Sunday, August 4, 2013

Cynical Romanticism


Many of my friends seem to think I’m a pessimist.  They’re then quite surprised when I seem to display some trait of stunning (and often naive) optimism.  The truth is that I’m not a pessimist; nor do I have moments where I transition to being an optimist.  I am, in fact, a cynic.  But I’m also a romantic.

I’ve mentioned this dichotomy of mine before (more than once, even).  What does it really mean though?  To understand, it’s useful to examine the roots of both terms.

Cynicism is actually an ancient Greek philosophy.  You remember the story of Diogenes, don’t you?  (Of course you don’t—I shouldn’t either, really, but my mother had an odd idea of what constituted a well-rounded education.)  Anyway, Diogenes was the guy who lived in a bathtub on the streets of Athens.  He carried around a lamp in the daytime, waiting for someone to ask him why.  When they did, he would reply that he was looking for an honest man.  The Cynics were sort of proto-hippies, living “in accord with Nature” and eschewing things like wealth and fame as non-natural.  It wasn’t enough to reject these things, though: a Cynic was required to practice shamelessness (sometimes translated as “impudence”), by which they meant that they should deface laws and social conventions.  So they were sort of in-your-face hippies.

You can vaguely draw the connection from this attitude of telling everyone that they were fools for letting things like greed and conformity take them further and further away from the natural state of living and the ultimate meaning that cynicism has today: the belief that people as a whole are vain, gullible, avaricious, and generally not that bright.  Steve Jobs once said:

I’m an optimist in the sense that I believe humans are noble and honorable, and some of them are really smart.  I have a very optimistic view of individuals.  As individuals, people are inherently good.  I have a somewhat more pessimistic view of people in groups.


Although I’ve always preffered the version from Men in Black:

J: People are smart.  They can handle it.
K: A person is smart.  People are dumb, panicky, dangerous animals, and you know it.


J has no answer to this, of course: he is a New York City policeman.  He does know it.

When I was young, I did the required stint in fast food.  My particular greasepit was Burger King.  I worked there when chicken tenders were introduced, and I lived through the “Where’s Herb?” campaign.  Part of this campaign was to get a particular burger for a dollar by mentioning the fictional Herb’s name.  During this period, I saw innumerable people in Burger King ordering a “Herb burger.”  Yes, that’s right: they had absolutely no idea what they were ordering—just that it was cheap.  I am fond of telling people that we could have served them a shit sandwich and they’d have been happy as long as they thought they were getting a bargain.  I’m also fond of telling people that Burger King is where I first began to lose my faith in humanity.  Looking back, I’m not sure that’s entirely true, but I can’t deny that ol’ Herb played a large role in pushing me down that road.  Certainly it’s the place where I learned to appreciate H. L. Mencken’s observation that nobody ever went broke underestimating the intelligence of the common man,* and surely Mencken is a big a cynic as Twain or Voltaire, two of my most cherished quotemeisters.

So do I have, as Wikipedia puts it, a “general lack of faith or hope in the human race”?  Yeah, pretty much.  My experience with politics, business, financial institutions, organized religion, and even smaller coteries of humanity such as neighborhood homeowner’s associations or Internet forum denizens tells me that, if you expect the worst from people, you’ll rarely be disappointed, and occasionally you get a pleasant surprise.  Which is much better than the inverse: expecting the best yields constant disappointment and the occasional situation where your expectations are merely met.  Thus, I’m entirely comfortable with being considered a cynic, even though I don’t think that’s the same as being a pessimist.  I’m happy enough to consider the glass half-full ... I just remain convinced that there’s every likelihood that someone else will come along and drain the glass before I get any.

Romanticism is also tied to nature: it was ins some ways a revolt against the rationality of the Enlightenment, a way of stressing that one should go out into untamed Nature and stop trying to analyze it and categorize and just feel it.  Romanticism was a validation of strong emotion—be it wonder, awe, passion, or even horror.  Especially for Art.  As one early Romantic German painter put it, “the artist’s feeling is his law.”  This was a movement of rejecting rules, particularly rules about Art, and it led to the Gothic horror tale and luminaries such as Edgar Allen Poe ... it’s certainly no wonder that I would experience a feeling of kinship towards it.

“Romantic” as term implying love came later.  Even before Romanticism, “romance” was a term that referred to knights and heroic quests: Shakespeare’s The Tempest was considered a romance.  From knights to chivalry, and rescuing damsels in distress, plus Romanticism’s emphasis on strong emotions (such as passion), we eventually came to think of “romance” as primarily a love story, which today leaves us with Harlequin and Titanic.  Sort of a step down from Romanticism, if you think about it.  Not that there’s anything wrong with romantic love, of course: just that love is only one small part of Romanticism.

As a would-be-writer who idolizes Steven King (among others), how could I not be attracted to the movement that gave us Poe?  Certainly there is no King (nor Straub, Koontz, Barker or Gaiman) without Poe.  This is a movement that also (albeit more indirectly) gave us Robert Browning, who I quoted in my deconstruction of one of my all-time favorite quotes, and who also inspired King’s Dark Tower series.  Like Cynicism, Romanticism was a rejection of rules, and especially the “rules” of conforming to a polite society.  Throw off the chains of conformity, they both proclaim.  Be an individual.

And that’s the heart of my outlook.  Note how both Jobs and Tommy Lee Jones laud the individual person.  And we don’t have to look far to hear more famous people doing so.  Margaret Mead once said:

Never believe that a few caring people can’t change the world.  For indeed that’s all who ever have.


How can you not take inspiration from thatPearl S. Buck said:

The young do not know enough to be prudent, and therefore they attempt the impossible—and achieve it, generation after generation.


So I believe that, despite the fact that humanity in general is close to useless, every individual human has a potential for greatness.  I believe that the universe works hard to put me in good places, and succeeds a surprising percentage of the time, even when the formless churning rat race of mankind is working hard to push in the opposite direction.  I won’t say I’m an optimist—the glass may indeed be half-empty.  But somewhere out there is a person who’s willing to refill it for me.  If I’m fortunate, and if I really need it, I’ll meet them.

This is not a philosophy so much as an outlook.  If you ask me about my philosophy, I’ll go back balance and paradox.  But that theory is how I attempt to make sense of the world when it doesn’t seem to want to make sense on its own.  That’s different from how I approach the world, and what I expect out of it.  When it comes to that, I don’t expect much out of people, but I will never give up my idealism.  The world doesn’t owe me anything, and I wouldn’t expect to receive payment if it did.  But I continue to believe that the universe is a decent enough place, and that there will always enough light to balance the dark, and that what you give out will surely come back to you.  In the end, Good will always triumph over Evil, even if Evil usually gets more votes (and always has better financial backing).

So I suppose it’s a bit like Mel Brooks says in The Twelve Chairs:

Hope for the best.  Expect the worst.
Life is a play.  We’re unrehearsed.


Although I would favor the formulation of Benjamin Disraeli:

I am prepared for the worst, but hope for the best.


Because I’m not a Romantic Cynic, after all: I’m a Cynical Romantic.  I may start with dread, but I always try to end on a note of hope.


* Technically, what he said was: “No one in this world, so far as I know—and I have searched the record for years, and employed agents to help me—has ever lost money by underestimating the intelligence of the great masses of the plain people.”

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