On bleak and frigid days like today, I often find myself paralyzed by an ailment I once named “historian’s pessimism.” Like “tennis elbow” and “swimmer’s ear,” you can get it whether you are a tennis player, swimmer, or historian, or not. And I have long been susceptible to depressive episodes, particularly during dark and confining winters. Those reservations aside, I think my quite orthodox historical training in university confirmed and sharpened my dark outlook on life.
One could chalk it up to the fact that human history is “just” laden with tragedies and heartbreak, which no one could deny. Still, I feel there is a deeper current of sadness running throughout history as a discipline and, perhaps, all of academia. My suspicion is that this current flows from a basic source: the alienation of academic endeavours from practical and liberating activity.
Universities are generally planned and executed as “thought factories” that manufacture particular kinds of people who think a particular way. Under a capitalist accumulation regime, the major and minor academic institutions are all under a mandate to reproduce the professional class––not to mention their own faculty ranks––through both technical instruction and the cultivation of persons with a particular ethos or way of feeling in the world. Every major and department creates a different sort of output, but in the humanities the emotional tenor of the faculty and student body tends to be relatively cynical, detached, and what Spinoza calls “satirical.” Historians make the best satirists of them all, by which I mean those who parasitize on misfortune for their own happiness.
We can run into this in our own research, in our interactions with colleagues, and when we bring it out into the world outside the academy. Passivity, the passivity of pure scholarship and the detachment of “book learning” to the (expected, obligatory) exclusion of political work and real activity, ingrains in us a sense of superiority that conceals a deep and restless fixation on our own weakness. Some of us, we brilliant satirists, can turn even our own weakness into a joke: I do it for the sake of pure knowledge! Look at those chumps trying to change the world that we can’t even understand with all our ability. For me, at least, the professional and intellectual rewards of academia and scholarship pale in comparison to the active intellect, using tools forged in activity and tempered in knowledge to advance real progress in the world and combat reactionary tendencies.
Perhaps, one could allege, I simply haven’t accepted the limits of my own discipline, its prescribed place in the buzzing hive of academic production. In fact, I acknowledge that, in the guise of a historian, I can do quite little other than provide a knowledge of the past and the limitations that it puts on what we can do here and now. I can project a sense of what human society is capable of, chalk outlines of thought and reality checks on hubris or––and this is crucial––pessimism.
What defines a revolutionary way of feeling and desiring? I believe it is the opposite of melancholy or poisoned nostalgia. Slipping into that familiar academic ennui is not a “natural” state of things native to our body but a learned behaviour, a response that we can, in community with others, seek to overcome. Though some would point to the fact that American corporate human resources departments seem to make similar demands for constant cheerfulness, I would point out that encouraging service workers or office drones to plaster smiles on their faces to drive up productivity and/or sales is not the same thing as combating defeatist and obsessively pessimistic emotions in our own lives. Imposing a false parody of happiness is surely the fastest way to spread real misery.
To finish, a couple of reminders from Spinoza, the master theorist of happiness:
“Cheerfulness cannot be excessive; it is always good. On the other hand, melancholy is always bad.”
(Part IV, Prop. 42)
“And although men are subject to numerous emotions, and so few are found who are always assailed by one and the same emotion, yet sometimes we see men so affected by one object that they think they have it before them even though it is not present. When this happens to a man who is not asleep, we say his is delirious or mad, and no less mad are those thought to be who are fired with love, dreaming night and day only of their sweetheart or mistress, for they usually provoke ridicule. But when the miser thinks of nothing but gain or money, and the ambitious man of honour, they are not reckoned as mad, for they are usually unpopular and arouse disgust. But in reality avarice, ambition, lust, etc. are kinds of madness, although they are not counted as diseases.”
(Part IV, Prop 44. Sch.)
Academics obsessed with their own impotence, I would wager, are just as sick––and more likely to slip into actually harmful behaviour, a tendency I notice in myself more than anyone.