Emile Zola in The Joy of Life will pit the pessimist and follower of Schopenhauer against his fiancé, Pauline…
“In Lazare the unavowed terror of ceasing to be was, by a logical contradiction, blended with a ceaseless braggart insistence upon the nothingness of things. It was his very terror, the want of equilibrium in his morbid temperament, that drove him into pessimistic ideas and a mad hatred of life. As it could not last for ever, he looked upon it as a mere fraud and delusion. Was not the first half of one’s days spent in dreaming of happiness and the latter half in regrets and fears? He fell back again upon the theories of ‘the old one,’ as he called Schopenhauer, whose most violent passages he used to recite from memory. He expatiated on the desirability of destroying the wish to live, and so bringing to an end the barbarous and imbecile exhibition of existence, with the spectacle of which the master force of the world, prompted by some incomprehensible egotistical reason, amused itself. He wanted to do away with life in order to do away with fear. He always harped upon the great deliverance; one must wish nothing for fear of evil, avoid all action since it meant pain, and thus sink entirely into death. He occupied himself in trying to discover some practical method of general suicide, some sudden and complete disappearance to which all living creatures would consent. This was perpetually recurring to his mind, even in the midst of ordinary conversation, when he freely and roughly gave vent to it. The slightest worry was sufficient to make him cry that he was sorry he was not yet annihilated; a mere headache set him raging furiously at his body. If he talked with a friend, his conversation immediately turned upon the woes of life, and the luck of those who were already fattening the dandelions in the cemeteries. He had a perfect mania for mournful subjects, and he was much interested in an article by a fanciful astronomer who announced the arrival of a comet with a tail which would sweep the earth away like a grain of sand. Would not this indeed prove the expected cosmical catastrophe, the colossal cartridge destined to blow the world to bits like a rotten old boat? And this desire of his for death, this constant theorizing about universal annihilation, was but the expression of his desperate struggle with his terror, a mere vain hubbub of words, by which he tried to veil the awful fear which the expectation of his end caused him.”
—Émile Zola, The Complete Works of Emile Zola
Many of Zola’s own disciples, most famously Maupassant and Huysmans, and later other leading lights of the literary decadent movement in France, not as well-known outside France, abandoned Zola’s “optimism of the intellect” and gave in whole-heartedly to the pessimism of the will and even eventually to nihilism. Schopenhauer was one of the leading intellectual figures for these writers, and his theories became very popular, especially as the general cultural mood in France soured after the catastrophic defeat in the Franco-Prussian war. Zola’s most sustained engagement with Schopenhauerian ideas and its critique is in his novel La Joie de Vivre (a recent English translation is titled The Bright Side of Life). It is not very well known and doesn’t seem to be very widely read in English, but it is one of my personal favorites of his novels. It is one of the most powerful evocations of the struggle between the two forces of optimism and pessimism about the nature of life. (see: Alok)
In The Joy of Life pessimism is confronted with optimism but being Zola, this is not about extremes but calibrates positions along a spectrum from the morbid, neurotic Lazare who cannot find any way to live knowing that someday he will die, to his father M.Chanteau crippled with agonizing gout and yet clinging stubbornly to life. At the heart of the book is Pauline Quenu, a personification, I think, of the joie de vivre of the title: ‘she was, indeed, the incarnation of renunciation, love for others, and a goodness extending to the whole of errant humanity’. Being a Zola character, Pauline is no saint: she’s jealous, she loses her temper, she desires a married man, but she finds a way of being not just content but actively happy despite all that life throws at her. Here is Pauline speaking against the ‘disease of pessimism’:
Pauline, however, in the pride of her self-devotion, was determined to gain the victory. She recognised the source of her cousin’s disease, and tried to impart to him some of her own courage by giving him a love of life. But her compassionate kindliness seemed to receive a continual check. At first she made open attacks upon him with her old jests and jokes about ‘that silly, stupid pessimism.’ ‘What!’ she said, ‘was it she now who had to chant the praises of the great Saint Schopenhauer, while he, like all the humbugging pessimists, was quite willing to see the world blown to pieces, but refused to be blown up himself?’
In another work The Kill the reader is plunged into a world of passion and sensation: a world of corruption and greed. In Zola’s eyes, France in the period of the Second Empire (1852-1870) is a dynamic society weakened by decadence, corruption and sexual promiscuity. Time and again in his Rougon-Marquart series he returns to this issue, finding evidence in every quarter— government, business, religion — of a diseased nation.
Zola’s stance as a naturalist allowed him to study pessimism, decadence, and the world of the streets where the corruption of society had imposed on the working class a morbid and deathly existence without hope or optimism. The superficial optimism of the higher classes was for Zola an easy target, and he would work it for all it was worth in various ways throughout his novels. In later life he saw his own position turning into an anachronism, he would still style himself with irony and sadness over the lost cause as “an old and rugged Positivist”. This sense that the supposed optimistic positivism with its scientific determinism and naturalism had failed him and left him in despair under the sign of melancholy and Saturn, bereft of hope and happiness pervades this last period. And, yet, he’d still avow the hard-nosed line of that dogmatic philosophy to the end.
In our time another writer in France would take up that same battle between pessimism and positivism, Michel Houellebecq:
“Between Schopenhauer and Comte, I finally made my choice; and gradually, with a kind of disappointed enthusiasm, I became a positivist; to the same degree, I ceased to be a Schopenhauerian. Nevertheless, I nowadays rarely reread Comte, and never with a simple, immediate pleasure, but rather with the somewhat perverse pleasure (which can admittedly be really intense once you gain a taste for it) that one often derives from the stylistic quirks of unbalanced minds; but no philosopher, to my knowledge, is so immediately agreeable and reinvigorating to read as Arthur Schopenhauer. It is not even a matter of ‘the art of writing’, or any such nonsense; those are elementary rules that everyone should follow before having the nerve to propose their thought to the attention of the public. In his third Untimely Consideration, written shortly before he turned away from Schopenhauer, Nietzsche praised the latter’s profound honesty, his probity, his uprightness; he speaks magnificently of his tone, that somewhat grumpy good humour which fills one with distaste for elegant writers and stylists. Such, in a broader form, is the purpose of this volume: I propose to show, through some of my favourite passages, why Schopenhauer’s intellectual attitude remains to me a model for any future philosopher; and also why, even if you ultimately find yourself in disagreement with him, you cannot fail to be deeply grateful to him. For, to quote Nietzsche again, ‘merely because such a man wrote, the burden of living on this Earth has been lightened.’”
—Michel Houellebecq, In the Presence of Schopenhauer