Juxtapositions, Christopher Cusack

I.

‘I found the tone a bit too distanced from the intensity of the experiences you describe, and at the same time I didn’t think it quite worked (or was really intended) as a basically comic/satiric piece.’ (1)

It’s since been published elsewhere, this essay about depression and suicide and Tinder, but much as I appreciate the feedback, and particularly the willingness to provide some in the first place, it still rankles a little. I agree suicide is, technically, no laughing matter, not even my own dalliances in this particular domain – but that is exactly why I think humour is crucial to my engagement with suicide and depression, and tragedy more generally. I knew what I was doing when writing that piece; and sure as hell I knew why. Not just standard gallows humour, and certainly not just satire. Black humour, don’t you know, isn’t child’s play. I know of nothing more serious than humour. And for that reason I  don’t often locate my comedy ’twixt Twain and tact, between ‘humor is tragedy plus time’ and ‘no need to be offensive’. It rings true enough, and might well be, but at heart it’s another misconception. I’ve no time to mitigate the misery, ferment it beyond the beginnings of a smirk, the faintest upward curl of my mouth. The tragedy is now, so the comedy must needs be too. All these conceptualisations presuppose a polarity, an antithetical relationship between dark and light, misery and joy, god and satan.

II.

‘So is he finally really dead?’

Apart from a splendid, utterly off-kilter observation about ponies when dementia was already in the process of reducing him to an Oudje-shaped automaton, this is my Dutch grandfather Oudje’s most classic quote. I suppose I need to stress here how smart and loving he was, fantastically smart and loving and completely original, and he was of course, but this has no real bearing on my point.

He was out shopping with my then fourteen-year-old cousin when my grandmother, Oma, rang him to say their next-door neighbour had snuffed it. The man had been in and out of hospital for years. Against all odds, he pulled through every single time, yet every time he was carted off again by ambulance, vultures would gather overhead and his wife or daughter or gardener would gravely intone that this, surely, would finally be the end, god rest his soul.

For Oudje, death was probably a matter of fact. It featured frequently throughout his life – he had a wonky heart, had indeed been declared clinically dead as a teen before staging a full lights-and-choir comeback, and WW2 happened – but much as death was a fact of life, he had no truck with ghoulishness. Grief was necessary, a thing of beauty almost, but death itself should not be taken too seriously, even as you were sobbing while delivering the eulogy for your brother-in-law.

Obviously, Oudje wasn’t actually happy his neighbour had died, but at least the story now made sense, had closure, and this elicited this ostensibly inappropriate response. But we warned him – no, assured him, actually – that we’d quote him during his own funeral, and duly did so. In my eulogy, translated loosely from my ostentatiously maudlin Dutch, this is how I describe his #nofilter exclamation: ‘He seemed delighted almost, responding with that magnificent sense of wonder he displayed so often seemingly instinctively.’ Decontextualised, this sounds childlike or a tad callous even, but this was a sincere expression of mourning and the very best Oudje might muster, because he was too innately absurdist for common-or-garden grief.

III.

It takes a village to raise an army.

~

‘A telling (if apocryphal) Kansas appearance: An audience member stood up and recounted the scene from The Wizard of Oz in which Dorothy and her friends finally meet the wizard, who is powerful and overwhelming until Toto pulls away the curtain to reveal a very small man. “Professor Derrida, are you like that?” the audience member asked. Derrida paused before replying, “You mean like the dog?”’ (2)

~

‘A horse walks into a bar.
Barman looks up and asks him, “Why the long face?”
Says the horse, “My wife just died.”’ (3)

~

‘Baby seal walks into a club.’ (4)

~

At a cremation where the mourners were all served sausage rolls, the dead man’s favourite snack, my grandmother observed that they must have a pretty big oven on the premises.

IV.

During my last session with my psychiatrist, she advised me to return all of my unused meds, particularly because I’m uncle to a bevy of young nieces with nimble fingers, an appetite for exploration, and a foolproof predilection for things not foolproof. My psychiatrist was great: very smart, no-nonsense, but also plenty crazy in a non-clinical sort of way. The story she told me to convince me to return my leftovers (still haven’t, though I’ve since stowed them all away in a big ziploc bag) made me realise I’d probably not find a better shrink. She’d been sent to a crisis situation and there discovered that the patient had actually never taken any of the antipsychotics she’d technically been on for years, but had rather saved all of her prescriptions, multiple scores, on top of her kitchen cabinets. Though impressed that her patient had managed to pass as passably normal all this time, my psychiatrist concluded her story, and indeed our final session, by looking me square in the eye, then casting her glance downwards almost coquettishly, softly shaking her head, and sighing: ‘In this profession you sometimes just meet the craziest folks.’

This was not unprofessional or dismissive or remotely anything of the sort. It was, rather, just a tiny glimpse of the human, the individual, behind the prescription pad, a tiny glimpse of how she coped with her day-to-day – tragedies not strictly hers, but her tragedies all the same.

V.

Because I was on sick leave for the better part of a year, suicidal much longer, and severely depressed for most of my PhD, I needed an extra year or two to finish my thesis. But even though I didn’t finish according to schedule, I was eventually awarded my doctorate with distinction. This is not a humblebrag and I’m not proud of the fact, because I’ve seen better work sink with nary a trace.

Writing, to be frank, is something I hate, fucking hate, but I can’t do without. It’s something I just cannot not do. Every sentence hurts, but if I don’t write I bleed. And I needed to finish the PhD. But I’d nothing left to say and I certainly had no reserves left to invest in the process of producing academic text, to willingly incur the suffering it entailed. I’d finished four of six chapters, but that was it. No matter what I tried, I simply couldn’t express a single additional word from whatever was left of me.

If you produce any amount of text, no matter the quality, at least you’ll have something to work from, so eventually I decided I needed to try the roomful-of-monkeys approach. And I didn’t need infinity and Shakespeare, no banana Hamlet; I just needed a passable work of scholarship to do my mother and grandmother proud before either of them, both cancer patients, could see fit to give up the ghost.

Humour was essential here. Everything had become too serious, too grave, so the only way I could break the deadlock was by not taking it too seriously anymore. And this came as such a massive relief. I accepted that my basket of fucks, never Olympian to begin with, had now truly run empty and decided to consciously give up caring and just start freewheeling.

My regeneration was almost Lazarus-like. I completed a full draft. My supervisors advised me to ditch the bitchy Michael Flatley footnote in my conclusion, but they too were tired, so eventually I was allowed to keep the Rubberbandits riff and the rhyming Batman gag. My thesis is about the Great Irish Famine, but that’s not actually what I joke about.

VI.

A common Dutch idiom without any negative connotations at all: ‘Ik lach me dood’, ‘I’m laughing myself to death’.

On my current iPhone, I have about 430 notes. Roughly a third are shopping lists, travel directions, contact details, though I usually delete this sort of thing the moment I’m done, dead on arrival, or definitively dumped. The rest, some 300, are notes for academic articles, poems, pitches, stories, and essays, or random thoughts too momentous just to let drift away, yet too transitory to actually do anything substantial with.

This is the flotsam and jetsam of a brain defined by unrestricted subconscious warfare. Truth be told, I’ve no particular desire for any of these untrammelled driftwood insights, but they’ve a will of their own and no matter how hard you try you can’t shift a beached whale with the red plastic spade you used to build your first sandcastle. (There’s a metaphor there somewhere.)

Two recent highlights:

23-12-2018: ‘But finally, thank god, a vaccination against autism.’
18-11-2018: ‘I often feel like the last punnet of strawberries of this season.’

There’s more, of course. But the funny thing is that I only take notes on my phone, outside the usual ‘what’s your email?’, if there’s a significant urge to express and record in the moment itself. Frequently, afterwards I can’t parse the things I jotted down, but the thoughts are there, the words are, and as long as we continue looking, we might discover some crucial life lessons, of sorts. Whatever the fuck that means.

Death is everywhere. We try to give it meaning, but there isn’t any. Death just is. At least, if we use humour, we countenance the absurdity of death, of our own trauma, of the fact that each day is only one day closer to the ineluctable.

In my essay about suicide and the like I discuss Dutch author Nescio’s representation of a fictional suicide in my hometown. Nescio’s description is completely deadpan, and all the more tragic for it. Another of my all-time favourite death scenes can be found in Sylvia Townsend Warner’s utterly delectable novel Lolly Willowes; or, The Loving Huntsman (1926):

‘During the last few years of her life Mrs. Willowes grew continually more skilled in evading responsibilities, and her death seemed but the final perfected expression of this skill. It was as if she had said, yawning a delicate cat’s yawn, “I think I will go to my grave now,” and had left the room.’

It’s comic, it’s tragic, it’s quite surreal. It’s macabre, in a fluffy way. It’s got cats. This, then – this is death. But how we laugh. And so writing isn’t life, really. It’s just the best kind of dying.

VII.

I’ve a great line in eulogies.


  1. Personal email from an editor.
  2. Leland de la Durantaye, “Of Spirit,” Village Voice (9 November 2004).
  3. My brother.
  4. The internet

Photo by Ted van Aanholt

Christopher Cusack is a writer and academic based in Nijmegen, the Netherlands. Recent work can be found in Banshee, The Honest Ulsterman, and Poetry Ireland Review. As a critic, he writes mainly for the Irish Times and the TLS.