The Magazine

Get Unhappy

The future of pessimism has never looked brighter.

Dec 25, 2006, Vol. 12, No. 15 • By LAWRENCE KLEPP
Widget tooltip
Single Page Print Larger Text Smaller Text Alerts

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.