[Older essay, broken down into two parts. Photo of a puddle in the forest.]
Shadows. An Essay On Bleakness and Hope.
Wenn ich verzweifelt bin, was geht’s mich an?
(If I am in despair, what has that got to do with me?)
– Günther Anders 1979
Erkenntnis allein bewirkt Verzweiflung.
(Insight alone leads to despair.)
– Heinz-Joachim Heydorn (cited in D.Diner 1984, ‘Aufklärer Heydorn’)
Despair cannot be banished by injections of optimism or sermons on ‘positive thinking’. Like grief, it must be acknowledged and worked through. This means it must be named and validated as a healthy, normal human response to the situation we find ourselves in. Faced and experienced, its power can be used, as the frozen defenses of the psyche thaw and new energies are released. Something analogous to grief work is in order.
– Joanna Macy, World As Lover, World As Self, p.16
I am not sure when I started tending to see things bleakly. It has been more a gradual development over many years rather than a tendency whose origins lie in some precisely definable moment, memory, trauma or insight. Specifically, I have not always assumed that humanity, or at least humane civilization, is engaged in a process of self-destruction. I have not always assumed that there may be no future.
My conscious awareness of some form of global reality transcending, and yet potentially impacting on, my personal life probably dates from the Cuban Missile Crisis in 1962, when I was 13. I knew nothing of the so-called Cold War or the official military paranoid psychosis of the age openly called Mutually Assured Destruction (MAD). My parents had no TV and we never listened to the radio news. My father did read the Sydney Morning Herald and I had vague knowledge of the existence of The Bomb, although we never talked about it and I never consciously thought about it. My only clear memory during these days of the nuclear standoff between Kennedy and Khrushchev was of myself standing alone on the third floor porch in front of our classroom at Fort Street Boys’ High looking out over the traffic stream on Parramatta Road and the glare of the limitless expanse of red-tiled rooftops of western Sydney stretching towards the Blue Mountains. Thinking something like: this could be it. This could be the end. Someone’s proverbial finger on some proverbial button. I don’t remember anything but being alone with this feeling of anxiety, utterly alone with a glaring grey sky, the din of traffic and the flat suburban expanse. Bleakness inside and out.
In contrast to this experience of vague fear and an imagined end, the so-called Sputnik Shock four years previously was a real and positive experience. Eight years old, taken out into the backyard in Palmer Street to view the night sky: there, a small point of light moving quickly between the stars. No great emotion, but nevertheless a visible, technological indication of the existence of things (countries, satellites, inventions) not just imaginatively but literally beyond my immediate horizon.
Perhaps I must go back even further, however, to the war stories. Playing by myself, sitting (often under the dining table near the legs and shoes of our German Sunday visitors), listening to all the often repeated stories of the air raids on Berlin or of the post-war escape from Berlin to Hanover as they consumed their Kaffee und Kuchen. Inner images forming (cellars, ruins, phosphorous bomb markers, the whistling of falling bombs) as I listened, quietly absorbing a sense of history beyond and yet deeply impacting on my parents’ lives (and thus on mine, although it has taken me a lifetime to consciously understand this).
Despite such childhood immersions and experiences, my view of the world and self was never consciously bleak, however. People around me have always been kind, decent, non-abusive, non-threatening. I have never had to experience physical or emotional violence, material want, or death. I have always led the privileged life of sheltered affluence common to the middle classes and much of the working classes in the west during the ‘golden age’ of the long economic boom and Keynesian welfare state (1945-73).
If there is a distinction between a dignified form of poverty and abject material misery, it seems that people ‒ particularly in the non-industrialised countries – may live with great self-respect and joie de vivre under the former, though never under the latter. Affluent industrialised countries, in contrast, can be characterised by many things, but a general joie de vivre, most would agree, is certainly not one of them. Epidemics of various addictions, anxieties and depression are commonplace. The possible reasons for such personal and social alienation are of course manifold. For the moment let’s try and stick to the phenomenology of personal experience.
The Phenomenology of Bleakness
Examining my own tendency to bleakness of vision more closely, I find a curious fact. Both in the past and now I find a marked duality of bleakness and non-bleakness, a strange split between the quality of my thoughts about humanity’s probable future and the quality of my everyday experience. Whereas the former is deeply pessimistic about the prospects of any reversal of current trends towards the elimination of democracy and nature by some complex form of state-corporate cyber-fascism and ecocide, the latter is of a quite different texture. It has its normal ups and downs of course but is on the whole characterised by a somehow ‘foundational’ sense of security, stability, humour and ‘un-bleak’ well-being. It is as if the reflective mind and everyday life mostly exist on different planes. As an old German saying has it:
Ich komme, ich weiss nicht, von wo?
Ich bin, ich weiss nicht was?
Ich fahre, ich weiss nicht wohin?
Mich wundert, dass ich so fröhlich bin.
(I come from, where exactly?/ I am, I don’t know what?/ I am travelling, where to exactly?/ I am amazed to be in such good spirits.)
In this feeling, there may be a striking structural similarity to some of English sceptical philosopher David Hume’s famous self-observations in his A Treatise of Human Nature (1739) .
Perhaps we may sum up Hume’s process of reflection in the remarkably personal and charming section at the end of the first book as (a little cheekily) a classically ‘Hegelian’ dialectical three-step of thesis, antithesis and synthesis (or Aufhebung : ‘lifting up’, transcending, superseding) .
He first remarks how any intensive philosophical questioning must lead to radical doubt and deep scepticism about everyday verities (‘superstitions’) such as notions of ‘cause and effect’ and the ‘reality’ both of external objects and the ‘self’. Philosophy pursuing ‘final principles’ necessarily ends up in manifold self-contradictions, dilemmas and absurdities, in short “…in the most deplorable condition imaginable, inviron’d with the deepest darkness…”. The reflective mind, Reason itself “…is incapable of dispelling these clouds…” (On this reading, philosophy itself would be at least as much a ‘dismal science’ as bourgeois economics).
On the other hand, Hume then finds that “nature herself”, the “lively impression” of the senses and everyday conviviality cure him “of this philosophical melancholy and delirium” and “obliterate all these chimeras”. Indeed, the cure of everyday activities is so effective, that philosophizing then seems quite unappealing:
I dine, I play a game of back-gammon, I converse, and am merry with my friends; and when after three or four hours’ amusement, I wou’d return to these speculations, they appear so cold, and strain’d, and ridiculous, that I cannot find in my heart to enter into them any farther.
Nature, the senses, “animal spirits and passions” and conviviality, all conspire to return him to living, acting and talking “like other people in the common affairs of life”, despite his philosophical insights into the rationally untenable nature (‘superstitions’) of the “general maxims of the world”. At such times he is very much tempted to throw all his books and papers into the fire and “resolve never more to renounce the pleasures of life for the sake of reasoning and philosophy.”
And yet he does not. Hume’s last dialectical step is to (in Hegelian terminology) ‘negate the negation’ and ‘lift up’ (aufheben) the previous stage of his reflection. After all the curative conviviality, and then “tir’d with amusement and company”, indulging in solitary reverie or a walk by the river-side, he discovers that he is simply “naturally inclin’d” to philosophize. He finds he simply cannot avoid a basic curiosity about ethical principles, the causes of his own passions and inclinations, the nature and foundation of government, the principles behind one’s judgements of good and bad, true and false, beautiful and ugly. He admits to a need to “contributing to the instruction of mankind” and even to an ambition for fame. All these are part of his nature or “present disposition”, the “origin” of his philosophy, and to deny them or attempt to suppress them by distracting himself in some other business would simply mean a loss of pleasure, the pleasure of philosophizing.
So, following philosophers like Hume or Heinz-Joachim Heydorn (cf. quote cited above), perhaps the bleakness is located within the very process of thinking itself, not in the living.
At least for the more reflective, life itself seems split into living and thinking about living, the former, unlike the latter, containing no bleakness. Living itself seems to be a matter of a natural, biologically inherent (not a reasoned) ‘optimism’, otherwise it would cease. The body and senses would seem to ground and be grounded in a constitutional optimism, the reflective mind in a tendency to anxiety and bleakness. This split between (‘optimistic’) living and (bleak) reflection can be, however, as for Hume, not another source of bleakness or “philosophical melancholy and delirium”, but rather another, specifically human, source of pleasure. As late 19th century German philosopher Fritz Mauthner puts it: to the pleasurable sensations of actual living are added the pleasurable sensations of gossiping, talking and thinking or philosophizing about living (and this may include, as here, the ‘pleasure’ of talking about ‘bleakness’…).
On the other hand, the bleakness does not seem to be exclusively a matter of mere thinking or a purely subjective phenomenon. It also seems to often come from without, or to lurk somewhere in the under- or background, a fairly constant background hum of sorts, an objective collective shadow. It is triggered, or raised into conscious awareness in particular by the planet’s artificial nervous system, the daily doses of media information. These then may be mulled over in fairly repetitive and predictable patterns (often paradoxically pleasurable versions of the social game ‘Ain’t It Awful?’ ) in many conversations with friends, acquaintances, colleagues. Then these subside again into the background and life continues as always, neither predominantly bleakly nor predominantly happily, muddling its way through, oscillating in the usual rhythms of excitement and boredom, happiness and sadness, focus and distraction, private and public. But the shadows remain.
Perhaps something like this may indeed be the characteristic form of the everyday experience of living in the over-industrialized countries since the public catastrophes of the 20th century. This could be summarized phenomenologically as the experience of living under various collective ‘shadows’. First the shadows of the First World War, the Depression and the first totalitarianisms. Then the shadows of the Holocaust and The Bomb. Now the shadows of The Bomb, incremental ecocide, resource wars and neo-imperialism, the intensifying commodification and colonisation of all life by capital and the gradual serious erosion of civil liberties, civilisation and even, possibly, of human nature itself (at least as hitherto defined).