‘What kind of monster is she who does not despair?’
Killian Turner, Berlin Notebooks (1982)
As a thought experiment, imagine yourself in a mob of lemmings headed for the Cliffs of Moher.
If it helps, imagine the other lemmings in the mob being everyone you have ever known on first name terms – classmates, workmates, fuckmates etc.
Among the lemmings there are four broad groups:
The first group are the deniers. They deny the existence of the Cliffs of Moher. There is no Atlantic ocean either, according to them – after all, who has ever seen these supposed ‘Cliffs’, this ridiculous ‘Ocean’?!
The green, lush, & rolling lands just continue forever, as does the going forward of the lemmings, & their is neither a need to nor a possibility of ever changing course, & to suggest otherwise is traitorous to lemmings.
This first group of lemmings is split in two, with some right up the front leading the charge towards oblivion as if it were heaven they were heading to, & some more guarding the very back, to stop any lemming trying to escape, (while secretly preparing their own escape, of course).
The second group, perhaps the most numerous, are only dimly aware or totally unaware that they are headed for the Cliffs of Moher.
They are just trotting along, living in the mindlessness of the moment, without any sense of how connected each moment is with all the moments that have come before & with all the moments that are yet to come.
Every passing breeze, every fart on the wind, distracts them; every drop of rain upsets them. They never meditate upon the absurdity of their origins, nor on the dark inevitability of their ends.
Then there are the optimistic lemmings. They are aware of the oncoming cliff but believe various things will mitigate the fall : for example that it is only a few feet of a fall. Maybe they will break an ankle, but that’s about it.
Or they will sprout wings before they reach the edge of the cliffs.
Or there is a giant safety net, maybe even a gigantic trampoline at the bottom of the cliff.
The final group are the pessimists. They know it is a deathdrop, that there will be no miraculous mitigations, no sudden blooming of extra limbs, no safety net to protect from the jagged rocks & the seething depths.
Only the vast cosmos of the Atlantic, which will swallow all in an instant, without so much as a burp, & that will be that, for good.
The pessimists are few in number & for their own safety mostly keep mum.
Among the denialists, the innocents, & the optimists there pertains a visceral taboo against Despair – if any pessimists try & express their position they are mocked by an alliance of the three other groups & if they persist in their derangement they are trampled to death.
A couple of the optimists are actually pessimists who have decided it is more practical & perhaps even more honorable to – on the face of it at least – go along with the idea that it’s all going to be grand & sure don’t be worrying about it.
These we might call the pastoral lemmings. They see no point in terrifying those who are going to go over the cliff anyway however they are feeling or whatever they are thinking. These pastoral pessimists simply want to help the others to die without losing their minds first, & putting the awful truth in circulation will not help in this regard.
So they too talk about sprouting wings & about shallow drops & nets & so on & keep all the other lemmings in good spirits.
Amidst all the other kinds of lemmings the pastorals feel – justifiably I think – that they are the only ones who are doing something collectively useful, the only ones who truly understand what solidarity with & compassion for one’s fellow-doomed might actually mean.