Friday, February 17, 2017

Pessimism in Literature


A fellow blogger whom I requested for a review of my short story collection, The Nomad Learns Morality, turned down the request on the grounds that my stories were pessimistic.  “Howsoever wrongs have been done in the past and howsoever bleak the present may be appearing, optimism needs to be preserved in one way or the other, that's what I feel,” he wrote to me. 

It is almost impossible to come across such candidness in today’s world.  I found my respect for this blogger friend increase manifold merely because he cared to express his opinion so frankly.  That’s my pessimism and my realism.  When I say “It is almost impossible to come across such candidness in today’s world”, I’m expressing my pessimism.  But my respect for the friend’s candidness is my realism. 

Is it the duty of a literary writer to preserve optimism?  The lion’s share of the world’s best literature would be rendered trash if we answer in the affirmative.  From the great Greek classics to the contemporary Nobel winners, great literature is not at all optimistic.  Is the Ramayana optimistic?  Is the Mahabharata?

“Our sweetest songs are those that tell of saddest thought,” wrote P B Shelley, the Romantic poet who is still taught in the world’s universities that teach English literature.  While the Buddha suggested the Eightfold Path as a remedy for overcoming suffering, the literary writers discover the beauty in suffering.  The Buddha was a greater pessimist than Shelley!

Literary writers don’t preach ethics and moral codes.  They are not motivational gurus.  They don’t create nursery rhyme heroes. They explore life as it is.  They create narratives about life as they see and understand it.  Is there any classical narrative that has not its moorings in sorrow?  Is the literary re-creation of the sorrows of life pessimism? 

PS. These are some thoughts that flashed through my mind as I read my friend’s response.  I repeat that this is not an answer to him.  I respect his right to his views and more I admire his candidness.  But I thought it was important to explore my pessimism.  At the same time, I hasten to clarify that I’m not claiming any literary merit for my stories by writing this.  I’m nothing more than a blogger.  I don’t even consider me a writer. 


8 comments:

  1. If optimism was going to be the hallmark of literature, the books of the majority of all time great authors should have been banned by now. Everything is a tool for the art- optimism, pessimism, horror, melancholy. Yes, quite often the art reflects a facet of reality. If the reality is ugly, it is not mirror's fault

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    1. Perhaps, some people mistake literature for moral stories. Actually every good writer has a moral vision too but it comes through in subtle ways only. One has to learn to comprehend that subtlety.

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  2. In my opinion, Ramayana, Mahabharata, or any piece of literature is neither optimistic nor pessimistic. It depends upon the mindset of reader. Also, pessimism is not a bad thing.

    I fully agree with your statement that Buddha was a pessimist. For Buddha, there was no God and the world was just a reflection of sorrow, but despite that he reached. Pessimism was his way to reach enlightenment.

    As I see, pessimism and optimism are two ways to reach the same destiny. Also, I believe that the feeling of pessimism or optimism lie within individuals not on the observed objects outside. I guess we are familiar with the statement whether the tumbler is half-empty or half-filled.

    The concept of morality doesn’t go well with me. Moralists divide the Existence into two, choose one part of it and declare a fight with other. Also, morality is a subjective term; what appears moral to one may not appear moral to others.

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    1. True, Ravish, literature is not about optimism and pessimism. It's a portrayal of life. In the beginning of the Mahabharata, the author clearly states that there's nothing in the book which you won't find anywhere else. Whatever is there in life is also there in the book, he means to say. Honesty and deception, truth and falsehood, jealousy and generosity, anything is available aplenty in the epic as in life. It's not about optimism. It's about life.

      Moralists and preachers are the most terrible people I have come across so far. I don't have much life ahead and hence I guess I won't meet worse people :) Preachers destroyed my life trying to mould it the way they envisage. Preachers killed the school where I worked and sent innocent people to jail just because they questioned the immorality of the preachers. Such is life. Literature cannot be just fables.

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  3. Please share the name and contact ID of your blogger friend.It would be great to know him/her.
    This is not to take away anything from the fact that pessimism makes great literature…..

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    1. I hope the blogger friend will make his/her own statement here.

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  4. I am yet to read n review the book. Really apologetic but you must understand my personal life is crazy busy :P. As for pessimism, yup, great literature is based on that. And as I read stories from panchatantra for my kids, I can't agree more.

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    1. I know you were engaged with much more weighty matters than my book. :)

      I shall wait for the review, however.

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