No matter how ephemeral it is, a novel is something, while despair is nothing. — Mario Vargas Llosa
Though I speak it quite badly, I love the French language. The French possess a wonderful word without an exact counterpart in English: ennui, which means “studious boredom,” or something close to it.
In an existential age the most common affliction is despair. Many believe that nothing—no ideal, no religion, no individual, no love, no career—can transcend the drudgery of existence. Imagine the joyless burden: endlessly seeking new entertainment, wasting away on booze and drugs, mastering sexual diversions. They all lead to despair, the very heart of ennui.
The French poet Baudelaire was an early explorer of this realm. Consider this passage from his preface to Les Fleurs de Mal:
...If rape or arson, poison or the knife
Has wove no pleasing patterns in the stuff
Of this drab canvas we accept as life—
It is because we are not bold enough!
Despite his despondency, he has lessons to offer us. The value of work, especially the work of the artist, is found in the relief it provides. Herein lies the seed of hope.
Mario Vargas Llosa, the Peruvian Nobel laureate, takes the notion several steps further. Yes, most novels are vapourous and likely to disappear from the public mind within a few years (or months) of publication. But all art is born from the human imagination, and is therefore a vestige of nature and the universe. And like a broken twig or stray feather, it is something—and most definitely not an artifact of despair.
I would take the argument much further and suggest the work of the artist can transcend despair and ennui. Both the act of writing and the completed novel—the process and the product—generate this kind of elevated experience. When you create something you emulate the natural world. Better still, by aligning your creative energy with the forces of nature within you, you directly contact the creative state of being which is the polar opposite of ennui: joie de vivre.
Let me state this even more forcefully: Creativity transforms us from beasts into gods. I imagine that Baudelaire would disagree. On the other hand, perhaps Llosa would support the idea.