What, you were expecting something upbeat to kick off the new year? How little you know me.
I lean by default toward the dark side. I don’t anticipate any just deserts to result from the January 6 Select Committee’s final report, damning though it may be. I’m not sanguine about the prospects for my struggling city under its new leadership, or any leadership. I don’t expect California’s drought to ever end, no matter how many record-setting rainstorms we get. In personal news, I’m unlikely to start swimming significantly faster despite any New Year’s “intentions” I might set.
That’s just how it goes.
A couple of weeks ago, my brother Michael sent me a photo of the sudden and tragic demise of his Pessimist’s Mug (always half empty!), which reacted to cold tap water with a fatal crack.
The mug is sold out on Etsy. Of course it is.
Still musing about this split-up, which seemed to symbolize something, I heard an interesting snippet in Episode 4 of the “Shameless Acquisition Target” podcast. (The whole series is informative and entertaining; check it out.) Creator/narrator Laura Mayer, researching ways to monetize her podcast, quotes one of her advisors quoting (he says) William Butler Yeats. It’s a great quote: “Being Irish, he had an abiding sense of tragedy, which sustained him through temporary periods of joy.” The fact that absolutely no one has been able to actually trace it to anything Yeats wrote, or to anything anyone wrote to Yeats,* does not detract, in my opinion, from its essential truthiness. (I suppose you could substitute “Jewish” or “Russian” for “Irish” and it would be just as valid.)
“An Optimist and a Pessimist,” by Vladimir Makovsky (1893).
Pessimists have always been with us (they might have been called “melancholic” or “gloomy”), but pessimism—“a negative mental attitude in which an undesirable outcome is anticipated from a given situation”—is a relative latecomer to the lexicon. It comes from the Latin pessimus (“the worst”), which itself may be related to Latin ped, meaning foot: thus, “bottom-most.” (The opposite of optimum is pessimum. Use it in a sentence sometime!) In the sense of “the worst condition possible,” pessimisme first appeared in French in the Jesuit response to Voltaire’s 1759 novel Candide, ou l’Optimisme. “Voltaire was satirizing the philosophy of Leibniz who maintained that this was the ‘best (optimum) of all possible worlds’. In their attacks on Voltaire, the Jesuits of the Revue de Trévoux accused him of pessimisme” (Wikipedia). The English word began appearing in the early 1800s.
“The Pessimist,” by Nik Ad (date unknown)
Pessimism isn’t a popular outlook in success-at-all-costs America, but I’ve been cheered, in my lugubrious way, by the existence of the Pessimists Archive, “a project to jog our collective memories about the hysteria, technophobia and moral panic that often greets new technologies, ideas and trends.” Umbrellas are for sissies! The Walkman turned people into wind-up humans! Yes, (some) people actually made those claims. You can subscribe to the Pessimists Archive newsletter or listen to the companion podcast, which also used to be called Pessimists Archive but is now called Build for Tomorrow because, as creator Jason Feifer puts it, “this show is optimistic—and we needed a name that reflected that.”
I’m a little disappointed in you, Jason. But I’ll give the show a listen anyway.
In the meantime, here’s my realistic new year’s anthem, courtesy of Mel Brooks and The Twelve Chairs (1970). It is, naturally, one of my favorite songs.