“Optimism is cowardice.”
― Oswald Spengler, Man and Technics: A Contribution to a Philosophy of Life
There are few things more representative of the vacuous narcissism and debasements of our age than the Self-Help book. Given the innate stupidity of humankind, they are naturally a multi-million pound industry. We are insecure needy creatures and there seems to be something within us, masochism perhaps, that craves guidance. “Humans wanted to cling,” Camus wrote, “but there was nothing to cling to.” Religions have been exploiting this for centuries. So too have writers. Most mainstream bookstores will have a section dedicated to ‘Spirit and Well-Being’ and the diluted orientalisms of Paulo Coelho and co. Satan has a similar section of hell set aside for writers of such metaphysical horseshit.
Misery, on the other hand, is underrated. Virtually all creative endeavour derives from apparently negative emotions: jealousy, lust, pride and so on. The Buddhist maxim of desire is suffering may well result in peace of mind but it’s anathema to creativity. Without desire, where would be the incentive to actually do anything? Suffering, and the resultant desire to escape suffering, can be a dynamo. The finest paintings, films, love songs and comedy are born out of crushing disappointments and melancholy and crucially still contain traces of the darkness even when they appear to be overwhelmingly positive. Good Vibrations? Written by a genius who’s mental health was unravelling, from an album that would never be finished. It’s A Wonderful Life? The story of a washed-up drunk prevented from throwing himself off a bridge by a series of fevered hallucinations. This is to say nothing of the darkness in the lives and works of Da Vinci, Van Gogh, Caravaggio, Bernini or a thousand other ‘troubled’ artists. Happiness, in contrast, produces Norman Rockwell, Jack Johnson, Eat, Pray, Love and the ending of The Shawshank Redemption, the discerning moron’s Citizen Kane.
Who do we turn to then for counsel? Who are the anti-Self-Help Self-Help writers?
The Ancient Greek school of Cynic philosophy is a good place to start. There’s Diogenes of Sinope, a man who challenged established beliefs to the extent he was thrown out of Athens and repeatedly had his head kicked in by his mentor Antisthenes. Believing actions speak louder than words, he gave away all his possessions bar a lamp which he carried in the daylight in an (unsuccessful) attempt “to find an honest man” and a sort of giant upturned flowerpot in which he lived. His vision was one of supreme futility. Humans were walking piles of bones. Everything they held sacred was ridiculous. This abandoning of reverence and shame led him to become curiously untouchable. By possessing nothing he had nothing to lose and was afraid of, and accountable to, no-one (“fear is the mark of the slave” he believed). Diogenes lived like a dog not because he was beneath humanity but because he believed he was above it and so the petty concerns of everyday life could not entrap him. It also led him to some eccentric behaviours; pissing in the market, shitting during plays, eating raw meat and publicly masturbating when he felt like it. Not surprisingly, he inspired ridicule and abuse culminating in being kidnapped by pirates and sold into slavery. Finally, having had enough of human company, he is said to have killed himself by holding his breath.
The Cynics who followed him grew beards, gave away their wealth and became ascetics. Each would put their own unique slant on the philosophy and practise; Crates the Door-Opener and his wife Hipparchia of Maroneia lived in a barrel and would fuck in the streets, Bion of Borysthenes burned down his mentor’s library, Menedemus claimed to be an emissary from Hades, reporting indiscretions amongst the living back to his masters in the underworld. One of their number Monimus coined the term “all is vanity” which would be echoed in Ecclesiastes the great pessimistic book of the Bible and, at the other end of the social spectrum from the beggar Cynics, by the Roman Emperor Marcus Aurelius in his masterful Meditations (written during long hard years battling barbarians in the frozen North).
“Think of the myriad enmities, suspicions, animosities, and conflicts,” Aurelius wrote, “that are now vanished with the dust and ashes of men who knew them; and fret no more… Keep before your eyes the swift onset of oblivion, and the abysses of eternity before us and behind.” His is a wisdom so steeped in mortality and ineffectuality, it becomes life-affirming, a monument to the power of negative thinking, “Take it that you have died today, and your life’s story is ended; and henceforth regard what further time may be given you as an uncovenanted surplus.” Expect the worst and everything else will be a bonus. Having seen through the trappings of fame and privilege, having witnessed men die through warfare and disease for a decade, Aurelius knew how tentative life was, how trivial our worries and both how pointless and miraculous existence was. To devote time and energy to the wrong things and above all to waste life were, for Aurelius, the great failings of man, “Soon you’ll be ashes or bones. A mere name at most—and even that is just a sound, an echo. The things we want in life are empty, stale, trivial… Do not act as if you’re going to live ten thousand years. Death hangs over you… ”
Others would continue the tradition of Aurelius and the Cynics in differing forms. The Russian Holy Fool custom is part of the lineage from Procopius of Ustyug who slept naked in doorways to Basil the Blessed who robbed shops whilst naked and gave the stolen goods to the poor. They too preached that life’s worries, achievements and longings were pointless and as a consequence were mocked and persecuted. This train of thought, and the inherent opposition to authority therein, would link medieval saints and semi-mystic thinkers such as Friedrich Nietzsche, Schopenhauer, Kierkegaard, the anarchist Prince Kropotkin and Leo Tolstoy.
It is in writers above all that we see the largest resonance of the Cynic. It’s in Eric Blair’s decision to change his name to George Orwell and purge himself of his public school upbringing and colonial service by plunging into destitution (as documented in Down and Out in Paris and London). It’s in almost every form of Existentialism with its emphasis on absurdity, authenticity and engagement from Dostoyevsky to Kafka to Sartre (though it is as much a thing of terror as liberation). It’s implied in Marx’s theory of alienation and the Situationist reaction against the illusory Spectacle. It’s in the finest satires from Jonathan Swift to Voltaire’s Candide to Kurt Vonnegut. It’s in the Zen Calvinism of Ivor Cutler whose austere desolation is so abject it becomes poignant and comical (“Voiding bowels in those days was unheard of. People just kept it in”). And more than perhaps any other book, it’s in Ambrose Bierce’s The Devil’s Dictionary, which scythes through our pomposities and (self-) deceptions, depicting the world with ruthless clarity,
An agreeable sensation arising from contemplating the misery of another.
A familiar kitchen-garden vegetable about as large and wise as a man’s head.
A person of low taste, more interested in himself than in me.
One who believes that the New Testament is a divinely inspired book admirably suited to the spiritual needs of his neighbour.
The silver lining to the cloud of servitude.
Occasionally the power of negative thinking can degenerate into Nihilism, at which point it becomes destructive (often to the holder). Misanthropy can be hilarious and enlightening when applied in broad indiscriminate strokes but when it becomes selective we enter dangerous territory. It’s a precarious balancing act between Cynic and Nihilist. Having written the masterpiece Hunger, Knut Hamsun tipped from the former into the latter in old age when he supported the Nazi-collaborating Quisling regime in Norway. The French writer Louis-Ferdinand Céline, author of the brilliant Journey to the End of the Night and Death on the Instalment Plan, plotted a direct course for Nihilism when he published the virulently Anti-Semitic Trifles for a Massacre on the eve of the Holocaust (Céline’s misanthropy was so absolute he regarded Hitler as a Jew). Critics often comment on the bleakness of Samuel Beckett’s work and how there is a rich seam of gallows humour beneath this. What they fail to mention is beneath that again is the abyss. And yet Beckett, for all his morbidity, proved in his life that he still had faith in people, that something was worth fighting for, becoming a decorated member of the French Resistance, a fact he downplayed for the rest of his life.
We shall leave the last words then to Marcus Aurelius, one of the few Self-Help guides worth listening to, “Life is marrying, raising children, dying, waging war, throwing parties, farming, flattering, boasting, distrusting, plotting, hoping others will die, complaining… you can hold your breath until you turn blue but they’ll still go on doing it… it’s a wretched, whining monkey life.” Then there are its bad points.
First published in print in the ‘One O’Clock Gun’ available in all good public houses in the Edinburgh area.