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The Cold Comforts Of Pessimism

Culture

A millennial mood? Sure, why not

"So yes, Paradise lost." —Dan Callahan, That Was Something

"Lucky" is a funny way to describe Anne Frank—it is actually the funny way to describe Anne Frank; it's the way Angela Chase describes Anne Frank to an English teacher in the pilot episode of seminal '90s—which is to say, seminally pessimistic—TV series, My So-Called Life.

Angela's teacher bristles at this description, of course; bra straps sliding down her shoulders, she demands, "Is that supposed to be funny?… Anne Frank is a tragic figure. How could Anne Frank be lucky?" 

It's an obvious question that seems like it has an obvious answer, namely, that Anne Frank couldn't have been lucky, because Anne Frank died—she was killed. But for those of us who spent much of the '90s insisting, "I wish I had never been born" (to our mothers, to our fathers, to our friends, to ourselves; to our brothers we said, "I wish you'd never been born"), the answer to "How could Anne Frank be lucky?" is not so obvious. Or, at least, it doesn't seem like there's one obvious answer to why Anne Frank was lucky, but rather that there are many.

One of those answers could be, as Angela's was: "I don't know. Because she was trapped in an attic for three years with this guy she really liked?" But then, here's another: "I don't know. Because she was lucky like we're all lucky if we get to be happy even once? Because we're all doomed?" 

Anne Frank was maybe lucky because she lived with that boy, but definitely, she was doomed; the story of Anne Frank is more than just a story, and it doesn't end well, she was murdered along with her sister and her mother and millions and millions of others. Which is why, far stranger, though maybe not funnier, than Angela Chase calling Anne Frank lucky, is the fact that the thing that most people remember about Anne Frank is that, in spite of its tragic ending, hers has been sold as an essentially optimistic narrative; why else would Frank's most famous words be "In spite of everything I still believe that people are really good at heart"? 

That the diary of a murdered teenage girl is sold as an affirmation, rather than a repudiation, of humanity can feel like a sick joke, an example of how our culture is inherently incapable of admitting that things are bad, and that a redemption arc is not guaranteed. Instead, our collective narrative more often seems to go: Things are bad and, usually, they get worse, but even if they get better, they were still bad once, and that can't be changed or improved upon, no matter how much good follows. But maybe, maybe, that's okay; the fact that things are bad, and the act of accepting that there are bad things all around us, is okay. Like one American poet says quoting another: "Nothing gold can stay."

Lana Del Rey's vague endorsement of pessimism is wrapped up in that other most prevalent of feelings right now: nostalgia—which, if I were to pretend to have synesthesia, is a word that would definitely cast a mottled gold hue. Or maybe it would just be a faded blue, like denim or Post Malone's eyes. 

It is this brand of nostalgia, this particular type of pessimism—the Angela Chase kind, in which there exist flashes of envy for a 14-year-old girl who endured (or rather, didn't) true horrors—that feels so particular to this moment in time, when nostalgia and pessimism have been embraced by younger and younger people, all convinced that there is little point in doing anything—including voting—because nothing but doom, whether in the form of Trump's eventual re-election or the impending climate change crisis, lies ahead. 

The optimist will point out that there are good things going on right now too, and that it's up to all of us to fight for a better world, to acknowledge our privilege, refuse to be cynical and misanthropic, and not to be an entire generation of Tony Sopranos running around, saying, "It's good to be in something from the ground floor. I came too late for that, and I know. But lately, I'm getting the feeling that I came in at the end. The best is over." But a pessimist will point out: We tried hope. And look where we are now. What if we just let go of our notion of what's possible, and look at what is actually happening. We're told all the time that we need to plan better for our futures, have everything in our lives aligned so we can optimize our chances for success. But what if we accept that success is maybe not an option? And that the future is grim, so it's better not to think about it. Doing that feels like a release.

And therein lies another allure of pessimism—its sense of freedom, the way that, in embracing it, you are releasing yourself from the oppressiveness of expectation, all that relentless waiting around for something better to happen. Pessimism takes away that anticipation and its attendant anxieties. We live in a society in which we're told that improvement and progress are part of our DNA; expansion and growth, after all, are the destiny of all Americans, a manifest one, at that. And yet for so many of us, things do not feel in any way like they are getting better; and so all we want to do is step off this ride and wallow for a little bit. Break the machine, admit that Eden is over, and accept that there's no chance of Paradise ahead. Pessimism, then, is the opposite of capitalism. Pessimism is the opposite of America.

And yet, there is another appeal to pessimism, a final layer of perversity, which is that, once you've freed yourself from the bonds of optimism, things actually begin to feel… good. It's not dissimilar to the ways in which one can quickly go from feeling like the specter of death makes everything in life feel meaningless to understanding that it is the inherent absurdity of our all-too-finite lives that actually gives them meaning. There are no happy endings, there are only endings. We are not unique, our progress is not assured, but there is comfort in that. It is progress, after all, that optimistic promise that a better future is waiting for you—if only you ignore or capitalize off of the suffering around you—that has led us to the terrible place we are now in. 

There's a longer version of that Anne Frank quote, the one about people being "really good at heart," but its ending is not easy to aphorize. It is not a pure and hopeful thing like its oft-quoted beginning; it acknowledges the darkness of the world as something definite; it acknowledges an ending. Frank wrote: "I see the world gradually being turned into a wilderness, I hear the ever approaching thunder, which will destroy us too, I can feel the sufferings of millions and yet, if I look up into the heavens, I think that it will all come right, that this cruelty too will end, and that peace and tranquility will return again." It's true that Frank imagined an ultimate return of "peace and tranquility," but she also was clear-eyed on what needed to be outlasted in order to get there. And peace doesn't always mean happiness, it doesn't always mean triumph.

Perhaps, then, it is time to forego the pursuit of happiness, and consider how its promise was always predicated on the suffering and slave labor of countless others. This doesn't mean it's futile to help others; pessimism is not fatalism, exactly, or nihilism. It merely means that there should be an acceptance of the fact that failure isn't just an option, it's an inevitability. But perhaps that too is okay. Failure can bring with it its own brand of peace. And though pessimism often leads to apathy, it doesn't have to. Fighting against the injustices we see around us isn't incompatible with pessimism—in fact, it's almost a necessity, since a pessimist can see that there are no easy happy endings, no unseen force guiding us toward a better future, they know the necessity of guiding themselves, aware that there's no point in ignoring the clouds in the sky; things will hurt, and then they'll end. But in that pain, none of us are alone. If that's a comfort, it's a cold one, but still, it's something.