Friday, 11 November 2011

On the false duality of optimism and pessimism.

Once, in a science lesson in school, I innocently described a beaker or test-tube or something as half-empty and my lab partners leaped upon my choice of phrase to brand me as a pessimist.  The use of the phrase alone seemed to make one a pessimist, regardless of the circumstances - forget that I was describing a copper sulphate solution (or some-such) not a pint of beer. I thought this a little unfair. Even describing a pint of beer as half empty should not exclude one from optimism. Compare:


This pint of Guinness is half empty - better get another one settling. 


Anyone want another one? Not you, Finnginn, yours is still half full.


The optimist/pessimist distinction has been bothering me recently as I'm starting to see it as a particularly good example of what Jacques Derrida (in one of his saner rants) might describe as a false duality. Are we really one thing or the other or are they just unhelpfully stark labels to pin on the complex human behaviour of thinking about the future. 


Generally, I am optimistic about my prospects for the following day: Have a lie-in, break my fast leisurely, write a thousand words (ha!), wander off to meet friends/go to work, glass of wine/hot chocolate before bed and repeat being my recipe for the perfect life.


However, I am pessimistic about the future of humankind. Whenever I think about the far future - I see catastrophe. Not in a Cassandra/Nostradamus weird prophetic way. There is a logic behind my pessimism that goes something like this: You can't avoid an apocalyptic event forever.  Even if we survive the immediate threats that we could actually do something about (e.g. nuclear holocaust, global warming, overpopulation, pathogen immunity to antibiotics and the sudden disappearance of all the bees) which seems drastically unlikely, we still have all the threats about which we can do little or nothing (asteroid strikes, super volcanoes, gamma ray bursts, the Sun's expansion and ultimately the heat death of the Universe). At some point there is going to be a pretty fucking miserable generation of humans.


But even within this pessimistic tapestry, I want to weave a thread of optimism. For humanity I hope, even as it destroys itself, will find time to grieve and love and laugh.  It is this theme that I have been attempting to address in these notes I have made for a work-in-progress poem in the apocalypse genre: 


We looked East to the blackening sky,
Behind us the clouds were turning red.
The floor, with her tortured silhouette,
Tattooed forever on my mind.
The fear hit us on the sickening breeze
And we hid by day and spent our nights
In search of dust-free sustenance.
Made defiant love. Coughed up blood.
You marched us miles on weakening limbs,
Made smiles glimmer on our blistered lips,
Lit fire when cold left us shivering.
Now all is starless, moonless night. 

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