Joseph Beuys, Hanya Yanagihara, Coyotes, Ghosts, Despair, Healing

Ken Rumble

I’m aware that the despair I’ve been feeling has much more to do with eternal existential questions, depression, and capitalism than it does with the ups and downs of my literary career. I could publish my novel tomorrow, and more than likely I’d be feeling this way again before too long, perhaps to a different degree and perhaps for a different length of time, but I don’t believe that permanently escaping grief, sadness, and despair is possible. I’m not sure it would be desirable. Part of what I’m trying to do with this writing is to think and feel through what it means to live with these feelings as companions rather than as existential threats to be solved, erased, cured, fixed. Despite my hopelessness, most of the time I want to keep living. So how do I live with this? How do I live through this? 

I think often of Joseph Beuys piece “I Like America and America Likes Me” in which he spent eight hours a day for three days in a room with a wild coyote. I don’t think there is any cure for despair or sorrow. I’m not sure that there is any such thing as healing in the sense that I think healing is often thought of in the US, as an erasure, injury as a deviation and then healing as a return. Healed, as the logic seems to go, we return to the “normal” (and, implicitly I think, “eternal”) pre-injury state. It would be nice if it worked that way, but I have never experienced that kind of healing. No wounds from my past have ever been erased, and even if some have eased significantly, they can still ache in the right context. 

I also think often about Hanya Yanagihara’s A Little Life, how no matter what success Jude achieves, no matter how much love he gives or receives, he simply cannot erase his wounds, he cannot escape his ghosts. At best, I think, we learn to live with them, to live with the coyotes in the room, keep them well-fed and quiet, keep them from rousing, hungry and interested. We don’t leave them behind; I don’t know that we ever can.

When I was deep in despair in late August and September, I found myself thinking of people who had hurt me long ago, people I thought I’d forgotten and moved beyond, injuries which I thought had long healed. They were there, though, ready and willing to be thorns again, tear open the scars, gang up on the easy pickings of my hopelessness.

Those feelings were terrible to feel in the moment, awful, but I don’t know if they were more awful than the realization I had when I was more stable that these people would haunt me for the rest of my life. They’d become a part of me, permanent residents, ready to appear whenever despair took me down again. It makes me deeply sad that people who treated me so poorly, with so much undeserved anger and disregard, have been able to claim some part of me as theirs, and I feel divided against myself, those parts of me in which they live. 

Lately, those ghosts have faded again, but I understand they are in the room, sleeping, waiting, my coyotes. I can’t leave, and I can’t let them out. The best I think I can do is to try to keep them quiet, well-fed and sleepy, take care of myself, keep my strength up, avoid waking them. 

At the end of his time in the room with the coyote, Beuys was able to hug them before he left. The metaphor breaks down here, a hug won’t change the relationship between me and my ghosts. Beuys’ piece ended when he stepped from the room into an ambulance, was driven to the airport, and flew back to Germany without having stepped on US soil. 

For the rest of us, the ambulance isn’t there to take us across US soil but to place us under it. There is no “living through this” only “living enough.” I do want to live, but I realize I don’t know how, and knowing or not, I’ll get kicked out anyway and then who knows what.

So I’m lost, still, even though I feel “better,” which I do. The dry grinding stones depression makes of my mind have sunk back underwater, my coyotes mostly doze. I can engage with people in a way that doesn’t feel entirely fake. I can make a list of simple tasks and mostly accomplish them. I sometimes think things will be okay.