I heard a reading of a poem last night on NPR. It was called "A History of Everything Including You" by Jenny Hollowell. (Link is to a video. I found a copy of the text here.) I liked the beginning, but eventually the simplistic boiling down of all human history irked me. It felt pessimistic, like it was mocking humanity instead of representing it.
The last part, in particular, about a marriage that's American Beauty meets Everybody Loves Raymond depressed the hell out of me. The message I was left with was, "Life sucks. It's meaningless and 95% ugly but hey, what else is there to do?"
The experience brought to mind a similar poem. It doesn't chronicle the beginning of human history, but the end of it - Byron's "Darkness". Byron's poem is about the apocalypse and the slow, awful death of absolutely everything. (Alternatively, it's about a volcano in Indonesia, but that's a matter of interpretation.) Here are the first few lines:
I had a dream, which was not all a dream.
The bright sun was extinguished, and the stars
Did wander darkling in the eternal space,
Rayless, and pathless, and the icy Earth
Swung blind and blackening in the moonless air
- Lord Byron
How is it that this doesn't depress me? To the contrary, I'm drawn to it like I'm drawn to Tim Burton movies and Edgar Allan Poe and Vegetarian Vampires by Remedios Varo. (No good link to Varo's painting. Google or look it up on Pinterest if you want to see. It's worth it.)
So why is this? Is it dark humor or the romance of death or something? Maybe it's the absoluteness of darkness and death. The people in Byron's poem are doomed. No doubt about it. Beetlejuice was dead before his movie even started. The narrator of A Cask of Amontillado was incurably insane.
There was no hope in these stories, but there was surety. They're black and white, not gray. Hollowell's poem is gray. I always think of literature as a whole as gray, because it's open to interpretation. If you can state a thesis and point to evidence in the text to support it, you're right. That can be a wonderful thing. But gray also leaves a lot of room for moving about. It's not stable.
I think that's it. It's got something to do with stability.
Reality is unstable. It's the epitome of unstable, isn't it? Life is a never-ending battle against darkness and evil. Every choice is a swing at the ethereal enemy. It's exhausting.
Have you ever thought about how you'd react if your plane was going down? I mean, going down hard, with no hope of survival. Don't judge me, but I have thought about this. There are really only two options for how to react in this situation. You can scream your head off, fighting and ranting and raving to the end. Or you can be Douglas Adams' bowl of petunias, which appeared spontaneously in the air, already plummeting to its death.
the only thing that went through the mind of the bowl of petunias as it fell was Oh no, not again.
- Douglas Adams
In other words, you can accept that the plane will crash and ride it out nice and calm. I like to think I'd do the latter. Dylan Thomas might disapprove, but perhaps not. There's dignity in serenity, in acceptance, in not giving in to fear.
I'll leave you with one of my favorite images from Byron's Darkness, and a hope that you've enjoyed these existential ramblings as much as I have.
The rivers, lakes, and ocean all stood still,
And nothing stirred within their silent depths;
Ships sailorless lay rotting on the sea,
And their masts fell down piecemeal : as they dropped
They slept on the abyss without a surge--
The waves were dead; the tides were in their grave,
The Moon, their mistress, had expired before
- Lord Byron