The Pleasures(?) of Pessimism

From the New York Review of Books, an article by Tim Parks: The Pleasures of Pessimism

Why do we read writers who are profoundly pessimistic? And what sense are we to make of their work in our ordinary, hopefully not uncheerful lives?

I am not speaking about the sort of pessimism concerned with the consequences of our electing this or that president, or failing to respond to world famine or global warming, but what in Italy came to be called il pessimismo cosmico. The term was coined in response to the work of the nineteenth-century poet and thinker Giacomo Leopardi, who at the ripe old age of twenty-one decided that “all is nothing, solid nothing” and he, in the midst of nothing, “nothing myself.” The only reasoned and lucid response to the human condition, Leopardi decided, was despair: hence all positive action and happiness must always have the quality of illusion.

Speak for yourself, Tim. Some of us definitely do not read writers who feel that the only reasoned and lucid response to the human condition is despair. Some of us think Leopardi was probably suffering from clinical depression, and are not keen on either wallowing in that mindset or implicitly privileging a mindset born of pathology.

Click through and read the whole thing if you are so inclined. Then, for an antidote, I recommend the nonfiction book Against Depression by Peter Kramer, in which Kramer spends quite a lot of time deconstructing the idea that the depressed, despairing perspective is somehow morally superior. It’s especially interesting because Kramer himself feels some sympathy with this viewpoint — far far more than I do, not that that’s hard — but he still knocks the idea of depression equaling artistic depth or moral superiority completely to pieces.

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