Saturday, March 08, 2008

The Grim Aesthetic

A motivational poster tells you to "Be Positive!" Do you take the message to heart, or roll your eyes? Which response would you recommend? Which is more reasonable?

One occasionally hears things like this:
[C]onsistent enthusiasm contributes a lot to everyone’s happiness. We non-joyous types suck energy and cheer from the joyous ones. We rely on them to buoy us with their good spirit and to cushion our agitation and anxiety.

At the same time, because of a dark element in human nature, we’re sometimes provoked to try to shake the joyous ones out of their fog of illusion—to make them see that the play was actually stupid, the money was wasted, the meeting was pointless. Instead of shielding their joy, we blast it. Why is this?

Perhaps we think that reality matters, and that people shouldn't waste their lives in a "fog of illusion". On this view, there's something intrinsically valuable about really grappling with the grim facts of reality. The "blissfully ignorant" are really experiencing false happiness. To intentionally seek this out is essentially to abdicate the project of living, in the truest or most authentic sense. So goes the grim aesthetic: false smiles are ugly.

On a related (if slightly different) issue, see this old post at The Enlightenment Project:
I thought these [church] women were sickening. They had the best of intentions and, from the moral point of view were better people than me, but I found their interest in the minutia of other peoples lives, particularly their interest in other people's various miseries, incomprehensible and their compassion and smarm disgusting. They weren't merely gossips and they certainly weren't malicious--they were really interested in people's affairs, really cared and really wanted to help which is surely good from the moral point of view--but from the aesthetic point of view, in my very gut, I was nauseated...

Reading lots of liberal stuff, I'm amazed at how denatured many liberals are--how they fail to understand the natural tendency for violence and the aesthetic appeal of toughness, how they just don't get the fact that we're carnivorous, that rage is our natural condition, and how they utterly fail to understand the contempt and disgust most us feel for the Daughters of the King, for smarm, whining, softness, weakness, and what passes as "compassion."

Much of the liberal denaturing program seems clearly desirable. We should certainly hope to become less violent, enraged, etc. Vegetarianism is admirable. Isn't compassion? (I can certainly identify with the aesthetic which finds 'soft smarmy concern' repellent. But is this a perspective we can really endorse on reflection? Only if the 'compassion' in question is really a self-centered desire to be personally helpful, rather than a more abstracted desire that others be as well-off as possible. Note that the former preference may have bad consequences, e.g. if the best way to help is to earn lots and give money to Oxfam, rather than volunteer one's labour directly.)

Perhaps there are troubling trade-offs between the virtues. Those who focus on compassion and sensitivity may neglect inquiry into uncomfortable truths (the recognition of which may even lead to long-term gains in human happiness). So it may be desirable to have people of all types. (Another example: increases in apparent vices like aggression and pride might also make one work harder and so become more efficacious. Happier people might be lazier, etc. Cf. 'Excellent Imbalance'.) As H.E. put it:
The fault of the Church is in taking a particular personality type as virtue, not recognizing that this kind of character is morally neutral and can be directed to good or ill, and maybe even more than that, failing to recognize that lacking this kind of character isn't in and of itself a moral defect.

Another possibility is that our personalities are not so malleable in any case, so telling a naturally grim person they ought to "be positive" is effectively to say that they shouldn't be themselves -- hardly helpful advice.

What do you think?

(Perhaps the 'getting involved in other people's lives' point is independent of the 'always look on the bright side' question. But I suspect both stances are, in practice, correlated with a certain down-to-earth, sociable outlook. Grim, hard-headed intellectuals, on the other hand, are notoriously reclusive!)


  1. you should, within reason, take the message to heart. People who are unhappy because they make themselves unhappy irritate me.

    Of course I suppose I should just make myself not irritated by it...... maybe that is the effect one observes (i.e. those who really believe in being positive don't believe in being negative about negative people but negative people do believe in being negative about positive people)

  2. A very interesting topic, I've always been one to frown upon such advice. Paraphrasing you: better to deal with reality, even when painful, than fake happiness. But the question is what it takes to transition from the fake to the authentic. I could probably use to devote more of my energies to being happy, the tragedy is that concerted efforts to do so usually come off forced, and hence fake. At any rate, I tend to equate bubbly, cheery happiness with ignorance. That's kind of ridiculous when one thinks about it.


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