Introduction: Depressive Realism

Nov 29th, 2012 | By | Category: Articles

Taken from the Introduction of Anti-Matter -Michael Houellebecq and Depressive Realism, by Ben Jeffery

The idea that life is fundamentally not good, and cannot be fixed, has a prestigious history in Western arts and letters. The Iliad and the tragedies of Aeschylus and Sophocles provide unflinching visions of human misery and common helplessness against fate. From the English canon, King Lear is perhaps the work of unromanticised pain par excellence. Pessimism is exemplified in the Christian tradition by the writings of Blaise Pascal and the outlook of the Puritans (people who ‘hated life and scorned the platitude that it is worth living’, in H.P. Lovecraft’s admiring words). Arch-pessimist Arthur Schopenhauer devoted an entire philosophy to the aim of demonstrating that existence was necessarily bad, driven by an unceasing, unquenchable, thoughtless cosmic Will to which we are all puppets, and by which we are inevitably destroyed. ‘Life is a business that does not cover its costs’, he said – all is not for the best in the workings of the universe. We are thrown into the middle of a world we do not understand and cannot control. Our desires are mad and forever outstrip our means of satisfying them. Reality is something we must constantly repress in order to function.

What all varieties of pessimism have in common is the principle that the truth is undesirable – that unhappiness coincides with the loss of illusions, and that, conversely, happiness is a type of fantasy or ignorance. In The Varieties of Religious Experience (1902), on the subject of optimism, William James wrote: ‘The method of averting one’s attention from evil, and living simply in the light of the good is splendid as long as it will work. It will work with many persons; it will work far more generally than most of us are ready to suppose’. But, he adds:

there is no doubt that healthy-mindedness is inadequate as a philosophical doctrine, because the evil facts which it refuses positively to account for are a genuine portion of reality; and they may after all be the best keys to life’s significance, and possibly the only openers of our eyes to the deepest levels of truth.

The normal process of life contains moments as bad as any which insane melancholy is filled with, moments in which radical evil gets its innings and takes its solid turn. The lunatic’s visions of horror are all drawn from the material of daily fact. Our civilization is founded on the shambles, and every individual existence goes out in a lonely spasm of helpless agony. If you protest, my friend, wait until you arrive there yourself.

In his essay ‘Mourning and Melancholia’ (1917), Sigmund Freud entertained the thought that depressive melancholy was a kind of sickness-by-truth, something that happens whenever a person is unable to tell themselves the lies needed for getting up and going about their daily business. Freud accepted that depression was a pathological disorder, but just because someone is afflicted with an abnormal amount of self-loathing it does not follow that the feeling is unjustified:

It would be… fruitless from a scientific and a therapeutic point of view to contradict the patient who levels such reproaches against his ego in this way. In all likelihood he must in some way be right… He seems only to be grasping the truth more keenly than others who are not melancholic… [If] he describes himself as a petty, egotistic, insincere and dependent person, who has only ever striven to conceal the weakness of his nature… he may as far as we know come quite close to self-knowledge and we can only wonder why one must become ill in order to access to such truth.

The psychotherapist Gary Greenberg comments: ‘Some melancholics may be mistaken… but the validity of their self-evaluations is not germane to the question of whether they are suffering from melancholy. The true mark of illness is the melancholic’s failure to maintain the sense that he is not petty, egotistic, etc., even if he is.’

The idea that lucidity and mental well-being are not coincident has found some support in modern science. The term ‘depressive realism’ comes from a psychological study performed by Alloy and Abramson in 1979 which suggested that depressives routinely demonstrate better judgment about how much control they have over events (as opposed to non-depressives, who habitually over-estimate their control). Alloy and Abramson concluded that ‘depressed people are “sadder but wiser”… Non-depressed people succumb to cognitive illusions that enable them to see both themselves and their environment with a rosy glow.’

What follows is not a systematic study of depression or a history of pessimistic thought. The idea of depressive realism is fascinating, however, and I’m interested in the various methods we have for dispelling or staving off pessimism – a task nearly all of us will need (or have needed) to perform at some time in our lives. William James’s observation strikes me as undeniably true.

It is generally easier not to think about all of the bad things that go on in the world. But bad things really do happen, and even very sheltered lives will experience periods of awful bitterness, frustration, loss and unhappiness. Then, at the end, you die – just like everybody else. Even if you are inclined toward the view that pessimism is self-indulgent, idle, decadent, or the preserve of weak-wills (and arguably it is all of these things), you would have to admit there are some good reasons for taking a dim view of existence.

The inspiration for this essay, and its principal focus, is the French author Michel Houellebecq. Anti-Matter could be described as a piece of extended literary criticism, and that would be sort of right, but it would be more exact to say it uses Houellebecq’s novels as a basis for thinking about pessimism and how it relates to honesty, how novelists justify their work, what people think art is for, and philosophical materialism, amongst other things.

ISBN: 978-1-84694-922-7, $14.95 / £9.99, paperback

EISBN: 978-1-84694-923-4, $9.99 / £6.99, eBook


Anti-Matter is an example of the kind of rigorous and refined criticism that one rarely stumbles across these days. ~ Jacques TestardTimes Literary Supplement

Ben Jeffery's Anti-Matter is the kind of intelligent, sophisticated response to provocative work that affirms criticism's value as art in itself. ... A more rigorous, less stylized version of the kind of long critical essay usually associated with writers like Geoff Dyer and Pierre Bayard, Anti-Matter is a work of criticism that honors—and occasionally exceeds—its source. ~ Scott Esposito, Book Forum

Ben Jeffery has produced not only an excellent critical assessment of Houellebecq’s writings, but a fantastic think-piece in and of itself, refining the intentions of his subject, as well as opening up this erudite discussion of art to the act of living in the world. ~ Emmet O'Cuana , abookadaytillicanstay

A searching and eloquent consideration of one of the definitive bodies of work of our time, Anti-Matter is also a vital essay on the more general difficulties of meaning-making for contemporary novelists and/or human beings. ~ Benjamin Kunkel, author of Indecision and co-editor of n+1 magazine


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