To the extent that a typology of sorts may be constructed as regards to pessimism – in which distinctive categories of varying manifestations of pessimism may be delineated and defined, existential pessimism represents the Twentieth Century’s unique contribution to this young and largely unnoticed body of thought.
The horrors and disappointments of the Twentieth Century gave rise to a more thorough, complete, and chaotic brand of pessimism unlike its cultural, metaphysical, and romantic predecessors. It is not so much a “system of thought” in the line of Schopenhauer’s metaphysical pessimism of the Will; but rather, a fragmentary and destructive response to modern man and his alienating condition.
Generally speaking, existential pessimism is a thorough-going byproduct of Nietzsche’s destruction of metaphysical systems. In fact, Nietzsche’s own brand of Dionysian pessimism is indeed a precursor to existential pessimism, and it’s in Nietzsche’s progeny that existential pessimism finds its greatest voices. At bottom, existential pessimism reflects Nietzsche’s conclusion that all transcendental sources of meaning are themselves meaningless – staking out its claim that there is absolutely no meaning to existence period.
Moreover, existential pessimism is, and likewise understands itself as, a concrete expression of man’s anxiety and despair with respect to the pointlessness of his being in the world – a pointlessness that has become all the more impossible to ignore in the absence of all meaningful metanarratives. Accordingly, existential pessimism exemplifies the crisis of being generally: how the individual is to cope with the loss of meaning in his own being.
Existential pessimism can be further distinguished on account of its focus on the existential-problematic of the subjective individual. Unlike the grandeur of metaphysical pessimism, which attempts to account for an overarching account of the negativity of the universe, existential pessimism explores the negativity of the universe from the perspective of existences — beginning with the given, concrete individual self. It follows that existential pessimistic inquiry is fundamentally concerned with confronting and describing the structural unsettledness of being generally, and the various responses available to the individual in light of the latter.
It would be impossible to reduce existential pessimism to a mere platform of axioms or principles. Not only would such an approach fail to do justice to the myriad ideas that could potentially be attributed to existential pessimist thought; but such crude reductionism almost seems antithetical to the spirit of existential pessimism and its strong distaste for such overgeneralizations.
That being said, in what follows I will attempt to articulate a few key areas and questions central to existential pessimism.
- All hope is an illusion — a faulty meta-narrative that human history has constructed for itself. But the meta-narrative has suffered an irreversible breakdown – and modern man, to the extent he reflects on his condition at all, is utterly hopeless. The epic failure of the great ideologies of hope (liberalism and Marxism) has left post-modern man thoroughly jaded; and, as a result, he has become petty, cynical, and altogether decayed in his nature.
- Consciousness is a disease. Self-consciousness enables reflection and introversion; but at the same time, it provides us access to temporality. Time itself, understood as consciousness of existential (rather than objective or clock) time, is the source of man’s desires, but also his frustration, disappointment, and ultimate annihilation.
- There never were transcendental “truths” – and even if there had been, they’re no longer accessible to us now. What we have left is the unenviable task of looking straight into the oblivion without anyone, thing, or entity to guide us. Man is completely lost in a vast, infinite universe in which he must resign himself to his cosmic uselessness.
- The onset of digital technologies, especially the widespread adoption of the internet, has replaced traditional modes of inter-relations with and among entities, and consequently, has had a tremendous limiting effect on the development of self. Technology has uprooted man to the point that he is utterly homeless in the world. The massive overflow of information and constant stimulation have left man with nothing but superficial means to fight off average everyday boredom, but nothing that can sooth his existential ennui.
- Technology, too, has provided modern man with a radical new means to perpetuate his absurd desire for immortality – both literally in the form of modern Western medicine and its emphasis on extending human life, as well as metaphorically through reproductive technologies that allow people unable to conceive naturally to continue on through their progeny. At the same time, man cannot escape his journey, no matter what, ends in death and decay.
- Genuine cultural expression has been replaced by consumer satisfaction. The reflective and introspective self has been replaced by the “immediate” or “last man” – who cares nothing for his responsibility to become his own self, but instead spends the entirety of his existence seeking out new ways to feel good in order to distract him from his boredom and despair.
- Mass society and the domination of the Crowd over the individual self has rendered individuation all but impossible. Individuality, insofar as that term refers to the genuine task of becoming a self, has been replaced by crass egotism and selfishness.
Of course, this is by no means an exhaustive list. And naturally, as heir to an impressive tradition that boasts such thinkers as Heraclitus, Hegesias, Pascal, Schopenhauer, Rousseau, Leopardi, Zappfe, Camus, Foucault, Unamuno and many others, existential pessimism touches on many of the issues central to pessimism generally.
The Being of beings is disclosed not in the average everyday participation by which any given being is involved with its world; nor is Being that which is reducible simply to a mere “presence,” an occupation of lived space and time.
Rather, Being itself unveils itself as it is only at the boundaries of existence. Whereas average everydayness is constituted in the perpetual cycling through the proverbial motions, the true nature of Being is only made manifest as disclosed through the absurd paradoxes of Being generally — available only at transcendence of the very boundaries of what it means for anything to be anything at all.
The confrontation with Being at the boundaries of existence takes place as a “clearing,” or a cutting-off from the average everyday manner by which Being is forgotten, lost amid the nauseating sameness of one’s fallenness. The experience of the boundaries of existence is a coming to the fore of that which was previously concealed — and in this very unconcealment one comes face to face with that “uncanniest of all guests” — the dreaded nothingness.
The crossroad of nothingness takes form as a paroxysm of Being — Kierkegaard’s dread or Heidegger’s angst, or the blackest melancholy upon which all is swept away. It is here that one encounters the liminal space and temporality of Being as it is; a paradoxical twilight between being and non-being; something and nothing; the real and the unreal; never-was and never-to-become. Everything is possible and equally impossible; the conflagration in which all is reduced to unidentifiable rubble and properly discarded into the dustbin of history.
Like the contours of a silhouette or the distinctive edges of the shadow casting itself against the wall, the boundaries of existence differentiate the is from the is-not; and has at the same time the tendency to reveal everything as an in-vain. This is precisely the encounter Schopenhauer had in mind, despite his inability to break free from Kant’s transcendental gaze. Yet Herr Schopenhauer’s insight into the irrational structure of desire is both telling and revealing — whether at the whim of our forgetfulness of being or the aimless drive of the will to live, the sheer pointlessness of it all only becomes clear at the margins, and must necessarily remain hidden lest we give in to annihilation and complete destruction.
Like a wrecking ball whose sole aim rests in its destruction of the most abiding structures and forms, the nothing clears away all illusions, constructs, and hope. The paradox of this very encounter reveals the worthlessness of all that is; the clearing the way for which Being is understood primordially as it is, and forever will be — in and of its total nothingness.
The experience of being drawn into the boundary of existence draws forth the contours of naked existence as such — disclosing itself through the existential structures of temporality, spatiality, and relatedness — each appearing as aimless form, absent all concrete content, upon which the entirety of one’s existence is an endless process by which content is given in accordance with being-in-the-world. .
What then does this “uncanniest” of all guests reveal? Nothing, nothing, and more nothing. It is by virtue of the nothingness of Being that Being may be understood at all; an endless cycling of existence’s peculiar paradoxes revealing the vanity of it all: all activity naught; all meaning illusory…while at at the same time a universal negation — a raising up of the worst in its totalizing capacity to break away from the confines of the average, common, and everyday. The totality of the nothing is the sensation of the proverbial cup of life neither half empty nor half-full…but overflowing with the smoldering excrement of existence; the task of existence reduced to the futility of ascending the dung heap of life.
The nothingness of Being is the coming-into-being of nothingness. That upon which one encounters Being itself as nothing but oblivion or abyss, stranded in the constant flux of forever becoming. It is here that Nietzsche’s prognosis of the overcoming of nihilism reflects his own prejudiced naivety for an activist response to the nothingness. The unanniness of nihilism rests in its being the default structure upon which any and everything is grounded, and not, as Nietzsche presupposes, in the positing of the highest values that, in their own peculiar way, devalue themselves. In this sense, Nietzsche’s Dionysian or “active” nihilism is in fact incomplete — an affirmation of life that itself is constituted in a fundamental negation — the negative ontology of being resting in the negation of the nothing and giving way to the appearance of beings and their Being.
Thus, to come full circle with the nothingness requires the negation of the negation — and therefore can only become manifest in a negative return to nothingness. It is in this respect that Schopenhauer (and the later Cioran) offer a more tenable response to nihilism than Nietzsche, despite both of their intimate relationship to the latter’s body of thought.
The Nietzschean Overman is as much beguiled by the illusion of positing new values that he no longer is able to sustain his intimate relationship with the nothing, but must instead re-cast her in the un-ending task of re-valuation. But such revaluation of values is nonetheless a retreat from nihilism — indeed as Nietzsche himself intended. This is all the more so on account of Nietzsche’s diagnosis of nihilism as the devaluation of the highest values. The devaluation of the Christian values necessarily entailed the positing of a new value system — one that was capable of providing a resounding “yes” to this life and simultaneously embracing the nightmarish eternal return of the same. Within the broader framework of Nietzsche’s philosophical thought, nihilism is something to be overcome. But this is so only insofar as nihilism is understood in the realm of valuation. But nihilism understood as such fundamentally misses something deeper than the phenomena of the devaluation of all values — a concealment of the nothing as it is directly in ontology.
It is precisely in this manner that Nietzsche, who deserves the utmost credit for his original investigations into nihilism, nevertheless misses the mark….his Herculean revaluation of all values taking aim at only one particular manifestation of nothingness, yet altogether turning away from. and thus re-concealing the nothingness of Being. For affirmation of the nothingness can only take form in the negation of the negation of the understanding of Being, and therefore the response to nihilism must itself be a negative — and never a positive. The paradoxical nature of an affirmative negation is the cornerstone of human being’s relation to its Being, constituted solely at the boundaries of existence.
“This world is not worth a sacrifice in the name of an idea or a belief. How much happier are we today because others have died for our well-being and enlightenment? Well-being? Enlightenment? If anybody had died so that I could be happy, then I would be even more unhappy, because I do not want to build my life on a graveyard.” (pp. 33)
“True thinking resembles a demon who muddies the spring of life or a sickness which corrupts its roots. To think all the time, to raise questions, to doubt your own destiny, to feel the weariness of living, to be worn out to the point of exhaustion by thoughts and life, to leave behind you, as symbols of you life’s drama, a trail of smoke and blood – all this means you are so unhappy that reflection and thinking appear as a curse causing a violent revulsion in you.” (pp. 42)
“Knowledge is the plague of life, and consciousness, an open wound in the heart.” (p. 43)
“The spirit is an offspring of an existential illness, and Man is a sick animal. Spirit in life is an anomaly. I have renounced so much, why should I not renounce spirit as well? But besides being an illness of life, is not renunciation first and foremost an illness of the spirit?” (p. 48)
If anything might be deemed the “essence” of our existence, it is the recognition that we had no choice in its coming about. Indeed, as individual entities we had absolutely no say in our conception — nor in our being brought to term. In a word, our existence is utterly incidental to our wishes, desires, and needs. We are “thrown” into the world in which we find ourselves. This groundlessness; this miserable accident is not of our own doing. It’s the burden upon which we all were shouldered and must bear for the duration of our existence.
In our very being we are our possibilities — the ultimate of which is our own-most possibility of non-existence. The only grounding, and perhaps the most un-satisfactory grounding conceivable, is our being in time. Temporality (and by this I mean something more ‘primordial’ [to use Heidegger’s terminology] than linear, chronological time) is being. But if temporality forces us to take account of our own finitude, then our conclusion can only be that our most authentic existence is opening up the possibility for our own total collapse; our very own no-longer being.
Upon entering this realization, it becomes clear that we are thrust into existential futility; this futility is distinct from run-of-the-mill hopelessness. Rather, it is a reward — the only reward available to free us from our collective sickness: fanatic hope. Existential futility is the cure to the illusion that life has meaning; that the universe owes us something.
The only available means to fight the onslaught of existential nihilism is with nihilism’s own weaponry.