Philosophy, Ethic, Spirit
by Joshua Foa Dienstag
Princeton, 314 pp., $35
Nearly a century ago Max Beerbohm, in his essay "Kolniyatsch," noticed "a seemingly inexhaustible supply of anguished souls from the Continent--infantile, wide-eyed Slavs, Titan Teutons, greatly blighted Scandinavians, all of them different, but all of them raving in one common darkness"--including, of course, the late Luntic Kolniyatsch, recently translated "from the original Gibrisch."
Beerbohm's satire on the vogue of pessimism (Dostoyevsky, Nietzsche, Ibsen, Strindberg, et al.) was written in 1913. The disasters of the 20th century officially got underway the following year. They eventually did in the kind of historical optimism represented by a belief in inexorable progress, Hegel, Marxism, and radiant utopian futures in general. The future, as Arthur C. Clarke once remarked, isn't what it used to be.
Neither is pessimism. Modern philosophical pessimism, Joshua Foa Dienstag contends, began in the 18th century, called into existence by the same new linear sense of time and history that produced modern utopian optimism. In fact, the two, optimism and pessimism, seem to be paired, forming a single vaudeville act in which mismatched partners--one fat, one thin--belabor each other with rolled-up newspapers for two centuries. They may have been given the hook, yanked off the world stage at the same time.
Dienstag, however, is optimistic about pessimism's future. It has history on its side, because history isn't on anyone's side. History refuses to follow anyone's script, even a pessimist script of inexorable decline, and thus breeds irony, the bread and butter of real pessimists. And for this reason, he argues, pessimism isn't necessarily gloomy. It releases us from history as a forced march, an exercise in inevitability. It can be tonic, even liberating.
At least, it can be funny. Not only have most pessimists been ironists (as he points out); most humorists and satirists (as he doesn't point out) have been pessimists, including a large crop of them grown in the optimistic soil of America: Ambrose Bierce, Mark Twain, James Thurber, S.J. Perelman, Woody Allen, Larry David. Laughter is what comic pessimists offer in place of utopia and its usually humorless gatekeepers. They see life as fundamentally slapstick. Illusion is the banana peel, optimism the pompous pedestrian it upends. Even the seemingly pitch-dark philosophy of the arch-pessimist Schopenhauer is a metaphysics of universal futility bordering on farce, Laurel and Hardy's "Music Box" on a cosmic scale.
So pessimists tend to laugh, or at least tend to recommend it: "He who has the courage to laugh is master of the world much like him who is prepared to die" (Giacomo Leopardi). "You ought to learn to laugh, my young friends, if you are hell-bent on remaining pessimists" (Nietzsche).
But Dienstag, a professor of political science at UCLA, has more sober fish to fry. He wants to make the case that pessimism forms a major modern philosophical tradition. He knows that it's nothing new, naming Heraclitus, Greek tragedy, and the Stoics and Epicureans as early instances. But he argues that only modern pessimism, represented by his subjects Rousseau, Leopardi, Schopenhauer, Nietzsche, Freud, Unamuno, Camus, and Cioranis, built on four crucial propositions: "That time is a burden; that the course of history is in some sense ironic; that freedom and happiness are incompatible; and that human existence is absurd."
He brackets Rousseau, the first eminent thinker to break with Enlightenment optimism, and Leopardi, the melancholy Italian poet and author of ironic philosophical dialogues, as "cultural pessimists" who blame our predicament on our modern, compulsive, time-possessed consciousness. Rousseau, of course, espoused both a paradise-lost primitivism and an ideal republicanism; but in his last books (Reveries of a Solitary Walker and the posthumous Confessions) he, in effect, embraced withdrawal into the wistful tranquility and twilight happiness of solitude and revery and nature.
Leopardi just gave up on tranquility and happiness: "Live, and be great and unhappy." Columbus was his model of a well-lived life. By leaving security behind and making life an adventure, he experienced it intensely, with happiness an irrelevance superseded by discovery and achievement.
Nietzsche, who gets a later chapter to himself, was to make the same move, insisting that to get the most out of life we must "live dangerously." But I would say that Nietzsche, pining for his own tumultuous paradise lost, the Renaissance, along with other lost cultural vitalities, and dreaming of a brazenly vigorous future, is more of a "cultural pessimist" (but less of a pessimist) than Leopardi.
Dienstag next, more convincingly, pairs Schopenhauer and his psychological heir, Freud, as "metaphysical pessimists." Freud was anti-metaphysical, but both men saw our situation in terms of inherent, inescapable self-division and frustration. Schopenhauer advocated a half-ascetic, half-aesthetic detachment from life. Freud, whose best offer was only to "replace neurotic suffering with ordinary unhappiness," left room for an active, if stoical, life resigned to discontents and their civilization.
Then comes a trio of "existential pessimists." The Spaniard Miguel de Unamuno thought that human life is tragic in form, since our time-bound consciousness will always tempt us with the hope of its infinite duration, or immortality, while simultaneously squelching it with the awareness of death. Albert Camus, who wrote, "There is but one truly serious philosophical problem, and that is suicide," offered as an answer to our tragic or absurd condition a "humiliated" thought that renounces religious and utopian consolations but can still inspire an intensely engaged life devoted to art and political resistance to unjust power.
As for the scathingly ironic aphorist E.M. Cioran, he's a faint, Romanian/French echo of Schopenhauer and Nietzsche, with something of Nietzsche's paradoxical wit and historical range and something of Schopenhauer's sardonic gallows humor and glacial detachment. Shelving the faith of his father (an Eastern Orthodox priest) and his own youthful flirtation with Romanian fascism, he wound up advocating, precisely, nothing.
Dienstag, following Unamuno and Ortega y Gasset, ends a little weirdly by enlisting the hallucinatory and everhopeful Don Quixote as a pessimist hero. He argues that the quest, an imaginative plunge into the unknown, is the ultimate pessimist paradigm. This might surprise quietist, stay-at-home pessimists like Rousseau and Schopenhauer and Cioran. But it brings us back to laughter.
As Nietzsche pointed out, Cervantes and his 16th-century readers were laughing, with a good deal of cruelty thrown in, at Quixote. Only in the romantic era did fanciful quests start to seem noble and exemplary. And with this dose of romanticism, the propositional architecture of Dienstag's pessimistic philosophical tradition seems to collapse. It's hard to see why the quest couldn't be turned away from windmills toward some new utopia on the far horizon, making his ideal quixotic pessimist a kind of desperate optimist.
Why not? It happened to Nietzsche, who spotted a life-affirming Übermensch on the horizon. Some other pessimist could set out quixotically for the utopian point where freedom and happiness meet, if they don't meet short of utopia (which they do, incidentally). But that just proves that pessimists go off in their own directions, and sometimes stray off the pessimist reservation altogether.
Dienstag's gallery of incompatibles proves that pessimists can't be made to march in step, even as a coherent philosophical tradition. And the other thing that this densely argued, but always lively and engaging, book successfully proves is that pessimism works best when it drops the arguments in its favor and settles for bitter laughter.
Lawrence Klepp is a writer in New York.