Thoughts on Despair, Near-despair, and Being Made a Symbol

If you think at all about Evelyn Waugh (a long shot these days perhaps) you may remember this from “Vile Bodies”–
“There’s only one great evil in the world today. Despair.”

No one has written a history of despair as for instance we have the history of the pencil but it may be time. It would of necessity require nuance as there’s despair itself and “near despair” which has a shred of value as the late Christopher Hitchens pointed out in his “Letters to a Young Contrarian”–

“… The moment of near despair is quite often the moment that precedes courage rather than resignation. In a sense, with the back to the wall and no exit but death or acceptance, the options narrow to one. There can even be something liberating in this realization.” [Letters to a Young Contrarian (New York: Basic Books, 2001), 86–87]

I was in mind of Hitchens quote while listening to Amanda Gorman read her inaugural poem last week. She wrote it in the immediate aftermath of the storming of the Capitol and her poem is a cry for heartened daring amid darkness visible and we’re all lucky to have heard it.


Tyrants “dine out” on despair of course. Warmongers and merchants of death bank on it. Collective despair is a manufactured thing and differs from the organic sorrow of a single man or woman. In the Nietzschian sense consciousness is despair and that’s a fact like candy or coconuts. So be it.

Weaponized despair is a vast subject but at its core it depends of fraud.

The poet Kenneth Rexroth spoke of it this way:

“Since all society is organized in the interest of exploiting classes and since if men knew this they would cease to work and society would fall apart, it has always been necessary, at least since the urban revolutions, for societies to be governed ideologically by a system of fraud.”

More of Rexroth:

“The masters, whether they be priests or kings or capitalists, when they want to exploit you, the first thing they have to do is demoralize you, and they demoralize you very simply by kicking you in the nuts. This is how it’s done…Children are affected too — there is a deliberate appeal to them — you see, children have very primitive emotional possibilities which do not normally function except in the nightmares of Freudians. Television is designed to arouse the most perverse, sadistic, acquisitive drives. I mean, a child’s television program is a real vision of hell, and it’s only because we are so used to these things that we pass them over. If any of the people who have had visions of hell, like Virgil or Dante or Homer, were to see these things it would scare them into fits.”

Discontent, avariciousness, screwed up desires, hatred of the body, disdain for your neighbors, whimpering rage in the basement, all are products, commodities, and lovingkindness and whatever it is we mean by higher consciousness must resist this at every moment. You’ll burn a lot of mental calories resisting despair and demoralization.


As despair is being manufactured it employs symbolic human beings: people of color, the disabled, the elderly, and proclaims them representative of hopelessness. “Disability” means unable to work. Pauper-hood.

Best to work with near-despair and change costumes hourly.

Author: skuusisto

Poet, Essayist, Blogger, Journalist, Memoirist, Disability Rights Advocate, Public Speaker, Professor, Syracuse University

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