Anya Silver Taught Me to Appreciate Melancholy
Why we should hunt for the down moment, the vignette hiding from the sun.
Image courtesy Bandai Namco
Postscript is Cameron Kunzelman's weekly column about endings, apocalypses, deaths, bosses, and all sorts of other finalities.
In a poem published shortly before her death, Anya Silver wrote that there were moments in which she was grateful for melancholy. After several reflective stanzas, she ends with this: “Winter evenings, I’m glad to ease my mind from the sun.” And I’ve thought about that line quite a bit over the past several evenings, because in many ways Anya Silver taught me how to read for melancholy.
When I took classes with her in college, and I took several, she was always hunting for the down moment, the vignette that hid from the sun. She savored those moments, and I learned how to do the same. I’ve put that to use in order to talk about video games because that’s my medium of choice, but there’s no doubt that the Postscript column that I have been writing weekly for nearly two years would be impossible without Silver’s influence.
And I can’t help feeling like all of the people who taught me that it’s both ok and necessary to be sad, to sit with sadness sometimes, are leaving. Scott Eric Kaufman shouted his feelings of betrayal and horror at the world into the internet, gone in 2016. Mark Fisher wrestled with capitalism until he couldn’t anymore. 2017, for him. And now Anya Silver, 2018, cancer.
Oddly, I wouldn’t say I was close to any of these people. The internet has this wonderful and horrible effect where it makes us think that people a world away are only separated by inches, and each of these people were always accessible and readable, on blogs or Facebook or in their published work. So there was a gulf of reality, but not in spirit, a one-way attachment or fixation that transformed me and left them mostly unchanged.
I feel almost certain that Anya Silver found me to be annoying. There was clear impatience and exasperation in her voice when I spoke up in class, and, well, I can be exasperating. She wasn’t wrong. But when I wasn’t talking too much, I was paying close attention when she told us about artist and poet Elizabeth Siddal’s death from laudanum overdose after a stillbirth. Her husband, Dante Gabriel Rossetti, was so overcome with grief that he buried his poems with his wife. Much later, overcome with another emotion of some sort, he dug them up and published them. That’s some of the darkest, most emotional shit that can happen in a life, and she talked about it with this air of “well would you believe that” frankness that was refreshing and honest.
When I look at a game that’s tragic or grappling with some kind of human horror, it’s hard not to hear Anya Silver talking. I doubt she ever played a game that might show up in this column, of course, being more inclined to other media and more than skeptical of contemporary technology. But when I enter into a game about sadness or about difficult subjects, I go into it with the same wry smile that Silver had on her face when she talked about the truly weird things that Romantic poets or Regency period writers would do when they were sad.
To sit with sadness, to recognize it and then try to work through it, is something that we’re made immune to in contemporary life. Growing up as a man in the American South, I was certainly never given an emotional toolset to handle those kinds of feelings. I don’t think that I would be able to sit down with a game like The Last Time or Dark Souls II and take them seriously, on an emotional level, without Silver’s help.
This column is, in many ways, an experiment in method. I’ve often been told that my writing is about depression or sadness, but I rarely come away from these pieces feeling that way. When I approach games with heavy themes, or find the heaviness in games that don’t frontload them, I see myself as an aeolian harp. I want them to blow through me, and I want to pull a single frail note from them. I want people to notice it, to hear it.
I have a clear memory of Silver, sitting in the front of the classroom in the center of a wide semicircle of desks, talking about Charlotte Brontë. A complex character herself, Brontë watched her sister Emily die. She burned Emily’s manuscript of whatever was to follow Wuthering Heights, too. And Charlotte remained independent for many years, publishing work under pseudonyms and through other means, generally finding some semblance of success in a world that was bent against her in gendered ways. The man she married, when she finally did marry, would stand outside of her church and weep for the sight of her. He would be overcome, Silver told us, and would have to openly cry up against fence posts or trees whenever Charlotte was around. So Charlotte married him at great personal sacrifice (her copyrights, her work, became his).
When Silver told the story, you could hear the pain of Charlotte giving up her legal rights to her work. The husband, whose name I’ve forgotten, was a comical weeping character in the telling, pitiable, and yet this implicit villain of systemic oppression. It was all mixed in together, the love and the anger and the pity. He felt, and Charlotte felt, and when listening to the story, I felt. Silver was an acceleration chamber for processing sadness, understanding grief, and coming out the other end.
Whatever I do here is a rudimentary echo of her teaching and her way of being.
So if you like this column, or you like the work that I do in delving through sadness, then now you have the key. I learned from someone who felt it better than I did, and she carved out a little space in my head where she lives now. And that’s the only place she lives now, in me and the thousands of people who intersected with her classroom and her life. She gave me a method for working through things, and I never told her that, never even reflected on it, until it was impossible to tell her.
Anya Silver believed in a God she couldn’t necessarily trust, an old style God. We didn’t share that. But we shared a desire to look out and see the worst things, experience the bad feelings, and then figure out what we do from them. Her melancholy outlook was fueled by her upbringing and an acute awareness, via cancer, of her own horizon line of life. It loomed, all the time it seems, for as long as I knew her. And she proliferated that outlook to all of her students, making sure that we understood how to have a stance toward an ending. And I try to carry that.
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