A Manifesto for Artistic Pessimism

By Julian Langer

 

Romanian nihilist and pessimist philosopher Emil Cioran once wrote “only optimists commit suicide, optimists who no longer succeed at being optimists” and that “it is not worth the bother of killing yourself, since you always kill yourself too late”.

 

In these short collection of words, this tragic thinker – who wrote books such as On The Heights of Despair and A Short History of Decay – speaks to something at the very core of life, especially within this culture – the need for sincere, honest and authentic pessimism. He wrote that “Chaos is rejecting all you have learned, chaos is being yourself” and, following from this, it is your-self I wish to appeal to in the words I present here.

 

“One must have chaos within to give birth to a dancing star” Nietzsche

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The fact that the vast majority of films present a near totalising fatalistic optimism is abundantly obvious. Most films end with the desired conclusion to the narrative: with the hero surviving by the skin of their teeth; or the two beautiful people find love in a beautifully romantic setting; or the rebels narrowly avoiding Darth Vader’s clutches and obtaining the Death Star plans, whatever other example you care for.

 

And of course they do! Happy endings sell. When it is all said and done, people want things to “go right” and for things to fit within the desires of this cultures ideological narratives.

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Situationist philosopher Guy Debord asked about film:

Do we simply watch the images rolling past, become happy or sad at the whim of the filmmakers, only to return to our regular lives without any effect on how we view the world and how we could possibly change it?”

In this question Debord raises the issue of the film watcher being a passive observer, absorbing the narratives of filmmakers, in such a way that it maintains everyday normality.

 

Through the medium of film, in most cases, the viewer passively consumes the notion that things do not need to change, because things will work out happily in the end. Batman, Frodo Baggins or Neo will come and defeat the Big-Bad, or the T-Rex and Raptors will kill the Indominus Rex.

 

Two questions come to mind though.

 

First, are things inevitably going to turn out for the best, or is that just an idea that enables individuals to participate in this culture without any thoughts regarding consequences?

 

Second, what is the purpose of art/film and are they supposed to affect the viewer in any particular way?

 

Starting with the second question, Oscar Wilde, in response to moral critics of his age, promoted “art for arts sake” and criticised the “monstrous worship of facts” within art movements. Perhaps Wilde is right and that art need not serve any moral purpose and should be done for its own sake.

 

This doesn’t mean art cannot hold egoistic instrumental value. In the philosophy of art, aesthetic cognitivists argue that art, particularly painful art, is valuable as a means of empowering individuals.

 

Perhaps, amorally, mediums such as film can serve as an instrumental means of empowering individuals around painful matters, like the idea that things will not turn out for the best: pessimism.

 

Antonin Artaud developed an approach to theatre called theatre of cruelty, through which theatre “wakes us up. Nerves and heart,” and through which we experience, “immediate violent action,” that “inspires us with the fiery magnetism of its images and acts upon us like a spiritual therapeutics whose touch can never be forgotten”. Perhaps film can serve as an immediate violent action which inspires a fiery magnetism, effecting the viewer spiritually and therapeutically.

 

Regarding the question of whether or not things are inevitably going to turn out for the best – whether optimism holds true – we should consider this in multiple senses. Existentialist, nihilist and absurdist philosophers, like Nietzsche or Camus, argue that ultimately everything ends in death and that all action is ultimately futile: a pessimist’s conclusion, though they all generally argue that there is personal/subjective/egoistic value in actions and the pursuit of meaning.

 

We could also look at the question from a non-philosophical gaze, looking at the environmental and socio-political situation where all paths seemingly lead to ruin: when the sixth mass extinction event and climate chaos pose significant existential threats to humanity and this culture, as well as the biosphere; where nuclear war and World War 3 become ever more possible situations. All of which paints a particularly bleak future, whether you value this culture or the biosphere.

 

I don’t know about you reading this, but pessimism feels like the more honest, sincere and authentic outlook.

 

Perhaps, in an egoistic aesthetic cognitivist sense, a pessimist cinema of cruelty would be valuable, as a means of empowering individuals to respond to, what postmodernist philosopher Baudrillard called the desert of the real – a real that is becoming increasingly bleak with every passing day.

 

Disaster and apocalyptic/post-apocalyptic films (such as The Matrix, Book of Eli, Elysium, 2012, Day After Tomorrow, Children of Men, War of the Worlds, I Am Legend, Armageddon, the Terminator series and other similar popular titles) all end on a hopeful optimistic note, where ruin is averted.

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Films like V for Vendetta and the Hunger Games series, which take a generally leftist-revolutionary narrative, generally conclude with mass people’s movements being able to overpower the Big-Bad and winning out – perpetuating the idea that hopeful optimistic endings are really viable at this point in time.

 

Even films like Avatar and Ferngully: The Last Rainforest, which take somewhat of an anti-humanist, anti-civ, radical-environmentalist narrative, end with things “working out”.

 

Perhaps radical film projects should draw from films like Apocalypto, The Road, Escape From L.A., 12 Monkeys, Knowing, The Time Machine, Survivalist, Into The Forest and TV series like Black Mirror, and adopt a pessimist cinema of cruelty approach. Maybe this can serve as a means of empowerment through discomfort, as the desert of the real becomes bleaker and bleaker.

 

I missed the opportunity to see the latest edition to the new Planet of the Apes saga, but look forward to being able to watch it on DVD or stream it online, as it is an interesting series. I am also personally looking forward to seeing the new Bladerunner film (and hoping it isn’t going to be another nostalgia porn let down). Both of these films hold the potential to be honest reflections of this culture and our current situation.

 

We’ll wait and see.

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Images courtesy of: http://www.theimaginativeconservative.org/2014/09/v-vendetta-graphic-novel-best.html and https://www.goodreads.com/author/show/15819.Guy_Debord and http://www.learnliberty.org/blog/was-nietzsche-libertarian/ and http://planetoftheapes.wikia.com/wiki/Planet_of_the_Apes_Wiki

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