…you know the definition of the ‘ultimate optimist’, right? The guy who fell from the 50th floor of a building — each floor he passed on the way down he said, ‘so far, so good…’ 1
It’s a poetic conceit — and an old gag — the usage of which goes back over a hundred years. By my reckoning, it’s used about once a year by someone, somewhere, to describe the absurdity of positive attitude toward changing the outcome of a clearly futile situation.
Unless you’re alive, you can’t play and if you don’t play… 2
Only living in perfect irony will permit you to survive even while you are in the active process of dying. That is, if you’re in the business of surviving.
We live, not as we wish to, but as we can 3
— misattributed to Menander
Indeed, ‘misattributed’ or rather, as John Maxwell Edmonds stated in a footnote to The Fragments of Attic Comedy 4: “[it is] a saying older than Menander, but…Terence puts it in the mouth of the Lady’s Maid when asked by Crito how they are getting on now that the ‘sister’ is dead…” (p.36)
Terence, you see, lived a couple centuries later than Menander. He was Roman, not Greek; he experienced all of the fame in his own lifetime that Menander did not. We with a perfect vision of history might be tempted to say that he lived both as he wished and as he could. So, Terence lets some of his easier life show even in re-appropriating Mendander’s pure stoicism.
Menander seems instead to have often wished for death when he wrote, “Death’s welcome if you can’t live as you would”. Did he suffer as much as the characters in his plays? In Aeschylus we get a peek into his contempt for the experience of suffering or maybe just a poisoned eye toward the view on the alleged privilege of life itself, when he, in the guise of Io, writes,
Better not live than live in misery
Among those with a greater appetite for the act of living, among those who can enjoy the surplus of rewards, it is greater virtue simply to live: The purpose is contained in itself and for itself and death, for such a person, removes only the purpose. Such a person seeks out the best question and the best way to question, knowing that, in return, she will be chased from one country to the next by an insensible mob who question nothing, yet claim already to know.
Life is like a lottery. You need a philosopher, you get a psychopath. 5
The world’s many psychopaths, all those who claim to know the purposes and thoughts of the gods, all those who thus scurry insensibly from one righteous prosecution to the next and aspiring towards a perfect monitor of the breath, diet, and the most secret thoughts of literally everyone else, manage to extract some retribution, posing as justice, for their holy vendettas. These performances are acts done by and for only the living: no punishment awaits after death, but then, neither is there any reward or nobility or peace. The experiencing of death, like that of living with the impositions of a psychopath, requires life and sanity.
Life is tragic simply because the earth turns and the sun inexorably rises and sets, and one day, for each of us, the sun will go down for the last, last time. Perhaps the whole root of our trouble, the human trouble, is that we will sacrifice all the beauty of our lives, will imprison ourselves in totems, taboos, crosses, blood sacrifices, steeples, mosques, races, armies, flags, nations, in order to deny the fact of death, the only fact we have. It seems to me that one ought to rejoice in the fact of death–ought to decide, indeed, to earn one’s death by confronting with passion the conundrum of life. One is responsible for life: It is the small beacon in that terrifying darkness from which we come and to which we shall return. 6
Live a good life. If there are gods and they are just, then they will not care how devout you have been, but will welcome you based on the virtues you have lived by. If there are gods, but unjust, then you should not want to worship them. If there are no gods, then you will be gone, but will have lived a noble life that will live on in the memories of your loved ones. I am not afraid. 7
— misattributed to Marcus Aurelius
Compare the misattributed statement above with statements actually made by Marcus Aurelius on living a (perhaps overly) conservative and careful life for fear of the imminence of death (from Meditations Book 2, Section 8):
…you should know [that] you might at this very present depart out of this life! As for death, if there be any gods, it’s no grievous thing to leave the society of men. The gods won’t harm you, of that you can be sure. But, if it turns out there aren’t any gods, or that they take no care of the world…
Why should I desire to live in a world void of gods, and of all divine providence? There are most certainly gods, and they take care for the world. As for those things which are truly evil — such as vice and wickedness — such things they’ve put in a man’s own power, so that he’d avoid them if that’s what he wants: Had there been anything besides that had been truly bad and evil [in its essence], they should’ve been careful about that, too, to be sure to avoid it
The real Marcus Aurelius seemed a bit less noble sounding than the one we are led to idealize by contrived quotations. His wishful assertions took a bit too much for granted with regards human nature and the supposed deeds of gods; a bit too much time looking over his shoulder while having just a bit too much praise for death.
…Choose us. Choose life. Choose mortgage payments; choose washing machines; choose cars; choose sitting oan a couch watching mind-numbing and spirit-crushing games shows, stuffing fuckin junk food intae yir mooth. Choose rotting away, pishing and shiteing yersel in a home, a total fuckin embarrassment tae the selfish, fucked-up brats ye’ve produced. Choose life. Well, ah choose no tae choose life. If the cunts cannae handle that, it’s thair fuckin problem. As Harry Lauder sais, ah jist intend tae keep right on to the end of the road… 8
Self-identified ‘realists’, by contrast, are often compelled with the morbid discovery to speak firmly and to repeat explicitly that even the most celebrated life will end and end suddenly. A fatalistic, ‘whether you like it or not’ is usually added as a flourish, perhaps as consolation or to keep up appearances or just to let everyone know about one’s own attitude of personal readiness.
Death stalks us every day and night of our lives; when it finally catches up with us, it is usually without notice. 9
So, what does it mean to say something like, “oh, it’s true, it’s really true that life is finite” (with or without the usual bravado)? It means absolutely nothing. No point will be found in the warning and no lesson. One will be in the middle of a sentence and it will happen. The deceased won’t notice, but everyone else will! And they’ll be reduced to emoting, as you and I are now, all manner of platitudes, some offered with bravado and some without. It won’t mean anything then, either.
We have everything to fear, including fear itself, and the bad news hasn’t yet hit, I don’t think: We’re born into a losing struggle; no one has ever beaten these odds.
I’ve looked up ahead — or, if you prefer, down the road — I know what’s coming. I know no one beats these odds and it’s a matter of getting used to that and growing up and realizing that you are expelled from your mother’s uterus as if shot from a cannon towards a barn door studded with old nail files and rusty hooks. It’s a matter of how you use up the intervening time in an intelligent and ironic way; and try not to do anything ghastly to your fellow creatures.
That leaves us with the question of ‘why should we care?’ Somehow I’m glad that at least that bit of our innate nature is useful. But, if we praise ourselves for what’s innate, we’re going to be praising a lot of very unpleasant things, too; and there’s no way around that; there’s only the pretense that there’s a way around that. 10
- Palagummi Sainath, on the “Jan Lokpal Bill”. ↩
- Roy Batty, during a brief and final playtime. ↩
- (sort of) misattributed to Menander ↩
- John Maxwell Edmonds. The Fragments of Attic Comedy, Vol. 2. E.J Brill, Leiden, Netherlands (1961) ↩
- Taslima Nasrin taslimanasreen (2011, Jan 23). [Twitter post] ↩
- James Baldwin. ‘Down at the Cross: A Letter from a Region in my Mind’, essay from A Fire Next Time (1962) ↩
- (misattributed) Marcus Aurelius. ↩
- Renton’s soliloquy regarding Free Will and Meaninglessness; Irving Welsch (1993) Trainspotting London, Secker & Warburg ↩
- Gupta, K. Prof P Lal, in memoriam. [Retrieved 2010-11-13; blog Agent Provocateur] ↩
- Christopher Hitchens, in an impromptu interview (New York, by unknown, 2010) ↩