I woke up this morning, gentle reader, with a raging case of Weltschmerz. If you’ve ever held ideals, you know exactly what that is, because that wonderful German word means nothing but disillusionment with the failure of the world to live up to one’s ideals—anyone’s ideals.
The forced optimism of the calendar changeover is inevitably followed by such feelings, as we all immediately fail our New Years’ resolutions and confront the inescapable fact that absolutely nothing in the world or our personal lives has improved just because the final digit of the common era has incremented by one. Russia’s utterly pointless slaughter continues in Ukraine; Ethiopia is still torn apart by merciless civil war; the MAGA takeover of the House of Representatives gives those squalid fascists new opportunities to smear figurative excrement around the same Capitol Building where their more literal-minded “base” did the same thing in physical reality two years ago; Donald Trump still roams free; and the planet continues its slow anthropogenic boil. If the glorious, tragically flawed ideal of American democracy survives its present crisis, we know that it will eventually pass away, as all things must. And so on.
You get to be my age, you are forced to the realization that any fantasies you ever held that the eternal arm-wrestling match between Good and Evil will be decided in favor of the former in your lifetime are just that, fantasies. Neither the Messiah nor his secular left-wing counterpart, the Revolution of social justice, is coming while you are on this Earth. Worse, your own body, like everything around you, attests mutely to the scientific truth of entropy: everything decays and “evens out” until nothing is left but Shelley’s “lone and level sands” where once the works of mighty Ozymandias stood, and the universe itself spreads further and further out until, eventually, nothing will be left but isolated particles drifting in the void.
So the ever-present question of finding meaning in this life takes on greater urgency, since you won’t be around here forever. For me as a writer, as for any creative artist, that means shaping something that will endure. But isn’t it the artist’s task to show us the decay, the entropy, the fascinating ironies that result from the contrast between everyone’s youthful hopes and the universal experience of Weltschmerz and disillusionment? Or is it rather the artist’s task to set out the shining ideals that everyone should strive for, though we all are doomed to fail? Or more subtly, perhaps it is the writer’s task to do both at the same time, by displaying the disillusionment in such an exquisite fashion that the writing itself strives and strains toward an impossible ideal of artistic beauty. Without some such ideals, we are all trapped in a world of decay.