Are you a pessimistic writer?


E.M.Forster wrote that one must be an optimist in life but a pessimist in writing. By this he meant that life and art are different and that art, in order to be taken ‘seriously’, needs to reflect the age we live in- which he concluded, rightly, was pessimistic. Though he would have loved to end his books with a happy marriage he felt he couldn’t, that a sense of dissonance was truer to life. 

The writer and thinker Idries Shah observed that all societies have a negative current, of varying strength, made up of superficiality, pessimism and laziness. Different cultures have differing ratios and levels of each. But here we are concerned with pessimism. But just what do we mean by pessimism? As Shah also commented, “A pessimist may just be an optimist with more information.” In other words, the straightforward definition of a pessimist as someone who sees faults, the negative aspects of a thing, the downside- is not really very useful.

But in his excellent book The Perfumed Scorpion, derived from University lectures he gave in the 1970s, Shah mentions the idea that pessimism – as a useful concept – means the clumping together of ideas, views, beliefs that do not need to be packaged up. It’s ‘pessimistic’ because the world is far more magical, unusual and diverse than any simplifying ‘clump’ can make it. Writers seem dull when they unload such a conventional package- though we may not be aware of the source of that dullness. Pessimism, then, is taking a cluster of ideas on board, a sort of picture of how the world works in which certain other ideas ‘fit’ or don’t. Any new idea you come across is not assessed for its truth or usefulness, merely whether it fits the picture or not. You see it everywhere: the way politics, fashion, food tastes, film tastes all seem to coalesce into a ‘type’. But behind that there is the more damaging pessimism of being operated by a picture you don’t even notice is there. ‘Pointless progressivism’ could be such a dogma, or ‘we’re all the same’ another. Procustes was famous for cutting off the legs of those that didn’t fit the ‘one size fits all’ bed. In another fable a hawk is trimmed of its beak and talons and is told: ‘now you look more like a pigeon’…these traditional messages are there to guard against pessimism- which is, in reality, holding ideas simply because they ‘go’ with other ideas.

Maybe there is a reason why ideas cluster. There is an odd parallel with genetics: certain genes are 'stickier' than others. What this means practically is that if you want to breed high yield/hardy barley you'll find it impossible beyind a certain point (otherwise we'd see cornfields in alaska presumably). Hardiness is 'sticky' with low yield, high yield goes with fragility. These kind of multiple gene clusters make it hard to make real frankenstein foods- which is surely a good thing- but it also shows there is a 'natural' proclivity for clustering in things that want to survive. In one sense a world view, political outlook, theory has a life of its own. By analogy, a compelling myth, picture or narrative has sticky memes within it to help it survive. It thrives by us repeating it, finding it attractive- but the cost is we very easily and naturally imbibe a whole cluster of ideas that distort reality and encourage wrong action. The US/UK involvement in Iraq is an example of this.

Back to writing. It’s very easy to fall into a conventional viewpoint- especially if you actually believe in large parts of it. In one book I wrote I was lambasted- more or less rightly- for narrating the book from a ‘boilerplate green’ perspective. Now I do think we should live in a sustainable way and I do think we shouldn’t pollute resources that are used by everyone. However that means I must actively try and identify the incongruities, humour, bits that don’t fit with this perspective in the material I am dealing with. This is allied with, but different from, trying to avoid cliche and a conventional viewpoint. Life is never ‘this or that’- and neither should writing fall for the easy clustering of ideas.