Pessimism might be more useful than we think – especially at Christmas
Laura Kennedy: Pascal’s work is a comfort because at this performative time of year
'Christmas has a reflective way of condensing the worst of the year into something like the drastically overdone annual sprouts.'
With its fairy lights and family gatherings, Christmas becomes a reflecting pool. In adulthood, its “magic” primarily consists of its ability to heighten and represent the year’s battles, losses and inadequacies. Christmas has a reflective way of condensing the worst of the year into something like the drastically overdone annual sprouts we have become accustomed to – an anaemic, off-green slurry that you choke down as quietly as possible so as not to offend their godforsaken creator.
It is a ponderous, performative time of year, and for some reason cloaking the friction that is inherent to the Christmas period seems as much a requirement as resenting the drunken uncle (“druncle”) who always falls asleep in an armchair after dinner while everyone else cleans up.
When we encounter a difficult time or event, the usual (and understandable) response of those around us is to remind us that unhappiness or lack of fulfilment are glitches in the otherwise positive experience of being alive, about which we should be optimistic by default. Each period of negativity or misery is not a truth of life, but a sort of aberration that we must wait out until the more cheerful trajectory of our lives judder back into motion. We selectively look at positive experiences as valid, and negative ones as atypical or unrepresentative.
Blaise Pascal was having none of it. In his Pensées, he seeks to do humankind an unorthodox favour. Declaring that “Man’s greatness comes from knowing he is wretched”, he seeks to squash our collective hopes like a highly strung, red-faced Irish mammy trying to aggressively mash all the coats into the under stairs cupboard when visitors come at Christmas. Pessimism can be more useful as an outlook than we tend to give it credit for, and Pascal knew as much. Indeed, sometimes pessimism is appropriate.
He was heavily influenced by Christian theology, which casts the lot of man in rather a dark and negative light, and earthly human nature as inherently flawed and wretched. Pascal was sickly throughout his life, lost his mother at a very young age, had difficulty socialising with others, and was a hunchback. It isn’t very surprising that his philosophy comes from a perspective of pessimism about life and human nature.
Christmas, it turns out, is at least in large part terrible for everyone
What is more surprising, despite Pascal’s belief in our role as somewhat doomed to earthly unhappiness, is how little that belief stymied his sense of purpose or productivity. He is responsible for the mathematics of probability, invented an early version of the calculator as well as the syringe (among other things) and is responsible for Pascal’s wager, a famous argument within philosophy. He also designed Paris’ first omnibus. In short, Pascal had more optimism about the scope of human ideas and potential in his unattractive little finger than the rest of us have in our iPhones. At least, I presume there isn’t an app for that. Yet.
The Pensées are useful to have about at Christmas, when we tend to despair about our increasing collective tendency to self-medicate with “stuff”, to feel our personal failures more acutely than usual, and perhaps to feel invaded by the absence of people who are no longer in our lives. At a time when the world outside our skin seems to mandate idyllic family scenes, those of us who cannot achieve anything but the “scenes” part can get resentful, or maudlin, or lonely.
Pascal wrote The Pensées when he became too ill to do what he saw as any real work, and it is a series of excoriating aphorisms on just how hopeless life really is, intended to turn his readers for succour to the Christian God he was himself so fond of. We don’t read the book in this way these days, but the idea that we exacerbate the challenges of the human condition by refusing to sit with and parse them has as much relevance today as it did for Pascal in his sick bed. After all, he had little to do there but face the solitude and unpleasantness of life. His work is a comfort because it reminds us that we are not singular in feeling something just because nobody talks about it. Christmas, it turns out, is at least in large part terrible for everyone.