From The New York Review of Books:
Why do we read writers who are profoundly pessimistic? And what sense are we to make of their work in our ordinary, hopefully not uncheerful lives?
I am not speaking about the sort of pessimism concerned with the consequences of our electing this or that president, or failing to respond to world famine or global warming, but what in Italy came to be called il pessimismo cosmico. The term was coined in response to the work of the nineteenth-century poet and thinker Giacomo Leopardi, who at the ripe old age of twenty-one decided that “all is nothing, solid nothing” and he, in the midst of nothing, “nothing myself.” The only reasoned and lucid response to the human condition, Leopardi decided, was despair: hence all positive action and happiness must always have the quality of illusion.
This is existential pessimism of the most uncompromising kind. Who needs it? What could possibly be the attractions?
Toward the end of my graduate course in literary translation I introduce the students to Samuel Beckett, in particular Arsene’s speech in the novel Watt. Watt has just arrived at Mr. Knott’s house and since when one servant arrives another must depart, Arsene is leaving. Before he does so, he gives Watt the benefit of a lifetime’s disillusionment in a twenty-page monologue. This is the passage I offer my students:
Personally of course I regret everything. Not a word, not a deed, not a thought, not a need, not a grief, not a joy, not a girl, not a boy, not a doubt, not a trust, not a scorn, not a lust, not a hope, not a fear, not a smile, not a tear, not a name, not a face, no time, no place, that I do not regret, exceedingly. An ordure from beginning to end. And yet, when I sat for Fellowship, but for the boil on my bottom… The rest, an ordure. The Tuesday scowls, the Wednesday growls, the Thursday curses, the Friday howls, the Saturday snores, the Sunday yawns, the Monday morns, the Monday morns. The whacks, the moans, the cracks, the groans, the welts, the squeaks, the belts, the shrieks, the pricks, the prayers, the kicks, the tears, the skelps, and the yelps. And the poor old lousy old earth, my earth and my father’s and my mother’s and my father’s father’s and my mother’s mother’s and my father’s mother’s and my mother’s father’s, and my father’s mother’s father’s and my mother’s father’s mother’s and my father’s mother’s mother’s and my mother’s father’s father’s and my father’s father’s mother’s and my mother’s mother’s father’s and my father’s father’s father’s and my mother’s mother’s mother’s and other people’s fathers’ and mothers’ and fathers’ fathers’ and mothers’ mothers’ and fathers’ mothers’ and mothers’ fathers’ and fathers’ mothers’ fathers’ and mothers’ fathers’ mothers’ and fathers’ mothers’ mothers’ and mothers’ fathers’ fathers’ and fathers’ fathers’ mothers’ and mothers’ mothers’ father’s and fathers’ fathers’ fathers’ and mothers’ mothers’ mothers’. An excrement.
The students’ collective response is always the same, at first perplexity, faint smiles, frowns, widening eyes as the long list of “mother’s” and “father’s” begins, and finally a blend of giggles and incredulity: is “prof” really going to read that list to the end? So the passage becomes an exercise in showing how the most negative of visions can be smuggled into our minds without our hardly noticing, we are so distracted by the form. On my computer the autocorrect function of Word has underlined much of the passage in blue: “avoid repetition,” it suggests.
. . . .
Pessimistic essayists and philosophers may not cast the same narrative gloom as fiction writers, but the implications of their work tend toward the universal. Indeed, to believe that unhappiness was merely a question of immediate circumstance and particular character might be seen as a crass form of optimism. “Our chief grievance against knowledge is that it has not helped us to live,” observes Emil Cioran, dismissing the whole Enlightenment enterprise in a few dry words. Or again: “No one saves anyone; for we save only ourselves, and do so all the better if we disguise as convictions the misery we want to share, to lavish on others.” Or again, “Being busy means devoting oneself to the fake and the sham.” And: “Trees are massacred, houses go up—faces, faces everywhere. Man is spreading. Man is the cancer of the earth.”
. . . .
For essayists and philosophers, what we cannot forgive is, first, the suspicion that our writer has a personal axe to grind, and second, perhaps even worse, dullness, a lack of panache. The slightest feeling that facts are being manipulated in order to support a position in which, for some spoilsport reason, the author has a personal investment, is fatal. The reader, that is, must recognize that a genuine truth is being acknowledged. Beckett can get away with his long list of “father’s” and “mother’s” because it tells an undeniable truth: mine really is the same earth that all my ancestors walked, the same life all my forebears lived. And it is true, unavoidably, that as one goes backward in time so one’s forebears multiply—two parents, four grandparents, eight great grandparents, sixteen great-great grandparents—so that one’s own life becomes steadily less significant and could be construed as mere repetition.
Link to the rest at The New York Review of Books
PG thinks optimism is a better way, but that’s only one guy’s opinion.