Party of One: On Being a Pessimist in the Second Degree

by Thomas Griffith

In serious quarters, optimism does not have a good name. Optimism is for those who have not put away childish things—the domain of Peter Pan, of Disney, of indolent dreamers persuaded that wishing will make it so. Even in its adult version, optimism has the taint of uplift about it. Think of all those Tin Pan Alley invocations to happiness before grungy rock lyricists came along to mourn their identity crises: forget your troubles, c’mon get happy; nothing but blue skies do I see; wrap your troubles in dreams and dream your troubles away; happy days are here again; you gotta ac-cen-tuate the positive; just direct your feet to the sunny side of the street.

Such exhortations belong in the category of the salesman’s sunny-desperate hoping, of those hulking athletes sitting on the bench repeating their little rosaries of self-confidence to give them the will to win, of the promoter’s ceaseless hype to generate enthusiasm for what he makes money on. For optimism, which comes naturally to the innocent and to the patsy, comes also to the self-serving, as in the merchant’s parting wish at the cash register for you to “have a good day.”

Perhaps it is this element of falsity— the self-deception and the deception of others—that does so much to create the intellectual’s distrust of optimism.

In earlier days, when boosterism was in fashion —before H. L. Mencken and Sinclair Lewis laughed the idea out of respectability—to be pessimistic was to be negative and unpatriotic. How else but through optimism was anything worthwhile ever done, was progress made, was the West won? (Plundering the land was also optimistically called progress.) Businessmen still think optimism a natural right of theirs: hear their constant whine at the government for their own lack of “confidence,” as if they alone of all of us must be assured a risk-free future before they agree to take risks.

But of course pessimism has a long intellectual history, dating back at least to Voltaire, who, at a time when Europe was stunned by the death of 20,000 persons in the Lisbon earthquake, created a fruity idiot in Dr. Pangloss, who thought this the best of possible worlds. All the intellectually most respected novelists express the tragic view of life. The only comic writers who are celebrated (such as Mark Twain and Ring Lardner), the only comedians who are cheered (such as Charlie Chaplin, Buster Keaton, and Woody Allen) make jokes with an underlay of melancholy. And, of course, the fashion of pessimism is not confined to intellectuals. Today realism, a much admired quality, means to see things plainly, without optimism, without ideals. One of our era’s favorite putdown phrases is “You’re just not living in the Real World.” To judge by those who do live there and often use the phrase, the Real World must be a singularly blighted, corrupt, untrusting place. I would hate to live there.

Optimism or pessimism is subjective, and more than just a passing mood; it is a state of mind. Objective circumstances do not create the frame of mind, but serve to illustrate it: if a pessimist finds nothing in his own living to depress him, he will move on to the population crisis, or the exhaustion of resources. Optimism was once thought to be the natural province of the young, when their health was in first bloom, their awareness and curiosity newly awakened, and so many possibilities were open to them. To be older was to be on a trajectory of disillusionment, decline, and despair—confined by responsibilities, sobered by opportunities missed, overtaken by failing health and diminished hopes. But I think pessimism or optimism a matter of temperament rather than a stage in life. One discovers large numbers of disturbed and despairing, even suicidal, young people. Their mood—especially among those who seem privileged and gifted—suggests a difference between the reality of one’s life and one’s comparing sense of it.

Comparisons properly belong in the shallows of the mind, where frustration lives. There was never so comparing an invention as television, the envy box in everyone’s home. Its incendiary presence in the ghetto is often remarked upon: on its screen the poor see and are made discontent by the better life that is unavailable to them. But I think television spreads just as much frustration to those who can afford what it promises, and who find these promises not as offered—that idyllic alone-on-the-tropical-beach proves in actuality to be a littered cove surrounded by crowded resort hotels; the solicitous maître d’ in the restaurant ads turns out to be brusque, and only marginally more responsive when tipped.

The best of commercials shrewdly mock the optimistic promises they make, as aware as you are that perfumes, shaving lotions, or the right choice of beers won’t make you a whit more popular. Even having the money to buy a Mercedes won’t make you rugged and handsome at the wheel, or make your wife thin, hairblown, and beautiful. The immense falsity of advertising claims lies not so much in the products themselves (however much they disappoint) as in the assurance of a happy life through consumerism, or of a miserable life without. Television, the automobile, and the jet enlarge the range of everyone’s possibilities, but often in such a way that neither here nor there any longer seems the right place to be.

I sometimes think of those earnest nineteenth-century reformers who worked hard to make our working conditions better, our hours shorter, our days freer. They thought that once life was not so brutish, people’s days would be spent in self-improvement. They might be puzzled by what they wrought, and saddened by those many who today live without danger or need, and without challenge or exhilaration. Frustration is a constant in modern life: it is a world of exasperations, inconveniences, disappointments. But frustration does not deserve the name of pessimism.

Hard-core pessimists stand outside the frustrations and satisfactions of the consumer society. They are often lonely people, unfit for society yet disapproving of it. Their singlemindedness, when they elect to write about it, can give them an eloquence denied to the rest of us, for whom living is a constant traffic in compromise. Yet the subjectivity of the single-minded must also be acknowledged: Karl Marx’s boils, like Cleopatra’s nose, affected history.

The most revered of current pessimists must be the playwright Samuel Beckett, who in two ways exemplifies the intellectual currents of our times. One is in his bleak simplicity: like the contemporary architects for whom “less is more,” Beckett’s aesthetic imperative is to strip down rather than to elaborate. And in his reduction of theater to a bare stage, to talk and silence without action or plot, he offers a barren world in which optimism can find no toehold. Others have made Beckett’s message more commercial, knowing that in the “real world” of the ticket-buyer, life demands hope. In the hard-edged novels and movies they write, characters wander—or motorbike—across lonely landscapes in search of their identity or of the meaning of life. By now the formula is familiar: the story comes not to an ending or a resolution but to a stop, in which there is a flickering suggestion —injecting a false note of sentiment after all we have been put through—that the characters can make it.

Pessimism, at a profound level, also dominates the best of religious thinking these days, in the speculations of men confronting the twentieth century’s many proofs of the depravity of man. This attitude is now being challenged, numerically but perhaps not intellectually, by the populist spread of evangelical faith, with its celebration of the joys of being reborn. When it comes to religion, I can only judge from the sidelines. My mother was a Roman Catholic, my father a tepid Protestant; their differences severed our family and I ended with no faith during that impressionable age when religion, if mixed in with the rest of one’s schooling, colors one’s thinking permanently. In Disraeli’s famous question, to which he himself answered that he was on the side of the angels, I am on the side of the apes.

Not for me Tertullian’s kind of faith: “ . . . and he was buried and rose again; it is certain because it is impossible.” The theologian Paul Tillich, in his own search for faith, demanded more than “knowledge which has a low degree of evidence but is supported by religious authority.” Faith to Tillich was not something beyond the truth, or contrary to the facts, but “reason in ecstasy.” Such ecstasy has never been mine. The scientific explanation of the birth of the universe, of the earth, and of mankind seems to me more plausible and verifiable than Genesis, but—being no scientist—I confess I would have as much difficulty proving the scientific case to a Zulu as would someone else describing the Resurrection.

Now that heretics are no longer being burned, I find it natural to get my history from science and my ethics from religion. Science never asks whether a truth is consoling. But in usurping so much of religion’s place while insisting on its own right to be value-free in its explorations, it has left a void where values should be. Each must seek his own. My own hand-medown ethics make a magpie’s anthology that takes as much from theologians as from philosophers.

A new magazine about science fiction is about to be started by Bob Guccione, who foresees for it as much success as he had with Penthouse, being convinced that there exists great reader curiosity about future worlds because “we cannot accept dust to dust.” I do accept dust to dust. Yet, even so, I think myself a pessimist only in the second degree.

Even the nonbelievers among scientists, as they come closer to unlocking the secrets of nature, seem awed by nature’s complexity and subtlety. Perhaps Earth was formed by a random coming together of gases; perhaps a man’s body is only a marvelously evolved combination of about $10 worth of chemicals; perhaps one’s own brief life is of no cosmic consequence.

To me life is still a gift. Theologians may have to worry about the problem of evil in a world created by an all-good and all-powerful deity. Yes, but coldly mechanistic explanations of the world’s origin, which assume no divine creation, must, it seems to me, wrestle with equally daunting questions—how, in so uncaring a universe, to explain the existence of goodness, of beauty, of trust and love, and the inexplicable reaches of the imagination.