Delighting in Pessimism: Schopenhauer and “Melancholia”
An online acquaintance who watched the movie Melancholia remarked the other day how similar it seemed to be to the pessimistic worldview of German philosopher Arthur Schopenhauer (1788-1860). In Melancholia, the main character is utterly depressed because it actually seems rational to be depressed and disgusted with humanity, and, so she thinks, it would be better for humanity not to exist. Just like Schopenhauer wrote: “We have not to be pleased but rather sorry about the existence of the world.” He wrote that “its nonexistence would be preferable to its existence,” because at bottom it “ought not to be.”
Cheery stuff, I know. In line with that, in the movie there is a planet called “Melancholia” about to collide with the earth, promising to make the wish for its nonexistence come true.
On the other hand, Schopenhauer did actually argue against suicide. If I remember correctly, his argument went something like this: You need to get to the point of not caring whether you live or die, and since you don’t care, why bother killing yourself? The problem of living will take care of itself soon enough. Why shoot yourself while you are already falling down a cliff? Just let yourself fall until you hit the ground.
I must confess, I’m not always in the mood for reading Schopenhauer. Although he can be quite amusing at times. In fact, he sometimes seems to take great delight in formulating his pessimism, seasoning it with a large dose of wit. He positively revels in his pessimism. And therein lies a paradox. He wishes to deny life, and yet in the act of formulating his denial he affirms life. Writing about his pessimism, clothing it in delightful language, becomes his way of escaping pessimism.
Though I haven’t yet seen the film, maybe the same could be said about Melancholia. The movie is said to be hauntingly beautiful, and isn’t creating a beautiful movie about life on earth being meaningless an oxymoron? Creating a movie, especially a beautiful one, is not an act that denies life; it is an act that affirms life. The appreciation of beauty has long been one of the major ways in which people have found meaning. If one is a true pessimist who doesn’t believe in meaning at all and wants everyone to not care about life, one should create destructive art—art that is ugly and fragmented and confusing, as some 20th century art has been.
Some philosophers, of course, have said that it is only by staring long and hard at the approaching planet Melancholia, so to speak, that we gain a true appreciation for life. Heidegger, for instance, thought that it is by deeply contemplating one’s own eternal non-being that one begins to understand what being is. And another Existentialist, Sartre, considered the approaching annihilation of oneself to be a kind of liberation. Since nothing mattered in the long run, you are free to choose what you want to do with life. Nietzsche, too, saw in existential despair the hope for creating a new humanity.
As different as Schopenhauer, Nietzsche, Heidegger, and Sartre were, they all shared an atheistic outlook on the world. And what I appreciate about them is that they did not gloss over what they perceived to be the consequences of their atheism. They looked long and hard at the approaching planet Melancholia, and they asked: Given that it’s all coming to nothing, what ought we to do? How shall we live? What choices shall we make?
Whether we are atheists or believers of some kind, it seems that many of the activities we occupy ourselves with are designed to distract us from these ultimate questions. If we watch movies like Melancholia at all, we are very happy to see a comedy again or joke with friends or do our work so that we don’t have to think about our approaching death.
On the other hand, is Heidegger right? Isn’t there something to be said about simply living in the moment, without pondering death? If you are an atheist, you don’t think your pondering will change your eternal fate anyway. So why not simply eat and drink and be merry, like David Hume, another atheist, was so good at doing? And if you are a believer, most religions seem to stress that taking care of your neighbor who is in need right now is more important than worrying about your particular rewards in the afterlife.
Given the atheistic presuppositions, who is right? Heidegger or Hume? Or neither?