The tyranny of the Positive: a rant in red.


’ish makh’ovot means man of pains

I was a little annoyed and dare I say, demotivated this morning when I choked on a (supposedly) ‘motivational’ quote sent to my inbox by a motivational quote lover. Here is the exasperatiingly positive message – quoted in full, followed by my unashamed rant in red:

“If you want 2019 to be your year, Don’t sit on the couch and wait for it. Go out. Smile more. Throw out what you’ve been cluttering. Unfollow negative people. Go to bed early. Be fierce. Don’t gossip. Show more gratitude. Be brave”.

Before I take a closer look at this little piece of philosophy, first a quote about Voltaire”s Candide:
“Candide, ou l’Optimisme is a French satire first published in 1759 by Voltaire. It begins with a young man, Candide, who is living a sheltered life in an Edenic paradise and being indoctrinated with Leibnizian optimism by his mentor, Professor Pangloss. The work describes the abrupt cessation of this lifestyle, followed by Candide’s slow and painful disillusionment as he witnesses and experiences great hardships in the world.” (Incidentally, the great earthquake and Tsunami of 1755 had recently decimated Lisbon killing an estimated 200 000 people). “Voltaire concludes with Candide, if not rejecting Leibnizian optimism outright, advocating a deeply practical precept, “we must cultivate our garden”, in lieu of the Leibnizian mantra of Pangloss, “all is for the best” in the “best of all possible worlds”.
So let us examine the Panglossian, Leibnizian mumbojumbo expressed in this motivational quote:
“If you want 2019 to be your year”
Why should it be ”my’ year? Why should the year revolve around me? This self-at-the-centre of the universe is precisely why we’re in such a goddamned mess. It’s the self-conceit at the centre of all human folly. And it’s an expression of western selfishness and neoliberal hubris.
“Don’t sit on the couch and wait for it.” This assumes I own a couch, which I do, but which the majority of the world does not. There’s a cosy, bourgeois inclusiveness in this assumption – we’re all couch-owners, aren’t we? (And no, I don’t sit on the couch and wait for anything actually, though my dog uses it as a vantage point to observe the world go by, and that has its own value). 
“Go out.” Why? Why the emphasis on going out? Where to? For the sake of it? Because you’ve got ants in your pants? Why is ‘going out’ preferable to, say, ‘coming in’, coming home or staying still and watching the clouds crossing the sky? Go! is an action word, which is just what extroverts with impoverished inner lives love to beat introverts with. It’s all about DOING. (Here I remember Theodore Roethke’s words, “Being, not doing, is my first joy.” What an idiot the famous American poet must have been, to prefer being to doing. Did he make any money? Do monks, poets and artists make any money? If not, there’s no point, right? Yeah right – if you’re a capitalist philistine with a heart of a raptor. And ‘the doers’, of course, get RESULTS, because it’s all about MEASURABLE RESULTS, right? Heaven forbid we sit quietly, thinking things through, or in prayer or meditation or contemplation, in stillness and quiet or stasis like a Saddhu or an Anchorite. These are anathema. Make a change? Well change is as good as a holiday, right? but change for change sake? Surely we should ask what should change and why change, and what we should keep and cherish? Change constantly displaces things: its an obsessive, junk-creating upgrading of tech gadgets and cars, the restless flicking from one TV programme to another, the anxious and manic push of entertainment and the displacement of meaning. It’s the pervasive sickness of late capitalist society. We’re so addicted to constant change we no longer recognize the sickness. We can no longer stop to contemplate the stars and their passage across the sky or the movement of a leaf in the wind, the texture of old stone, to hold a 40 million year old trilobite in our hands and reflect on our impermanence. We want to fast-forward without even knowing what we’re fast-forwarding to; we are addicted to the rush and tease of the new. Is new always better? Is being inferior to doing? Why not stop at least long enough to get intel on that jerry machine gun nest before we dash over the top of the trench? Nah – there’s no time. Just do it.
“Smile more” Yep: an inane smile should about do it. An invasive TV-anchor smile, a politician’s false smile, an evangelist’s aggressive smile as he pushes his good news, a salesman’s smarmy smile, a ‘how can I help you’ smile from a shop assistant weighed down by drudgery. The smile that is a tawdry mask hiding a thousand sorrows. Fake smiles really do the job! So smile like Brian, in The life of Brian! My old man would threaten to give me something to be miserable about if I didn’t put a smile on my dial. A kind of tyranny of happiness. Yeah: smiles are so important.
“Be excited” because… visits to fun fairs are exciting but sitting quietly in a cathedral is, like, not exciting which is bad, right? Because manic American-gameshow excitement’s a virtue, right? All that shouting and excitement’s important, right?
“Throw out what you’ve been cluttering.” What does that even mean? Hopefully a page or two of some medieval manuscripts won’t find themselves on the trash pile?
“Unfollow negative people.”Well that’s me ‘unfollowed’ right there. Please, I beg you: UNFOLLOW ME! And unfollow any one who isn’t as oppressively positive as you. Of course: you’ll be unfollowing the Old Testament prophets too, and Saint John of the Apocalypse would be a definitive candidate for unfollowing if he’d had a blog. All that shit about plagues and the end of the world. Why was he so goddamned miserable? SMILE, JOHN OF PATMOS!
“Go to bed early” Right, because all the really interesting people are up and out at night, and you don’t want to meet them. Who needs to meet a Van Gogh with his silly Starry Night painting, or his paintings of night time pavement cafés in Paris or Arles? But yes: Jesus used to get up early according to one evangelical friend; so early to bed/early to rise has gotta be good, right?
“Be fierce”. Yeah. Lets all be fierce. Trump is fierce. Take what you want is fierce. Fucking Vikings were fierce but not the finest examples of human behavour. So are we talking Capitalist businessman fierce or Nazi fierce here? Or just good ol’ intolerant fierce?
“Don’t gossip.” (self-censure easily becomes puritanical disengagement. Think of the mischievous conversations of Enlightenment satirists and frequenters of ‘the coffee shops’ of eighteenth century England – the attacks bordering on calumny against establishment figures by intellectuals with their caustic wit and cartoons: we’d call them out would we, shut them up? Don’t gossip!
“Show more gratitude”. My personal favourite. There are children starving in Africa so who are you to complain? The censure by the well-healed of anyone who expresses dissatisfaction with their lot. How dare you. It also assumes there’s a sort of hierarchy of sorrows – a ‘value-chain’ of melancholy – and your sorrows are worth less than someone else’s. And of course: there’s nothing more dangerous to the status quo than a complainer. Root ’em out and shut ’em up. Yeah – be grateful: ‘Thank you Lord for the Tsunami that wiped out my family thank you Lord that I live in the first world and am not in Syria or Iraq or Afghanistan or Yemen being bombed by first world bombs amen.’
Be brave.
Can’t argue with that. ‘Rah rah over the top boys’ – and don’t mind the Jerry machine guns, the barbed wire or the bombs. Except that when you read the firsthand accounts of the men in the trenches, you’ll find this blab by non-noncombatants insulting. Facing death, fear was a constant companion and no insult to bravery. Read Siegfried Sassoon’s poems and feel his contempt for the officers, politicians and society which demanded bravery of the common soldier.
Further reading:

“He was despised and rejected—a man of sorrows, acquainted with deepest grief.  We turned our backs on him and looked the other way. He was despised, and we did not care. Isaiah 53:3

The Servant of God in Isaiah is a “man of sorrows.” The Hebrew phrase (’ish makh’ovot) means, literally, “man of pains,” and refers to both physical and emotional suffering. God’s Servant would not be immune from difficulties. In fact, he would be “acquainted with deepest grief.”


One thought on “The tyranny of the Positive: a rant in red.

  1. This rant is so right.
    The positive be happy stuff is always individual, lacking humility, as if feeling part of something greater and unknowable, was a problem. I wonder if “positive” people have forgotten how to play?


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