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The Sorrow of Being
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The Sorrow of Being

The root of all pure joy and sadness is that the world is as it is.

Giorgio Agamben, The Coming Community

Not how the world is, is the mystical, but that it is.

Ludwig Wittgenstein, Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus

We now know the location of this narrow passage through which thought is able to exit from itself—it is through facticity, and through facticity alone, that we are able to make our way towards the absolute.

Quentin Meillassoux, After Finitude:
An Essay on the Necessity of Contingency

Whan I saw His shewing continuid, I understod that it was showid for a grete thyng that was for to come … But what this dede shuld be, it was kept privy to me.

Julian of Norwich, The Shewings

The "Is-ness" or the Existence of Light is Darkness … That is, Darkness is the body of the "Is-ness" of Light.

The Intelligence Notebooks

Such a lot the gods gave to me—to me.

H. P. Lovecraft, "The Outsider"

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Sorrow is double.1 The doubleness of sorrow is more than its manifestation, like everything else subject to duality, in alternate forms of good and bad, pleasurable and painful, healthy and unhealthy, and so forth. Rather, it has to do with a deeper ambivalence within the structure and experience of sorrow itself, such that the task of defining sorrow seems inherently to demand distinguishing between opposite forms of sorrow. Sorrow is never simply good or bad, but always good or bad in a way that involves the possibility of its opposite. This doubleness is especially evident within the medieval discourse on sorrow, which, rooted in St. Paul's distinction in 2 Corinthians 7:10 between tristitia secundum Deum (sorrow according to God) and tristitia saeculi (worldly sorrow), both celebrates sorrow as a spiritual virtue and obsesses over its dangers to a degree that modernity does not. Where modernity views sorrow by and large as a problem to be fixed, even as premodern, and/or the inverse, as its own general condition, medieval culture typically understood sorrow as a task to be faced, a work of mourning to be taken up, and therefore also a labor under which one could not only collapse, but fail.2 "Today these people would be treated in hospitals. But Dante considered them sinners," comments Curtius on the sullen damned: "Fitti nel limo dicon: 'Tristi fummo / ne l'aere dolce che dal sol s'allegra, / portando dentro accidïoso fummo'" (Inferno 7.121–23) (Fixed in the slime they say: "We were sad in the sweet air which is gladdened from the sun, carrying within ourselves the slothful fumes").3 On the one hand, sorrow, in the form of contrition, is an absolute necessity. Only contrition can crush (contritio, from conterere, to crush, grind) the hardness of will that constitutes sin.4 On the other hand, excessive sorrow is itself sinful and may lead to despair, a transition traditionally figured as being swallowed by sorrow.5 As these metaphors suggest, sorrow's ambivalent power is all about its blurring of the boundaries between being and affect (the wordplay of Dante's fummo), its belonging to a mysterious dimension of extreme desire where how one feels and what one is intersect in the will's utmost self-constituting and self-dissolving negativity. [End Page 10]

This ambivalence is contained in an essential way within the medieval definition of contrition as the greatest of sorrows on the basis of its relationship to the will's final end.6 Contrition, as perfect sorrow, is governed by the paradox of being a maximum intensity that requires moderation, a kind of an emotional volume control that must be turned all the way up without blowing the system. This paradox could be resolved intellectually by distinguishing between the rational aspect of contrition, which has no proper limit, and the sensible aspect of contrition, which does.7 Yet from an experiential perspective, this distinction, which runs the risk of reducing contrition to a kind of subjunctive act or deferrable possibility of itself, only accentuates the paradox in that it requires sorrow precisely as an unbounded disproportion between the...