Saturday, November 8, 2014

Beyond Pessimism: Life as a Curse on Death

There is a vanity that takes place on earth, that there are righteous people to whom it happens according to the deeds of the wicked, and there are wicked people to whom it happens according to the deeds of the righteous. I said that this also is vanity. And I commend joy, for man has nothing better under the sun but to eat and drink and be joyful, for this will go with him in his toil through the days of his life that God has given him under the sun.
Ecclesiastes 8:14–15

I am a pessimist. Not in the sense that I doubt my ability to make things better; not in the sense that I think that everything will be awful all the time. In fact, it’s just the opposite, as I’ll get to later on. But I’m a pessimist all the same, and this post is an attempt to explain what I mean. In short, there is one assumption that’s shared by every philosophy, every form of religion, every outlook on the world that I can take seriously: the world is an awful, sordid, painful place.

First, it’s because human beings devour each other alive, often with impunity. The hideously evil Jean-B├ędel Bokassa died surrounded by his enormous family after a pleasant and luxurious life; and Mala Zitmenbaum, a saint, was sent to be burned alive in a crematorium. Throughout the world, bombs in crowded places regularly kill dozens of innocent people. In the city where I live, thousands of people are shot every year in gang violence. And the Germans tortured and murdered millions of Jews, and the sun rose and set just the same—glorious and indifferent.

Evening in the town of Auschwitz this summer.

But nature is just as evil as human beings, and though there are some who can escape cruelty at the hands of other people, we are all victims of nature’s torments. Dementia is one of these cruelties, robbing the old of their connection to the people whom they love before bringing them to nothing. In America, a large portion of the old die in hospitals or nursing homes; in a fog of confusion, wracked with pain that they can’t understand. (On this point, I recommend this horrifying post by Scott Alexander.) But the world can be even more violent than that: teenagers die suddenly in car accidents. A single tsunami kills hundreds of thousands of people. Cancer cuts people down in their prime. In our deepest suffering, sometimes not even our dignity is spared. And sometimes not even our decency.

The pleasure in this world, it has been said, outweighs the pain; or, at any rate, nature in her kindness preserves a harmonious balance between the two. This would perhaps ring true if each human life contained pleasure and pain in equal proportion. Now, in many lives there is joy that’s equal to sorrow. But not for everyone. There are people born into the world who are permanently enslaved to suffering, who spend their lives ground down to the earth; whether by painful, debilitating disease, economic hardship, or the ravages of war. There were toddlers who went to the gas chambers, and many who were shot in Polish forests with their whole families. Is there any kind of compensation on earth that could make up for their misery; that could make us say, “yes, the world is cruel sometimes, but fundamentally okay?” As Dostoevsky has Ivan say, even if the world were blissful, and almost all human beings freed from want and suffering, the pain of a single abandoned child would be enough to render the cosmos an evil, cold place.

But let’s assume the very best, and set aside the suffering of the wider world: you live a happy life surrounded by friends, you never go hungry, you get tenure at Harvard, you stay mobile into old age and die at 120 when your heart stops beating in your sleep. You still have to die. You still have to give up everything in your life that gives you meaning and happiness; and wander into the night, cut off from everyone you embraced while you were on earth. “The loneliness of death seems like it’ll be terrible,” goes the old consolation, “but you won’t feel it, because you won’t feel anything.” True, of course. But it’s an awful thing to contemplate now, when we can feel. “Death is just a natural part of life,” say the other comforters of Job, “and it’s one of the rhythms of nature.” But if that’s true, the natural order can go to hell; it’s evil and cruel that it has to be this way.

It might seem odd to call nature evil, since that’s a category that we usually apply only to conscious, rational actors. But the very non-personification of nature is what makes it so sinister. Satan was at least a man that we could talk to: he suffered along with us, and the reason he tempted us was that he resembled us. He could laugh, speak English, embrace us, and betray us. The lonely ocean—whose waves thrash under the sky without consciousness or warmth or purpose—is our modern Devil. Satan has been supplanted by Leviathan, a lifeless god of the sea. Leviathan will stare at us silently before he swallows us. He won’t know that he’s doing it, of course, because he sees and knows nothing.

What now? Once we have this basic pessimistic premise in mind, what do we do?

One response, which I want to touch on only briefly (I’ve gone into more detail here), is the worldview that was set out beautifully by the earliest Christians. My kingdom is not of this world, said Christ, and he meant it. Even God himself was overcome by the evil of the world, and by any human yardstick lived a deeply miserable life, both materially and spiritually. (My God, my God, why have you abandoned me?) But the consolation of a Christian is that he doesn’t need to live under the yoke of the world at all: he can step humbly and joyfully into the Kingdom of God. In the first centuries of Christianity, this Kingdom was an everlasting life that believers woke up to to after they died. To some Christians in the twentieth century (led by Tolstoy), it was a state of the soul; a way of living by which human pettiness is drowned in a torrent of love. Regardless of how he interprets his own salvation, though, a Christian can eat the meat of the dead Leviathan on a platter served to him by Christ. He has overcome death and all the suffering of the world.

But I’m a damned soul, and though I’m humble in front of those Christians who can simultaneously hate the world and love God, it’s an experience that has no roots in me.

There is, though, another way of defying Leviathan. It starts with this insight: Just by being born, we’ve escaped briefly from his lake into a starry night. And while we’re here, we can breathe in a gulp of air before we’re forced back under the surface.
Love! O delight of men and the gods, you cause the sea to teem and the earth to bear fruit under the wheeling stars of heaven. By you, Venus, all living things rise up and gaze at the light of the sun.
Our first breath is the wealth of sensory pleasures that we can taste in our lives. A good dinner. A swim in in a glassy pond ringed by burning-red maples. A winter night spent indoors with a cup of hot chocolate and a fire. The thrill of reading a poet who has peered into the holy of holies of your mind. Gaping at the milky way; and lonely moon, whose light shone on Pharaohs and our grandfathers, and who keeps a loon company as she glides on a dark lake. And most sublime of all: Don GiovanniThe Messiah, and The Marriage of Figaro; not to mention Pete Seeger, who came to earth to save us from our loneliness

Next to the delights of the flesh (which I wouldn’t dream of belittling) it’s through love that we can most powerfully deny nothingness and suffering. This holds true for every sense of the word. From a mother embracing a sobbing toddler, to a pair of lovers lying side by side, to Gerasim nursing the dying Ivan as a matter of course, a connection with another soul is our most powerful defense against a cosmos that makes its best efforts to maroon us by ourselves. When we love another person, we can throw open a window onto the stuffy attics of our selfish minds. In another person’s arms, we can briefly escape from time. We can experience, if even just for a second, a glimmer of eternal life. This is the kernel of the most significant thing said at the Symposium:
These are the people who pass their whole lives together; yet they could not explain what they desire of one another. For the intense yearning which each of them has towards the other does not appear to be the desire of lover’s intercourse, but of something else which the soul of either evidently desires and cannot tell, and of which she has only a dark and doubtful presentiment. Suppose Hephaestus, with his instruments, to come to the pair who are lying side by side and to say to them, ‘What do you people want of one another?’ they would be unable to explain. And suppose further, that when he saw their perplexity he said: ‘Do you desire to be wholly one; always day and night to be in one another’s company? for if this is what you desire, I am ready to melt you into one and let you grow together, so that being two you shall become one, and while you live live a common life as if you were a single man, and after your death in the world below still be one departed soul instead of two—I ask whether this is what you lovingly desire, and whether you are satisfied to attain this?’--there is not a man of them who when he heard the proposal would deny or would not acknowledge that this meeting and melting into one another, this becoming one instead of two, was the very expression of his ancient need. And the reason is that human nature was originally one and we were a whole, and the desire and pursuit of the whole is called love.
If two souls are welded together, that is, they can escape from the overwhelming loneliness that would otherwise be their fate in death. They can break the iron chain of the kingdom of Hades, and overcome its icy abandonment. Hephaestus can’t, obviously, give this to anyone. But it is in our power, however poorly, to imitate his craftsmanship.

Paolo and Francesca: the only happy souls in Hell.

And finally, even in the absence of pleasure and love, sheer order is often enough to hide us from Leviathan’s blind glare. Keeping kosher, building a house and sweeping the floor clean, shaving, sitting down to tea at 4:00, having a concept of tea and of 4:00. These are things that we take for granted—but we shouldn’t, because the firm human frames that we build our lives on have no analogue in empty space or the deep ocean.

These three experiences are the foundations of a new Epicureanism. I can hate the world with a bitter passion, and I can hate death even more violently. But I can still love life, and I can still look with wonder at the light of the sun. None of this means we can overcome Leviathan. This kind of life-loving won’t let us escape from him, and just as little will it lighten the burden of earthly suffering that he imposes on us. But this is a gospel in its most basic sense of good news. For now, even if just for now, we can turn our backs on the lake. We can make our lives a cry against suffering and a curse on unbeing.


Anonymous said...

Very nice and readable reflection of pessimism. It was my real joy to read it having had my tooth pulled out, my thermometer rising above the red mark. After some further thinking I dare to suggest: Add to the description of life another few threads - like having children, feeding the family, bearing responsibility at your job, etc. The connection to other people is not necessarily of the sort "belly to belly" like with Paolo and Francesca.

Anonymous said...

Internet stranger here. I hope you don’t mind my commenting. I read your blog from time to time because I find it well written and thought provoking. As a former student of the classics and a lapsed Jew, I enjoy many of the references. More importantly, your posts challenge me to think about the world in a way that is (sometimes radically) different from my current perspective. I would like to push back against your separation of good and evil or pleasure and suffering into discrete categories, however, and I am curious to hear how you would respond.

In the post, you describe good and evil as separate and universally recognizable categories. Jean-Bedel Bokassa was evil and Mala Zitmenbaum was a saint. I am not familiar with the two political figures, but I can summon up many examples of vilified dictators who were loving in their private lives and well-respected activists who were abusive in theirs. Intention is often impossible to discern and outcome depends on the measure. I would argue that the distinction between good and evil is a messy, shifting thing.

Similarly, I thought that the middle section on pain establishes a false dichotomy between physical suffering and happiness. Without playing into tropes of the noble poor or the disabled person as a hero, I think it is fair to say that people who experience debilitating disease, economic hardship, and the ravages of war lead happy and fulfilling lives. [Insert studies that conclude adolescents with disabilities self-report higher rates of happiness]. To a certain extent, suffering and happiness are relative.

Ultimately, I would argue that happiness cannot exist without suffering. In some cases, the juxtaposition between suffering and happiness makes the happiness more salient. We enjoy weekends because we have spent the week struggling over papers. In other cases, pleasure is indistinguishable from pain. Take Catullus’ vivid descriptions of burning passion. Why not address the way that deprivation heightens pleasure?

I work in hospice, although I would not describe myself as a “relentlessly cheerful and upbeat.” Rather, I have found sense and solace in the framing of death as an opportunity instead of a failure. While there is undoubtedly physical pain and plenty of lying in feces and loneliness, there are also moments of profound beauty, even in patients with advanced dementia or pediatric cancer. In the end, I believe that the characteristics that Maugham writes off—courage, faith, and gallantry—only emerge through suffering.

Jonathan S Nathan said...

1. Thanks for the comment. That's something I was thinking about myself after I published this, and it strikes me that the varieties of love are much broader than I hinted at.

2. Let me see if I can address most of your points.

First of all, as far as discerning virtue goes, I'm mostly with you. Intentions and personal morality are extremely hard for other people to judge, and even harder for the person in question. If I were a believer, I would say that only God can know the human heart.

Nevertheless, there are some people whose decency is so radiant that we can see it plainly. And the same goes for cruelty: there really are monsters on earth. Faced with an SS officer who tortures an elderly man, can I really throw up my hands in calm refusal to pass judgment?

In any case, for a lucid explanation of what I find troubling about a programmatically nonjudgmental way of thinking, take a look here:

Next, the question of physical suffering and happiness. Yes, there are the common tropes of "money doesn't make you happy" and "being a wheelchair is no obstacle to happiness." Though both of those statements are more or less true, and though the way of thinking they give rise to has a kernel of truth to it, I think it can obscure the extent to which long-term physical conditions can, in fact, affect our happiness. Chronic pain, for instance, has been shown to have a severely harmful effect on well-being. So do cancer, homelessness and prolonged hunger. It's also possible for a life to be permanently hollowed out by the death of a loved one.

It's often difficult for a healthy, comfortable person (myself included) to understand the intensity of suffering that it's possible to go through, and the extent to which that suffering can render anything but a pretense of happiness impossible. I have met people who are happy despite going through suffering that I can't possibly understand, but I think they're the exception.

Finally, I know extremely well that long-term denial of a basic need can bend a soul out of shape, sometimes in a beautiful way. The eventual fulfillment of that need is often much lovelier than if the deprivation had never happened. But I would say two things here. First, though there's some wild pleasure to be had in the deprivation itself, mostly it's just agonizing and harrowing—most of Catullus's poems to Lesbia read like the bellows of a wounded animal. Faust, similarly, is almost driven to suicide by the inability of the sordid world to satisfy his thirst for a cosmic, transcendental experience. Second, in some cases there's no "weekend" at all, and a life is spent languishing in permanent dissatisfaction. If you've ever seen the Yeomen of the Guard, Jack Point—an example of this—is an incredibly heartbreaking character. But you don't need to go to fiction to see it happen.

Thanks very much, by the way, for your thought-provoking comment and undeserved praise.