That night in November, I had allowed my MacBook to run out of battery. The screen went dark as I was waiting for the New York Times Election Results page to refresh. I staggered into the night. There were no cars parked outside—our neighbors, the only other house on our narrow end of the street, had moved out the week before. I received a text message from an unknown number. It was from a friend of mine whose contact details I hadn’t yet saved in my new phone. The message read, ‘Are we okay?’ Something rose up within me.
In Sartre’s Nausea, the narrator, Antoine Roquentin, tries to articulate a similar dread. He fails, at first, and then grasps it. “I felt like I was gently slipping into the water’s depths, towards fear,” he says. Heidegger said that dread is a thief: it robs us of speech, of our faculties, and reveals the nothing. It is as if you open your eyes and your furniture is missing, your kitchen is bare, your bedroom is empty, and your cat is gone. It’s overwhelming. It’s nauseating.
According to Sartre, nausea is existence revealing itself – and existence is not pleasant to see. It’s unpleasant in an artless way, in a way that ends coherence. There is no such thing as a barbaric poem, at least not in a way that has ever made sense to me, but there is such a thing, I believe, as silence.
The poet Anne Boyer once observed that poetry is the wrong art for people who love justice. I’m not sure I ever understood sentences like that. I’m not sure I understood Theodore Adorno, who wrote that poetry after Auschwitz is barbaric. But here I am, quiet, afraid, and robbed of coherency: is this what silence is? Is this barbaric?
I’m thinking of a friend of mine who is a fine poet, and who has a sense of justice so lucid and felt that it seems prototypical, almost Platonic were it innocent and un-strident. We sometimes have conversations about art, and about poetry, and about the purpose of poetry and prose and all that stuff in between in the face of all the stuff out there, in the world, where our bodies are on the line, where children are dying and the polar ice-caps are melting and yet the world is still sliding, loudly, inexorably, into doom, as if it wasn’t yet enough. He tells me that stories saved his life. Books saved his life. Fiction and poetry saved his life. I wonder what saved my life? I read things on the internet. News, information, sometimes even poetry, but mostly funny things and silly things and things concerning the lives of my friends. Very rarely, do I read something that I can point to and say: this is why I am alive. Very rarely. Almost never.