Still working on a positive attitude

Has scholarly pessimism helped fuel anti-expert rhetoric? Panglossian we are not, but when hope fails, there’s humour, says Shahidha Bari

February 2, 2017
David Humphries illustration (2 February 2017)
Source: David Humphries

I am sure that I am not alone among academics in being grateful that one month of 2017 has already passed into history. Rather than striding purposefully into the bright new year after the Christmas break, I was still in a stupor induced by the raging dumpster fire that was 2016. I had the look, in the words of P. G. Wodehouse, “of one who had drunk the cup of life and found a dead beetle at the bottom”.

This is poor show for a scholar of Romanticism, of course. On the whole, Romantics tend to be a dreamy bunch of hill-climbers, prone to pining over daffodils and gawping wide-eyed at nightingales. But fatalism, melancholia and a healthy dose of political disillusionment also came naturally to the Romantic poets, plagued as they were by illness, personal disaster and post-revolutionary disappointment.

In 1802, Samuel Taylor Coleridge, lovesick and slumped in a creative funk, wrote of “grief without a pang, void, dark, and drear”, in a poem rather blankly titled Dejection: An Ode. His account of a “stifled, drowsy, unimpassioned grief” is an acute record of depression, heartfelt and heavy. The wind at the window “rav’st without”, he glumly observes at one point. Poor Coleridge. When you’re feeling terrible inside, it’s true that it doesn’t help that the weather outside is so rotten.

But what does help when the weather is bad and the semester seems long? When politics has gone to pot and you’ve run the battery in your husband’s car flat? (Let’s say that the last problem is hypothetical.)

Arthur Schopenhauer, the German “philosophical pessimist”, tells us to buck up. In his 1850 essay “On the Sufferings of the World”, he advises us to manage our (low) expectations. Life’s outlook is so bleak that you must “accustom yourself to this view”, he counsels, and you will “cease to look upon all its disagreeable incidents, great and small, its sufferings, its worries, its misery, as anything unusual or irregular; nay, you will find that everything is as it should be, in a world where each of us pays the penalty of existence in his own peculiar way”.

Reading Schopenhauer can feel like a stern talking to and a clip around the ear. But if there’s severity in the idea that one might learn to countenance the caprice of life, it is, perhaps, more appealing to most academics than the innocence of optimism. We can be such a foreboding bunch: historians who warn of the repetition of disaster; scientists who predict ecological suicide; lawyers who legislate for the worst of human nature. We are critical thinkers, trained in raising sceptical eyebrows and throwing spanners in works. We will not be duped into naively cheery forecasts of the future.

Voltaire mercilessly lampoons the idiocy of the optimistic tutor in the figure of Pangloss, who naughtily leads his student, Candide, astray with the insistently inane mantra: “All is for the best in this best of all possible worlds”. In Candide, the eponymous hero discovers his education to be puzzlingly incongruous with his experience of war, natural disaster and the full gamut of awful misadventure. In this context, Voltaire is clear that to maintain a blind faith in the coming righting of all wrongs is to subscribe to the worldview of a simpleton. When Candide’s loyal servant, Cacambo, innocently enquires, “What is optimism?” his master replies sadly: “I’m afraid it’s a mania for insisting all is well when things are going badly”.

But perhaps it is academics’ insistence otherwise that accounts for something of the backlash against experts in our current “post-truth” times. We are the ravens at the window, the spectres at the feast, spoiling the party with our black mood and our inconvenient evidence when others around us demand to see sunnier skies. The more contemptuous Schopenhauerians among us probably think that optimism is for chumps, cloying Pollyannas and witless dogs.

If academics seek to reserve for themselves a dignified scepticism, it is born of learning and level evaluation. And although most of us may not wish to identify with the easily duped Pangloss, neither do we model ourselves on Voltaire’s Dervish, the smartest creature in all of Constantinople, who nonetheless becomes enraged by Candide’s troubled questions about how the world will turn out and slams the door in his enquiring face.

We might currently find little cause to be optimistic, but it seems entirely possible to think (and teach) truthfully and constructively through bleak times. “Nobody has ever lived without daydreams”, wrote the German philosopher Ernst Bloch, delineating an idea of collective utopian will in his 1954 work The Principle of Hope. “Let the daydreams grow even fuller”, he urged, since “it is a question of knowing them deeper and deeper…keeping them trained unerringly, usefully, on what is right”.

If we cannot muster optimism, we might at least dare to hope. “What can I know?” and “What must I do?” are Kant’s first two serious questions in the opening of The Critique of Pure Reason (1781), but everything hangs from the third: “What may I hope?”

And even if hope fails us, humour might get us hangdog types through the rainy teaching day. In the words of Woody Allen: “I wish I could think of a positive point to leave you with. Will you take two negative points?”

Shahidha Bari is lecturer in Romanticism at Queen Mary University of London.

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