continent. maps a topology of unstable confluences and ranges across new thinking, traversing interstices and alternate directions in culture, theory, biopolitics and art.
Issue 2.2 / 2012:

Open Commentary to Eugene Thacker's "Cosmic Pessimism"

Gary J. Shipley, Nicola Masciandaro

continent. 2.2 (2012): 76–81

Comments on Eugene Thacker’s “Cosmic Pessimism”
Nicola Masciandaro

Anything you look forward to will destroy you, as it already has.
—Vernon Howard

In pessimism, the first axiom is a long, low, funereal sigh.
The cosmicity of the sigh resides in its profound negative singularity. Moving via endless auto-releasement, it achieves the remote.

Oltre la spera che piú larga gira / passa ’l sospiro ch’esce del mio core” [Beyond the sphere that circles widest / penetrates the sigh that issues from my heart].1

The axiomatic sigh of the pessimist is in a way the pure word of philosophy, a thought that thinks without you, speaks where you are not. The live pneumatic form of the soul’s eventual exit from the dead body’s mouth, the sigh restores consciousness to the funeral of being, to the passing away that is existence. Pessimism speaks in piercing aphorisms because first it sighs. “Beyond the sphere passeth the arrow of our sigh. Hafiz! Silence.”2

… pessimism is guilty of that most inexcusable of Occidental crimes—the crime of not pretending it’s for real.
To the pessimist, the ‘real’ world—the world on whose behalf we are expected to wake up in the morning—is a ceaseless index of its own unreality. The pessimist’s day is not an illumined space for the advancement of experience and action, but a permanently and inescapably reflective zone, the vast interior of a mirror where each thing is only insofar as it is, at best, a false image of itself. Within this speculative situation, inside the doubleness of the mirror, pessimism splits into two paths, false and true, one that tries to fix pessimism (establish a relation with the mirror) and decides in favor of the apparent real, and another that totally falls for pessimism (enters the mirror) and communes with the greater reality of the unreal. These two paths are distinguished by their relation to pessimism’s guilt vis-à-vis the world’s reality-project. The first form, that which remains pessimism for the world and puts on a smiling face, stays guilty to itself (i.e. unconscious) and thus turns hypocritical, becoming at once the pessimism of the commoner who really just wants things to be better for himself and the pessimism of the elite who wants to critically refashion reality in his own image. The general form of this worldly, hypocritical pessimism is the impulse to ‘make the world a better place’, which is the global mask under which the world is diurnally made worse. The second form, that which follows pessimism away from the world and ceases to put on a smiling face, refuses guiltiness as itself theessential Occidental mode of pretense and turns honest, becoming at once the intelligent pessimism required of all ordinary action and the radical pessimism necessary for self-knowledge: seeing that no one is capable of doing good. The general form of this universal, honest pessimism is the impulse not to worry, to give up and embrace dereliction, which is the only real way the world is actually improved. Where worldly pessimism is the engine productive of interminably warring secular and sacred religions (good-projects), universal pessimism strives hopelessly for the paradise of a supremely instantiated pessimus: things are getting so bad that there is no longer any time for them to get worse; things are so constantly-instantly worst that this is BEST. Cosmic pessimism is the mode of universal pessimism which can yet discourse with the world, which has not chosen silence and can spread the inconceivably BAD NEWS in an orderly form (kosmos) that the world can understand (if it wanted to).

… the result of a confusion between the world and a statement about the world.
That is what the world is (the result of a confusion between the world and a statement about the world).

… a generalized misanthropy without the anthropos. Pessimism crystallizes around this futility—it is its amor fati, rendered as musical form.
Pessimism’s love of fate is a blind love, a love of the blindness of being human in a cosmos conceived around the human’s eclipse, a heavy levitation in the contradictory space between the inescapability of its having been and the impossibility of its will-be. Pessimism’s song of futility is a sensible way of loving fate, with a minimum of eros, by means of a kind of matrimonial love of the fatal. As music, pessimism stays open to the irreparable and the inexorable without the binding of affirmation, in the apparent absence of the radical, infinitely surplus will that absolute amor fati seems to require.

Crying, laughing, sleeping—what other responses are adequate to a life that is so indifferent?
“Unless a man aspires to the impossible, the possible that he achieves will scarcely be worth the trouble of his achieving it. We should aspire to the impossible, to absolute and infinite perfection [….] The apocatastasis is more than a mystical dream: it is a norm of action, it is a beacon for high deeds [….] For true charity is a species of invasion [….] It is not charity to rock and lull our fellow men to sleep in the inertia and heaviness of matter, but rather to arouse them to anguish and torment of spirit.”3

… the impossibility of ever adequately accounting for one’s relationship to thought.
“The paroxysm of interior experience leads you to regions where danger is absolute, because life which self-consciously actualizes its roots in experience can only negate itself [….] There are no arguments [….] On the heights of despair, the passion for the absurd is the only thing that can still throw a demonic light on chaos [….] I live because the mountains do not laugh and the worms do not sing.”4

It took three attempts before she was fully decapitated, all the while she continued, perhaps miraculously, to sing.
According to the earliest account of Cecilia’s martyrdom, the beheading turns out worse. After not severing her head in three strokes, “the cruel executioner left her half dead” (seminecem eam cruentus carnifex dereliquit).5 Cecilia’s effortlessly powerful endurance of the three strokes—a fitting icon for pessimism as an art of dereliction—demonstrates the “passivity and absence of effort [….] in which divine transcendence is dissolved.”6

There’s a ghost that grows inside of me, damaged in the making, and there’s a hunt sprung from necessity, elliptical and drowned. Where the moving quiet of our insomnia offers up each thought, there’s a luminous field of grey inertia, and obsidian dreams burnt all the way down. Like words from a pre-waking dream.
There is no reason to think that they are not.

1. Dante Alighieri. Vita Nuova. ed. and trans. Dino S. Cervigni and Edward Vasta. Notre Dame: University of Notre Dame Press. 1995. 41:10.
2. Hafiz of Shiraz. The Divan. trans. H. Wilberforce Clarke. London: Octagon Press. 1974. 10.9.
3. Miguel de Unamuno. The Tragic Sense of Life in Men and Nations. trans. Anthony Kerrigan. Princeton: Princeton University Press. 1972. 305-6.
4. E.M. Cioran. On the Heights of Despair. trans. Ilinca Zarifopol-Johnston. Chicago: University of Chicago Press. 1992. 9-10.
5. Giacomo Laderchi. S. Caeciliae Virg[inis] et Mart[yris] Acta. . . Rome. 1723. 38.
6. Georges Bataille. On Nietzsche. trans. Bruce Boone. London: Continuum. 2004. 135. See Nicola Masciandaro. “Half Dead: Parsing Cecilia.”



A Commentary on Eugene Thacker’s "Cosmic Pessimism"
Gary J. Shipley

Pessimism is the refusal to seek distraction, the refusal to remodel failure into a platform for further (doomed) possibilities, the refusal of comfort, the acceptance of the sickness of healthy bodies, the cup of life overflowing with cold vomit. If, as Ligotti suggests when discussing Invasion of the Body Snatchers,1 humans prefer the anxieties of their familiar human lives to the contentment of an alien one, then the pessimist, we could argue, represents some perverted combination of the two, preferring (presuming he has a choice) the defamiliarization of human life to the contentment of its unquestioned mundanity.

The quasi-religious state of mind that Wittgenstein would mention on occasion, that of “feeling absolutely safe,”2 is a state the pessimist could only imagine being approximated by death, or perhaps some annihilative opiate-induced stupor. This Wittgensteinian commingling of certainty and faith looks every bit the futile gesture, a mere rephrasing of collapse or partial collapse. The only certainty open to the pessimist is that of the toxic formula of life itself—a formula known and lacuna-free. Certainty, far from being the gateway to deliverance, becomes the definitive impediment; and the possibility of salvation, as long as it remains, becomes crucially reliant on postulations of ignorance, epistemic gaps, a perennial incompleteness: “the perfect safety of wooed death […] the warm bath of physical dissolution, the universal unknown engulfing the miniscule unknown.”3

The height of Leibniz’s Panglossian insanity nurtured the idea that our knowing everything—via the universal calculus—could be accurately described a triumph, as opposed to a nightmare in which our every futility is laid bare. Stagnancy and boredom are perhaps two of the greatest ills of Western civilisation, and the most potent pessimism tells you that you’re stuck with both. The most we can hope for, by way of salvation, is to throw open our despair to the unknown.

The fact that Schopenhauer’s pessimism stopped short of morality and allowed him to play the flute, as Nietzsche complained, highlights the predicament of a man who despite having adorned nothingness with a smiling face still found himself alive. The demand here is that it be felt: a cross-contamination of intellect and emotion. The safety net of numerous parentheses makes for a failed philosophy, rather than a philosophy of failure.

Depressives make bad pessimists, because, unless they choose to die, living will always infect them with necessities of hope, forcing them to find something, anything (all the various “as ifs”) to make existence tolerable. For as Cioran observed, while “[d]epressions pay attention to life, they are the eyes of the devil, poisoned arrows which wound mortally any zest and love of life. Without them we know little, but with them, we cannot live.”4 And even when cured of our depressions we’ll find ourselves consumed, eaten alive by the hyper-clinical (borderline autistic) mania that replaces them: a predicament captured all too clearly in the microscriptual fictions of Robert Walser, where spectral men and women stifle their depressive madness with protective comas of detail, their failed assimilations buried beneath thick crusts of remote data. Like Beckett’s Malone their stories may have ended, but cruelly their lives have not.

Pessimism is an extraneous burden (a purposeless weight) that makes everything else harder to carry, while at the same time scooping it out and making it lighter.

If pessimism had a sound it would be the harsh non-noise of tinnitus—the way that every person would hear themselves if they refused their distractions long enough to listen: a lungless scream from the extrasolar nothing of the self. The music of pessimism—if indeed we can imagine such a thing—is the reverberating echo of the world’s last sound, conjectured but never heard, audible only in its being listened for. The one consolation of this hollow paradox of audibility being, that “he will be least afraid of becoming nothing in death who has recognized that he is already nothing now.”5 The pessimist suffers a derangement of the real, a labyrinthitis at the nucleus of his being: he’s the stumbling ghost relentlessly surprised that others can see him.

If Cioran’s refusal is manifested in sleep (when even saying ‘no’ is too much of a commitment), then Pessoa’s resides in the dreams inside that sleep. Pessoa chooses to exploit the fact that he’s being “lived by some murmuring non-entity both shadowy and muddied”6 by growing more voids to live him. His is a Gnostic breed of sleep, “sleeping as if the universe were a mistake,”7 a sleep that dreams through Thacker’s cosmic pessimism (“a pessimism of the world-without-us.”, “the unhuman orientation of deep space and deep time”8), through the critical error of there being anything at all when there could be nothing.

The metaphysical pessimist is someone who, however well life treats them, still desires to wake from it, as from the poisonous air of a bad dream.

Pessimism is a paradox of age, being simultaneously young and old; its youth residing in a refusal to accept the authority of existence (its rich history, its inherent beneficence), a refusal to “get over” the horror of what it sees with its perpetually fresh eyes, and its maturity in the unceremonious disposal of the philosophical playthings (those futile architectures) of adolescence. As Thacker remarks: “Pessimism abjures all pretenses towards system—towards the purity of analysis and the dignity of critique.”9 A sentiment shared with Pessoa, who duly categorizes those that choose to enact this futile struggle: “The creators of metaphysical systems and of psychological explanations are still in the primary stage of suffering.”10

If the pessimist has shared a womb with anyone, it’s with the mystic and not the philosopher. As Schopenhauer tells us: “The mystic is opposed to the philosopher by the fact that he begins from within, whereas the philosopher begins from without. […] But nothing of this is communicable except the assertions that we have to accept on his word; consequently he is unable to convince.”11 The crucial difference between the mystic and the pessimist is not the latter’s impassivity and defeatism, but his unwillingness/inability to contain in any way the spread of his voracious analyticity, his denial of incompleteness, his exhaustive devotion to failure.

The truth of our predicament, though heard, is destined to remain unprocessed. Like the revelations of B.S. Johnson’s Haakon (“We rot and there’s nothing that can stop it / Can’t you feel the shaking horror of that?”12) the pessimist’s truths are somehow too obvious to listen to, as if something inside us were saying, “Of course, but haven’t we gotten over that?”

Pessimism is simple and ugly, and has no desire to make itself more complex or more attractive.

The true moral pessimist knows that the Utilitarian’s accounts will always be in the red. He can see that for all his computational containments, his only honest path is a negative one, and that such a path has but one logical destination: that of wholesale human oblivion.

Thacker notes how at the core of pessimism lies the notion of “the worst,” through which death is demoted by the all-pervasive suffering of a life that easily eclipses its threat. And so with doom made preferable to gloom, death begins to glint with promise, “like beauty passing through a nightmare.”13 But even among pessimists suicide is, for the most part, thought to be an error. Schopenhauer, for instance, regarded suicide a mistake grounded in some fundamentally naïve disappointment or other. Pessoa too thought suicide an onerous escape tactic: “To die is to become completely other. That’s why suicide is a cowardice: it’s to surrender ourselves completely to life.”14 There is a call here to be accepting of and creative with the puppetry of your being, an insistence that it’s somehow a blunder to attempt to hide in death from the horrors you find inlife.15 Tied up with this perseverance is the slippery notion of the good death, for maybe, as Blanchot warns, suicide is rarely something we can hope to get right, for the simple reason that “you cannot make of death an object of the will.”16

“Even in cases where the entire corpus of an author is pessimistic, the project always seems incomplete,”17 and this is not simply because the project itself belies something yet to be disclosed, but because the project itself is a thing waiting. It waits on a cure it knows will not come, but for which it cannot do anything (as long as it continues to do anything) but wait.

1. See Thomas Ligotti. The Conspiracy Against the Human Race. New York: Hippocampus Press. 2010. 91.
2. Ludwig Wittgenstein. “A Lecture on Ethics.” Philosophical Review. (74) 1. 1965. 8.
3. Vladimir Nabokov. Pale Fire. New York: Vintage. 1989. 221.
4. E. M. Cioran. The Book of Delusions. trans. Camelia Elias. Hyperion. 5.1. (2010): 75.
5. Arthur Schopenhauer. The World as Will and Representation. vol. 2. trans. E .F J. Payne. New York: Dover. 1966. 609.
6. Eugene Thacker. “Cosmic Pessimism.” continent.. 2.2 (2012): 67.
7. Fernando Pessoa. The Book of Disquiet. trans. Richard Zenith. London: Penguin. 2002. 35.
8. Eugene Thacker. “Cosmic Pessimism.” continent.. 2.2 (2012): 68.
9. Ibid. 73.
10. Fernando Pessoa. The Book of Disquiet. trans. Richard Zenith. London: Penguin. 2002. 341.
11. Arthur Schopenhauer. The World as Will and Representation. vol. 2. trans. E .F J. Payne. New York: Dover. 1966. 610-11.
12. B.S Johnson. “You’re Human Like the Rest of Them.” in Jonathan Coe. Like a Fiery Elephant: The Story of B.S. Johnson. London: Picador. 2004. 177.
13. Fernando Pessoa. The Book of Disquiet. trans. Richard Zenith. London: Penguin. 2002. 415.
14. Ibid. 199.
15. “Suicide is, after all, the opposite of the poem.” Anne Sexton. No Evil Star: Selected Essays, Interviews and Prose. ed. Steven Gould Axelrod. Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press. 1985. 92.
16. Maurice Blanchot. The Space of Literature. trans. Ann Smock. Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press. 1989. 105.
17. Eugene Thacker. “Cosmic Pessimism.” continent.. 2.2 (2012): 75.