The sweet anguish of awakened gloom

February 20, 1997|By Richard O'Mara

PAUL McHUGH, head of psychiatry at Johns Hopkins, believes the ages of human history can be defined, at least in part, by psychiatric pathologies: scrupulosity (obsessive fear of sinning) in the age of religion, shell-shock during times of modern war, anorexia nervosa today, which he has labeled the ''age of self-absorption.''

Choosing a few snappy words to seize the zeitgeist -- as the intellectuals say -- is usually a pastime of newspaper pundits, not psychiatrists. It requires a certain catholicity of interest. Maybe a degree of superficiality.

So what is the spirit of the times in America today? Is it bright or dark?

There are competing opinions. For many, the future's a new penny, and the Information Highway and the ever-inflating stock market the route to Valhalla.

Others raise dark questions about the general deterioration of life: Where has the ozone gone? The fish in the sea? When did turkey loaf come into our lives?

I side with the pessimists. Why? I'm more comfortable with those who think of optimism as a mental disorder, maybe because I have spent most of my life in their company. And because America has always been an optimistic country, except when things are going well -- like today.

Aren't we rich? Aren't we the world's only superpower? Aren't these the circumstances of communal happiness?

Paradise in suburbia

For some, perhaps. But for those of us who came of age in the 1950s it all looks painfully familiar. Back then, America had emerged from World War II the strongest and richest country in the world. Optimism was in the air as we engaged in a great undertaking: the building of paradise in suburbia.

Then as now a few prescient nay-sayers fought the tide of destructive optimism that gripped the country in the 1950s. They made us aware of how bored we were, how under-stimulated, being innocent, as yet, of rock'n'roll. Why, they asked pointedly, was there no sex on television?

In response to this state of cultural deprivation we affected tragic postures. We came to believe that to be miserable was to be knowing, and vice versa. We lived in the expectation of disillusionment.

The Beats, an excellently depressed lot, expressed it best. Jack Kerouac dashed like a famished shrew from one end of the continent to the other, always on the road to somewhere in a big, borrowed gas guzzler. He never got there, or anywhere really. Futility became our favored metaphor.

Gregory Corso wrote a poem titled ''Bomb.'' It was printed in the shape of a mushroom cloud, our icon. We believed the end was near, or hoped it was, just to be proved right. We discovered words like eschatology.

Ingmar Bergman made the movies we liked, where people stared catatonically into space for long periods. Then they turned toward the camera and said nothing. Or words to that effect. Death stood on a hill, with a scythe. What subtle imagery! We learned there was sex in Sweden.

We saw them all twice, those movies. They were so deep.

"Being" and "nothingness"

Jean-Paul Sartre was our prophet. He lived in Paris. He smoked black cigarettes, drank licorice-flavored drinks inimical to human health. He spoke of nausea, of blind leaps into the existential abyss, of ''being'' and ''nothingness,'' and other states of mind peculiarly French.

He wrote books about ennui. Ennui? Was that what smoldered in Brigitte Bardot's eyes? Whatever it was, we yearned to drink it up.

Years passed. Decades. Then, not long ago I learned from a short article in Harper's magazine that all our cherished expectations of betrayal were justified. We all knew it would be difficult to remain faithful to our astringent principle that beauty and truth reside only in utter despondency. But we never expected a sell-out at such a high level.

The article in question was part of an interview with Sartre, given just before he died in 1980. In it he was asked if he ever experienced despair.

Not at all, he confessed. He only wrote about it because it was fashionable.

How about anguish?

Nah!

Misery?

He only saw it in others.

Personally, it hurt. But not nearly so much as the most recent photo of Brigitte Bardot.

Richard O'Mara is a writer for The Sun.

Pub Date: 2/20/97

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