When You Wish Upon A Star: Hope and Despair in Puella Magi Madoka Magica #2

Part Two: Or, What’s With This Whole Despair Deal?

Ladies and gentlemen of the jury, let it be known that I, Troy Tang, have with inexcusable negligence forgotten to answer a simple question: what, pray is despair? Can you buy it on shelves? Does it come with a warranty? And can you get it cheaper on the Internet?

The answers to the last three questions are no, no, and of course you can. The answer to the first question is a bit more complicated. See, according to Urobuchi Gen, despair is a primordial darkness that turns otherwise healthy Magical Girls into monstrous papercraft Witches, and also a source of handy-dandy fission that somehow delays the heat-death of the universe.


if you feel too happy this will happen so feel sad bois I mean girls I mean

…Yeah, not too rigorous of an answer, if I do say so myself. Personally, I prefer the air my own thoroughly cited and obviously reliable opinions. But for a show focused entirely around a stalker’s relentless attempts to prevent her unrequited crush from going full Raspberry Ripple (because life as a dollop of frilly ice-cream is much less sweet than it seems after about five minutes), Ponderous Movenpick-Munching Maniacs is not actually very clear about what causes said ice-cream to melt. In other words, Urobuchi gives no rigorous or even specific definition of his main metaphysical conceit, despair, despite hanging the premise of his entire magic system on it.



And not only that, but there are more confused frogs on the branch. In the Madokaverse, magic is sourced from your Soul Gem, which is your soul(?) which when tainted by despair(?) will turn you into a Witch who eats(?) humans to sustain herself, sometimes by causing the meatsacks to commit suicide. At some point another Magical Girl will then kill you and take your Soul Gem to purify hers before herself succumbing to the sad jitters and becoming paper. Evil plushies from another galaxy will then use all that despair(?) to retard(?) entropy, in what is simultaneously the cutest and cruelest Ponzi Scheme in all history. Also there’s an afterlife(?) somewhere out there but we’re not too sure how exactly it works and it may not actually exist.

What is a soul? How does a Witch consume said soul by destroying the body? How do you quantify despair? How do you retard entropy? If a Magical Girl becomes a Witch through the blackening of her soul, how is it that in the afterlife she returns to her human form? What even is despair?



Aside from this.

Now, I can’t answer all those questions, because I only twiddle my toes in the toddler pool of philosophical pleasure-reading, and I know that it’s outside the scope of an animated TV show to go into all those digressions. My pedantries have no real answers, least of all from myself. But if there’s one thing I’m good at, it’s stealing shamelessly, and who better to do it from than the OG Sadsack himself?


‘You cannot see them, but there are a great many wounds crawling beneath my skin, and they will not heal.’

If you don’t already know, dear imaginary reader, this man is Søren Kierkegaard, the great Danish writer, philosopher, theologian, and perpetual Eeyore. He usually gets credit for being the ant that started the avalanche of existentialism (in brief, the idea that there is no innate or knowable meaning to the cosmos, and man must impart his own meaning to the universe), but the fact is that Kierkegaard, being an extremely devout and thoroughly orthodox Lutheran, would be horrified at many of those who trace their philosophical descent from him. A bit like me and Rebellion, actually.


it never ends

Anyway, ol’ Kierkegaard, being perhaps the saddest sadsack in philosophy, had the introspective insight that comes with moping indoors all day and occasionally going for long walks to mope some more. He kept his joy on the inside, is what I’m saying, and this degree of self-knowledge (as well as a good helping of genius) gave him an unusual degree of psychological acuity for, well, anyone. Distrusting the numerous attempts in his day to codify all human knowledge and rationality under some master system (Hegel being his greatest enemy), Kierkegaard wrote his many works under numerous pseudonyms, letting his multitude of personas expound their philosophies of life as they pleased. One of these personas is called Johannes Climacus, an unbeliever who speaks in the works Johannes ClimacusPhilosophical Fragments,  and Concluding Unscientific Postscript to Philosophical Fragments. As he often did, Kierkegaard wished to transcend his own arguments, and knew that he could only do so from the viewpoint of someone even more Christian than he believed himself to be. His literary identity still hidden, Kierkegaard took on the character of Anti-Climacus (above, not against Climacus, indeed above even Kierkegaard himself) and wrote perhaps the most penetrating treatment of despair up until that point: The Sickness Unto Death, A Christian Psychological Exposition For Upbuilding And Awakening.

The Sickness Unto Death is not only a work of philosophy, but also theology; its latter half is mostly concerned with the nature of sin as a willful act, and how sin can in fact be reduced to despair. The first half, however, is extremely relevant to our slab-cheeked purposes, for in it, Kierkegaard posits a precise definition of despair. Ready? From the subheading to Section A of the treatise:

‘Despair is a Sickness of the Spirit, of the Self, and Accordingly Can Take Three Forms: In Despair Not to Be Conscious of Having a Self (Not Despair in the Strict Sense); in Despair Not to Will to Be Oneself; in Despair to Will to Be Oneself.’

Oh, and it’s unto death, too. If, like me, you lost a few brain cells trying to parse that sentence, don’t worry – Kierkegaard tends to be on the impenetrable side of the literary fence. The key to the definition is Anti-Climacus’s conception of the words spirit and self. Take it away, you dog you –

‘The self is a relation that relates itself to itself or is the relation’s relating itself to itself in the relation; the self is not the relation but is the relation’s relating itself to itself. …In the relation between two, the relation is the third as a negative unity, and the two relate to the relation and in the relation to the relation; thus under the qualification of the psychical the relation between the psychical and the physical is a relation. If, however, the relation relates itself to itself, this relation is the positive third, and this is the self.’

Uh. Relationrelatingitselftoitselfintherelationoftherela-


So, while I squeegee the last bit of brain back under my scalp, what does Anti-Climacus mean? Well, this is my inadequate and possibly incorrect analogy. Let’s say you have an apple and an orange, representing the physical and the psychical aspects of man, the body and mind. Kierkegaard’s self, which he also calls spirit, is the relation between the apple and orange.

If you’re like me, you imagined a dotted line in the air between the apple and the orange, marked with the label self; in other words, a negative unity, inert. That is exactly what Kierkegaard doesn’t want you to think. Kierkegaard’s self is constantly rediscovering and refreshing itself – in fact, some commentators have said that his self is more a verb than a noun. Imagine a dotted line talking to itself in the mirror, telling – relating – to itself how lovely it looked today or how bad tomorrow was going to be. That’s Kierkegaard’s self; a relation that relates itself to itself, alive and active.

A-C goes on:

‘Such a relation that relates itself to itself, a self, must either have established itself or have been established by another. If the relation that relates itself to itself has been established by another, then the relation is indeed the third, but this relation, the third, is yet again a relation and relates itself to that which established the entire relation. …The misrelation of despair is not a simple misrelation but a misrelation in a relation that relates itself to itself and has been established by another, so that the misrelation in that relation which is for itself also reflects itself infinitely in the relation to the power that established it.’

relationrelationrelation what I mean Anti-Climacus seems to think that the self can only be understood in the context of the power which established it, and any Lutheran worth his salt would agree that that power is God. In other words, the true self is the self given to you and sustained by God. Any other conception of self, any other mode of living, is a false self, a misrelation, a break in the chain.

(As far as I can tell, Urobuchi Gen does not believe in God. We will go into the ramifications of this at a later date. If anyone who actually studied this stuff wants to correct me, please do so post-haste in the comments.)

This explains Anti-Climacus’ account of the three possible types of despair: the first is the not-quite-despair, the hollowness that results from having no consciousness of self, the second is the despair that comes when one wishes he was other than he is, and the third is the despair that comes when one chooses to be himself, but through his own power, not by resting in God.

‘If the despairing person is aware of his despair, as he thinks he is, and does not speak meaninglessly of it as of something that is happening to him (somewhat as one suffering from dizziness speaks in nervous delusion of a weight on his head or of something that has fallen down on him, etc., a weight and a pressure that nevertheless are not something external but a reverse reflection of the internal) and now with all his power seeks to break the despair by himself and by himself alone-he is still in despair and with all his presumed effort only works himself all the deeper into deeper despair.’

One of Kierkegaard’s most influential insights is that to become anything less than one’s true self – in other words, to live as someone you actually aren’t – is despair. Despair occurs not due to external circumstances, but is the internal result of a conflict between one’s true self and the self that one is currently living; a false self. It is the grating of a broken bone. Everyone, whether they know it or not, experiences despair at one point or another, because, as even Anti-Climacus would admit, no Christian can truly know as he is known until the Judgement Day. No-one can find his true self without the help of God, because only God knows the true self.

‘The formula that describes the state of the self when despair is completely rooted out is this: in relating itself to itself and in willing to be itself, the self rests transparently in the power that established it.’

So far so good. Despair can be cured by coming back, purely and guilelessly, to the power that established the self. But what if you transplant all this stuff about despair, as many existentialists have done, into a completely non-Christian milieu? What if you remove the power that establishes self from the picture, and leave people with only the trappings of false assurance and delusion, selfish desires and hidden agendas? What if nothing is transparent? What if no-one can truly be themselves?

Well, for a start, you get the world of Madoka, but that’s for next time. I’ll be referring to The Sickness Unto Death as much as I can in future, but for now, have a pertinent quote:

‘The next is declared despair, to despair over oneself. A young girl despairs of love, that is, she despairs over the loss of her beloved, over his death or his unfaithfulness to her. This is not declared despair; no, she despairs over herself. This self of hers, which she would have been rid of or would have lost in the most blissful manner had it become “his” beloved, this self becomes a torment to her if it has to be a self without “him.” This self, which would have become her treasure (although, in another sense, it would have been just as despairing), has now become to her an abominable void since “he” died, or it has become to her a nauseating reminder that she has been deceived. Just try it, say to such a girl, “You are consuming yourself,” and you will hear her answer, “Oh, but the torment is simply that I cannot do that.” To despair over oneself, in despair to will to be rid of oneself-this is the formula for all despair.’


I think we all know who I’m thinking of.


2 thoughts on “When You Wish Upon A Star: Hope and Despair in Puella Magi Madoka Magica #2

  1. I always imagined despair not as a denial of ones self but as the opposite of faith and to a lesser extent hope.

    I think that RPGing and fantasy in general can be a denial of ones true self in a way. Escapism as it is known.

    Keep the good work.


    • Anti-Climacus makes the exact point you are making:

      “Faith is: that the self in being itself and in willing to be itself rests transparently in God. …And this is one of the most decisive definitions for all Christianity—that the opposite of sin is not virtue but faith.”

      This is, as you notice, his exact definition of a spirit free of despair. It’s just that he also qualifies despair as a blanket definition for all sin, because to deny the true self is to deny the will of God, which is to sin: but that’s a bit too theological to cover in this brief comment.

      I think that fantasy is indeed escapism, as is roleplaying, but I do not think that this entails a denial of self in the strict Kierkegaardian sense; nor do I think that escapism is necessarily a bad thing. I might cover this in future.

      Thanks for the comment, and for reading, too!


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