The 12+12 Books of Christmas #4

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Things are bad and they are not getting any better. It is more likely they will get much worse. The disappointments of childhood turn into the major disappointments of adulthood before you grow old and bitter. In old age, you become ever more aware of your own impending death and curse your creator for making you a creature conscious of its own mortality. Life is a horrible joke played on humanity. There is no light at the end of the tunnel. We can barely make out we are in a tunnel.

In Pessimism, Joshua Foa Dienstag divides pessimism into roughly three different kinds: cultural, metaphysical and existential. You can do things like that and it’s interesting–Dienstag’s book certainly is interesting. But it really doesn’t matter how you slice this sour pie. Your life sucks, then it’s going to really suck. Then you die. In about two generations everything you ever were will be forgotten.

Of course there are nice things in the world that make life worth living: hugs, puppies, fragrant pipe tobacco and so on. But these things do not help us when we try to cope with the fundamental meaninglessness of living. They can even become addictions if we cling on to them for comfort. The pain of living is dull and constant, and there is no real escape.

Dienstag’s book has been criticized as too optimistic by none other than the court nihilist of the West, Thomas Ligotti. In some ways it is, because it traces the tradition of pessimist thought in philosophy with boyish enthusiasm. The book also produces happiness in the reader. Like Cioran, who said he always felt rejuvenated after reading the pessimists, the reader will feel happy after reading the thoughts of Dienstag’s chosen pessimists. I don’t know why that happens, but it does. Every time.

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