on contradictory impulses

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There’s a sensation that has a very poetic French name, “l’appel du vide,” or “the call of the void.” It describes the feeling that overcomes one sometimes when looking down from a great height – the intrusive urge to leap. Somewhere amongst your millions of firing synapses, a few have managed to overcome their biological imperatives and try to tempt you away.

It has always interested me that in almost every description, essay, or account of depression I have read, no one mentions how narcissistic a disease it is. Depression turns you inward and makes you fall in love with your own suffering. Every indulgence of the despairing impulse rewards the depressive mind and reinforces your perceived sense of nobility. Part of this is a survival tactic: if you can think of your particular malaise as ennobling or productive, it makes it easier to endure until it passes. But why the rest?

One of Emil Cioran’s collections of pessimistic aphorisms, The Trouble With Being Born, goes into this. In it, he talks about how “the only way of enduring one disaster after the next is to love the very idea of disaster: if we succeed, there are no further surprises, we are superior to whatever occurs, we are invincible victims.” Another aphorism reads “everything which borders on torment wakens the psychologist in each of us, as well as the experimenter: we want to see how far we can go in the intolerable.”

In Notes from the Underground, Dostoevsky’s narrator, the Underground Man, revels in his feelings of dissatisfaction. The more wounded he is, the more joy he takes in it: “in despair there are the most intense enjoyments, especially when one is very acutely conscious of the hopelessness of one’s position.” Later he claims that “man is sometimes extraordinarily, passionately, in love with suffering, and that is a fact.” He closes by musing on what kind of life is better, “cheap happiness or exalted sufferings?” The feeling of hopelessness becomes a cloistered devotion; suffering and despair are transmuted into the trials of a saint. The worse one feels, the closer one is to perfection.

What is intriguing to me is that impulse to lean into the skid. What makes our muscles tense to leap and our minds feel satisfied with our own disease?

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