Book Review: Cosmic Pessimism by Eugene Thacker

Cosmic Pessimism by Eugene Thacker

Cosmic Pessimism (2015) is a collection of aphorisms, fragments, and prose poems by the philosopher Eugene Thacker. Thacker, who is also Professor of Media Studies at The New School in New York City, offers many unique thoughts on pessimism and the human condition in this very short book. He explores various themes of pessimism: futility, doom, failure, spite, sorrow, and nothingness. He expresses his thoughts on these subjects in a lyrical style reminiscent of Emil Cioran (this renowned Romanian pessimist has clearly inspired Thacker’s voice and is referenced throughout Cosmic Pessimism). Thacker’s writing style is often so Cioranian that some readers familiar with Cioran might feel that this style is a form of imitation, rather than the result of inspiration. 

Thacker is one of the few contemporary writers who have resurrected and repeatedly employed the aphoristic style of writing in their works. Expressing thoughts in this laconic way fell out of favour in the late 20th century, so it is unusual to find writers today, especially philosophers, who write in the form of pithy observations (despite the fact that some of the greatest philosophers were also the greatest aphorists, such as Arthur Schopenhauer, Friedrich Nietzsche, and Cioran). Aphorisms do appeal to me personally, perhaps partly due to my dwindled attention span, although I believe aphorisms can have a unique value as well, based on their intention to concisely express some important truth.

The first piece of writing I read from Thacker was an article for IAI titled Does Pessimism Have a Future?, which actually consists of excerpts from Cosmic Pessimism. When reading this article and Cosmic Pessimism in full, I definitely noticed some recurring themes, one of which was Thacker’s pessimistic attitude towards pessimism itself (which I refer to as meta-pessimism). He writes that “pessimism is the lowest form of philosophy,” “No one ever needs pessimism,” “pessimism is weary of everything and of itself,” and “pessimism is caught somewhere between philosophy and a bad attitude,” to give some examples. 

There are also motifs running through the text, which Thacker uses to visually or poetically represent the pessimistic worldview – common recurring images that Thacker attaches to pessimism include graveyards, tombs, and ruins. Thacker uses the images of gloomy and bleak environments – black, cold, damp, foggy places – that are meant to portray the pessimist’s gloomy and bleak mindset. 

Thacker refers to the ideas of notable pessimists such as Schopenhauer, Nietzsche, and Cioran. Thacker juxtaposes these three pessimists in the following way:

With Schopenhauer, that arch-pessimist, the thinker for whom the philosopher and the curmudgeon perfectly overlap, we see a no-saying to the worst, a no-saying that secretly covets a yes-saying (through asceticism, mysticism, quietism), even if this hidden yes-saying is a horizon at the limits of comprehension. With Nietzsche comes the pronouncement of a Dionysian pessimism, a pessimism of strength or joy, a yes-saying to the worst, a yes-saying to this world as it is. And with Cioran yet another variation, unavailing yet lyrical, a no-saying to the worst, and a further no-saying to the possibility of any other world, in here or out there. With these one approaches, but never reaches, a studied abandonment of pessimism itself.

The logic of pessimism moves through three refusals: a no-saying to the worst (refusal of the world-for-us, or Schopenhauer’s tears); a yes-saying to the worst (refusal of the world-in-itself, or Nietzsche’s laughter); and a no-saying to the for-us and the in-itself (a double refusal, or Cioran’s sleep).

Crying, laughing, sleeping — what other responses are adequate to a life that is so indifferent?

Another comparison of philosophers stood out to me, which Thacker cleverly conveyed using the analogy of a rope:

Kierkegaard: life is a tightrope.

Nietzsche: life is a jump rope.

Kafka: life is a trip rope.

Schopenhauer: life is a noose.

Cioran: life is a noose, improperly tied.

Elsewhere, Thacker further underscores the tension and differences between Schopenhauer and Nietzsche, which come down to their diverging brands of pessimism. “Dionysian pessimism”, which Nietzsche used to describe his affirmation of life, including all its attendant pain and suffering, is opposed to Schopenhauer’s no-saying to life. The young Nietzsche was enthusiastic about Schopenhauer’s philosophy, but in later years, as Thacker underscores, he:

regarded pessimism as something to be overcome, a saying “yes” to this world, as it is, unfortunate, indifferent, tragic…There is a sense in which the entirety of Nietzsche’s philosophy is a sustained, concerted attempt to shake pessimism.

Those interested in philosophical pessimism will also be glad to find mentions of lesser-known thinkers who have written on the subject, including Philipp Mainländer, Edgar Saltus, Giacomo Leopardi, and Lev Sheshtov.

Thacker’s writing may not appeal to tastes and preferences. It may come across as pretentious, as the expressions of a grumpy, angsty, teenage goth (yet one who possesses a greater skill at writing). Nevertheless, Thacker’s meta-pessimism – his willingness to see the problems with pessimism and not take it so seriously – indicates some self-awareness, I believe. Moreover, this self-awareness reveals itself in Thacker’s later book on pessimism, Infinite Resignation (2018), where the author says, “Whatever I’m thinking seems pretentious and naive. Whatever I feel seems cliché and scripted.” 

However, this could also be seen as overly self-critical or self-doubting. Many of Thacker’s musings in Cosmic Pessimism do not strike me as pretentious, naive, or cliché, but instead provide thought-provoking perspectives on the meaning, aspects, and limitations of pessimism.

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