OPTIMISM, n. The doctrine, or belief, that everything is beautiful, including what is ugly, everything good, especially the bad, and everything right that is wrong. It is held with greatest tenacity by those most accustomed to the mischance of falling into adversity, and is most acceptably expounded with the grin that apes a smile. Being a blind faith, it is inaccessible to the light of disproof—an intellectual disorder, yielding to no treatment but death. It is hereditary, but fortunately not contagious.–Ambrose Bierce, The Devil’s Dictionary
Everyone who knows me seems to think I’m a very optimistic guy which always surprises me because I know I have a dark side. Apparently I just keep it well hidden. When asked if the glass is half full or half empty I always say it’s half full. What I don’t say is, “So what’s in it? Battery acid?” Not that it really matters what’s in the glass since we’re insignificant specks on a small planet in a very cold, very large universe, and even if we aren’t steadily moving toward our own self-destruction and if our planet isn’t hit by a rogue asteroid or gamma ray burst our sun will eventually explode, destroying the inner solar system. Even if our species somehow manages to survive all that, which seems unlikely given that it will happen in about five billion years and in that time it seems likely we will have evolved into something that’s as distantly related to us as we are to, say, Periophthalmus gracilis. And even if Homo sapiens has still somehow survived all that they still have the eventual cold death of the universe to look forward to as space continues expanding, the distance between stars becomes so great they’re no longer visible to each other, and then the eventual breakdown of matter itself and its steady dissipation into dark radiation.
On the bright side none of that will, I hope, happen for some time, because I’ve got some Doctor Who episodes I’d like to catch up on.
Yes, my usual inclination is to look on the bright side when someone tells me bad news, but I’m just as likely to look for the dark when someone tells me good news. When I ask a friend how they’re doing and they say “Great!” I wonder what they’re not telling me. There’s something about graffiti telling me “OK OK OK” that just set me off on some pretty dark musings, maybe because things aren’t okay, but then I took that picture months ago and even at the time I thought, That doesn’t look like the work of someone who’s OK. That looks like a cry for help in the form of hysterical laughter. And maybe it wasn’t graffiti at all. I often see marks spray painted on sidewalks by construction guys marking where it’s OK to drill or something, so, great, that marks the spot where they’re going to tear up the sidewalk, and why did they have to mark it three times? If one “OK” wasn’t enough I’m not exactly reassured that two more are going to get the message across.
Maybe I was always like this, but I also think I was profoundly shaped by two books I read at the same time, switching from one to the other, when I was twenty: A Connecticut Yankee In King Arthur’s Court by Mark Twain and Breakfast Of Champions by Kurt Vonnegut. And speaking of the latter that reminds me of the time we got an announcement at work that we’d be having a “breakfast of champions” morning meeting and I got really excited because I thought we’d be having martinis, but that’s another story.
These aren’t books you’ll find on the standard dystopian bookshelf. After all Twain’s book is mostly set in 10th century England and Vonnegut’s book is set in what was for him, at the time, the present, and, unlike some of his other books, doesn’t really look forward to the future. And yet they’re two of the bleakest, most cynical books I think I’ve ever read, especially when combined. Twain’s book ultimately concludes that technology can’t change human nature–which is not a spoiler since it should be obvious, although Twain sets up the final trap so perfectly it still surprises me every time I reread it. Vonnegut wrote Breakfast Of Champions as a fiftieth birthday present to himself and, well, it turned out not to be such a happy birthday. In its final pages he confronts himself with the limitations, and failings, of art, and concludes that it really can’t change things.
So there you have it: art and technology are futile, ultimately meaningless pursuits. On the bright side both books are pretty funny, at least until you get to the end.