Humphreys on Acquisto (2021)

Acquisto, Joseph. Living Well with Pessimism in Nineteenth-Century France. Palgrave Macmillan, 2021, pp. 304, ISBN 978-3-030-61013-5

Although the title of this thorough and enlightening study indicates a nineteenth-century focus, much of its discussion is relevant to our time. As the author, Joseph Acquisto, ascertains, “reading back and forth between the nineteenth century and our own time is productive precisely because I claim that pessimists have something vital to add to our contemporary conversations, at personal, political, social, and ethical levels” (17).  The volume presents an overview of pessimism as a productive thought process in nineteenth-century French culture; more specifically, it shows how different thinkers conceptualize pessimism (as a pervasive attitude, cultural trend, or way of living) in relation to particular novelists and poets who test these ideas through the experiences of fictional characters and poetic voices.

Acquisto highlights the intersection between philosophy and literature through his exploration of progress, eschatology, reflection, and human existence. Rather than define pessimism simply as the objectionable counterpart of optimism, Acquisto proposes a more nuanced understanding of it as both a mode of thought as well as a mode of living; it is an “adjustment of expectations” (1) based on lived experience. He claims that by engaging with pessimism, the creative imagination, through literature and poetry, can forge beneficial ways of living and interacting with the world, without yielding to hopelessness or suffering.

Six chapters detail the different stages of the author’s assertion that through this optic, pessimism is in fact a dynamic process of thought and approach to life. The introductory chapter outlines the analysis and integrates aspects of nineteenth- and twentieth-century meditations on pessimism with more recent commentary to show that these ideas are specifically modern and of contemporary interest. Although there is a long history of human contemplation of suffering and melancholy, the word “pessimism” in relation to a state of mind, doesn’t appear until 1759 (3). Schopenhauer’s The World as Will and Representation (1818) and his subsequent writings on the human condition as fundamentally dissatisfying and painful, mark a turning point in modern thought and signal the emergence of a pessimistic worldview or doctrine. For this reason, chapter two features discussion exclusively on Schopenhauer’s foundational impact on both thinkers and writers at the end of the nineteenth century. It demonstrates through his ideas on resignation and compassion that plot structures such as comedy and tragedy offer a framework to interpret lived experience.

Chapter three discusses Schopenhauer’s influence on later French thinkers. Acquisto suggests that readings of Schopenhauer’s work in France were informed by the availability of translated fragments as opposed to integral translations. This is significant especially in light of Schopenhauer’s philosophical background and his methodical, comprehensive approach to writing about ideas and human experience. Consequently, the French authors and academicians who were inspired by his thinking brought their own interpretations of those ideas into their writings.  For example, Acquisto argues that Paul Challemel-Lacour’s work raises “the question of the right balance between lucidity and livable conceptions of the world” (99). Determining that equilibrium invites a pragmatic consideration of pessimism since it requires judgement and specific measures to make that judgement; if those criteria include fictional representations of human interactions, other questions arise for example within the relationship between fiction and truth, or in determining what is a healthy or livable conceptualization of the world. Acquisto elucidates how contemporaries like Elme-Marie Caro, Louis Dépret, and later essayists Ferdinand Brunetière, Pierre-Daniel Bourchenin and Georges Pellissier all grapple with these notions, thereby broadening public discourse about pessimism and allowing for a more a complex conception of pessimism as a mode of thought.

Chapters four and five on pessimism in the novel and poetry are particularly salient because they illustrate through multiple writers the dynamic engagement between the reader and a given text. In fictional narratives by Maupassant, Huysmans, Henry Céard, Téodor de Wyzewa, Edouard Rod, and Jules Verne, the reader is tasked with “trace[ing] a character’s intellectual adventure” and critically evaluating it, questioning “what it would be like to live in the particular ‘as if’ that the novel sketches, and what it would mean to draw conclusions about it” (151). In these texts, according to Acquisto, pessimism becomes a means to reassess humans’ place in a discordant and hostile world, in order to alter expectations (both in the narratives and in relation to individual and collective human experience).

The author demonstrates in chapter five, the ways in which poetry “engages with and advances the conversation about pessimism’s potential at the border between literature and thought” (226). In a study of seven poets at the end of the nineteenth-century, he not only elucidates the different ways in which lyric poetry provides space not only for self-reflexivity, but also offers an even broader scope of imaginative possibilities on how to effectively live in a chaotic world. Several of these poets, for example, represent the end of the world; rather than envision devastating prophesies of doom, the verse of Leconte de Lisle, Henri Cazalis (pseudonym Jean Lahor), Henry Céard, and Jules Laforgue illustrate either alternative or more tranquil endings. For Acquisto, “[t]hese poems that invoke the peaceful end of the universe retain a place for lucidity while allowing the reader to imagine the consolation of a peaceful end and a sense of poetic and lived closure” (255).

Acquisto’s in-depth analysis of Louise Ackermann’s work stands out not only because her verse invites a gendered reading of her ideas, but also because her ideas on pessimism differ significantly from those expressed by these other poets. Ackermann's thought rests on a paradox: the desire for annihilation to escape human suffering can never be fulfilled, since no subjectivity would be able to perceive it.  Yet it is precisely this impossibility that challenges us to make meaning from the void.

This book is an ambitious endeavor, drawing from an extensive range of sources and thinkers. It is well-written and coherent, revealing the multi-faceted complexities of meditations and debates on pessimism as well as fictional and poetic representations of it and how we can understand our existence and make meaning through them. Scholars of literature, philosophy, culture studies, and intellectual history will find this volume inspiring and insightful; moreover, it will appeal to specialists of nineteenth-century French literature as well as readers of the history of ideas in general.