Seeing Sadness: Veiled and True

Akira Kurosawa’s film Rashomon was groundbreaking. It was groundbreaking as a piece of visual storytelling and it was groundbreaking in how I understood myself. It was the first time film addressed the idea that truth differs for each person. Memories and impressions may be entirely at odds with one another, but necessarily coexist. There is no single shared story of the past. In the movie a Japanese woodcutter and priest are sitting under the massive wooden arches of a destroyed building, hiding from torrential rainstorm. A harried man comes along and tells the two he’d just witnessed a chilling trial. A samurai was murdered, survived by his wife and a bandit that had attacked him. After the harried man tells his story (all shot through flashbacks that depict the “actual” events) the woodcutter he witnessed the events as well and tells his own version. According to the woodcutter the bandit had tied up the samurai and raped the samurai’s wife. The wife untied her husband so he could defend her, but the two men were scared to fight and ended up rolling around on the forest floor. Neither of them were dignified or tough or cool or even masculine. While the men fought, the wife laughed at how humiliating the whole disastrous mess was.

The first time I saw Rashomon was as a skinny college sophomore taking a film theory class. During the woodcutter’s story my professor let out a deep chuckle that turned into a cackle. I found myself shocked watching these seemingly macho guys role around as the woman onscreen laughed and my professor cackled. I was shocked at how disturbed I was. I didn’t understand why he was laughing and I was squirming with anxiety. After class I asked my professor what he’d found so funny and responded with something about their pitiful emasculation that revealed the fragility of masculinity. I told him that while I didn’t disagree with his point the scene disturbed me. I felt something in my guts shift and struggle, like a single egg full of adult snakes trying to break so they could spread through my insides and wrap around my muscles and introduce me into some new horror I’d never realized was there. We watched the scene again and he said he just didn’t see it. I might not have used that exact metaphor now that I think about it.

At the time I thought this meant I was flat-out wrong. That my reaction was the wrong reaction. I hadn’t been introduced to the fundamental notion that multiple emotional reactions to a single event can firmly coexist–cohabitate even–both in and between people. Self denigration through invalidation of emotional reactions (read as: telling yourself off all the time) is a pretty common thought pattern with depression. This wasn’t the first time I’d seen something shocking and sad and I told myself it just wasn’t there. I was like Haley Joel Osmet in The Sixth Sense if he’d consistently told himself Bruce Willis didn’t really exist and Haley was a bad person for seeing Bruce at all. Part of the reason I’d tell myself I was wrong was because I seemed to be the only person that saw sadness and cruelty where there was apparent humor and normality. People were frequently shocked at my reactions. But it makes a lot of sense that others found my reactions weird.

I’m not much fun to watch Family Guy with. Whenever the show goes out of its way to be cruel to Meg (even something as asinine as getting rid of a booger by rubbing Meg’s head and telling her she loves him) I can’t help but imagine the creators as people capable of great dehumanizing disdain for unpredictable reasons. While this seems like an overstatement, it still makes a lot of sense to me. It’s difficult to compartmentalize disdain. Even creating an imaginary punching bag of a character like Family Guy‘s Meg encourages the emotional practice of celebrating casual cruelty. As a character Meg is either boring or uncharacteristically crazy (in one episode the writers have her mimic Glenn Close in Fatal Attraction for no discernable reason) and the joke of hating Meg seems to simply be “Hey isn’t funny that there’s no reason to hate her but we hate her a lot anyways!” I always found it really easy to start assuming people I might walk by on the sidewalk were objects of disdain because it was “funny” to think like that, especially after watching Family Guy. I couldn’t help but make it personal in someway. Thing is, I don’t think making it personal was a bad thing.

Finding sadness and cruelty where it might not otherwise exist isn’t exactly fun. It doesn’t fit in with the constant search for the silver lining type mentality that’s really popular at the moment. One that can hamper my attempt to connect with people over painful topics that need solemnity rather than enthusiasm (I don’t know how many times I’ve heard some ask “Yeah, but, something good must have come from it” or “Everything happens for a reason” when all I needed was some company and a “That sounds hard” or two). Finding sadness and cruelty where it might not otherwise exist also doesn’t fit in with the cynical nihilism that everything sucks (because why would I be shocked at something cruel since everyone is really truly an asshole at their core?). I’ve found that asking myself why I find something shocking or sad or cruel tends to reveal that I really do care–I just care in general, whether it’s family, politics, people I’ve seen once or twice–and caring requires hurt. Shock and sadness remind me that the deadening parts of depression are losing. Shock and sadness require me to be emotionally willing enough to be shocked and sad. Feeling shocked or sad requires that I’m not afraid of tough emotions like the myopically positive and that I’m not so calcified by my own disappointment that I put on the pretense of apathy (cynical nihilism is at best a defense against any threatening emotional stimulus out because I fear feeling hurt. It’s an understandable reaction to cruelty [who the hell desires to hurt?] but it perpetuates an emotional cycle of consistent misery).

This is not to say everything is sad and cruel and you should look for it in everything you consume. There’s real incontestable value to positivity. It’s thirst quenching and energizing and momentum producing; it just isn’t very good at recognizing when it’s time to engage and nurture emotional hurt. Cynicism can be helpful when being critical, it’s just really draining.

Some can see a man walking late at night, shoulders hunched and hat pulled low, shrugging against the wind as his shadow turns like the hands of a clock against the warm sodium glow of the yellow streetlights that blanket the asphalt and they might see loneliness. Others might see determination. Others, fragility of beauty that might not have existed if they hadn’t glanced out their window at that exact moment. And some others might just see a guy. The point is, the first few reactions fill out the night with the color and shape of imagination and in doing so continue to give life to the interpreter and to the man himself. That part, the life part, is the important part.

To put it another, less overwrought way, sadness and shock are so pathologised, not only if someone has depression, but in the general US population, that their life-giving qualities are overlooked. Depression denies the feeling of even sadness. It is a kind of anti-life. It hates sadness and shock with the same dulled fury that it hates laughter and passion.

So why the hell was I so shocked by that scene in Rashomon? The best I can do is try and remember the feelings and where they came from. I was shocked at how easily the promise of protection provided by machismo shatters with the a simple trip or chuckle. I felt embarrassed for the men rolling around, knowing death was close by but it wouldn’t be dignified. I saw all my dreams of knights in thick armor fending off wounds and baring forward into inhuman jaws and returning triumphant flicked away with every clumsy flash of their swords. I heard the mocking anger in the woman’s voice and realized I was not familiar with true strength and would have to discover something entirely new to feel safe. And now, thinking back, I heard the whispers of depression asking “why bother when it’s all such pathetic shit.” It took a while to learn that my realizations were valuable ones and that pathetic bluster shit can absolutely be okay. I don’t know if I would have had any of those thoughts without the desperate feeling that depression can let in.

To conclude, I don’t really want to wrap this up. Things still shock me with their sadness and cruelty. It could be the harsh edge in someone’s laughter after I trip, it could be the local news reporting the death of a child in Texas with near libidinous fervor, it could be something everyone finds sad and shocking. This stuff doesn’t stuff, and while depression wanes I refuse to stop caring if only out of fear depression might wax again.


One thought on “Seeing Sadness: Veiled and True

  1. I’ve never actually seen “Family Guy,” but your paragraph about it–and about your professor rewatching the film scene with you and saying he just doesn’t see it–goes far to convince me that it isn’t that you may see sadness and cruelty where it doesn’t exist: it seems to be more about how we become schooled in not seeing, in not being disturbed. Brilliant entry, John.


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