On Life Worth Living
- ISBN: 9781350177741
- Published By: Bloomsbury Academic
- Published: January 2021
In his poem “Manifesto: The Mad Farmer Liberation Front,” Wendell Berry counsels “Be joyful / though you have considered all the facts.” In Melancholic Joy: On Life Worth Living, Brian Treanor goes beyond poetic exhortation to explore the grounds for affirming the goodness of being, suggesting ways of living that leave one open to experiences of wonder and joy even while remaining cognizant of the darker aspects of reality. Treanor’s slender book, which is illustrated with examples drawn from poetry, literature, and film, spans tremendous range and is richly annotated. In fact, the notes—which document his sources, extend his argument, and suggest further explorations to his reader—comprise a quarter of the overall text. He writes primarily for his colleagues in continental philosophy, a discipline that tends to focus on dismal topics such as evil, alienation, anxiety, and mourning. But readers committed to a “life worth living” even in the face of death, pandemics, climate change, and other sources of suffering will also find much of value in this book.
The opening chapter is an extended litany of despair, including starkly pessimistic reflections from philosophers E.M. Cioran (The Trouble with Being Born, Arcade, 2012) and Eugene Thacker (Cosmic Pessimism, Univocal, 2015). Treanor acknowledges life’s hard realities, but argues that a philosophical wager “against hope, against meaning, against the goodness of being” will be self-fulfilling (81). An unrelenting focus on evil and suffering, in all its forms, both constructs and constrains our perception of the world. But life offers moments of grace and beauty as well, and Treanor invites readers “to look and see the whole of reality, as honestly and completely as we can” (142).
Treanor’s intent is to evoke a vision and invite reflection, not to prove a well-argued point. Nonetheless, I might trace the broad outline of his argument as follows: Evil is not a problem to be solved; rather, it is a mystery of being. While some evils—such as systemic racism and sexual violence—should be repudiated and opposed, others just are and must be lived with. Alongside intractable evils and the inevitable sufferings that play themselves out over time, the fundamental goodness of being is ever present and most clearly evident if we trust our embodied experience in natural settings. Hope is too often confused with desire. Desire and fear are future-facing, object- or event-oriented dispositions. Hope and despair, in contrast, are existential moods, lived in the present, and lacking a determinate object. Despair succumbs to a view of the overall meaninglessness of existence; hope actively asserts the fundamental goodness of being. “The wager or assertion of hope is an effort to position and orient oneself—physically, perceptually, intellectually, emotionally, and spiritually—in such a way that the goodness of the world can be experienced” (83).
How then shall we live? Treanor recommends a practice of extended exposure to natural places, in solitude and silence, listening and observing attentively, so that one attunes the capacity to perceive, experience, and appreciate the beauty and grace of the natural world. “This is the human vocation: to love and celebrate and give thanks for the world, the miracle that things are rather than are-not, and the incomparable gift that we are here to witness it” (114).
To affirm the world even in the face of pervasive evil is, in Treanor’s terms, an “act of faith.” By faith, however, he does not mean any particular religiosity. His affirmation of existence is founded on these first principles: a minimal commitment to the meaningfulness of reality and the goodness of being. “In general,” he writes, “we argue from rather than for such first principles, and that constitutes faith” (151). As noted above, Treanor characterizes continental philosophy as tending to focus exclusively on despairing topics. His act of faith doesn’t replace that disposition with a cheery one. Rather, Treanor’s joy retains a melancholic awareness of intractable evil and pervasive suffering, akin to the post-critical embrace of faith that Paul Ricoeur calls the “second naïveté.”
In Melancholic Joy, Treanor encourages a profound experience of both the joy and sorrow of the world. The despairing tone of continental philosophy may be a welcome corrective to the pervasive death-denying superficiality and distraction of modern consumer culture. But “routinized habits, narrowly pragmatic concerns, and the blind delusional belief that we’ve all the time in the world” (149) must not lead us to miss and fail to appreciate experiences of wonder and joy. “It is possible,” Treanor writes, “standing at the edge of the abyss, after looking the reasons for nihilism and pessimism straight in the face” (19), to turn back toward the world on which our feet still stand and love it wholeheartedly.
Nancy Menning is a visiting scholar in the Department of Environmental Studies and Sciences at Ithaca College.Nancy MenningDate Of Review:February 18, 2022