Village People

I had secretly hoped that an agent or publisher would come a-knocking but now realise there is not much demand for my vein of niche misery.

Misery unnerves (and frequently disturbs) people. When ingested in the form of “Nordic noir” (bleak, wintry, murdery) or classic Russian literature (grief-inflected logorrhoea), it is strangely comforting; an immunizing dose of despondency. This kind of refined misery (a BBC speciality) is a reminder of all you have to be thankful for. It transforms misery into gripping entertainment, transfers it to frozen landscapes, reduces it to material misfortune. Refined misery has been successfully incorporated into the culture industry because there is a large and appreciative audience hungry for more of it: it soothes nerves and assuages guilt.

There is little place for misery, sadly, in real life. It is too demanding, exhausting and, frankly, depressing. It ruins moods, fouls the room. Misery, after all, is only a hop, skip and jump away from despair. You stay in your musty old closet but people can still smell it on you. They are polite but keep their mental distance for fear of contagion. People can cope with the occasional bout of misery but few can withstand chronic despair. In this way misery becomes its own self-perpetuating stigma.

J and I watch the film Suntan one evening. “Jesus,” I say. “This makes Houellebecq look like Disney.” The film is about a middle-aged Greek doctor who works on a small island which is dead in winter (800 residents) but thronged with hedonistic, bethonged tourists in summer. He falls in love with a woman half of his age. She briefly amuses herself with him but soon rejects him. The man spirals, synaptically and syntactically, into self-destructive despair. It ranks among the most miserable films I have ever seen.

Misery is a broken record.

Yes, but records are meant to be broken.

Misery is unrelenting in its logic. Whether it is hardwired into us or burned into reflexive dead-endedness through painful experience, misery refuses to indulge in hope. It sees hope as cult-like brainwashing and historical whitewashing. Hope is breathing inflated into meaning. Hope springs eternal because language is forever running away from us in wishful pursuit of objects and attributions (usually in the phantasmagorical form of happiness).

Even misery has (ridiculously lowered) expectations. Misery speaks in solemn whispers and with a mellifluous air of resignation in the hope that it will be rewarded with something better. For me, ‘better’ is getting through a day without feeling that I have been horribly humiliated (sweating, rejected), ravaged by self-doubt (who be I?), or tormented by regret (over things said).

Misery goes around in circles.

Yes but linearity, over time, warps in on itself.

Misery is an emotional shortcut to that fact.

If I could just find some kindred spirits I might be induced to live. We could find an old village on an empty Greek island and live in collective misery. It would be perfectly normal to wake up, open your shutters, and see several people lying snugly in ditches. The local shopkeeper (we would have a minimally functioning economy) would be so stricken with misery that she would rarely get up from her stool to serve you; instead you would serve yourself and leave the money on the counter (“Thanks. Have a tolerable day.”). No one would know or care who fathered or mothered whose babies (our population would be in constant terminal decline). The arrhythmic heart of the village would be the bar. The jukebox would be continuously playing old favourites like “The Suffering Song”, “Hope Is Gone”, “In This Hole”, “Goodbye, Dear Friend” and “When You Finish Me”. The take would be good most days; some might grow resentful of the owner for profiting from our utopian misery. But ours would be a closed economy; the profits from the bar would eventually trickle back down into disappointment, disillusionment and dejection. The noose would be our icon and totem. A local sculptor (probably from Latvia) would make a bronze sculpture of a noose dangling from a sturdy bough. From time to time someone would drunkenly try to hang themselves from it but the noose would be way too big to fit a human head. People would often stare thoughtfully at the noose, quietly lamenting that they were not the person they had hoped to be. Sometimes we would half-heartedly dance around it, thankful for the reminder of how gruelling life is and how hard it is to endure the excruciating pain of narrating your way through existence. In our village, misery would be sacred. The only danger is that we might inadvertently end up being happy.

 

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