The New York Review of Books, May 25, 2017
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.
Not all pessimists have the same fondness for bizarre comedy. To read Thomas Hardy’s Jude the Obscure, Joseph Conrad’s Lord Jim, J. M. Coetzee’s Disgrace, or indeed many other fine novelists, is to feel at times that any optimism we might unwisely entertain is being systematically ground into the dirt; anything that can go wrong will. All the same, these works differ from Beckett’s in that unhappiness is the result of adverse circumstance, or a combination of particular character and particular situation. There is, that is, in these novelists, a denunciation of the customs of their times, customs that contribute to their characters’ downfalls. Jude and Sue would not have ended up so badly if people had had a more lenient view of unmarried couples. Jim would never have wound up as he did without the race discrimination which underlies so much of what happens in the book. David Lurie’s story could only happen in modern South Africa. So the reader is permitted to think that such disasters occur to certain people in certain situations, but not of absolute necessity. Precisely the feeling that the happy life is possible, yet has been missed out on, intensifies the distress, but prevents the story from becoming a general, existential condemnation. The reader can close the book with a grim smile, and a “there, but for the Grace of God…”
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… [+]