And Nothing is very strong: strong enough to steal away a man’s best years not in sweet sins but in a dreary flickering of the mind over it knows not what and knows not why, in the gratification of curiosities so feeble that the man is only half aware of them, in drumming of fingers and kicking of heels, in whistling tunes that he does not like, or in the long, dim labyrinth of reveries that have not even lust or ambition to give them a relish, but which, once chance association has started them, the creature is too weak and fuddled to shake off. […] Indeed the safest road to Hell is the gradual one—the gentle slope, soft underfoot, without sudden turnings, without milestones, without signposts.
–C. S. Lewis, Screwtape Letters C7
How dismal it is to have nothing to do–nothing to wish for–or, as Dr. Johnson put it in Rassalas, nothing to desire. It is a far worse fate than oceans of dread, tides of embarrassment, fits of rage, years of longing. For all of these have an object, something out in front of (or dreadfully behind) the fearful, fretting human soul.
It is for this reason that I do not necessarily gravitate towards the jovial–or avoid the dreadful–in life, or in literature (which, of course, is still life). Give me Blake and the Daughters of Albion! Give me Stoker and Dracula all the fears of the Fin de siècle! Give me fierce or give me fearful, give me spending, give me spent. Give me all the yard and length and ruffle, all the desire and distrust. Give me Poe, give me Melville, give me Dickens, give me Whitman. Give me modern longing and post-modern angst. Give me Joyce–wait. No, don’t give me Joyce, come to think of it. But generally, I will take hold of anything but stupor and stultifying nothing, those endless rounds of advertisements and RSS feeds and headline-news-on-repeat. How many hours have we spent on Yelp! or Google, trying to find something to do and not doing anything all the while? How often have we sat listless in abandon, feeling stirred but never stirring?
It is a horrifying thing to discover that, in our endless business, meetings and mandates, we have neither done “as we ought” or “as we liked.” The challenge, I think, is to break away from feeding our happiness (often in the form of “entertainment”) and feed our souls, instead. In Sartor Resartus, Thomas Carlyle suggests that “Man’s Unhappiness […] comes from his Greatness; it is because there is Infinite in him, which with all his cunning, he cannot quite bury under the Finite” (343). The soul, or the inmost self, (however you define it) is primary–all other appetites secondary. And so, we ought to aim, says Carlyle, for blessedness, for usefulness and for purpose.
To give out, not to give in. To reach for those passionate, fearful, mind-bending heavens.
This, and not all the menial driveling of our daily distractions, is the tonic for despair. This, when nothing is wrong.