Johnny Rotten leering, “when there’s no future how can there be sin?”
—Mark Fisher, K-Punk
“Your silence is almost worst of all.”
As I enter my seventh decade, turning seventy today I ponder this question. The future is empty, a blank slate, a site for our utopian dreams and our apocalyptic nightmares. As Berardi tells us:
“When the punks cried “No Future,” at the turning point of 1977, it seemed like a paradox that couldn’t be taken too seriously. Actually, it was the announcement of something quite important: the perception of the future was changing. The future is not a natural dimension of the mind. It is a modality of projection and imagination, a feature of expectation and attention, and its modalities and features change with the changing of cultures. Futurism is the artistic movement that embodies and asserts the accomplished modernity of the future. The movement called Futurism announces what is most essential in the twentieth century because this century is pervaded by a religious belief in the future. We don’t believe in the future in the same way. Of course, we know that a time after the present is going to come, but we don’t expect that it will fulfill the promises of the present.”1
For the pessimist the future is bleak and full of heartache, terror, dread, decay, and eventual death; for the optimist it’s a place full of promise, hope, and endless opportunity. Neither thought has much hold out in a world where the future is being written not by our ideas of it but rather by the truth that we may have no future due to our denial of the catastrophic consequences of being human in an inhuman cosmos. Climate denial has brought us to the brink of extinction. Even now as our rivers run dry, our lakes become sand dunes in a cracked and drying world we have people who still deny climate apocalypse is happening. Isn’t that it? Our denial is the denial of our own future, our children’s future, and the future of that most precious thing of all… life itself. Am I getting sentimental in my old age? Some may think, “Oh, you talk so much about pessimism, the dark side, the horror, the dread, the terror of life and now you want us to believe you care?” Yes, I do. I don’t give a shit about myself, my life is over, at the end of things. All I can care about is the suffering of all life on this planet and the causes of it. That’s what pessimism is truly about, it’s not about some negation of life, some suicidal and psychopathic rejection of life, but about the suffering of all life on this planet and in the cosmos at large. We see that in Schopenhauer, Hartmann, Mainländer, Bahnsen, Zapffe, and Ligotti among so many other pessimists I’ve studied and written about over the years.
“Look at your body – A painted puppet, a poor toy of jointed parts ready to collapse, a diseased and suffering thing with a head full of false imaginings.”
—The Dhammapada, Sayings of the Buddha
This is what Schopenhauer had to say about Suffering:
“Unless suffering is the direct and immediate object of life, our existence must entirely fail of its aim. It is absurd to look upon the enormous amount of pain that abounds everywhere in the world, and originates in needs and necessities inseparable from life itself, as serving no purpose at all and the result of mere chance. Each separate misfortune, as it comes, seems, no doubt, to be something exceptional; but misfortune in general is the rule.
I know of no greater absurdity than that propounded by most systems of philosophy in declaring evil to be negative in its character. Evil is just what is positive; it makes its own existence felt.”
For Schopenhauer’s follower But at the bottom, the immanent philosopher sees in the entire universe only the deepest longing for absolute annihilation, and it is as if he clearly hears the call that permeates all spheres of heaven: Redemption! Redemption! Death to our life! and the comforting answer: you will all find annihilation and be redeemed!”: “Man’s only hope lies in “final redemption from the misery of volition and existence into the painlessness of non-being and non-willing.” No mortal may quit the task of life, but each must do his part to hasten the time when in the major portion of the human race the activity of the unconscious shall be ruled by intelligence, and this stage reached, in the simultaneous action of many persons volition will resolve upon its own non-continuance, and thus idea and will be once more reunited in the Absolute.” Another of Schopenhauer’s disciples Philipp Mainländer in his Die Philosophie Der Erlosung: “
Julius Bahnsen’s radical rejection of annihilation or redemption along with Schopenhauer’s metaphysics put him in a different category of the pessimal. Bahnsen propounded the view that there is a plurality of individual wills. Hartmann also espoused Schopenhauer’s monism, which essentially says that this single cosmic will objectifies itself in every individual thing. Bahnsen rejected Schopenhauer’s transcendental idealism (the view that objects of experience do not appear as they are in themselves but are instead conditioned by the mind, a position which Schopenhauer derived from Kant). Bahnsen defended transcendental realism, the doctrine which says that the knowledge we have of how things appear to us in our experiences gives us knowledge of ‘things-in-themselves’ (the nature of things independent from our experience of them). This conflicts with Kant and Schopenhauer’s transcendental idealism, which maintains a clear distinction between appearances and things-in-themselves, on the basis that no amount of knowledge of appearances can provide us with knowledge of things-in-themselves.
Bahnsen also denies that the intellect can escape the will, let alone govern it, as Schopenhauer believed. We find an apparent inconsistency in Schopenhauer’s metaphysical voluntarism (which posits that the will is the force behind all of reality and the intellect is merely a secondary and visible manifestation of it – and the intellect, in its normal functioning, is in the service of the will). But also included in Schopenhauer’s voluntarism is the belief that the intellect can control the will. So here we have two diametrically opposed claims: the will dominates, and the intellect can control the will (the latter claim allows Schopenhauer to propose that we can be redeemed from suffering – the frustration, strife, and pain – that follows from being driven around by the will’s blind striving). Bahnsen seeks to resolve the inconsistency of Schopenhauer’s voluntarism by asserting that the intellect can never escape the force of the will; the will has complete power over its representations. And this, in a sense, makes Bahnsen’s pessimism much more radical than Schopenhauer’s. We have no mastery over the causes of our suffering, according to him. For Bahnsen there is no way out, no escape from suffering, we are condemned to an eternity of suffering much like Nietzsche’s notion of the vicious circle of the eternal return. But unlike Nietzsche whose “amor fati” (love of fate) would affirm this dark circle of repetition Bahnsen is skeptical that any form of art, asceticism or culture can remove us from the world of suffering, or that they provide escape from the self-torment of the will.
Schopenhauer saw his fellow man as “fellow sufferer, and companion of misery” in a world that had no end to pain and suffering: “The conviction that the world, and therefore man too, is something which really ought not to exist is in fact calculated to instill in us indulgence towards one another: for what can be expected of beings placed in such a situation as we are? From this point of view, one might indeed consider that the appropriate form of address between man and man ought to be, not monsieur, sir, but fellow sufferer, compagnon de misères. However strange this may sound it corresponds to the nature of the case, makes us see other men in a true light and reminds us of what are the most necessary of all things: tolerance, patience, forbearance and charity, which each of us needs and which each of us therefore owes.”
Julius Bahsen would offer a more extreme vision, a world devoid of life and suffering, a crystalline world empty of organic existence: “If you try to imagine, as nearly as you can, what an amount of misery, pain and suffering of every kind the sun shines upon in its course, you will admit that it would be much better if, on the earth as little as on the moon, the sun were able to call forth the phenomena of life; and if, here as there, the surface were still in a crystalline state.” (Julius Bahnsen, On the Sufferings of the World)
Thomas Ligotti in his The Conspiracy against the Human Race: A Contrivance of Horror offers us an insight into the pessimal quoting Peter Wessel Zapffe, the Norwegian philosopher, mountain climber, and pessimist:
“Why,” Zapffe asked, “has mankind not long ago gone extinct during great epidemics of madness? Why do only a fairly minor number of individuals perish because they fail to endure the strain of living—because cognition gives them more than they can carry?” Zapffe’s answer: “Most people learn to save themselves by artificially limiting the content of consciousness.”
In other words, our brain and culture help us filter out the dark truths of our predicament and offer us instead ‘as if’ fictions that support and sustain the illusions we live by. Speaking to this pessimal tradition above Ligotti tells us,
Perhaps the greatest strike against philosophical pessimism is that its only theme is human suffering. This is the last item on the list of our species’ obsessions and detracts from everything that matters to us, such as the Good, the Beautiful, and a Sparking Clean Toilet Bowl. For the pessimist, everything considered in isolation from human suffering or any cognition that does not have as its motive the origins, nature, and elimination of human suffering is at base recreational, whether it takes the form of conceptual probing or physical action in the world—for example, delving into game theory or traveling in outer space, respectively. And by “human suffering,” the pessimist is not thinking of particular sufferings and their relief, but of suffering itself. Remedies may be discovered for certain diseases and sociopolitical barbarities may be amended. But those are only stopgaps. Human suffering will remain insoluble as long as human beings exist. The one truly effective solution for suffering is that spoken of in Zapffe’s “Last Messiah.” It may not be a welcome solution for a stopgap world, but it would forever put an end to suffering, should we ever care to do so. The pessimist’s credo, or one of them, is that nonexistence never hurt anyone and existence hurts everyone. Although our selves may be illusory creations of consciousness, our pain is nonetheless real.
Our pain is real, and so is the pain of the world, animals, plants, and all organic life. We live in a universe of pain and suffering without recourse to any form of escape, salvation, or redemption other than the supreme fictions of religion or secularism. Those who opt for the comforts and illusions – some might say, —delusions (Freud) — walk blindly through life believing the truths of faith or tradition. The pessimist is one of those beings for whom the illusions or delusions of faith, tradition, and religion hold no comfort or redeeming value. This is what Nietzsche actually meant by the notion of the “Death of God” — that the old world of religious belief and external god(s) that supported it were dead in the sense they no longer gave modern secular society the support and comforts that once sustained such notions.
For Nietzsche this opened us up to a world where all external values of ethics and morality were withdrawn from the universe. We now live in a world where there is no meaning, and all life is valueless – a nihilistic universe of meaninglessness. For Nietzsche both optimist and pessimist alike were wrong, because both sought meaning in the positive hope or negative hopelessness of existence. For Nietzsche this hope, and hopelessness were withdrawn from existence and there was nothing but the impersonal truth of nothingness at the heart of all things, a world emptied of meaning or justification. The point for Nietzsche was that all objective standards upon which ethics and morality were grounded were now nullified. There were none.
Where do I stand in all of this? I stand where I’ve stood for years. In a letter to his brothers, George and Thomas, on 22 December 1817, the poet John Keats described a conversation he had been engaged in a few days previously:
I had not a dispute but a disquisition with Dilke, upon various subjects; several things dove-tailed in my mind, and at once it struck me what quality went to form a Man of Achievement, especially in Literature, and which Shakespeare possessed so enormously—I mean Negative Capability, that is, when a man is capable of being in uncertainties, mysteries, doubts, without any irritable reaching after fact and reason—Coleridge, for instance, would let go by a fine isolated verisimilitude caught from the Penetralium of mystery, from being incapable of remaining content with half-knowledge. This pursued through volumes would perhaps take us no further than this, that with a great poet the sense of Beauty overcomes every other consideration, or rather obliterates all consideration.
This notion that there is no answer to the riddle of existence, and that if we pursue it like Coleridge we’ll end in defeat and failure as he did without any end to our need to answer the Sphinx’s riddle. Instead, like Keats I accept this notion of “Negative Capability, that is, when a man is capable of being in uncertainties, mysteries, doubts, without any irritable reaching after fact and reason…”. What this means is that there are no facts or reasons for anything in existence. Existence if without reason and is as Quentin Meillassoux affirms based on “the principle of Unreason —hyperchaos or “Mad Time”. Meillassoux rejects the principle of sufficient reason and accepts the ‘principle of unreason’: there is no reason for any fact, including the correlation itself. In embracing the principle of unreason we intellectually intuit that the only thing that is necessary and absolute is contingency itself. Like Ralph Waldo Emerson I have placed above my door a plaque saying: “Whim!” As he’d say in ‘Self-Reliance’: “I would write on the lintels of the door-post, Whim. I hope it is somewhat better than whim at last, but we cannot spend the day in explanation.” Chance and Necessity. This seeming unbinding of the cosmos in a realm of pure contingency. In his essay After Finitude Meillassoux says this about whim, contingency, chance:
“If we look through the aperture which we have opened up onto the absolute, what we see there is a rather menacing power–something insensible, and capable of destroying both things and worlds, of bringing forth monstrous absurdities, yet also of never doing anything, of realizing every dream, but also every nightmare, of engendering random and frenetic transformations, or conversely, of producing a universe that remains motionless down to its ultimate recesses, like a cloud bearing the fiercest storms, then the eeriest bright spells, if only for an interval of disquieting calm. We see an omnipotence equal to that of the Cartesian God, and capable of anything, even the inconceivable; but an omnipotence that has become autonomous, without norms, blind, devoid of the other divine perfections, a power with neither goodness nor wisdom, ill-disposed to reassure thought about the veracity of its distinct ideas. We see something akin to Time, but a Time that is inconceivable for physics, since it is capable of destroying without cause or reason, every physical law, just as it is inconceivable for metaphysics, since it is capable of destroying every determinate entity, even a god, even God. This is not a Heraclitean time, since it is not the eternal law of becoming, but rather the eternal and lawless possible becoming of every law. It is a Time capable of destroying even becoming itself by bringing forth, perhaps forever, fixity, stasis, and death.”
― Quentin Meillassoux, After Finitude: An Essay on the Necessity of Contingency
This reversal of the Heraclitean notion of time and becoming, but of the “eternal and lawless possible becoming of every law” that opens the difference that makes a difference: “a Time capable of destroying even becoming itself by bringing forth, perhaps forever, fixity, stasis, and death.” But you may say, “Does that answer anything, anything at all?” Well, yes and no. As Meillassoux puts it: ““Instead of laughing or smiling at questions like ‘Where do we come from?’, ‘Why do we exist?’, we should ponder instead the remarkable fact that the replies ‘From nothing. For nothing’ really are answers, thereby realizing that these really were questions – and excellent ones at that. There is no longer a mystery, not because there is no longer a problem, but because there is no longer a reason.”
If there is no reason for anything, anything at all, then there is no reason to riddle ourselves with impossible questions which have no solution since there is no Reason for something rather than nothing. In a universe of absolute whim or contingency without reason or support then we are absolutely free to be or not to be. But this does not absolve us of others, of existence, or our care for the pain and suffering it entails. No. This is not a cop-out from existence or responsibility, but rather an acknowledgement that we alone are responsible for our ethical and moral decisions rather than the objective universe, god(s), religion, etc. It’s up to each individual to commit themselves to that sense of solidarity and belonging that comes only from our sense of absolute solitude in a realm without meaning, value, or objective appeal. We are free to choose and create-invent the types of futures we wish to live in, not according to some predetermined ethical system or religious credo, but because of our inherent need to live in an open-ended universe without rhyme or reason. I choose to care rather than neglect the appeals of such beings as Greta Thunberg whose future relies on just that, the care of others who choose not to destroy this planet and strip it of the vital resources which others will need for all species to survive and thrive. This biocentric view has been well documented by many environmental ethicists and I’ll write of that another day.
- Berardi, Franco Bifo. After the Future. AK Press. 2017.