Mr. Cognito’s Despair

by David Stankiewicz

Mr. Cognito’s Despair
   after Zbigniew Herbert

When Mr. Cogito returns home, he hangs his despair on its hook beside the radiator.  A bachelor, Mr. Cogito is nevertheless fastidious.  He picks up the apron hanging next to his despair when it’s time to boil some water.  Tonight Mr. Cogito plans to make a primavera and sets to work chopping the vegetables.  He had thought about inviting his friend from the used book store, but solitude seemed more suitable given Lent and the March weather.  March is the hardest month (if not the cruelest).  The weather is so up and down one never knows how to dress — it’s either too much despair or too little.  Mr. Cogito prefers September and the first two weeks of October, that golden season when one always knows the proper amount.  Each year Mr. Cogito tells himself he will give up nostalgia for Lent.  Ah, but that’s like asking a fish to give up water, Mr. Cogito thinks, turning on the radio.  Another name for nostalgia is despair.  He used to listen to the news, but it made the emptiness inside everything too in your face, as the Americans say.  When he was a much younger man, Mr. Cogito approved of something he read in a book by a Spaniard whose despair was cut from the same cloth as his: we would solve many things if we all went out into the streets and wept.  Now he feels the best one can do is to be courteous to his despair, accepting, but not overly-indulgent.  To think of it as a distant relative who has fallen ill on a journey far from home and has no one but you to rely on.  You must invite him in, of course, be kind.  But you only owe him so much, and you still have your own life to live.  That way, you might become neither martyr nor servant to your despair.  Which, as we can see from Mr. Cogito’s coat rack, even after he’s done the dishes and gone upstairs, isn’t going anywhere.