Battle of the pessimists

Two weeks ago I took the role of pessimist in a Radio 4 debate on whether our future would be healthier, and I ramped up my pessimism to heights that almost depressed me. My brother after reading it sent me a passage from Bertrand Russell that he thinks close to being the summit of pessimism. It’s at the end of this blog.

This piece has to compete with the bleak view of the world by Arthur Balfour that I posted a few days.  His most famous saying is “Few things matter much, and most things don’t matter at all.” Russell and Balfour were contemporaries, and they were reacting to Darwin having shown that man was just one more species destined for extinction and astronomers understanding that the Earth would eventually be gone. This was a rapid fall from the first half of the 19th century when humans could continue to think that they were the summit of God’s work.

One reaction to the discoveries is to simply deny them, and Creationists are a relatively recent invention. The early Christian Church did not believe in the literalness of the story in Genesis. Another reaction, described in John Gray’s The Immortalisation Commission: The Strange Attempt to Cheat Death (which I’m reading now) was to use science to counter what science had destroyed and show man to be immortal.

I wrote in the BMJ in 2002: “David Nicholl will not need reminding that everything–him, me, the works of Shakespeare, Aristotle, Darwin, Beethoven, and Einstein, and the Himalayas–will be gone in the end.” But Michael Innis wrote to refute what I’d written: “In an Infinite Universe, any event which has a greater than zero chance of occurring, as do all events mentioned by Richard Smith, must occur an Infinite number of times. Mathematically therefore, there is no dearth of Nicholls, Smiths and Einsteins scattered throughout an Infinite Universe.” I’ve since learnt that quantum physics has killed the idea of infinity, itself as seductive a belief as God.

Although I agree with most of what Russell writes, I’m not convinced by “only on the firm foundation of unyielding despair, can the soul’s habitation henceforth be safely built.” I don’t feel “unyielding despair,” far from it. The fact that all those I love, the Earth, all its beauties, all man’s creations will be gone is painful in some ways but ultimately comforting. I couldn’t go on for ever; death provides life with an arc, a narrative. Immortality would be unbearable. I don’t detect despair in Shakespeare’s famous speech from The Tempest:

And like the baseless fabric of this vision,

The cloud-capped towers, the gorgeous palaces,

The solemn temples, the great globe itself—

Yea, all which it inherit—shall dissolve,

And like this insubstantial pageant faded,

Leave not a rack behind. We are such stuff

As dreams are made on, and our little life

Is rounded with a sleep.

I like being made of dreams, and I like to sleep.

But perhaps my joy in life is simply in my genes, robot that I am and proud of it. As I read my brother’s autobiography to my mother on Sunday I came across these lines where Brian (Arthur) describes the success of his play An Evening With Gary Lineker: “the play was like a confident child that neither sought nor needed nurturing or encouragement, smoothly handling all obstacles to arrive where it wished to be.*” The * takes you to a footnote that reads: “Rather like my brother Richard.”

I was momentarily taken aback. The phrase made me sound like a machine, a beast without sensitivity; and that feeling resonated with what I felt when I first read Brian’s autobiography 10 years ago–that I hadn’t been there for him when he was down. But when I got home from my mother’s and read the description to my wife she said: “That’s you.” I accept it and am grateful.

So now the bleakness of Russell:

“That Man is the product of causes which had no prevision of the end they were achieving; that his origin, his growth, his hopes and fears, his loves and his beliefs, are but the outcome of accidental collocations of atoms; that no fire, no heroism, no intensity of thought and feeling, can preserve an individual life beyond the grave; that all the labours of the ages, all the devotion, all the inspiration, all the noonday brightness of human genius, are destined to extinction in the vast death of the solar system, and that the whole temple of Man’s achievement must inevitably be buried beneath the débris of a universe in ruins—all these things, if not quite beyond dispute, are yet so nearly certain, that no philosophy which rejects them can hope to stand. Only within the scaffolding of these truths, only on the firm foundation of unyielding despair, can the soul’s habitation henceforth be safely built.”

PS. Some 20 minutes after posting this I read this is in a letter from Bertrand Russell to Ottoline Morrell: “I cannot understand the rush for a future life–it is the chief consolation that in the grave there is rest.” He wrote this a few days after beginning his passionate affair with Morrell and shortly before telling his wife that he was in love with Morrell. She was furious.




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