It is difficult to be an optimist these days: what with the increased stultifying powers of the internet, a decrease in youth literacy concomitant to the above, the insipidity of “liking” things, radicalization of politicians on both sides of the aisle, the real and present danger of global warming, and the recent ongoing British Petroleum disaster that turned the once warm, inviting waters of the Gulf of Mexico into a tepid, reeking, carcinogenic petrochemical spittoon; this is to say nothing of the disaster’s media blitz: the “small people” railing against the charming bespoke-suited executives of BP, the constant, circular analysis of the disaster, the little “spill cam” feed on CNN, the heartbreaking photographs of little greasy seabirds, and the inevitability of oil entering the loop currents and eventually sullying the white, sandy, WASPy beaches of Nantucket and Martha’s Vineyard lead me to believe that this is only the beginning of something much, much worse. Soon, when oil seeps into the inland waterways of Florida, we will see images of slick black alligators, and those Gulf-residing dolphins that do not inhale or swallow tar balls might evolve, such that the corners of their mouth will invert from their current upward-turning, “smiling” configuration into a moping, “woe is me” frown. I will cry my crocodile tears for BP, and keep watching disaster porn.
For a long time, I considered myself an optimist. Over the past year or so, however, I’ve changed my mind.
In trying to find a writer who provided an articulate, cogent framework upon which I could build my nascent pessimism, I was surprised when I found William Hazlitt, an Englishman born in 1778, whose words so accurately and punishingly vivisect modern American “culture,” or lack thereof. The essays from which I will quote are collected in On the Pleasure of Hating, one of the slim volumes in Penguin’s Great Ideas series. Hazlitt makes compelling arguments for the centrality of hate, not hope or love or optimism, as the driving force of human nature, and nature itself. “Nature seems (the more we look into it) made up of antipathies: without something to hate, we should lose the very spring of thought and action. Life would turn to a stagnant pool, were it not ruffled by the jarring interests, the unruly passions of men.” We may be driven to succeed out of personal, self-serving pride, for the “white streak of our own fortunes” becomes all the brighter by painting those around us “as dark as possible.”
What bothers me so about the current state of affairs can be boiled down to the transactions on Facebook: the relative ease with which one can “like” something, the inherent passivity of this approbation, and its resultant superficiality. One need not rationalize praise, or provide an exegesis on the favorable thing’s favorability. One “likes” because it is socially expedient to do so, but “the pleasure rises to its height in some moment of calm solitude or intoxicating sympathy, declines ever after, and from the comparison and conscious falling-off, leaves rather a sense of satiety and irskomeness behind it… it is because pleasure asks a greater effort of the mind to support it than pain; and we turn, after a little idle dalliance, from what we love to what we hate.”
Although I am tempted to scan and post the entirety of the essay, our fair nation’s copyright law precludes me from doing so. Instead, I will quote at length a passage regarding the popularization of certain public intellectuals: “The popularity of the most successful writers operates to wean us from them, by the cant and fuss that is made about them, by hearing their names everlastingly repeated, and by the number of ignorant and indiscriminate admirers they draw after them: we as little like to have to drag others from their unmerited obscurity, lest we should be exposed to the charge of affectation and singularity of taste.” Most of Hazlitt’s works are out of print, and the brief, resurgent interest in his work in the 1990’s has long passed. I understand that I risk being accused of snobbery, “singularity of taste,” although I highly recommend On The Pleasure of Hating, not for Hazlitt’s relative, unmerited obscurity, but for the dancing, mincing bellicosity of his prose style; although, “I confess it makes me hate the very name of Fame and Genius when works like these are ‘gone into the wastes of time’, while each successive generation of fools is busily employed in reading the trash of the day…”
It is my pessimism, I believe, that makes me so happy. Instead of shirking cognitive toil through giving in to the saccharine, inoffensive “like,” I engage myself with picking apart everything, attempting to understand a subject’s intricate inner workings, and in so doing often find that my subject isn’t what it was made out to be: that true genius is exceedingly rare and what often masquerades as genius, at least in the world of arts, letters, and business is lexical onanism. I am not disappointed, for such “let downs” merely reinforce my belief in maintaining my pessimism, as a general rule of thumb. I expect the disappointment, the downfall of ideas and people burdened with the hopes and dreams of many, and am thus prepared for it. BP is not, contrary to the 2001 rebranding effort, Beyond Petroleum.
Although I am a pessimist, I am not a cynic, like Hazlitt. I believe that there exists pure genius and pure, wholehearted, well-meaning people. When confronted with moments of transcendent, sublime happiness and fulfillment I do not pick these moments apart: I embrace them as genuine, not as farce.
There is another quote by William Hazlitt which I find particularly poignant: “the art of life is knowing how to enjoy a little and endure much.” It is likely the case that one takes pleasure in hating because it frees one from the insipid, bovine groupthink that pervades the modern media and cultural landscape, but hating all and embracing none is the recipe for a sad life. I understand that moments of white-hot joy are ephemeral, and so I let them go when they must; I do not seek to love all eternally, for “love turns, with a little indulgence, to indifference or disgust: hatred alone is immortal.”