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No One Owes You Hope
Kafka, *Dual*, Barbara Ehrenreich know that suffering isn't there to inspire you.
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Kafka’s The Metamorphosis is generally thought of as an exercise in absurdist bleakness. The conclusion, though, is surprisingly upbeat. Poor Gregor Samsa, who had inexplicably turned into an enormous cockroach, has finally died, and his family no longer has to care for him, or see his repulsive form, or think about him. Mr. Samsa, Mrs. Samsa, and Gregor’s sister Greta decide to go on a brief holiday.
… the three of them left the flat together, which was something they had not done for months, and took the tram out to the open country outside the town. They had the tram, filled with warm sunshine, all to themselves. Leant back comfortably on their seats, they discussed their prospects and found that on closer examination they were not at all bad—until then they had never asked each other about their work but all three had jobs which were very good and held particularly good promise for the future. The greatest improvement for the time being, of course, would be achieved quite easily by moving house; what they needed now was a flat that was smaller and cheaper than the current one which had been chosen by Gregor, one that was in a better location and, most of all, more practical…. (translated by David Wyllie)
You could read this as a kind of happy ending; the bad times are over, life goes on. Being turned into a cockroach is unpleasant, obviously, and dying is not ideal. But with a positive attitude and moral fortitude, you can overcome it, and go out to the country. Brighter things are out there if you only are willing to turn aside from all the unpleasantness and focus on the sunshine.
I don’t think Kafka was encouraging you to shed your cockroach skin for a happy grin, though. The hope on display here isn’t a happy ending so much as it’s the final twist of the knife. The euphoria on display is not Gregor’s after all; rather, it’s built on Gregor’s sticky corpse. The condition for hope is the abandonment not only of Gregor, but of his memory. His family will leave the apartment he had chosen and where he suffered and died and move on. The warm sunshine is theirs because it is not Gregor’s, and his family is grateful, not least, because they are not him.
Hope, Or Else
I was thinking about this ending in part because of a post on Notes by fiction writer Thomas J. Bevan. Bevan argued that it’s wrong—morally, aesthetically, or both—to write stories or essays “without at least offering the possibility of solutions.” Narratives that withhold hope, he insists “are an affliction to the reader.”
This isn’t that unusual an argument. You’ll often see people on social media asking why this critic focus on the negative, or urging people to offer a way forward rather than simply caviling. Despair isn’t creative; it just enervates. “Hope moves,” Ruth Gaskovski argues in a post about the Republican effort to normalize child labor. If you want to inspire change, you need to tell people change is possible.
There’s some truth there. Naïve cynicism—the argument that all politicians and politics are corrupt and that you might as well just give up—is neither true nor helpful. Solidarity, activism, standing up for the right: those things can be very powerful. People can make meaningful choices, and should.
Hope can be a lever to lift people up. But it can also, unfortunately, be a bludgeon to knock them back into place if they dare to step out of line. That’s the function of the remorseless homilies of self-help, which frame striving and a smile as the solution to all life’s ills.
Barbara Ehrenrieich, in her book Bright-Sided: How the Relentless Promotion of Positive Thinking Has Undermined America, talks about the way that normative positivity affects the sick, who are often told that depression, or negative thoughts, will make the disease worse. “The failure to think positively can weigh on a cancer patient like a second disease,” Ehrenreich says.
Breast cancer, I can now report, did not make me prettier or stronger, more feminine or spiritual. What it gave me, if you want to call this a “gift,” was a very personal, agonizing encounter with an ideological force in American culture that I had not been aware of before—one that encourages us to deny reality, submit cheerfully to misfortune, and blame only ourselves for our fate.
There’s little evidence that you can defeat cancer by smiling. Some cancer diagnoses are just a death sentence, whether you “fight” the disease or not. John McCain’s days were extremely numbered as soon as he was diagnosed with glioblastoma. Sometimes there just isn’t much hope. Who benefits from insisting that there is? The afflicted person, like Gregor? Or those nearby, who want to feel that they are not threatened, or can somehow escape disease, suffering, death?
American culture doesn’t just demand hope in the face of individual tragedy. It insists on positivity when you’re talking about political violence and atrocity as well. After a racist murderer opened fire in an African-American church in Charleston in 2016, members of the Church quickly said that they forgave the shooter. That personal, admirable act of selfless reconciliation, though, quickly became The Focus of the story in many media outlets eager to find a positive note to take from atrocity. But as Roxanne Gay wrote in the New York Times.
What white people are really asking for when they demand forgiveness from a traumatized community is absolution. They want absolution from the racism that infects us all even though forgiveness cannot reconcile America’s racist sins. They want absolution from their silence in the face of all manner of racism, great and small. They want to believe it is possible to heal from such profound and malingering trauma because to face the openness of the wounds racism has created in our society is too much.
Something similar is true of our cultural memory of the Holocaust, which is almost entirely framed through narratives about gentile saviors rescuing Jewish people. The worst genocide in history becomes a tale about individual bravery, courage, hope. But as I wrote in a recent piece:
The Holocaust is not in fact an uplifting story. It’s a story, for the most part, about the terrible toll of human evil and hate. European Jewry was largely eliminated in the places the Nazis controlled. And while Hitler has served as a warning to some, he’s also been an inspiration and a blueprint.
Demanding hope from the Holocaust is to no small degree obscene. Contra Job’s comforters, misery and atrocity are not staged as didactic morals to elevate onlookers. Sometimes horror is horror; misery is misery; the meaning of suffering is suffering. There isn’t a solution. There’s just despair and grief.
Two Selves That Suck
Many people don’t like to hear that—which may explain some of the less enthusiastic reactions to Riley Stearns’ 2022 film Dual. Critics have called it “curiously inert” and said it suffers from “lazy storytelling.”
And it’s true: the narrative doesn’t go anywhere. But I think, in a story about depression, that’s arguably the point.
The film is set in a Black Mirror-esque near-future. Sarah (Karen Gillen) is socially awkward and emotionally cut-off, from herself and everyone else. Her boyfriend Peter (Beulah Koale) seems to be in the relationship solely because he can’t find a way out. Her mother (Majia Paunio) is needy and irritating. Sarah dodges her calls, preferring to spend her free time masturbating to internet porn and drinking.
But things can always get worse. Sarah wakes up one day to find her pillow soaked with coughed-up blood. The doctors tell her she’s contracted a terminal illness. Facing death, Sarah decides to clone herself, so her loved ones won’t grieve—or perhaps because she’s afraid that if she just disappears, they wouldn’t care.
The double is supposed to be an exact duplicate. But in fact she has better hair, better skin, and blue eyes. She also seems to have better social skills. She is more attentive to Sarah’s mother; she quickly starts a satisfying romance with Peter. Sarah is left looking on as this other, more competent version of her takes over her life.
And then she learns that she isn’t going to die, which means she has to fight her double in a dual to the death to see which one gets to continue to live Sarah’s life.
Stearns’ style is deadpan to the point of paralysis. Sarah goes to the hospital, assures them she’s not an emergency case, and vomits blood on the floor in front of the clerk all with the same stolid lack of affect. The clone steps into her life because she’s barely in her life. There’s nothing to take over, and no one to take it from.
Is This Hope or Confusion?
Again, many critics see the lack of struggle and of development as a problem with the film. But the absence at the center of the story isn’t a failure of imagination. It’s an effort, I think, to get at the feeling of, and mechanics, of depression. Sarah’s double the Sarah those around her want her to be—the Sarah with social skills, get-up-and-go—with hope. Sarah can imagine that person, and squint her eyes and see that person. But she can’t be that person?
Or can she? Faced with the dual and her imminent violent demise, Sarah decides to fight. She hires a personal fight trainer, gets in shape, starts taking hip hop dance lessons. It’s like a list of recommendations for people with depression—exercise, find new interests, find new friends. She even ends up visiting a therapy support group of sorts with her double. She and her double decide to run away together, so they don’t have to kill each other. She’s no longer a lost, sad soul. She’s a protagonist, with a dream. Even her flat affect seems less off putting, more quirky charm.
And then it all goes to shit. The double poisons Sarah and buries her in the woods without fanfare. Double returns to Peter and Sarah’s mom, who are in on the murder, and seemingly as happy to get rid of old Sarah as Gregor’s family are to ditch him. Sarah’s double convinces the court she’s the original. She wins.
What she wins is Sarah’s life—which is also, unfortunately for her, Sarah’s depression. By the end of the movie, Sarah’s tired of her mother again, and her relationship with Peter is once again a bleak round of awkward pauses and irritated silence. The last shot of the film is Sarah’s double as Sarah sitting in her care, stopped the wrong way on a roundabout, weeping.
The Cockroach Clone
Watching Dual is a frustrating experience because the movie keeps deliberately offering hope and then shutting it down. Sarah has multiple chances to be someone better—via cloning, via working out, via therapy, via letting go of her own resentment and sadness. And she does some of those opportunities. But they don’t stick. The new self is still the old self waiting around to poison that new identity and slip back into despair. The viewer—like Peter and Sarah’s mother—keep rooting for change and transformation. “Stop being such a downer!” you want to shout. “Pick a life and live it!” But the movie instead dead ends, refusing to get on the right road.
Maybe the movie is afflicting the viewer by withholding that satisfactory catharsis. But maybe the denial of these other, happier selves is a show of respect for the sad self that is Sarah. Sometimes people are depressed; sometimes they’re terminally ill; sometimes they’re traumatized and miserable and sad. Sometimes they’ve been treated like crap by family, by lovers, by friends, by society. Sometimes they can’t get over it and make a new life. This is the life they’ve got.
Hope can be lovely and inspiring. But enforced hope can also be a lie, and, worse, an easy way to morally condemn people who are suffering for their own pain. Dual and Metamorphosis don’t offer solutions for people who feel broken. Instead, they offer recognition. Feeling like a cockroach is a human thing. Hating yourself is a thing selves do. That’s not hope. It’s maybe not even comfort. But it has the virtue of being true—and of letting you know that, even when you’ve lost hope, you’re not alone.
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