A short post on standing at the crossroads–for me, “despair and utter hopelessness”….

“Now is the winter of our discontent,” begins Shakespeare’s play Richard the Third, and indeed no better season could have been chosen to represent discontent and melancholy in general than winter, at least for those of us who live in the temperate zone.  When it’s cold and gloomy, the weather dominates our mood even if we are determined to remain cheerful, and when it’s warm and balmy, we may equally well feel sad and doomed because we know it is the result of disastrous global warming.  So it’s the perfect season in which to review a certain remark made by that genius of discontent, Woody Allen.

Allen once said, “More than any time in history mankind faces a crossroads.  One path leads to despair and utter hopelessness, the other to total extinction.  Let us pray that we have the wisdom to choose correctly.”  Of course, the humor comes  from the fact that this is a parody of morally uplifting sentiments which would oppose negative choices to more positive ones, which choices require that one imagine oneself at a crossroads without helpful markers to point the correct direction, but simply a crossroads in the middle of nowhere, requiring a guess.  And as well, in this case, the choices are both negative, to make the imagined situation even more extreme.

Taking Allen’s redaction of such old saws seriously for the moment, however, “total extinction” is the end of life, finito! all things over and done with, whereas despair and utter hopelessness, though perhaps the emotional equivalent, are not quite as bad.  Or is it the other way around?  Would it, Allen perforce asks us to imagine, be better to pass entirely out of existence rather than to live in despair and utter hopelessness?  A fine point, and one only someone who is at least pretending to a very somber world view would come up with.

The trick to this whole problematic choice is of course to choose despair and utter hopelessness, because it is as impossible to maintain these constantly as it is to maintain constantly the opposite, total cheerfulness.  Woody Allen’s maxim is the proof in itself that there is some residuum of this choice, and it is humor, even if a particularly wry and wan gallows humor.

After all, sooner or later, we will all face extinction to some degree anyway.  I say “to some degree” to allow for human philosophical quibbles about the afterlife, whether by that one means heaven or the after-the-fact gratification of persistent personal fame.  The poet William Butler Yeats even indicated that he believed that each person had the afterlife he or she had believed in before death:  if heaven, then a choir of angels for company, if nothing, then nothing.  So in this situation, why go the “extinction route” any sooner than necessary?  We’ll see that scenery soon enough.  No, for me it’s the route of “depair and utter hopelessness,” because I know that such conditions don’t persist constantly, and I will surely have my good days as well, even if I sound like Woody Allen in a “down” mood (and that is quite funny enough to be going on with!).


Filed under A prose flourish, Literary puzzles and arguments

9 responses to “A short post on standing at the crossroads–for me, “despair and utter hopelessness”….

  1. Life is a constant struggle between happiness and despair; gloom and doom and optimistic glee. I think we make it worse for ourselves because we don’t recognize it and accept it. When periods of despair strike and we are sure the sky is falling, we should give ourselves a break and practice some self-love. I now recognize it for what it is and say, “You know what? I’m having a crappy day (or week!). Hang on, be strong, and remember that it will get better.” Perhaps simplistic, but it works for me. We absolutely do determine our own reality, and therefore our destiny.


    • Yes, I know exactly what you mean. I wasn’t myself in the pit of despair when I wrote this post, but was instead feeling meditative about Woody Allen’s odd sense of humor and other times when I’ve been down in the dumps. It does indeed help so much when one is in a lousy mood if one can think back and recall that it’s happened before, and that it ended, and was followed by happy times too. Thanks for reading and commenting.


  2. Ah, winter’s hard, Victoria. But each day gets a little longer! The hard and unbelievable thing is when we hit June 21 and start going back the other way.


  3. I’ve been a bit of slacker when it comes to visiting but I’ve nominated you for an award.


    • Thank you for the nomination. I know just how busy you’ve been, because your site always receives tons of mail, and though I read a lot of it from time to time, I simply don’t have time to cover all the books you do and get my own stuff done too. So, we’re both slacking off a bit! Never mind, it doesn’t come from any ill-will, simply incapacity on my part. And I’m always interested to hear what you have to say when you do get a chance to comment.


  4. Is it better to feel something or feel nothing at all?

    To use an example: I can say, from my time not working, I actually miss working now. Everyone whinges about work and how stressful it can be sometimes, but it beats the alternative of not being able to do much because of a lack of income =P

    There is no alternative to total extinction, but there is always a chance of redemption when feeling despair and utter hopelessness =)


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