Thinking Makes It So

Consider this exchange from Hamlet (II. ii) between the eponymous protagonist and his affable, if idiotic, companion Rosencrantz: Hamlet: Denmark's a prison

Rosencrantz: Then is the world one.

Hamlet: A goodly one, in which there are many confines, wards, and dungeons, Denmark being one o'th' worst.

Rosencrantz: We think not so, my lord.

Hamlet: Why, then, 'tis none to you, for there is nothing either good or bad, but thinking makes it so. To me it is a prison.

Though the scene itself is memorable not because it contains a major plot point, but for Hamlet's quick wit and tendency towards wordplay, it does nevertheless offer us an important glimpse into Hamlet's strained psyche. Hamlet - he, most notably, of the "to be or not to be" suicidal soliloquy - rhapsodizes about our ability to will things into being "good" or "bad" by virtue of our thoughts. It's all about outlook, to put it simply, and Hamlet's is decidedly negative.

In terms of perspective, we may seemingly fall in two camps: optimist or pessimist. Certainly, there are gradations (who hasn't been "cautiously optimistic" about something?); nonetheless this kind of dualism is pervasive. But what strikes me as unfortunate, more importantly, is that those in the latter camp - the pessimists - are so readily seen as "troubled" or that they must stand to gain from some happy shift in perspective.Indeed, I conducted a very thorough, methodological study (by way of googling "pessimist quotes") to find that pessimist or the pessimistic view was rarely (if ever) heralded.

According to Oscar Wilde: "We are all in the gutter, but some of us are looking at the star;" or Winston Churchill, "A pessimist sees the difficulty in every opportunity; an optimist sees the opportunity in every difficulty." Likewise Stephen Colbert, a political satirist and pundit, says of cynicism (that rose by another name): "Cynicism masquerades as wisdom, but it is the farthest thing from it. Because cynics don’t learn anything. Because cynicism is a self-imposed blindness, a rejection of the world because we are afraid it will hurt us or disappoint us."

But I take umbrage with these propositions, and I seek in part to reclaim the status of the cynic and the pessimist. My point, then, is not to diminish the seeming privilege of the optimist, but instead to suggest that there is something to be said for pessimism as a veritable force, and no sheer masquerade, in at least the realm of the literary.

In the interest of full disclosure (as the blog genre so often presupposes), I will note that I am an unabashed pessimist. Which is neither to say that I'm unhappy nor thoroughly disillusioned, but that I am inclined "to emphasize adverse aspects, conditions, and possibilities or to expect the worst possible outcome" - according to Merriam-Webster Dictionary and anybody who knows me well. I tend to be suspicious and cautious of people and of situations. And in some ways, while my pessimism contributes to my worst characteristics - reservedness, stubbornness, perfectionism, a relentless need for control (to name a few, please don't weigh in the comments) - I also believe it is one of my greatest assets as it fuels a certain unyielding determination to always do more and to do better.

I've always felt this way. I've also been broadly interested in the connection between psychological abnormality (depression, schizophrenia etc.) and literature - a field which fascinates me, but one I've never broached. And while pessimism is not a disorder, per se, perhaps it's a way in. Certainly, when I happened upon a quote in the NYT that not only spoke to some of my own beliefs about pessimism but also perhaps to its connection with the literary sphere, my interest was piqued (and this post, which I've been mulling about for several weeks, came to fruition).

The January 11 article profiled Greece's national poet, 81-year-old Kiki Dimoula. I was not familiar with her work, described by the NY Times writer Rachel Donadio, as "spare, profound, unsentimental, effortlessly transforming the quotidian into the metaphysical, drawing on the powerful themes of time, fate, and destiny..." Though I've since looked into her poetry - and, indeed, it is unsentimental - what I continue to find most incredible is the following passage from the article - which now adorns my fridge  -

[Ms. Dimoula] has professed an almost creative belief in pessimism. 'Pessimism is an inner love for life,' she said. 'The pessimist is one who cannot enjoy the joys of life and is very conscious that he has the passion of the unsatisfied and the unsatisfiable.'

The way in which Ms. Dimoula's words transform the nature of pessimism into something beautiful, enduring, and yes, poetic, captivates me. Pessimism becomes a sort of restlessness and a passion that finds its outlet in creative expression. So too does this idea (reappropriation?) of pessimism confer permission to desire, and more than that, to be content with a kind of dissatisfaction.

And I think Ms. Dimoula would not be alone among authors, and especially poets, in promulgating this idea. Indeed, for all of the wonderful poetic optimists - I think of Frost and the well known "I took the road less travelled by/And that has made all the difference - there is important poetry and excellent poetry that is intensely pessimistic. I tend, of course, to be drawn to these poets. Among my favorite works of pessimism? Another well known - the apocalyptic "The Second Coming" by William Butler Yeats (1st stanza qtd. here):

Turning and turning in the widening gyre

The falcon cannot hear the falconer;

Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold;

Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world,

The blood-dimmed tide of innocence is drowned;

The best lack all conviction, while the worst

Are full of passionate intensity.

But so too, T.S. Eliot in "The Hollow Men" (and many of his works):

The eyes are not here

There are no eyes here

In this valley of dying stars

In this hollow valley

This broken jaw of our lost kingdoms

In this last of meeting places

We grope together

And avoid speech

Gathered on this beach of the tumid river

Sightless, unless

The eyes reappear

As the perpetual star

Multifoliate rose

Of death’s twilight kingdom

The hope only

Of empty men.

Or, as a last example, Allen Ginsberg in the erstwhile controversial poem "Howl" which begins "I saw the best minds of my generation destroyed by madness, starving hysterical naked"

It might be easy to note that these poets and works were a product of the times. That they capture the disquieting effects of a rapidly changing modernity, or the sense of loss and senselessness of World War I despair or the ethos of the 1950s Beat generation. And while all of these poets are undoubtedly writing in response, I think in many ways they also exhibit the kind of "passionate intensity" (to borrow from Yeats) of the pessimist which Dimoula describes.  There seems a need to speak out, even, and perhaps dramatically, to effect change, to impose order, or to seek control through art; and, I think, it is a boundless, restless kind of cynicism that emerges and is beautiful almost in spite of itself.

At any rate, Dimoula's quote afforded me a greater appreciation for the kind of pessimism that I find in some of my favorite works - a moment where I thought, yes, I think she's right, as I waded through familiar lines. And so I thought I'd offer you, too, this admittedly brief glimpse as it manifests itself or capitulates in the world of poetry.

Thinking makes it so.