by Zoe Ereni
I knew someone who found her husband’s brains splattered on the wall. It was my first boyfriend’s mother, and her husband was the father of her eldest son, which isn’t a graceful sentence, but this is a true story. It goes a way to explaining her hopelessness. Like most people I knew when I was young, these people had grown up out of misery and into addiction. It was Portugal some time in the Seventies and they had nothing to live for. Their bodies became chemistry sets and he developed an obsession. He knew that a UFO was fixed to land on this particular hill, and he couldn’t miss it. This eventuality became his everything. He still got high but they weren’t fighting any more; she couldn’t get his attention. After weeks of hiking in the middle of the night, staring longingly into the black, like every other drug does, the delusion stopped working. The disappointment was too much to bear. What had he been waiting for? Confronted by nothing but a grassy knoll, my first boyfriend’s mother’s first husband returned to an empty apartment and shot himself in the head.
I’m not a fan of authorial intent but if I were going to tell you what lesson to take from this parable, I would suggest a few. Firstly, we should build a world in which a potentially hostile alien visitation is not preferable to the world itself. Secondly, be wary of how you use drugs. Finally, it is important to know it is not enough to merely exist; people need to feel as though they are living for something.
There is a view in psychoanalytic theory, albeit a reductive one, that neurosis is an abundance of doubt and psychosis is an abundance of certainty. I have been applying this model to climate fear lately and, honestly, it’s alleviated neither my neurotic or psychotic thinking. As a child in the Nineties I experienced endless summers; as a woman I violently oscillate between positions of hope and hopelessness. I am told the world as I know it is almost certainly heading inexorably for an apocalyptic end, maybe several ends, but that I should still recycle and reproduce. On the one hand, I have environmental alarmists attacking anyone who does want children, climate deniers on the other: too much doubt, too much certainty. Like most treatises on moderation, the ‘good’ answer lies somewhere in between: it is good to know what acid can do for you but don’t end up like the guy who confuses the launderette for an industrial noise gig. Still, it’s not easy to maintain equilibrium when you’re being burned alive.
Last year I was at a conference and a psychotherapist described a client of his as suffering from paranoid delusions. The young man was, he said, obsessed with climate change. I don’t know the whole story, perhaps he was suffering from paranoid delusions, but as the saying goes, that doesn’t mean they’re not true. The psychotherapist was about sixty years old and didn’t have to think about what it means to plan a future while the Arctic Circle is on fire. I told my analyst recently that the one good thing about being caught between wildfires and fascist raids on my last trip to Greece was that it meant that I didn’t have to settle an argument with the anti-natalists. I was born in 1989: the future I was sold as a reason for me to pay for university no longer exists. How do young people reconcile a world slipping further away from them with a willingness to live as though it still exists?
The mid-twentieth century saw the mass ‘hospitalisation’ of North American women diagnosed with hysteria. Many were observed to have psychotic delusions, commonly that their decency was under scrutiny, that they were being gossiped about and spied on. These were middle class women in small suburban towns; they were being gossiped about, their decency was under scrutiny, and their doctors were almost certainly men. This isn’t to say that identifying the societal basis of a pathology means we can shut up shop. Psychosis can be devastating whether or not we can position its manifestation in a fuller biography. Nowhere is this more horribly realised for me than in Robert Sapolsky’s recounting of a young medical student who killed himself trying to perform surgery on himself during a psychotic episode. The problem isn’t that being gossiped about makes you paranoid, or that the razing of the Amazon leaves you in despair, it’s how you behave with that knowledge that matters.
Recalling the apocalyptic visions I had in Athens, I experienced an uneasy catharsis. For a moment I stopped caring. Who wants to bring another child into a world in such turmoil? I no longer have to think about the fact that I’m thirty and live in an unaffordable city. I reach nihilism about once a year, then I remember that every single epoch has had its own extinction event, has ruminated on its own end. Everyone thinks they’re special, and they are. Children growing up in the shadow of the Atom Bomb had a singular experience, then they became old and carefree and sometimes neglect to consider new disasters. The rest of us are left with the burden of accepting unspeakable horror and expected to rise above it with impossible stoicism. At least we have the Wellness industry to enable such complacency.
It was recently reported that a rising number of young people are expressing disruptive anxiety about climate change. The apocalyptic rhetoric of Extinction Rebellion has definitely made an impact on public discourse, but it has evidently left children feeling nihilistic, and this is a rational response. What is the point in going to school every day when there might be no more jobs by graduation? The answer is more of a burden than they should have to bear, but somebody has to cultivate the seeds of a new world in the razed ground of the old one, and if we want them to do that then we have to give them the will to do so. This means focusing on novelty, innovation, and a return to the unfashionable utopianism of a society prior to capitalist realism. We have lost control and the lunatics are running the asylum, yet we live as though things can be different, because it is imperative that we do. But we have given birth to a generation with too much certainty of their own despair. They are burdened with premature adulthood, so it’s time to relearn the optimism of what childhood once was, or so I’ve read.
Liberation from the vortices of history is tantamount to the original existentialist position. We make a choice – the only one we can make. Do I live or do I die? Well, I’m making the choice to live despite, through, because of and beyond the patent absurdity of it all.
Zoe Ereni is a writer, performer and activist who would have been a style icon and comedian a century ago.
Illustration by Marco Bevilacqua.
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