Give me more, my aching heart
“The blanket covers the parts of him that have been taken away.”
—from “A Faint, Cautionary Creee” by Bari Lynn Hein
Sadness is strange. No, really, though, if you think about it, it’s strange. It’s a pain, which means it’s an adaptation to help us get away from something, but it’s a healing pain, so it’s like…I don’t know, the ache from exercise.
To me, the strangest kind of sadness is the sadness that I hunger to feel all the way through to its conclusion when a story begins to make me sad. Something weird happens to me when I hear sad stories: I want them to keep going. I hunger for them to.
Even if that’s a common experience, it sounds incredibly counter-intuitive to me.
I know that I’m describing a necessary step in the experience which literary critics have retroactively called “catharsis,” or the experience of emotional release at the climax of a well-constructed story. But I don’t think that saying what a thing might be labeled very well explains what it is.
From where I sit, the human race is a species obsessed with labeling. We name everything we see. (What is that huge rock in the middle of nowhere called? Nothing? Fine. Then I, Ayer, will call it something…what do you mean it was doing just fine without being called anything till I came along? Surely it was called something.) And when we don’t know what something’s called, we grow nervous. We sometimes grow afraid. Do you know what the philosophical definition of fear is? It’s, “a retreat from an unknown evil.”
Unknown! Some unnamed thing is coming at us and the mere fact of its lack of identity makes it scary. So we name it something, and somehow it becomes more of a real thing to us. We haven’t done anything to it. We’ve done something to ourselves. And doing that thing has somehow made us feel more comfortable—made us feel more at ease and more empowered.
I don’t get that. What is with that? What is this thing in us that needs to look at things and call them things?
Sometimes we can’t call them anything. Sometimes we have to feel them.
It’s called catharsis. Easing through the sadness—or sometimes bull-rushing through it—to get to the emotional finality that comes from absorbing the whole experiences, then attaining whatever release there is to be had, if it’s there.
Catharsis is what it’s called.
But catharsis is not what it is.
What I think it is—what the hunger to pursue a sad story on and on—that hunger to pursue this source of pain, even though we know what it promises—that experience is strange. Not bad, and still not what it actually is. But talking about it too much won’t explain how it works. So I shall leave off now.
This story brought to you by “A Faint, Cautionary Creee” by Bari Lynn Hein.
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