Emergencies – natural catastrophes, attacks or pandemics like the current one – always give rise to diverse attitudes and feelings. Optimism is usually more politically correct than pessimism. This is why we do not stop sending memes and messages that appeal to “everything will be fine”, “we will resist” or “we are going to beat this”. The pessimism, tinged with anguish, we reserve for our intimacy or for those closest to us.
This appeal is logical because of the need we have to put on a good face in bad weather, but also because we live in a culture where being optimistic and happy is an imperative, an obligation rather than an opportunity. We even have leaders, like Trump or Johnson, who make optimism (combined with cynicism) a character trait and sign of their radiant narcissism. They are The Best. Their “success” lies in the fact that, like the self-help gurus, they erase all impossibility, any obstacle. They don’t care if they have to skip a few rules. Walls are for others, for them “Nothing is Impossible”.
Freud had another idea. As he told his friend, Pastor Pfíster, “optimism is a presupposition, pessimism an outcome.” Another way of saying that life confronts us with our own limits, those of nature, of the body and of the bond with others. He agreed with Kant that educating and governing are impossible tasks, and added healing. The impossible is not to be taken as what cannot be done, but as what does not have a guaranteed solution. No teacher, no politician, no psychoanalyst has the instruction manual that would solve any difficulty. They have to risk an act for which there are no guarantees; sometimes it works and sometimes it doesn’t. In any case, it cannot be anticipated with mathematical precision.
But, precisely because they are impossible tasks, there is room for maneuver, not everything is written or decided. It is necessary, however, to assume that initial axiom, which will allow us to do what is possible in each situation. The other assumption, that of omnipotence, only leads us to impotence, not to potency.
Hence, in these troubled times it is better to be an advised pessimist. Advised that life is never risk free and that every setback involves something unrecoverable, although it gives the opportunity to do and invent something else in that vacuum. Advised about the limits of the body, which can be parasited by a stranger; about the limits of the planet we inhabit, whose sustainability has a limit; about avarice, which leads to inequalities that generate serious social conflicts; or the will to dominate and abuse that kills and imposes constraints on women and children.
An advised pessimist knows that the first duty of the human being is to live and avoid all illusions that make it difficult. We all need illusions, that is not a problem as long as we do not make it a religion, as long as we do not delegate to those illusions the power that we lack. Some of which is currently happening with the techno-sciences, to which we attribute superpowers.
This pessimistic wager, to live, on the encounter with others as the best formula for sharing joy when it arises. Lacan called this “the secret of joy.” Faced with the contingencies that the real brings us – in this case Covid-19 – we have to invent and find in this impasse “the living force of intervention.” It is not a question of illusions, but of what causes our desire for life and that does not work alone. It is the wager that something (we) will be fine.
Translated by Roger Litten