Friday, March 25, 2011

Alain de Botton on Pessimism

Here's a very nice talk by Alain de Botton on Pessimism.

I have to admit, I run sort of hot and cold around the writings of Alain de Botton. I really enjoyed his "breakout" book, How Proust Can Change Your Life, although I haven't read it in over a decade, but some of his more recent work has disappointed me.

I know one of the criticisms that's levelled against him, that he's a dilettante, seems apt, but I think it's a bit unfair - we don't stop reading Montaigne because he was ridiculously wealthy and powerful, do we? And OK, so maybe Alain de Botton isn't Montaigne, but he's not Pol Pot either. Maybe I just find certain types of intellectual posturing kind of ridiculous. And to give credit where credit is due, this is a great talk on, uh, pessimism.

About that. Pessimism. As I noted in a previous entry, I myself have recently embraced pessimism. There are a few reasons for this - my long time strategy of hoping for the best and being constantly disappointed hasn't really worked very well for me, especially when it comes to people (including myself). Moreover, for a number of reasons, about 2 years ago now I became a fully functioning nihilist. Indeed, optimism seems to be the royal road to nihlism.

And like many "recovering" people, I've spent a lot of time around nihilists over the past few years, and now that I'm no longer there, I find them really difficult to be around.

Now what's the difference between a pessimist and a nihilist you ask? Well, for me it's basically that pessimists look at the glass half empty so as to better see the sublime, while nihilists think the world lacks sublimity and so are prepared to throw the glass onto the floor when it's dirty.

Now these might sound like the same thing - Nietzsche's pessimism is often confused with nihilism, but if he were a nihilist, he simply wouldn't bother writing. (So maybe that's why I stopped writing a lot...) Same with Kafka, I think.

But they're not. Pessimism is a strategy while nihilism is a worldview. When I was really more of an optimistic cynic, I tended to lump them together. But spending a lot of time wondering just how much worse my life could be, in order to see how delightful it really is, tends to put the nihilists in my life into great relief.

You begin to see your friendships with these people in a very different light. Where you one saw their opposition as a kind of helpful corrective to an overly optimistic, even naive, sensibility, you see it now as an incessant production of bile, a cancer of the soul.

Perhaps this is my own narcissism of small differences, but I have had some recent conversations with people I would label as nihilists, and they aren't pretty. I mean, the world. To them.

One tries to reason with them, but the problem with nihilism is that, as a world view, it's a much tougher nut to crack, because this is the world to them. To them, my pessimism looks like I am lying to myself. But I'm not - I'm imagining the world as being much worse than it actually is.

I know this all sounds rather strange, but Alain de Botton does a nice job of explaining why pretending to be happy all the time is a bad thing - hey, that's another thing - most nihilists I know, are often also people who try to look really happy. But then you scratch that surface...

It's tough, because one wishes they could help them, but they are seemingly happier in their misery, and spreading that misery, than finding peace. They would generally prefer the destruction of everything, which validates their own view, than an approach that imagines the worst in order to see a better possibility.

Sorry, but as a recovering nihilist, this is just so obvious to me now. I just hope that my friends aren't nihilists now in part because of me, because I can be very persuasive. Just not on this blog.

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