shall myself die.
Arid interrogation; yet the dread
Of dying, and being dead,
Flashes afresh to hold and horrify.
The mind blanks at the glare. Not in remorse
— The good not done, the love not given, time
Torn off unused — nor wretchedly because
An only life can take so long to climb
Clear of its wrong beginnings, and may never;
But at the total emptiness for ever,
The sure extinction that we travel to
And shall be lost in always. Not to be here,
Not to be anywhere,
And soon; nothing more terrible, nothing more true.
Religious belief can provide an antidote to the despair Larkin expresses. Religion gives us assurance that there’s a purpose to life; it cares for us after death. But it’s an inability to believe that prevents the sufferer of existential despair from taking that curative. Larkin’s third and fourth stanzas:
This is a special way of being afraid
No trick dispels. Religion used to try,
That vast, moth-eaten musical brocade
Created to pretend we never die,
And specious stuff that says No rational being
Can fear a thing it will not feel, not seeing
That this is what we fear — no sight, no sound,
No touch or taste or smell, nothing to think with,
Nothing to love or link with,
The anaesthetic from which none come round.
Ans so it stays just on the edge of vision,
A small, unfocused blur, a standing chill
That slows each impulse down to indecision.
Most things may never happen; this one will,
And realization of it rages out
In furnace-fear when we are caught without
People or drink. Courage is no good:
It means not scaring others. Being brave
Lets no one off the grave.
Death is no different whined at than withstood.
The Believers of the world – involved with family and occupations, not questioning the unknown – are to be envied. Larkin never married, though he held a librarian’s job until his death at age sixty-three (he wrote “Aubade” when he was fifty-five); he achieved fame as a poet, but that did not offer him refuge from pre-dawn thoughts. As a child, did he go through those “wrong beginnings” he refers to in his poem? Maybe, in the cause of right beginnings, it's a parent’s duty to instill in their child a firm foundation of belief – to innoculate them from the disease that Larkin suffered from. In other words, is there responsibility involved?
Miguel de Unamuno, the Spanish philosopher/author, wrote “San Manuel Bueno, Martyr” in 1930 (six years before his death, at age seventy-two). This story also addresses the issue of existential despair, but from a different perspective. It is about responsibility.
In the course of the story it is revealed – though Don Manuel is deceased and is being considered for beautification by the Catholic Church – that he was a non-believer. But what matters is how he lived his life. As a parish priest he guided and counseled people with unwavering compassion. He kept religion a simple matter; he had no patience for theoretical discourse. He immersed himself in the life of the village, working beside the farmers on the threshing floor, writing letters for the illiterate, chopping firewood for the poor, making wooden toys for children, playing drums at village dances; his was a life of ceaseless activity. He discouraged gossip and meanness. He was always present at deathbeds – the dying held to Don Manuel’s hand as if to an anchor chain.
There were two people that he allowed a glimpse of his secret. The first was Lazarus, a non-believer who was “converted” by Don Manuel; the other was Lazarus’s devout sister, Angela, who sensed, even when she was in her teens, that the priest was bearing a great burden. I put “converted” in quotes because Lazarus did not become a believer in the doctrines of the Church; Don Manuel did not attempt to accomplish that transformation, for he knew, in Lazarus’s case, it was futile – as it was for him. Instead, he urged Lazarus to feign belief even if he did not feel any. To do it for the sake of the villagers. Lazarus is converted not to the church but to belief in Don Manuel.
Don Manuel lived by a simple credo:
“First of all, the village must be happy; everyone must be happy to be alive. To be satisfied with life is of first importance.”
Despite the happiness he wished for others, Don Manuel struggled with life. He was constantly drawn to suicide. He confides his darker side to Lazarus:
“The truth? The truth, Lazarus, is perhaps something so unbearable, so terrible, something so deadly, that simple people could not live with it!”
“I am put here to give life to the souls of my charges, to make them happy, to make them dream they are immortal – and not to destroy them. The important thing is that they live sanely, in accord with each other – and with the truth, with my truth, they could not live at all. Let them live. That is what the Church does, it lets them live. As for true religion, all religions are true as long as they give spiritual life to the people who profess them, as long as they console them for having been born only to die.”
“I know well enough that one of those chiefs of what they call the Social Revolution has already said that religion is the opium of the people. Opium . . . Opium . . . Yes, opium it is. We should give them opium, and help them sleep, and dream. I, myself, with my mad activity, give myself opium. And still I don’t manage to sleep well, let alone dream well. . . . What a fearful nightmare!”
“There is no other life but this, no life more eternal . . . let them dream it eternal . . . let it be eternal for a few years . . .”
Don Manuel is a martyr because, though he suffers on the cross of his bleak perception, he perseveres to do good. The doubts that are revealed in Mother Teresa’s writings (which she wanted destroyed) suggest that her thoughts were not dissimilar to his.
Unamuno, like Larkin (and so many philosophers – Hume, Locke, Kierkegaard, Thoreau, Erasmus, Santayana) never married. But he was extremely active, immersed in the intellectual and political life of Spain. He was a man who lived in a world of words, ideas. Larkin would have considered that to be a diversion from reality – while admitting, surely, that he too engaged in diversions, his writing of poetry being one.
The character of San Manuel Bueno is a saint. In “Aubade” Larkin purports to be nothing but a flawed man. Larkin’s poem offers no answers, no path to follow. Facing the unadorned truth – though a hollow sustenance, the truth being what it is – is a point of honor with such as Larkin; no “tricks,” no “specious stuff” will be allowed. Don Manuel and the sleepless thinker in “Aubade” suffer from the same affliction, but the authors differ greatly in their aims. One presents a model of how to live; the other looks at Nothingness and gives us its essence.
Existential despair is acknowledged in psychiatric texts, but it is hard to say how many suffer from it. Most of those who call themselves existentialists, agnostics, atheists, secular humanists – non-believers of any stripe – give every indication that they are perfectly comfortable in their skins and expect to face the hour of their deaths calmly. No doubt there are people who might not label themselves – who may not even know what the word “existential” means – but who feel despair, either fleetingly or as a constant and oppressive presence. I suspect that most carry on, not sharing their feelings, not disturbing the peace of others with their doubts. They rise and get on with the things of life (sometimes crowding their existence with the things of life).
Which brings us to the last stanza of “Aubade”:
Slowly light strengthens, and the room takes shape.
It stands plain as a wardrobe, what we know,
Have always known, know that we can’t escape,
Yet can’t accept. One side will have to go.
Meanwhile telephones crouch, getting ready to ring
In locked-up offices, and all the uncaring
Intricate rented world begins to rouse.
The sky is white as clay, with no sun.
Work has to be done.
Postmen like doctors go from house to house.
After many readings of the poem and story, “Aubade” emerged for me as the more honest work. Also, the braver; it takes courage to admit to the fears which Larkin lays bare. In Unamuno’s story his characters serve his didactic purpose. He was clearly enamored with the saint he created. He has Don Manuel gazing into the waters of the lake, where the night stars are reflected, yearning to disappear into those tranquil depths. So romantic an image! – (while Larkin lies in bed, staring in dread at “unresting death”). Other things struck me as inharmonious to the story’s premise. Leading the congregation in Mass, when Don Manuel comes to the words “I believe in the resurrection of the flesh and life everlasting” he grows momentarily silent, though his lips continue to move; the absence of his voice is submerged by those of the others. Why is he silent? If he doesn’t believe, if he consciously lies, why avoid this lie? When Don Manuel dies peacefully in the church, surrounded by weeping villagers, the devoted fool Blasillo, who is holding Don Manuel’s hand, dies at the same moment. Seems like a miracle to me.
Unamuno approaches despair intellectually. In “San Manuel Bueno, Martyr” he constructed, to borrow Larkin’s words, a “musical brocade” (though not a “moth-eaten” one). Unamuno would probably not deny that. Yet he would insist, “Despite that, despite that – let them live in peace.” Larkin did not move to “despite that”; he never moved past the stark fact that he stared at. In his poem, Larkin whined – his disparaging word, and it is a fitting one. He refused to ennoble any aspect of this world he was born into, and which he feared leaving.