The consolations of pessimism
This story has two morals. One of them is: don’t make life-changing decisions when you’re shitfaced. But that’s kind of obvious so let’s dispense with that one here. Don’t. Just don’t.
The second is more subtle.
So it starts about six months ago and twenty yards from posh Cheyne Walk in Chelsea, on the front deck of a houseboat. It’s six thirty on a chilly autumn morning. A low sun glints off the gold pagoda in the park, the tide is low and the boats are beached, sprawled on the mud like fag butts beneath a teenager’s bedroom window. It smells like seaweed and sewage.
Chris, an old mate from school, is in borrowed pyjamas. He’s pale, unkempt and shaking; partly from the cold, mostly from the come down. He steadies himself on the stern rail, fumbling with a little plastic bag of weed. He balances the bag on the rail to crumble a pinch of pot over the tobacco strands and Rizla skin. Suddenly, a gust of wind takes the corner of the paper on his palm. He slaps it down but knocks the bag which tumbles to the mud below.
It’s not his boat, he’s ‘sitting’ it for a wealthy friend. Chris is between homes. He has been most of his life. He’s spent a month on board and knows that his friend will run out of patience with him before Christmas. Then he’ll find another sofa.
Chris is scrawny. He doesn’t think twice before slipping through the rail and dropping to the wet ground. Remarkable how the deadbeat who’d rather be shitfaced is the model of bodily control when vital interests are at stake. It squelches and sprays his trousers but the bag is upright, the contents are safe. Now he can’t get back on board. He edges around the boat towards the jetty but trips, plummeting face first into the mud. Dirty and reeking he pushes himself up. His hand leans on something hard and metallic. It’s an old pre-decimal penny. Neither numismatist nor nostalgist, he’s about to fling it at the river, see if he can beat his personal record of five skips with a flat stone. But then he remembers that he’s lost a counterweight from his little antique balancing scales. The scales are one of the few possessions that float along with him in the jetsam of his life; one of his essentials. Chris wipes the penny clean and sticks it in his pocket before clambering up and back on board.
I know all this because he tells me in detail when we meet that evening at Rileys in World’s End – possibly the last un-gastroed pub in Chelsea. Chris had done some research. He shows me the penny. He’s cleaned it up a bit but it’s still a dark greenish brown and smells of fish. One side is clearly George V sporting a hipster cropped beard and bushy moustache. Chris turns the penny over.
“Look at the date,” he points enthusiastically. Beneath Britannia’s feet is the year 1933.
“Right.” I say, unsure why he’s so animated. I have a jar full of similar left-over pennies at home.
“1933. It’s special. They only made a handful of these. One of these is worth like £100,000.”
“Sweet,” I breathe with new admiration. I’m jealous, but also pleased for him. Luck has not been a frequent visitor in Chris’ life, she forgot to call when his embryo was picking out physical features and then pretty much ignored him the rest of his life through a disastrous marriage, the ensuing custody battle, alcoholism, several life-threatening diseases and eternal penury. Finally she was making good. And he’d even beckoned her over with that miniscule act of will – major as it might have been for Chris – of following up an idle curiosity with some research.
“It’s gotta be a fake.” Chris says dropping it on the table.
In some ways Chris’ scars have earned him the right to expect the worst. A decade ago I used to dread nights out with him, but now the darkened aspect of his conversation is pretty much like every conversation everyone has nowadays. From credit crunch angst to global Jihad despair, the politics of fear, the sunless outlook of more misery to come is downright de rigueur. News programmes can’t even be bothered to find skateboarding ducks anymore. Pessimism is the new black. As Chris puts it. “You can’t watch all this ISIS crap, beheadings, gay people being thrown off buildings, burnt alive in cages, without thinking that civilisation is paper thin. We’re all just animals under a thin veil of pretending that we give a shit. Look what we’re doing to the environment, and bankers, and refugees…”
Chris’ list has become a commonplace dinner party trope. A classic inversion of an Ian Dury hit.
“Isis trained jihadi, the English accent baddy, your paedophile daddy and Trump. Hamas filling Calais, any dark alley, BNP rally, Jez Hunt. Doctors earning money, cancer in your tummy, she’s only boiling bunny, c**t. Reasons to be Fearful Part 3…”
The trouble with pessimism is it only gets worse. Even the half empty glasses are smaller than they used to be.
Chris is a pub philosopher of the first degree, but his doom and gloom is not just saloon bar rhetoric. The same problem is racking our academics. How does our terrified putative liberal democracy face a superstitious culture, armed to the teeth, writhing at the injustice of poverty and the global imbalance of wealth? Our own history tells us that the free-fall in the vacuum of absolute monarchies is bloody, pitiless and engaged upon with the same zeal as the C18th French revolutionaries or those C17th English Civil War fanatics.
Witnessing the atrocities meted out in the Civil War, Thomas Hobbes could only draw the conclusion that the true nature of man’s life is “solitary, poor, nasty, brutish and short.” He reckoned that the only reason we’re not all murdering each other all the time is that we’ve handed the leviathan state power over us to keep us from making each others’ lives short and nasty. Were it not for our ability to be dominated, we’d be no better than beasts.
Today, the Oxford philosopher John Gray continues the same misanthropic vision insisting that there is no steady progression of human advances towards a more civilised world or a more decent one over a long period of time. It can all be whipped away with terrifying speed. As all pessimists do, he calls it realism.
But pessimism is easy. It means you can have the lowest of expectations and still draw a feeling of fulfilment, more still, of control, from the very act of something going tits up. It’s self-protection for the ego. For Gray there is no correlation between apparent advances in science and technology and the reasonableness of man. The growth of human power over the world is ethically ambiguous.
Arthur Schopenhauer’s pessimistic explanation for our progress is that we’re stuck in a vicious cycle of want which, as soon as we get it, fails to satisfy and inspires us to want more. He and Nietzsche both believed that life without pain was meaningless. Even Dread Pirate Roberts in the Princess Bride reckoned, “Life is pain, anybody who tells you different is trying to sell you something.”
Yet from Socrates and Leviathan to Superman (and doubly so for the Princess Bride) the very fact that these thinkers bothered to express this pesimism implies a certain desire to educate and improve the lot of man. Even if, as in Nietzsche’s case, it was to call for more pain to endure – that takes a certain optimism. Obama called hope audacious, and hope was the tiny thing left in Pandora’s box of evils. I’d like to think optimism is bravery rather than stupidity but either way it does the job.
Gray believes this ‘realist’ approach encourages us to live in the moment, to appreciate the now, as, presumably, we could all die horribly and senselessly tomorrow. He walks in the footsteps of Isaiah Berlin, himself an escapee from the horrors of the Holocaust. “The goal of life,” Berlin wrote, “is life itself… to sacrifice the present to some vague and unpredictable future is a form of delusion which leads to the destruction of all that alone is valuable in men and societies – to the gratuitous sacrifice of the flesh and blood of live human beings upon the altar of abstractions. The purpose of the singer is the song, and the purpose of life is to live.”
So the current trend for Mindfulness is just a product of our societal pessimism. Be in the now because tomorrow is way too awful to think about.
And yet Berlin, Gray and Hobbes are reacting in a state of Post Traumatic Stress Disorder. The horror that damaged these philosophers, the abuse we are all suffering by bearing witness to these atrocities, has limited their, and our, horizons.
An optimist though, might take the longer view. Today, in this country, when I leave the house I don’t have to worry if it will be there when I get back or that my wife and children may be raped and killed in my absence or on my journey I might be held up or shot or blown to smithereens. Our relatively safe, multi-cultural, tolerant, liberal society, where life is valued, is not here by accident. It grew out of lessons learnt including the blood spilt in the Civil War that made Hobbes’ philosophy so dark. France’s own secular culture emerged through the machinations of Sadism and the Guillotine. All births are painful and bloody. Helping Assad fight back against the revolutionaries now is like trying to stuff the baby back in. And that doesn’t work.
I grew up in the long shadow cast by WWII, there were other, limited, wars, but never a real hunger to go at it again. My kids may grow up terrified of rucksacks on the tube, but their kids may just get sick of it and peace has every chance of breaking out again. But then maybe there’ll be another culture in need of a revolution. So, bloody as it is, maybe we are progressing. There is nowhere I’d rather live than in a country that has had at least a couple of hundred years to settle in to this early summer of a post-revolutionary vibe. But optimism takes effort and courage especially when there is much more psychological security in pessimism: at the very least, you’ll be right when everything goes wrong. It’s all about control again.
To find consolation in pessimism is the easy solution. The prediction of disaster leaves you in control with a positive outcome whichever way it goes. Pessimism seems to be the default setting for the control-needy, and maybe why the control freaks par excellence, our politicians, reach for the disaster scenario (‘project fear’) far more readily than the positive outcome. Which, of course has its historical apriori – as Machiavelli famously put it, it “is much safer to be feared than loved… men have less scruple in offending one who is beloved than one who is feared.”
Could optimism then just be a matter of willfulness? It certainly takes strength. In the film Clockwise, written by Michael Frayn, the John Cleese character, who has suffered an endless string of disasters – as every good farce character must – sits down in the middle of the road, exhausted and says “It’s not the despair, Laura. I can take the despair. It’s the hope I can’t stand.”
But I’m just not sure ‘will’ completely covers it. Both pessimism and optimism are visions of a future. ‘Will’ in itself, even the “faculty by which a person decides on and initiates action” type of will is based on intention and an unrealised future. And to be willful suggests that it is ‘in the face of the facts’.
While incarcerated by Mussolini, the Italian Marxist Antonio Gramsci wrote “I’m a pessimist because of intelligence, but an optimist because of will” (Letter from Prison-19 December 1929) but then, sitting impotent in prison, watching a disaster of global proportions unfold, you might well see optimism as a force of will. But I see it differently. Disastermongering adherents of Murphy’s Law like Chris are everywhere. When meeting them, I feel bound to champion the rosy outlook. Partly through willful bloodymindedness but also on empirical evidence. I find myself consciously noting all the shitty things people predict. Possibly for a smug told-you-so denoument later. But I find that somehow the human will to progress and improve our lot just keeps shining through the random disasters of life. Almost all of the hells Chris has predicted over the years simply haven’t panned out that way or, at least, not as devastating as he painted them. Admittedly, in some circumstances, my own ‘will’ towards a positive outcome (inspired by petty oneupmanship to prove him wrong) has averted the odd disaster and, of course, at times he has been right. But, “The evil that men do lives after them; the good is oft interred with their bones.” We do have an amazing capacity to remember the bad. And there’s probably an evolutionary advantage, once stung, to treating bee hives carefully rather than blindly pursuing the honey. Pessimists exploit that tic, they use memorable history to justify their outlook and somewhere, the bright side gets lost.
My evening with Chris ends after a crazy amount of alcohol. “Tomorrow Chris get the coin valued.” I say, “You never know it might be pukka?”
“Yeah?” Chris slurs, “And what if it is? I’ll tell you what. First thing my wife will be back in contact, demanding her share, then I’ll have to explain to the kids why I wasn’t around and pretend that she’s not a complete bitch, and then I’d have to pay tax and then everybody I owe shit to, which is, like, everybody, will come after me till I’ve got bugger all left or if I do I’ll have to get a place and a fucking mortgage and be in debt to the Man.” By now Chris is shouting, “And you know what I’d do if I still had dosh left over. I’d snort it or drink it or inject it until it’s all gone or I’m dead. It’s a fucking death sentence this.” And before I can rebut or offer any assurance he stumbles out. It’s windy outside and there’s a cold drizzle that bites.
I’m fairly sure I know what happened to the penny. Chris is still sofa surfing and claims he can’t remember. He still shakes in the morning. But I get no consolation, even on Chris’ behalf, from the thought that when that dark penny left his hand, he finally did it: it skipped at least six times before it sank beneath the water.
An abridged version of this article also appears on