The Pessimist's Charter

In revitalising this blog I undoubtedly have rather instrumental motivations but I would be kidding myself if I didn’t admit that the naive romantic writer in me is making his latest bid for approval. Yes, I want to get into a cycle of practice that becomes second nature, the regular production of words hopefully leading to improvements in quality. Of course, one also has to own the hubris of thinking one has something worthwhile to say. Maybe, maybe not. But the very process of organising thoughts and exploring ideas through the written form can, all at once, be developmental, cathartic, confessional and anchoring; a form of stabilising the wispy strands of thought. Added to this on some level is just the romantic, narcissistic pretension to be able to see oneself a writer. To do this, really, one has to write.

The thought of blogging, however, provokes two diametrically opposed concerns: on the one hand, that most blogs are merely random bursts of subjective diatribe which one could just as easily express on a cheap A4 notepad with the nearest biro and file in a desk draw under the unmarked title of “ramblings no one needs to see”. On the other hand, blogs that define a clear subject or theme as the focus often strike me as somewhat limiting and even cynically calculated; a kind of PR exercise for a hobby or fan obsession with the aim to capture and cultivate a specific audience. So, in attempting to come up with a name and identifying focus for this blog I find myself thwarted by equivocation and high-mindedness.

Writing these reflections and reviewing previous posts, it occurs to me that there is an underlying pessimism in the voice emanating from the page. In all honesty this does chime with a self-conception (and, occasionally, with others’ judgements) of my character. However, I think, over the years, that a mellowing has occurred. The infernal final 18 months of PhD study marked the zenith of an acute period of ill-tempered self-righteousness (I apologise to anyone who knew me during that time). If I have a slightly sunnier disposition today, it might be a combination of better life circumstances or even the conscious adoption of positive thinking derived from mantras that seem to pervade today’s culture. But in the end I always retreat to the firmer ground of pragmatism, realism and maybe be even a kind of existential fatalism.

So, it strikes me that this inherent pessimism could be the fuel of my writing. I immediately weighed-up the disadvantages of this: it will certainly be read as an egregious example of entitled first-word, navel-gazing. Or, even worse, the resurfacing of sullen teenage angst to which the parental refrain “don’t be such a misery guts” is imprinted on my psyche. However, thinking about the possibility of embracing nihilistic tendencies, flavoured with a little knowing irony, might offer a malleable enough framework for me to proceed with a writing project that has some kind of direction. At some point, while jotting some speculative notes, the title The Pessimist’s Charter flashed into my brain. I immediately googled it to find that the title belongs to no blog, novel or Morrissey-esque album. The first hit in the search, amusingly enough to me, was for a Bloomsbury article entitled In Defence of Charter Schools; not a subject that will ally any of my morose proclivities.

A little more research revealed that take-up rates for pessimism are apparently on the up-swing. Bulgarians historically are associated with pessimism, to the point that it has become a national stereotype. But statistically, the rest of Europe seem to be jumping on the bandwagon, perhaps out of Johnny-come-lately economic and political ennui. Being a pessimist puts one in lofty philosophical company. Schopenhauer in particular enjoyed the arch tools of a fatalistic tendency, building a fairly comprehensive schema through the base method of pointing out everything that could go wrong before it actually does. Nietzsche, of course, riffed with abandon on the tragedy of human existence, but he at least attempted to fashion a kind “pessimism of strength”, affirming the potential liberation of the self if one accepts inevitability of annihilation. Easier said than done. It’s hard to keep smiling when shit overwhelms the fan to point where it short circuits and explodes.

The existentialists of course loved a moan so long as it was accompanied by alcohol and sex. This is a position with which I can empathise, but I’m not sure I can base the blog on such a methodology. Camus’ notion of the absurd is ripe for a 2.0 reboot in these oh-so-interesting times. In fact, it also seems that pessimism has its good points. “Defensive pessimism” – taking negative thoughts and channelling them as strategy for dealing with a feeling or situation – can have positive effects on productivity and health. This is the difference, I guess, between thinking “things are likely to go wrong, so what’s the point” and “things are likely to go wrong, so how can I deal with that”. I reckon I have moved from the first position to the second over the years, and it certainly chimes in terms of my penchant for planning.

So, in committing to The Pessimist’s Charter (I am tentatively giving myself the challenge of two posts per month) I don’t intend to dive headlong into the quicksand of cynicism, or whinge melancholically in a self-consciously taciturn style, but neither am I out to deliver sage bon mots on “better productivity” or “mindful happiness, my way” (not without a heavy dose of irony anyway). My faintly high-minded approach is simply to write truthfully and honestly with the hope of igniting a few flickers of insight along the way. But if such an outcome fails to materialise, and is beyond the limits of my ability, not to worry, that is exactly what I expect.

Further reading

Why Pessimists Have Reasons to Be Cheerful by Oliver Burkeman

Pessimism Runs Rampant