The Comforting Limits of Pessimism

pessimism

A turning point in my emotional development occurred during the historically destructive winter of 2015, the one that buried Boston under 108 inches of snow. Those months laid bare a pessimism I had harbored for most of my adolescent life. Until that point, the pessimism existed as a quiet dread in the pit of my stomach. Mostly, it was easy to ignore, and when it wasn’t, I would act out briefly, attempt some revolutionary lifestyle change; if I just lift weights/download Tinder/believe in god, my life will be an unfettered stream of joy. But that winter stripped me of the will required for grand fixes. The pit of dread seemed suddenly comforting, if only for its promise to let me rest in a reality I no longer had to reshape.

So, for the first time in my life, I became a pessimist. I accepted a premise I tried for so long to disprove: that life was miserable, and there was nothing we could do about it. I began to devour Arthur Schopenhauer, a philosopher known for statements like, “Would not a man rather have so much sympathy with the coming generation as to spare it the burden of existence?” I watched over and over again the show True Detective, set in ghostly Louisiana, long on half-sensical nihilist dialogue. (Time is, indeed, a flat circle.) I started to bring pessimism into conversation, once surprising myself and my friends by casually noting how “I didn’t ask my parents to have me.” Yes, the whole thing was cringingly “college,” but it was also liberating. Indulging pessimism felt like quitting a marathon in mile five, like settling for a subpar job that pays the bills. It was the bittersweet acceptance of limits, and the great exuberance of not having to work so damn hard anymore. I could finally stop trying to convince myself that everything would be alright.

But what made my burgeoning pessimism truly significant, bigger than the navel-gazings of someone with too much time on their hands, was that it was more than spiritual. It was political. Michael Brown was killed in 2014, some 30 miles from my childhood home. The utopian St. Louis of my youth revealed itself to be a literal war zone for those outside its white suburban pockets. I had never heard of Ferguson until Mike Brown, and I had never been to North County save a baseball tournament in 8th grade (even then our coaches warned us not to stray too far from the diamond). Of course, I knew the reality of St. Louis all along. We joked when it topped the “most criminal cities” ranking, talked often about how one should never go to East St. Louis or Florissant. Our amusement stemmed from the absurd distance between that St. Louis and this one, and the fantasies about our lives—noble, earned, innocent—implied that the distance was neither our doing nor our concern. However briefly, Mike Brown’s death and the Movement for Black Lives broke through this convenient delusion. To hold it, you had to rationalize the tanks stalking your city’s streets.

If my spiritual pessimism grew from a seasonally affected mood, my political pessimism was based in hard reality. In a visceral sense, there is only one conclusion to arrive at viewing Eric Garner’s death, Walter Scott’s death: that America does not manifest its purported ideals, that our society is neither just, nor equal, nor free. Throughout the Fall of 2014, I felt this truth, but it was inarticulable. The illusion of my youth retained its sway, fed me ready-made retorts. After all, wasn’t it possible that these shootings were outliers, spurred by the unavoidable “bad apple”? Couldn’t it be that America was flawed, but all in all, moving in the direction of justice? Isn’t this evidenced by the end of slavery, the end of Jim Crow, the ascension of Barack Obama?

Feelings alone cannot challenge such deeply held notions, not when those notions guard America’s purity. For feelings to take on the power of conviction, words must be put to them.

That winter, the winter of my pessimism, I stumbled upon Ta-Nehisi Coates, and I got the words.

 


 

Today, Coates is revered, controversial, and hated. I’ll admit, I stand in the first of those three groups. I’m probably the worst of super fans: I’ve read everything he’s written, listened to every interview, met him in-person, and to this day, delusionally believe he’d remember me if we crossed paths again. I stan for Coates embarrassingly hard. But my connection to his work is deeply personal. To say it in the roughest of words, that dude opened things up for me. He changed the way I look at the world, the way I react to it. He cemented my political pessimism—the way I felt about Mike Brown, about my country—in a logic and aesthetic that has proved unbreakable.

But Coates himself might balk at the image of his work implied above. He rejects the title “pessimist.” Debates over whether Coates is or is not pessimistic, and whether he ought to be, inform much of the mainstream discourse surrounding his writing. The primary contention that underlies Coates’s recent work is that America is premised upon white supremacy, that white supremacy is fundamental to our existence as a state and to our identity as a nation. With the publication of Coates’s impossible to categorize magnum opus, Between the World and Me, this perspective burst into national consciousness. The book found a surprisingly broad audience. Coates made rounds on Charlie Rose, Fresh Air. Eventually, as praise became stale, several critiques emerged: Coates ignored class, generalized his experiences, appealed to too many white people. But none of these had quite the popular and lasting power as the pessimist critique.

The pessimism debate came to a head this October when Coates went on The Late Show with Stephen Colbert to promote his latest book, We Were Eight Years in Power. Coates is generally a jovial interviewee, disarming in his earnestness and candor. Colbert is, well, Colbert, the guy who can drag a chuckle out of his fiercest rivals. Which is why the testiness of this interview was strange. At the end, Colbert asks Coates, “You’ve had a hard time in interviews expressing a sense of hope that things will get better in this country. Do you have any hope tonight for people out there that we could be a better country?” Coates lets out a semi-nervous laugh as he hears the question and responds, deadpan, “No.” He continues, “But I’m not the person you should go to for that. You should go to your pastor, your pastor provides you hope. Your friends provide you hope…That’s not my job. That’s somebody else’s.” Colbert jumps back in aggressively, “But I’m not asking you to make shit up. I’m asking you if you see any chance for change in America.” Coates is now visibly annoyed. “Maybe. But I would have to make shit up to actually answer that question in a satisfying way.”

The next day Coates vented online, tweeting out several articles with sarcastic captions:

“Incredible reporting by @eosnos totally undercut by his penchant for turning nuclear war into a real bummer.”

“Come on Elizabeth Kolbert, I know we’re in the middle of sixth extinction, but is it really THAT BAD?”

“Really enjoyed Timothy Snyder’s Bloodlands, but it was such a downer…Where’s the hope?”

Coates’s point was obvious. Writers tell the truth, and sometimes, truth doesn’t come with a complimentary side of hope. Asking a writer to provide hope where there is little or none is asking them to lie, which would defeat the entire purpose of writing. But, to the issue Colbert raised, forget a writer’s responsibility: Does Coates, himself, believe there is hope for America? Reading any of Coates’s work would give you a decent idea of what the answer is, but here he makes it explicit:

I don’t have any gospel of my own. [Tony Judt’s] Postwar, and the early pages of [Timothy Snyder’s Bloodlands], have revealed a truth to me: I am an atheist. (I have recently realized this.) I don’t believe the arc of the universe bends towards justice. I don’t even believe in an arc. I believe in chaos. I believe powerful people who think they can make Utopia out of chaos should be watched closely. I don’t know that it all ends badly. But I think it probably does.

There might be some use to a broader discussion on what “pessimism” really means, but let’s save that for academia. Coates’s tendency toward doom, evinced above, should give us enough of an answer: He’s a pessimist, about America and society at large. For many, the discussion ends here. Perhaps considering oppression without the possibility of its end, without redemption, is too much. Perhaps any sort of pessimism, regardless of its logic, seems inconsistent with lived reality (there are, after all, people who genuinely enjoy living).

But when I discovered Coates, I had the opposite reaction. Coates, through his pessimism, described for me an America that I felt: cruelly amoral, though it claimed otherwise. He taught me that America is a country where winners are not concerned with moral responsibility, but with advancing their own interests. Morality, in fact, has shockingly weak explanatory power in our country’s history. We did not end slavery because it was the right thing to do. We did not end Jim Crow because it was the right thing to do. Most importantly, the end of these institutions did not signal the demise of their causal sin. That sin persists, quite visibly, today.

More, I could extend this vision of America to life at large. Popular notions of “everything’s gonna be alright” had always felt, deep down in that dark pit of dread, laughable. Coates’s work bridged the gap between my political and spiritual pessimism; it crystallized everything I felt, read, and saw during that awful winter. The result of this crystallization was, of course, a rather dark view of life and society. But the very fact that my beliefs were girded to some core truth, that my philosophy was broadly and deeply coherent, gave me a level of fulfillment, of calm, I’d never before experienced.

 


 

In those dark months of early 2015, I got the chance to meet Coates. He came to speak at Northeastern, his prolific essay, “The Case for Reparations,” launching a first round of national fame. Before his speech, a group of 10 or so students, myself included, huddled around him as he fielded our questions. Eventually, my turn came, and I asked Coates if he considered himself an activist. He responded, firmly, no. He said his only goal was to write beautifully and tell the truth, that he had no agenda outside of this, political or otherwise.

I’m a staunch defender of Coates. Critiques of his pessimism often, in my mind, fall flat because they don’t engage with his argument, don’t question the premises upon which his pessimism is built. Most critiques about Coates’s pessimism lose their power because, well, they don’t show that he’s wrong, and I’ve seen very little to indicate that he is.

And yet, despite its unquestioned validity, there exists an underlying discomfort with Coates’s argument, an unsettling paradox that stems from his answer to my question above. That paradox is this: Those who read and understand Coates are also likely to feel moved by Coates’s work. Indeed, Coates himself often says this is the goal of his writing, to galvanize people to action. But the underlying philosophy of Coates’s work, the reason we are galvanized to act in the first place, says there’s little, or nothing, we can do about the injustice he exposes.

But it’s deeper than this. There’s an added complexity to this paradox that Coates himself intimates. For example, in that interview with Colbert, Coates asks us to find pastors to provide hope—though he himself does not believe in god. It’s an odd statement from a writer so adamantly truthful, imploring us to seek out (what he believes is) delusion in order to feel better about our lives. It’s also somewhat strange that Coates does not want to commit himself to pessimism in name, though he openly believes that things probably end badly. From Coates’s interviews, there’s a sense that he’s pushing against his own philosophy, unwilling to go to the darker places his arguments demand.

One could argue that this is because Coates’s pessimism is inherently unviable, that it does not reflect the power of individual agency, of progress in the world. But this, again, does nothing to disprove the inherent truth of Coates’s pessimism. What we’re observing, rather, is a deeper paradox about individual agency and political change.

Political change, as much as it is based on amorality and chaos, still requires people to demand it, fight for it. Yes, broad historical factors set the conditions for what is and what isn’t changeable. But within those constraints, action is still required. Slavery ends because of secession, but also because of Black Union soldiers and Radical Republicans. The Civil Rights Movement is only possible due to the moral context of the Cold War, but it also does not exist without the organizing of countless groups and individuals. Can one act radically—as numerous people did to deliver the progress of these two eras—without envisioning a better future? And doesn’t the effort it takes to create that vision rely on a belief in personal agency, in our own ability to make things better, in hope?

This is the deeper paradox of Coates’s philosophy, of my philosophy. The following premises are both true:

  1.  Human history is defined primarily by chaos and tends toward destruction. Individual actors, for the most part, cannot overcome this.
  2.  The few times when individual actors do stem destruction and chaos, advance society in a just direction, it’s at least partially because these actors believe they have the agency to do so (even though, considering the evidence of history, that belief is largely irrational).

Coates, being a writer and not an activist, only requires from his philosophy a coherent explanation of the observable world. If we take him at his own word, he’s simply looking for a viewpoint that proves true, the deeper implications of that truth notwithstanding. But for the readers of Coates’s works, those who may, in fact, be activists, Coates’s truth leaves us on unsure footing. It’s not a problem he can or should be asked to resolve. And so the question is left to us: How do we act in a world where truth has such a tenuous, shifting relationship with progress?

 


 

Eventually, the winter of 2015 ended. In early May, a few weeks after final exams, I returned to Boston. The cold death that so plagued Northeastern for the vast majority of my time there seemed jarringly distant. Campus had transformed into an oasis of urban greenery. Students laid out in Centennial, milled around outside the library. It was bizarre how casually the joy of summer happened upon us, how definitively winter was gone.

And though my pessimism continued to linger, it seemed less potent in its explanatory power when unaccompanied by nature’s wrath. I continued to read Coates—that summer, Between the World and Me released—but the spiritual pessimism, the existential pit of dread, felt less imposing. I still made dark quips about the pointlessness of life, but they no longer seemed based in my personal reality. As that summer progressed, I entered my first relationship, and it made me more happy and whole than I thought was possible. I haven’t really picked up Schopenhauer since.

Yet during this same period, early 2015 to the present, as the pit of dread lost its appeal, America devolved into a hellscape. A mean, bumbling man, whose only exceptional quality is bigotry, captured the hearts and souls of the American people. As the potential of Trump’s presidency progressed, from longshot to nominee to President-elect, the mask of decency slipped from America’s face, revealing, at best, a daunting indifference toward the livelihoods of marginalized people. I’m not sure how one would cope with Donald Trump’s rise without some belief in apocalypse. Coates, in his own right, has become more prominent during this time because his philosophy does much in explaining a character like Trump. Two of Coates’s latest pieces, “My President Was Black” and “The First White President,” show how his theory of American racism portends the dystopian politics of the present.

But today, I no longer see Coates’s work as the bridge between my spiritual and political pessimism, mainly because I’m no longer a pessimist. The draw of pessimism, the reason it felt so comforting in my darker days, was that it provided a sort of unassailable truth. It claimed to dissolve the delusional anxiety of life by saying hope—all of it—was fantasy. You, Prasanna, can stop wondering if things get better, wondering if you should do this or that to improve your life. You can simply accept the futility of all of this, and once you do, you can rest, without a hint of doubt to stir you.

But the shifts in my life, and the simultaneous shifts in the direction of our society, have been too random and unexpected to be explained by such dogmatic certainty. I don’t think everything is good, but it’s obvious everything is not bad, either. I don’t think we have much control of our lives, which is not to say we can’t shape them in limited ways.

My relationship with the paradox that stems from Coates’s work is similarly uncertain. I don’t believe society tends toward justice, but I also don’t believe we have no say in whether it does. I have no idea the extent of our say, and I don’t think there’s any way to find out. But I know we have to exercise that say to the best of our abilities, even if that means delusionally believing we have more power than we actually do. There’s a very high chance all of our efforts are for naught, but we must fight anyways. Not to grasp some sisyphean nobility, but for the slight, tangible possibility of progress.

It’s probably apparent that the original paradox has not been solved. It still seems that truth and progress exist in a contradictory relationship; progress is possible if we believe in progress, which we have little reason to believe in. And yet, the paradox bothers me less. The comforting certainty of pessimism, of truth itself, seems selfish and solipsistic. The horrendous oppression of our society does not call for hermetic acceptance of reality—who, after all, has access to such easy acceptance other than those in power? Instead, at this particular moment, what I believe is required, from all of us, is an active belief in progress. And if it bothers you that this belief is delusional, ask yourself this: What’s more radical than delusion?

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