Pessimus, or Everything is Horrible
By H.J. Herrick
So I’m supposed to tell you poor fuckers why your lives are doomed to mediocrity and despair through no fault of your own. Unless you were born rich, with power and influence. And even then you may not be happy (you fucking sociopathic bastard). Well delivering shit news like this to good hardworking suckers such as yourselves is never easy, dear Constant Readers. I didn’t ask to be the Harbinger of Doom, but I did ask to know the Truth, and have spent my life trying to lift up the dark underbelly of Society to find it. Take it from me: the Truth is a grim ugly Bitch of Death, and it wants to eat your children alive.
So here is how I find myself in this position… After disappearing from public life for some months while serving a brief jail sentence for some trumped up bullshit, I emerged from solitary confinement to go on a horrific month-long ether, psychedelic mushroom and booze-fueled binge across Oregon. While drinking moonshine under a bridge somewhere (I think I was in Marion County, but I blacked out for a few days here and there, so who knows?) I came across my old colleague and friend, Comrade Richard “Bingo” Little. Always the chipper lad, Comrade Bingo had plenty of nice things to say about my needing to buck up and look on the bright side of Life. Naturally, I snorted some strong uppers and composed myself so I could argue the opposite position: that Life and the World are twin Dogs from Hell snarling and gnashing teeth, ready to rend our balls from our bodies. I argued that nothing could be done to better my situation, or the World’s. I was doomed. We were all doomed. But he persisted. Eventually we argued to an impasse, and agreed to continue the debate later in a more civilized forum. So here I am, in this new area and back at the typewriter, arguing the case on the behalf of Chaos and Misery. I’m sure he’ll tell you all about that contrary “The World is a wounded unicorn searching for a healing rainbow” bullshit later, but for now it’s time to sink your teeth into some real meaty and awful rotten stuff: Reality.
Pessimism has been with is as long as civilized language, coming from the Latin pessimus, which means “the worst.” Round about 400 BCE, the pre-Socratic philosopher Gorgias argued that (a) nothing exists, (b) even if something exists, nothing can be known about it and (c) even if something can be known about it, nothing about it can be communicated to others effectively. In summation, no one can understand their own condition, or even if they can, they cannot effectively share that understanding with others, and we are forever alienated hopelessly from one another. Of course, this assumption renders me incapable of communicating to you, dear Constant Readers, just how fucked you are. And if you disagree with me, our god awful language(s) cannot effectively allow you to counter-argue that things are just fucking ducky. You and I will never be able to agree, yield, be fully convinced, or just tell each other to go get fucked with perfect understanding of one another. Therefore, every man is an island unto himself, despite what that dick bag John Donne thought.
This sense of personal horror and isolation which few of us consciously contemplate but which many of us feel on some subconscious level is exacerbated by Modern Life. On a world scale, third world countries struggle for legitimacy and look to first world countries as the old and entrenched examples which they wish to replace and improve upon. They grab for power and allies, claw and scratch for legitimacy and are generally stuffed back down into obscurity and subjugation by the first world which publicly offers support but which exploits them sight unseen (see South America, Africa, parts of Asia, etc.). In the rare case that a country actually manages to rise to legitimacy and power (see China and India) through long and protracted political and economic struggle, they will still become corrupted and put the needs of the State above the needs of its own People (see Tiananmen Square massacre and Union Carbide disaster).
On a more personal scale in a capitalistic society (and let’s face it, a mostly capitalistic globalized world), individuals struggle up from the lower classes trying to “make it big” and are constantly oppressed and exploited by those with wealth. Those who are wealthy do this unspeakable thing solely for the pursuit of more wealth. When they achieve more wealth, they find that they are still not happy enough, and they think that if only they could be the wealthiest person in their profession (or in their country, or the world eventually) they might finally have what they think they are seeking. Of course, this is all a rat race. But there is no cheese at the end of the maze.
Aside from the pursuit of wealth in the capitalist system, I know of only one other similar human behavior: that of addiction. Addiction is defined as the physical and/or psychological dependence on a substance or behavior. In other words, when one needs to do something just to feel normal or content, despite any negative side effects that come along with it, they are addicted to that thing. The pursuit of wealth on a personal level and the consumption of resources to maintain power on a national level both fit this definition perfectly. We are all addicts forsaking the field-plough for the comfort of the twenty ounce latte enema. We are all addicts drilling the Earth to death so that we might drive our SUVs and ship crab from the North Bering Sea to Georgia for the enjoyment of a local seafood lover.
Some scholars have begun describing this cultural and societal addiction as affluenza (from “affluence” and “influenza”): “The bloated, sluggish and unfulfilled feeling that results from efforts to keep up with the Joneses. An epidemic of stress, overwork, waste and indebtedness caused by the pursuit of the American Dream. An unsustainable addiction to economic growth.”
Just as the weak-willed street addict begins with alcoholism, branches out to marijuana and then – unsatisfied – begins smoking glass, and finally shoots heroin, our society has had an evolution of addiction. We began our addiction to resource consumption with simple and inherently harmless things like beasts of burden and agriculture and the windmill, and then branched out to coal and simple combustibles, and eventually we were shooting oil right into our collective arms when all the rest couldn’t get us high enough anymore. It was only oil that could allow us to have the society we have now. Only oil allows us to do the things we do. Only oil allows for the infrastructure we have. Only oil provides for the population we currently – and barely – sustain. Someday soon we are going to run out, just as the heroin addict runs out of fixes. Someday soon we are all going to crash. The withdrawals will be painful and – like the heroin addict – we may not survive the pangs.
Most people do not want to confront this Ugly Bitch of Truth, to look Her in the face. It is painful, and alarming, and sad to do so. I don’t blame them. But she is there if you turn her back, watching your every move. In 1798 one man looked the Bitch in the eye, and told other what he saw. Few people listened, but his Cassandran Prophecies are on the verge of coming true within this century. Thomas Malthus wrote in 1798: “The power of population is so superior to the power of the earth to produce subsistence for man, that premature death must in some shape or other visit the human race. The vices of mankind are active and able ministers of depopulation. They are the precursors in the great army of destruction, and often finish the dreadful work themselves. But should they fail in this war of extermination, sickly seasons, epidemics, pestilence, and plague advance in terrific array, and sweep off their thousands and tens of thousands. Should success be still incomplete, gigantic inevitable famine stalks in the rear, and with one mighty blow levels the population with the food of the world.”
This collapse which the Great Man predicted, scholars today call a “Malthusian collapse.” Make no mistake (though many of you will choose to for comfort’s sake): this collapse is coming, sooner than we would like to believe. Those will be the Great Pangs. That collapse will be our shared Withdrawal from the affluenza.
Some people will want to tell you that this fate is possible, but that it can and hopefully will be avoided by some shared catharsis and a general desire of human kind to make their world better. To that, I say “Horse cock!” Humans are not inherently good, and they do not want to make things better for some as yet unborn whelp. They care only for their present condition. It would take almost nothing to eradicate all of our problems in a democracy, save everyone showing up to vote and voting their conscience and refusing to elect corrupt or dishonest people. But we do not do this and never have. We continue to passively allow two candidates from two parties which are hardly different beneath the surface to present us with false choices every two years.
On average less than a third of eligible voters actually participate in any given U.S. election. If every person made their voice heard every time, I have a hard time believing people like George W. Bush or Tea Party candidates would ever in a million years get elected. But as per my previous argument, it’s a catch 22 because enough people will never take that simple step all at once to create the kind of positive outcomes we need. Furthermore, if people forsake the democratic process and try to “speed up” the change they want to see in the world, the vast majority of revolutions only produce more hegemonies and/or dictatorships. These are often eventually worse than the original oppressors they overthrew (see Communist Revolution, Cuban Revolution, the “Glorious” Revolution, the Mexican Revolution, and — yes — the American Revolution, just to name a handful). The long and the short of it: we’re all fucked no matter what. Not because we can’t do anything about it, but because we either won’t, or we’ll inevitably do it wrong despite our most earnest efforts. To err is to be human.
And it is true that the quality of our lives is not wholly dependent on dickwads in Washington, or in any seat of power in any government on Earth. Shit, I’m sure even people in Haiti feel happy on occasion, despite the fact that their ineffectual government has done nothing to repair the rubble-strewn hellscape that is now their home. But a person would be naive to think that quality of government has no influence whatsoever on quality of life. Everything is connected, for better or worse (and usually for worse). Especially when said government(s) have nuclear bombs and armies and systems of oppression at their disposal.
I hope I haven’t been overly thorough, dear Constant Reader. But I felt all this needed to be said. It completes the portrait of my Pessimism, of my Persistent Despair. These are the various and sundry reasons I believe in the essentially unavoidable failure of the human race. These are the reasons that I believe hope is a self-delusion. These are the reasons I believe that everything is horrible.
John Donne was right about one thing. We may not be able to understand each other in any fundamental way, but we are all connected. Each person’s failure is our shared failure, and we cannot save everyone: “Each man’s death diminishes me, / For I am involved in mankind. / Therefore, send not to know / For whom the bell tolls, / It tolls for thee.”
Hush Now, It’s Going to be OK
By Richard Little
Oy! I say! You there! Yes, you, the chap with the rope. Stop surveying that sturdy beam above you. No need to throw in the towel just yet, dear fellow! Now, step on down from that stool. That’s better. Have a seat. Use that thing proper.
Apologies for the rude introduction. Richard Little’s the name, but my friends call me Bingo. And, I say, you may have jumped the gun a bit with that trip to the DIY shop. I understand how it looks, what with the dooming and the glooming, but my friend has it all wrong. Well, not all wrong exactly, just all the important bits; much that goes on in the world is simply bang out of order. It’s enough to make one barmy. What I mean to say is, my good friend Mr. Herrick just has things a bit out of perspective, and now I can see you do too.
Let me start from the beginning. Early last week I found myself out for a stroll in the Oregon capitol. It was a clear winter day and perfect for bundling up and stretching out the old stems. I love a crisp cruise through the natural elements as it were, really gets the old bean going – and there’s a lot to think about these days. Anyhow, I had taken a turn onto the campus of Willamette University and was crossing a small footbridge when I heard grumbling and the clinking of cork bottles underneath. I nearly passed this by, but there was something familiar in those grumblings below. I peered over the edge to the creek below and called out, “I say! Hello down there!” I won’t share the return greeting, but, suffice to say my judgment was keen. Sitting comfortably in a nook below the bridge was none other than my old schoolmate, H.J. Herrick!
Now, Mr. Herrick is a Grade A pessimist. Here’s a chap who could win the lotto and the first you’d hear about it was how terribly disorganized the lotto folks are or how he was cut off on the way to the bank. Anywho, this occasion was none different. After pleasantly acknowledging my presence, Mr. Herrick returned to his prognostications about the end times. “Dear friend, you’ve got it all wrong…” I began. What followed was an enjoyable debate about the general state of things – past, present and future. Delightful! It was so much fun, we’ve decided to argue on a regular basis in this blog. And what better place to start than to outline to our readers why we hold the general perspective that we do? Mr. Herrick has offered his sentiments in the article previous; now I will offer mine. Game on, so to speak. This one’s a sitter…
Mr. Herrick is bang on in his identification of myriad wrongs in the world today. His first paragraph touches on the quite correct and quite disheartening reality of increasingly stratified wealth and power in the world. Also cited are the abuse of this power and wealth by governments on other governments and by governments on their own citizens. Yes, there is much, far too much that is bugger all in this fine world of ours. In the words of another pessimist, “Those of you who are inclined to worry have the greatest selection in history.” I love this quote because, though it explicitly marries itself to the date of its origin, it has continued to be true at every moment ever since. I believe this speaks more to the growing complexity of modern life and our access to information, than to some impending doom, however. There is a great deal to stress about these days that simply wasn’t on the menu in the past. In the good ol’ days past, most of us had to get on with complaints about the weather, local taxes, our unusually bad case of the gout, and other such miseries because our primary worry was growing food for the table and keeping a roof over our heads. Nowadays, we can afford to complain about the discourteousness of strangers, the suffering of others, misused monies, and too many dishes in the sink because things are better – not because they are worse.
I feel I have to apologize every time I use this (heavily paraphrased) sentiment from Penn Jillette of the magic/comedy duo Penn & Teller, but he deserves credit where it is due (assuming he originated this thought). The idea goes something like this:
“The thing is, if you look at history in 50-year or 100-year chunks – not decades or this year vs last year – if you look at history in 50-year chunks, things are always getting better. We tend to get all doe-eyed over the good ol’ days of the past. That’s bull shit! The good ol’ days were terrible! Some things get worse and some things get better, but give me any date in history and I will prove to you why we were better off then than 50 years before it.”
The Daily Show ran a segment a year-or-so back along similar lines. In this case, lampooning conservative pundits railing on about the end times. The viewer was treated with a string of clips with said pundits whining about the terrible state of things today, whilst waxing all poetic about the “good ol’ days.” Each pundit placed the good ol’ days in a specific decade or two, describing the nobility and innocence of those times. Interestingly, these conservative pundits all chose different decades to praise and generally argued that things have gone down-hill since. As a result, they contradicted one another. What was the common denominator? The golden decade was always the one in which said pundit had spent the innocence of their childhood, with the world’s decay roughly beginning in adulthood and accelerating onward from there. For whipped cream and a cherry, Jon Stewart dissected for his audience what was happening historically in each of these so-called gilded ages. Naturally, each one had its own abundance of strife with, naturally, things being generally worse as you proceeded backwards through time.
No doubt the sentiment that things are always getting better breaks down under a few carefully chosen examples, but I’ll argue (as Penn did) that even in these cases you need only pull a little further aback to see the bigger, rosier picture. This is a sort of rogue optimism. It doesn’t suggest that all is peachy keen, only that if it’s shitty now, one can be sure it was considerably shittier in the past.
I would like to differentiate between the head-in-the-sand brand of optimism and the contemplative, cautious optimism to which I prescribe. There are certainly self-described optimists who insist that everything is fine when it isn’t, using their optimistic perspective as a sort of shield against the unpleasantness life inevitably shucks their way. That is not a perspective I have any desire to defend. For a stance to be correct, it must bear equally both darkness and sunlight. I do argue that things have a tendency to get better than worse, that good is much more powerful and prevalent than evil, and that pessimism makes it more – not less – difficult to solve problems when they arise.
My friend speaks of lifting up the dark underbelly of society to see the “truth” that is underneath. I also believe in truth above all else and, to further the metaphor, that the truth lies in the whole of society – not only its underbelly. Let’s look at the whole naked form, ugliness and beauty whipped up together into one truth. No saint has ever lived who could survive the scrutiny of only their “underbelly.” If we are to base our view of the world on what lies beneath the rock, and ignore the rock itself and its surroundings, then yes, H.J., everything is indeed horrible.