“Our days are a web of petty miseries and is there a greater blessing than to be the ashes of which oblivion is made?”
Why are those words so uplifting? Why do they put a spring in my step and make my spirit soar?
I carry about a collection of similar inspirational sayings as antidotes to optimism, to keep me from the temptations of cheerfulness. I prize the words of Thomas Hobbes to the effect that the life of man is “solitary, poor, nasty, brutish and short” and the fanfare of Lucretius: “O miserable minds of men! O blind hearts! In what darkness of life … ye spend this little span of years.”
The Bible is an exhaustible source of these stirring epigrams: “We are all unclean and all our righteousnesses are as filthy rags.” “My days are swifter than a weaver’s shuttle, and are spent without hope.” “Man that is born of a woman is of few days, and full of trouble. He cometh forth like a flower and is cut down.” For a touch of humor, there’s George Price’s delightful cartoon that shows one unshaven derelict informing another: “I heard a bit of good news today: We pass this way but once.”
I don’t know what is so magical about those sentiments, but they make me feel like whistling a lugubrious dirge, like dancing a funeral jig. Strangely enough, it’s the upbeat, cheerful exhortations that really get me down. The song “Cockeyed Optimist” gets me down. Norman Vincent Peale gets me down. And Pollyanna. Pollyanna’s philosophy of life is based on the “Glad Game,” which involves finding something to be glad about even in the worst situations. A pox on Pollyanna. Pollyanna gets me down.
Greeting cards designed to cheer up people who’ve suffered disasters make me want to scream: “Have some soup, get lots of rest and soon you’ll feel your very best.” “Keep your spirits high and a brighter day will dawn tomorrow.” “Don’t give up and you’ll get where you want to go.” Does anyone really believe such bromides? What a cruel joke to tell someone in a full body cast who’s just been sentenced to life in prison that “A little luck will see you through” or “Smile when it hurts the most.” What’s needed is a genre of greeting cards with messages such as, “Don’t spin your wheels trying to get out of the quick sand,” or “Abandon hope, all ye who enter here.”
My philosophy is: Trust no one, expect the worst, and look for the coming storm in every silver lining. A bit of good luck fills me with dark forebodings. I believe in the law that, “If anything can go wrong, it will go wrong.” I am a bottom feeder, a connoisseur of downers. My refuge is in the abyss. Nothing depresses me more than a sunny day without a cloud in the sky. It’s like a rebuke: “Get up! Get out of bed! Get something done!” Give me a cold November morn with merciless rain beating down, when the roads are impassible, the power is out and all activity on the human anthill comes to a stop. If life is “a tale told by an idiot, full of sound and fury, signifying nothing,” then aren’t we absolved from stepping up to the plate day after day? What difference does it make if we succeed or fail?
At meetings of the Killjoy Society, I and my fellow brooders sit alone, grimacing, contemplating skulls and mumbling: “The world’s going to the dogs … The sky is falling … When will it ever end?” We want to know why people sing? Don’t they know how to grumble? The band strikes up and they rush to the dance floor. They twirl around, bounce up and down, swing their partners, laughing, shouting, whooping it up like maniacs — and all in the name of “fun,” whatever that’s supposed to be.