Negative Aesthetics and the Relative Absence of Literary Narratives of Happiness

To the Conditio in/humana there belongs not only the fact that misery weighs more than happiness but also the fact that suffering and negative experience in general tend to yield much more, aesthetically, than happiness and positive experience could ever do. Paradoxically, the pleasure that arises from the enjoyment of art is based to a far greater degree on the artistic processing of negative than it is on that of positive experience.

Were we, therefore, to undertake to scour, in pronatalist spirit, through cultural history and the world’s literature in particular for representations of human happiness, the yield of such an undertaking would surely be much poorer than that of a parallel one in antinatalist spirit. As regards poetry, at least, Thomas Hardy once remarked: “Was there ever any great poetry which was not pessimistic?” (Thomas Hardy, Notebooks) Partially responsible, we may suppose, for this relative absence of literary narratives of happiness is the fact that literature is really only engaging when it finds resonance in the reader’s sense of sympathy and a sense of shared misery is easier to awaken than a sense of shared joy.

The Dominance of Negative Communicability

Whoever brings new people into existence brings them into a material, biological and social world in which the communicability of negative experience far outweighs the communicability of positive. This becomes clear if we consider what tends to trigger feelings of sympathy. Suffering clearly tends to give rise to sympathy as a form of “suffering-with” in a much greater measure than joy does to a “rejoicing-with”. Whoever begets a new human being, then, brings one more being into the world who will much more easily become depressed through the encounter with others’ misery than he will become euphoric through the encounter with others’ joy.

Negatively Communicating Vessels of Culture

The principle of negatively communicating vessels demands of us that we pay attention to the respective “flip sides” to all the brilliant cultural achievements of human history. It can be illustrated in terms of a distant analogy to a bio-physical phenomenon: Highly organized systems – organisms – spread, metabolically, disorder within their environments for the purpose of maintaining the orders peculiar to their own respective systems. They exist, so to speak, at the expense of their environments. Historically, great power complexes, such as empires, function in a comparable way.

When we admire the administration, the school system, the marble halls and other architectural constructions of the highly organized Hellenic and Roman imperial orders we should never lose sight of the fact that there corresponded to this praiseworthy organization a great measure of destructiveness and inhumanity not only in the Roman colonies, for example, but also in the very centre of the Roman empire. The global empire of the Romans perfected the Greek system of coinage and financial commerce, slavery and war economy/militarism. At certain times some three quarters of Rome’s entire state budget was devoted to military expenditures.

As an illustration of the negatively communicating vessels of the market logic of the modern global system we can cast a glance at Amsterdam as the flourishing centre of this system in the period of Dutch hegemony. While cultivated minds among the shareholders of the Dutch East India Company discussed the merits of this or that painter, there corresponded to the “Dutch Golden Age” a period of profound darkness inaugurated by the massacres presided over by this same company in Indonesia. Reduced to a simple formula, there corresponded to the rise and endurance of Western civilization, and indeed of other civilizations besides, a massive degree of barbarism in other regions of the world.