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Grim Thoughts and Gallows Humor in Eugene Thacker’s ‘Cosmic Pessimism’

Chuckle if you want, but these are good times for grim thoughts, and some of the best and freshest writing is coming from Eugene Thacker.

In his recent study of mass murder and suicides, Heroes: Mass Murder and Suicide, Franco Berardi notes that “in the contemporary aesthetic production it’s easy to detect the signs of a sort of dark zeitgeist.” One needn’t look far: dystopian YA novels in bookstore windows; another season of True Detective on TV; Mad Max: Fury Road in theaters.

While it’s true that these works offer occasional flickers of light, the characters, or what Milan Kundera calls our “imaginary selves”, generally live without it. In one of the only moments in Mad Max: Fury Road when Max articulates a complete thought, he says, “You know, hope is a mistake.”

Indeed, the dark zeitgeist is all around us. Chuckle if you want, but these are good times for grim thoughts, and some of the best and freshest writing is coming from Eugene Thacker. Some readers may know Thacker from his introductions to E.M. Cioran’s books; others will have read In the Dust of This Planet and his other “horror of philosophy” books.

For those unfamiliar with Thacker, a newly-published collection of aphorisms titled Cosmic Pessimism would be an entertaining place to start. Truth be told, Thacker is not nearly as gloomy as one would think, and though he charts familiar ground here, the presentation is a bit more lyrical than what we get in his other books, and accompanied by abstract black and white artwork. At 55 pages, Cosmic Pessimism is less taxing than one might fear, yet more thoughtful than one might expect. For example, we learn early on that there are different types of pessimism:

“Pessimism’s two major keys are moral and metaphysical pessimism, its subjective and objective poles, an attitude towards the world and a claim about the world. For moral pessimism, it is better not to have been born at all; for metaphysical pessimism, this is the worst of all possible worlds.” Cosmic Pessimism, instead, is “a pessimism of the world-without-us”, a notion of “primordial insignificance”.

Whether pessimism is actually a philosophy is something that Thacker questions. “The very term pessimism suggests a school of thought, a movement, even a community. But pessimism always has a membership of one — maybe two. Ideally, of course, it would have a membership of none, with only a scribbled, illegible note left behind by someone long forgotten. But this seems unrealistic, though one can hope,” he says, with a wink.

And there is plenty of fun to be had here, everything from buried Joy Division lyrics, to entries like this one:

Kierkegaard: life is a tightrope.

Nietzsche: life is a jump rope.

Kafka: life is a trip rope.

Schopenhauer: life is a noose.

Cioran: life is a noose, improperly tied.

Thacker’s own pessimism is playful, but never trite, and sometimes even personal:

Cioran once wrote, ‘I turned away from philosophy when it became impossible to discover in Kant any human weakness, any authentic accent of melancholy, in Kant and in all the philosophers.’ I keep returning to Kant, but for the opposite reason. Each time I read, and witness the scintillating and austere construction of a system, I cannot help but to feel a certain sadness — the edifice itself is somehow depressing.

James Wood says that a good writer notices things, which is precisely what Thacker does, as when he distinguishes between fatality and futility or doom and gloom. The latter two terms especially we use without a second thought, even though “doom is not just the sense that all things will turn out badly, but that all things inevitably come to an end”, whereas gloom “is atmospheric, climate as much as impression, and if people are also gloomy, this is simply the by-product of an anodyne atmosphere that only incidentally involves human beings.” In other words, “if doom is the terror of temporality and death, then gloom is the horror of a hovering stasis that is life.”

The edge of heavy, lugubrious passages like these is blunted not only by gallows humor, but also by numerous anecdotes about Schopenhauer, Nietzsche, Chamfort, and others who write in a pessimistic vein. It’s also worth mentioning that Thacker is, at times, critical of pessimism (“There is an intolerance in pessimism that knows no bounds”) and recognizes that it can be spiteful: “a spite for this person or a spite for all of humanity; a spectacular or a banal spite; a spite for a noisy neighbor, a yapping dog, a battalion of strollers, the meandering idiot walking in front of you on their smart phone, large loud celebrations, traumatic injustices anywhere in the world regurgitated as media blitz…”.

There is a hint of self-criticism in his words, yet a pessimistic disposition, or what Thacker sometimes calls a philosophical disenchantment, remains valid. After all, as Paul Mason argued in The Guardian, the dystopian world of Mad Max no longer shocks us because it’s too close to reality (17 May 2015). If this is true, then Thacker’s eloquent Cosmic Pessimism must be both an articulation of and monument to our dark zeitgeist.

RATING 7 / 10