|Philosophical Research Group
|On Pessimism and Optimism
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|Author:||brandonj [ Sun Jul 20, 2008 2:27 pm ]|
|Post subject:||On Pessimism and Optimism|
I want to kick off this thread with a strip of wisdom from Unamuno's Del Sentimiento Trágico de la Vida: "It is not our ideas that make us pessimists or optimists, but rather our optimism or pessimism, possibly of a physiological or pathological origin, that form our ideas."
Of course... what sense does it make to try to articulate— as the pessimist or optimist tries to do— that the world is essentially good or essentially bad; essentially possible or essentially futile. But this is, at bottom, what they each want to articulate, isn't it?
Reminds me of Horace: “One wanders to the left, another to the right. Both are equally in error, but, are seduced by different delusions.”
I once complained to Nate that the reason I have trouble with Adorno is that, after it all, he predicates all his ideas on this specific mood. The mood is not mistaken; I just cannot accept it constitutionally. That is, I always felt that Adorno's mood was, for him, an axiom.
Pessimists try to pile things on top of optimists, in order to demonstrate the inexorable weight of the world. Optimists then try to show-off their solutions and give pessimists a lasting taste of success and overcoming. However, in the end, this may be a waste of energy, who knows. I am an optimist, an optimist par excellence, but now suspect that pessimists and optimists may have much to learn from the other, useful for honing a subtler optimism and subtler pessimism— a subtler delusion.
I have tried to work on a subtler credo for the optimist. Which is to say: an optimism without euphemism.
Though usually cheerful, and for others somewhat of a candy-coater, at heart, I have a pretty severe appraisal of things. Nevertheless, I think that desperation and optimism go together quite nicely; especially for everyday world-overturning. In fact, thorough-going pessimism can have little reason for desperation— why struggle in the face of futility. The deepest pessimism seeks release or acquiescence. Maybe this why I can palate Schopenhauer better than Adorno. For Schopenhauer, there is nothing we can do but resign; whereas Adorno tries to combine pessimism with desperation in a formulation that just doesn't work for me... In any event, it's time to give him another chance and re-read.
The optimist credo is that man can always act— and move in the direction of The Better. Or rather: you and I can always act; moving in the direction of The Better. Optimism is the premise of true agency. Euphemism— the willful ignorance of sad and bad facts of the world— impedes this true agency from doing its job. The arch-optimist is someone who can peer into this abyss of bad and sad facts of the world, the pessimist's most caustic observations, and even the deeply-set Horror behind all things, and still maintain the courage to strive for The Better.
I'm not saying I'm one of these people. I think that my optimism, as it is now, still relies on a certain freedom from tragedy, a lifetime of near-misses and good fortune, and needs to be honed a bit. I want to dive into different conceptions of optimism and pessimism here; and weigh them up against things like the Comic and Tragic Sense of Life, mood, fatalism, and so on— and see if we can reach even subtler delusions for ourselves.
|Author:||nathanieldavis [ Tue Jul 29, 2008 1:40 pm ]|
|Post subject:||Re: On Pessimism and Optimism|
Before I get into specific thinkers (I have some things to say about Adorno and the pessimistic aspects of Freud), I would like to outline some basic ideas in response to the intial post.
And also, although Brandon identified himself as "optimist par excellence," and although I have certain sympathies with fundamentally pessimistic philosophies, let's be careful to not interpret things personally here-- my comments are not directed towards any particular pessimists or optimists.
The first comment that irked me a bit was the idea that pessimists like Adorno are attached to an ideological "mood." If this statement stands, it must also stand that optimists are equally attached to a certain ideological mood. If pessimism predicates ideas through a mood of melancholy, I would argue that optimism predicates ideas through a mood of frivolity.
I say frivolous because I believe there is a distinct lack of 'gravity' in the optimistic approach— the same sense of gravity which assumes an overwhelmingly central role in the pessimistic approach.
Underneath the basic (i.e. not B'Joyce-ian) optimistic statement ("the world is pretty great and the future will bring good things") I think one can observe a lack of care and seriousness (unwillingness to fully accept reality or possible-reality of evil, unhappiness, and cultural deterioration).
And underneath the basic pessimistic statement ("the world is rather terrible and things will just get worse") there is a crippling sense of gravity/anxiety (fully tarrying with reality of evil/unhappiness and possible doom).
Brandon declares optimism to be "the premise of true agency."
I would similarly define pessimism, semi-poetically, as the premise of rare beauty -- and a devotion or faithfulness towards this rare beauty, this high and holy good. I should maybe rescind my earlier comment and offer instead that the axiomatic mood of pessimism is not melancholy, but dissatisfaction. This pessimistic dissatisfaction with the world, humanity, society, culture, stems from the underlying faithfulness towards a greater good. The optimist is more easily satisfied, not dwelling on imperfections, accepting the present as good and fine. In this way the P-ist is like the aesthete, the connoisseur, the picky eater, while the O-ist is not so particular in her consumption. The P-ist refuses to drink the wine because she pines for a particular vintage, while the O-ist glugs the grog merrily.
I would like to introduce into the discussion the concept of the pastoral as an alternate way of defining philosophies of pessimism and optimism. Optimism is truly the philosophy of the 'pastoral domain'. I would define this domain as a sort of structural fantasy by which the goodness and happiness of things and people are allowed to appear as functional. Pessimism is the sabotage of this structure.
Starting from the original meaning of the word, let's consider a scene of country life on a farm in the summer. One sees an old man in a rocking chair, fresh grass, birds singing, butterflies, fresh vegetables, etc. From a distance, a truly bucolic paradise. However, on closer inspection on finds the betrayal of the idyllic. The racism and illiteracy of the man, his isolation and loneliness, the boredom and poverty. The strategy of the optimist, the pastoralist, is to capture in an ideological painting this scene, excluding all the malignant properties, since they are the monkey wrenches that, thrown into the pastoral structure, disrupt the machinic operation of "the good." The Pessimist, on the other hand, perhaps fetishistically becomes fixated on these monkey wrenches—following a symptomatic causal chain, perhaps paranoiacally in extreme cases, wherein all good is dismantled.
Following this model I would associate optimism with a certain distancing (the cosmopolitan viewing from afar the rural) allowing for a selective apprehension of ideological 'traces' which combine mechanically to spit out one conclusion, 'good'. Pessimism would be associated instead with a microscopic closeness, fixated on every unpleasant gloss that ultimately breaks the 'good-producing' machine— for the pessimist there is a strange satisfaction in this result, stopping the smooth spitting-out of easy 'good'. This is due to what I earlier referred to as the faithfulness of the pessimist. Only by clearing out this budget-rate good, only when proving it to be in fact not-good, only then can one truly appreciate, aesthetically and ideologically, the immense value and 'rare beauty' of the greatest versions of good, the high and holy experiential masterpieces.
|Author:||brandonj [ Thu Jul 31, 2008 8:26 am ]|
|Post subject:||Re: On Pessimism and Optimism|
(Echoing Nate, this is not a cloaked assault on Nate, but on a more naive sense of pessimism and optimism...)
I'm glad now that we've begun to follow this thread on pessimism and optimism; because I now see better the complications involved. Definitely necessary to find "subtler delusions."
Before I start, I do want to clear up one thing— about my comments on Adorno. They may have been misunderstood. I absolutely agree that "optimists are equally attached to a certain ideological mood"— this is precisely what I meant with the Unamuno and Horace quotations; that both the pessimist and optimist try to convince the other of their near-physiological dispositions, something underneath their ideas; when they should instead work together in dialectic. This was why I mentioned that "it's time to give him another chance and re-read"— I need to overlook this clash in our fundamental moods, and leave disagreements to the more concrete event and topic.
Otherwise, we'll get nowhere. Again, both dispositions should realize the impossibility of convincing— or even telling— the other of its fundamental mood; its grand valuation of The Whole— good, bad, or neutral. I am the servant and worshipper of my glands, Lord knows.
As I said, I do not subscribe to the pastoral optimism described above— the naive and idyllic optimism— and found the conception of rare beauty compelling, though not the private domain of the Pessimist.
I was perusing the Cantos yesterday, sitting in the bookstore, and came across a line that speaks to this:
"Le Paradis n'est pas artificiel
but spezzato apparently
it exists only in fragments..."— Canto LXXIV.
Paradise is broken up and hidden and distributed throughout Experience, as tiny shards. However, where again I think my deep-optimistic streak runs bold is in insisting that meaning and value are created and not found— that rare beauty is not something that is or is not, to be uncovered in things, and arrived at only through discrimination. The valuation of little things, the parts and pieces, is not intrinsic to the things themselves; it must also weigh the possibilities of things, the mixed chemistry of good-and-bad, likes-and-dislikes, horror-and-beauty, in all things.
The traditional Pessimist though runs the risk, while pining for vintage wine, of never sensitizing to a possible poetics of the glog. This kind of Pessimist assumes that this vintage wine must contain the Good and that the glog could not, under this Sun, support any sort of poeticization whatsoever. Whereas, for me, many things could be turned over into Good by an act of strong poetics; and that the mixed chemistry can be tampered with to extract the good elements from the bad. Especially when, in large landscapes deemed as wastelands by others, I have witnessed fragments of Paradise, the new Good, lost on others so convinced of the firmness of their Likes-and-Dislikes. After the above lines, Pound offers us a few highlights: "unexpected excellent sausage; the smell of mint, for example."
This is often mistaken for total affirmation; which is just not me. Where Nate speaks of pastoralism, I speak of euphemism: the refusal to see the Bad, the Horrific, the Ugly aspect of things. This vicious and stupid aspect is present in all things— including the high and holy Good. Very often, I feel like I'm surrounded on all sides.
Since interpretation and valuation are active— they create rather than discover meanings and values— what is there, before, in the pastoral scene of Nature, can go either way. Or, as Pound continues, in the same Canto:
"under the olives [...] olivi
that which gleams and then does not gleam
as the leaf turns in the air"
But the Pessimist strategy of eye-spying the Bad, especially from a critical rather than creative vantage point, accomplishes nothing unless coupled with a programme for a new Good, in some substantial sense— something that substitutes the Bad with the Better. If the Pessimist is only trying to underscore that suffering is ineradicable, he is not really adding anything to the landscape or language.
But, I should return to my first feeling: that these old lines between Pessimism and Optimism need to be discarded or reworked, especially since I find myself qualifying as a pessimist in many of Nate's definitions— having so many of the same past-times: dissatisfaction, sabotage, and rare beauty— as would many great optimists like William James and Tristan Tzara. Buoyancy should not be mistaken for a blindness toward Horror and Suffering. Suffering is our reason for living, after all. Our supreme motive.
What I'll do instead is ask thinner questions, about disrupting the easy production of the alright and the pretty-good; since we're probably all on board...A concrete event...
I vacillate between trying to universalize my opinions and letting the Dead bury the Dead; that is, trying to demonstrate to people their folly, or saving my energies and exploiting their folly for my own fulfillment (and secretly hoping that my exploitation will be best advertisement of all). I wonder what everyone thinks the pitfalls of either strategy might be....
|Author:||nathanieldavis [ Thu Jul 31, 2008 2:22 pm ]|
|Post subject:||Re: On Pessimism and Optimism|
Lovely and apt Pound quotes, Brandon, although I don't think that his line about the gleaming-then-not-gleaming can be equated with American Pragmatist© ideas of created meaning and value (beginning to discern some discursive tactics here, btw-- watch out or I might quote Rorty in support of "house-shows"!).
[And, pedantically/Poundantically I would point out that you excluded with ellipsis the Latin, saeculorum Athenae, invoking the sacredness of the olive to Athena, and the Greek invoking the gleaming sheen that can be attributed to the olive-- therefore the gleaming-then-not-gleaming could also refer to the historical fading of the olive's sacred aura, not back and forth, but pessimistically, gleaming fading with time. "Zarathustra, now desuete [obsolete, out of date]"-- the spezzato/broken nature of Paradise could imply an historical dysfunction. Glimpses of paradise represent transcendent, accidental experiences of a certain 'rare gleam' nowadays mostly absent-- Sorry, but you've caught me in serious Pound-mode]
BUT ANYWAYS, I would like to continue with the poetic theme, singling out approaches to interpretation as another dyadic categorization of the optimistic and pessimistic.
With the example of the vintage wine vs. the grog/glog, you recommend searching out "the possible poetics of the glog" and state:"...for me, many things could be turned over into Good by an act of strong poetics"-- I think we can classify this strategy, changing something, through interpretation, to a Good thing (from a presumably less-Good thing), as Optimistic. I don't want to misquote you, and while you do add that "the mixed chemistry can be tampered with to extract the good elements from the bad", I think that this process of 'interpretational bettering' is still misleading in dangerous ways. This type of interpretative distortion is, in fact, one of the fundamental evils for the pessimist-par-excellence, Adorno.
I would argue that Adorno's use of pessimism is primarily as a strategy towards action/agency, and not at all as simply moody musing. The satisfaction of the populace is what keeps them from taking action to make things better. Contentedly slurping the grog they make no effort to procure the fine wines. By convincing the populace that their lives are in fact terrible, convincing them of the truly poor quality of the grog in their cups, they become suitably dissatisfied and take to the streets in search of the good stuff.
"If the Pessimist is only trying to underscore that suffering is ineradicable, he is not really adding anything to the landscape or language. "
Well, this is another, Buddhistic form of pessimism, but to underscore that what one is experiencing RIGHT NOW is suffering and not satisfaction (that what one is sipping on is nasty headache-inducing bile), one does not need to offer substitutes of Better for Bad. The subject will be so enraged at the realization of his shitty situation, that he will take action and find HIS OWN 'Better'.
(Following this line of thought I've just convinced myself that Adorno-ian Pessimism is itself "the premise of true agency," in that its aims are only to upset the subject, prodding him on to find his own path towards betterness.)
On Brandon's strategies- Taking a page from the Adorno playbook, you may better convince people of your strategies, and 'demonstrate to them their own folly', if at first you convince them that their lives are really pretty terrible. I mean, this is starting to sound exploitative, but autonomous change comes always from desire which comes from recognition of lack. Adorno's first steps towards 'revolution' were to pessimistically, violently, crudely force people to fully tarry with the unthinkable negativity of evil and the disastrous deterioration of culture (and the full reality of both), in order to depress, to outrage, to inspire fear and loathing in the hearts of the populace, not to make them despair, but to make them care. (Or simply, to "make it personal.")
To instead offer a 'poetics of the glog' is to do the opposite— to accustom the populace to a worse product, a lesser paradise, snuffing out their drive towards betterment. Wasn't it Adorno who said "no poetically idealizing crap wine after Auschwitz"?
All joking aside, Adorno's infamous "No lyrical poetry after Auschwitz" was perhaps intended to point out the power of poetry to interpret in a harmful way— i.e. to interpret romantically a moment of pure evil, to create heros where there were only animals being led to slaughter.
My Adornoian professor Lydia Goehr presented a good story to illustrate this concept:
At the opening ceremonies of some Holocaust museum where Goehr was scheduled to give a speech, the organizers had hired a band to perform music that had been played by Jewish musicians in concentration camps. The organizers presented this as a testament to the spirit of good, that even awaiting execution these brave musicians found the hope to play music, to bring some beauty and joy into the darkest of situations. However, as Goehr harshly pointed out in her speech directly afterwards, these musicians had no such goal in mind; they played the music because the Nazis enjoyed it, and they realized that if they kept playing they would be alive longer. So this perverse performance at the museum opening, presented as a testament to the spirit of joy, was essentially a tribute to the shameless fight of a few talented musicians to survive at the expense of others, by amusing Nazi prison guards. This kind of pastoral revisionism is what Adorno's pessimism aims to prevent.
"But the Pessimist strategy of eye-spying the Bad, especially from a critical rather than creative vantage point, accomplishes nothing unless coupled with a programme for a new Good"
I disagree here; what is accomplished is a creation of discomfort, the establishment of an ethical impetus, a prick in the side, which in turn incites one to action, to agency, to create for oneself an autonomous and individualist "program for a new Good". And this, I think, is a better strategy for inciting change in a populace than trying to convince people of the value of your own program. This freedom in some way posits Good negatively, as that which is not Bad; and by only pointing out the Bad, dwelling on the Bad, the pessimistic approach allows one a freedom to accomplish individually the arduous and anxious task of determining for oneself what it is that exists outside the sphere of Bad.
|Author:||brandonj [ Mon Aug 11, 2008 7:19 am ]|
|Post subject:||Re: On Pessimism and Optimism|
It may have been my fault: by "strong poetics," I do not mean just a gloss over the state of things. I mean it in a sense closer to the Bloomian strong poet; poesis; world-creation and re-creation. An actual reconfiguration of elements. Like I said, I fully agree with the need for not putting the Bad in a better light; euphemism. Lydia Goehr rightfully reproached the historical revision of events at the Holocaust. Again, this is not the optimism I subscribe to; just as fatalism— or the apologetics of surrender— is not the pessimism Nate subscribes to. I think this conversation has pointed to the need for getting beyond these simple ideas of optimism and pessimism; especially when they just revolve around the cheerfulness or melancholy of our general outlooks. Outlooks which are, as Unamuno says, "possibly of a physiological or pathological origins."
I can contribute my cheer; others, their melancholia.
So beyond fatalism, and beyond euphemism, it turns then to strategy: how to seek the Good and improve the Mediocre. What I was suggesting in the vintage-wine-and-grog example, as strong poetics, was extracting the good from the mediocre, or from the stew of good-and-bad. This is opposed to the strategy I might call Purism: the idea that there is a Good out there, which can be found, once all the Bad and Mediocre has been cleared away, by a process of discrimination.
The problem with this approach is two-fold. One, overlooking the Good to be extracted and intensified, by poesis, from mediocre bits, material, and grog. Two, overesteeming what has been previously understood as Good, simply because of sensitization and lent prestige. Both the vintage-wine connaisseur and "the search for rare beauty" might, if not careful, easily fall into these traps.
For instance, there is more Experience to be found in drinking kerosene than fine wine; perhaps more inspiration in nasty headache-inducing bile for those who have developed the right palate. The Purist misses out— fails to understand something— if he insists that Taste narrows rather than widens the palate. Or, to switch into real terms, terms personal to my own Experience, I find more poetics in nasty, battery-acidic, low-quality energy drinks than in vintage wine. Not that there is or is not— a great and equal poesis exists for both— wine-poesis just does not speak as much to me. Caffeine is my muse. The Purist wants to tell me I'm wrong; that the poetics of energy drinks is limited; not even there. But isn't the poetics of wine easier— finding the Good in good wine?
I prefer those who invert received Goods. For instance, the Baudelairean sense of seeing beauty in artifice, the harlot, the beggar, the maudlin— though of course with a special Eye. An Eye that is seeing overlooked possibilities as well as what is plainly there. The new lesson here, for the Purist, is not to discount.
I also warn against putting too much faith in the high and holy good. There is nothing so good that it sits above corruption. The Holocaust did signal a failure of culture— but it was no indication of the quality of world culture. The Nazis went to war, literally, with Goethe in their satchels— issued copies of Faust. The Nazis claimed Nietzsche as a proto-Nazi philosopher. Ezra Pound was, at times, a bigot and a fascist— what of it? The Greeks were able to achieve greatness with leisure gained by the enslavement of barbarians and social inferiors— does this discount their greatness? Indeed, all our favorite and highest hobbies are most often pursued in parallel to a world of wretched poverty, ignorance, and potential doom. In all the greatest things, there are still teeth and blood in the background; malignant properties strung from its origin and creation. No high and holy good escapes this.
And the great barbarisms, like Stalinism and Fascism, were failures of culture, but not of high culture. They were a failure of platitudes, political courage, and popular culture— they failed for their production of easy-bad rather than easy-good. But I'll type more on this later.
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