“Spinoza was neither an optimist nor a pessimist. He neither laughed at life nor grieved over it. It is possible that he understood it.” —Edgar Saltus, The Anatomy of Negation
After making something of an effort to keep up with the terrific output of Vox Day’s Castalia House imprint, I’m now poking my nose into Kevin Slaughter’s doings over at his Underworld Amusements publishing venture.
My shame at being this late to review the combined edition of Edgar Saltus’ two superb genealogies of philosophical pessimism that Slaughter released in 2014 is limited. First of all, Saltus died in 1921; he can wait.
So allow me to waste even more time in remarking that, of all the unsung heroes of literature, small publishers—particularly those who mix lost masterpieces of past centuries in with their current hopeless fare—are the least sung of all.
Not that authors fare much better anymore. Even had my book reviewing not been interrupted this year by an unpleasant interlude, the mountain of unread review copies of books on my desk would still be but a foothill compared to the Alps I haven’t yet had the nerve to order. It would be a relief to complain that it’s all a dunghill and not worth reviewing anyway; but unfortunately that claim can only be made about the smarmy crap that clogs what passes for a literary mainstream. Here in the underworld there’s no end of good stuff to read, and we make more every day. God damn you all.
Indeed, there are times when—despite my most studious ventures into self-esteem—the crowded abattoir of other worthy laborers whose fiction and philosophy remain obscure seems almost as tragic as the neglect that has been un-heaped upon my own.
If I were a more economically rational creature I would give up writing fiction on the spot; the amount of money I’ve made in my life reviewing fiction dwarfs what I’ve made writing it by a factor that often causes my head to drift involuntarily toward the oven. It’s simple economics: authors’ panicked demand for reviews of their works is a constant clamor. They Tweet the results around to all their friends, who find that awarding a click to the review takes far less time than reading the book, while still allowing them to have an opinion about it.
Meanwhile the demand for new work is diluted by all these accursed books. We are each of us desperate for our chance, and bitterly aware that the dice are almost hopelessly loaded. It is that last shred of hope that weighs the mailman down with everyone’s desperation. And remember: the millions of writers now working are piling manuscripts on top of the heaps that were already undeservingly obscure before the population explosion.
In other words: poor Edgar Saltus. I could praise this turn-of-the-last-century subgenius even more than he deserved and it would not budge the needle. Then again—as the only prominent New Yorker I can think of around the turn of the last century who was fascinated by pessimism—Saltus would hardly be surprised.
Saltus was the author of a long list of engaging (as far as the little I’ve read) and well-chiseled novels that almost nobody reads anymore. He was a writer’s writer, semi-known for his sharp literary style in his day.
But his only current traces of fame are scraps from the table of his contemporary Oscar Wilde—a sloppier but more socially adept writer who was lucky enough to see his literary legacy cemented when the government killed him. (If you say giving Wilde two years’ hard labor wasn’t technically a death sentence, I say you’ve never watched an aging lush try to take up jogging.)
Saltus’ plainspoken yet somehow enigmatic eulogy for the famous playwright—“Oscar Wilde: An Idler’s Impression”—has been plundered by many a biographer and filmmaker, but few have taken a detour into the rest of Saltus’ oeuvre. In the eulogy Saltus pays homage to Wilde’s untamed genius, particularly in conversation, but exaggerates his lack of compositional discipline with the charming unself-awareness of a moneyed but honest American who is not shy about calling an Irishman an upstart. Highly understandable: you would have to be humor-impaired to dismiss Wilde’s plays, but that doesn’t take the sting out of the fact that even before film, the performing arts were burying their more introspective cousin the novel in a mound of stage makeup.
Several of Saltus’ glum but brilliantly written fictional works are now free on Kindle, but there are almost no customer reviews. The philosophical works are present in no college curricula that I can turn up on Google, but that’s no surprise either. Since Saltus apparently wanted to be known mostly for his fiction—don’t we all?—he didn’t spend his brain matter stuffing original theories into his “philosophical writings.”
Instead he wrote histories of philosophy. To dig the hole deeper, he wrote them from an oft-neglected perspective: that of the pessimists. The two works collected in this rich volume comprise an enthused but well-ordered rundown of the philosophical history of anticipating the worst, including sighs of resignation both religious and secular.
The first text in the Underworld Amusements volume, The Philosophy of Disenchantment, is a cruel takedown of godless good cheer—focusing mainly on a delightful intellectual biography of that peerless grump, Schopenhauer. The second, The Anatomy of Negation, is a history of the sad slump of the gods.
But The Philosophy of Disenchantment—with its wry focus on Schopenhauer and the secular dump he took upon secularism—is, to the modern reader, far more interesting. The gods, with the forcible exception of his dyspeptic highness Mr. Allah, have been beaten to death too thoroughly since Saltus’ time for any intelligent person to much enjoy stomping on the corpses.
And as it turns out, atheist optimism is even more stubborn than belief in the gods. This makes a kind of psychological sense: trying to convince ourselves that we enjoy our vertiginous freedom from Dad-God—a freedom which is fast growing stale—is a last-ditch effort at satisfaction with life. As my publisher, Chip Smith (bless his insane heart), says in his introduction to this volume:
It is instructive, I think, to contrast what dim solace Saltus summons before the void with the cheery—and frankly credulous—optimism incessantly being trumpeted in contemporary iterations of what has recently been branded the “New Atheism.” Examples of such rose-tinted sentiment are amply supplied in the writings of the movement’s chief expositor, Richard Dawkins, whose fast and loose atheistic polemics come adorned with curiously exultant paeans to the life-affirming wonders of the natural universe into which we are assuredly and emphatically privileged to have been cast.
As a swift overview of much of world philosophy, I would gladly recommend both halves of the collection to a fair (or even functional) academic world as an introductory college text; Saltus not only politely and succinctly castigates the masses of mystics who made mincemeat out of Buddhism’s original simplicity, he very neatly contrasts Eastern pessimism with the Western and Middle Eastern philosophers it fed. After recommending it in this world, however, I would be sent to the dunce chair for being so mean.
And yet it is not clear that Saltus is a partisan for pessimism. Although he exudes a great sympathy for even the most cartoonishly dour of Schopenhauer’s proclamations on the horribleness of it all—all the while slipping in the most convincing rational apology for Schopenhauer’s semi-mystic “Will” that I have ever read—he seems highly wary of any sort of ideology of pessimism. Yes, death is inevitable and probably final, people are liars, the waiter probably spat in your entrée, etc. Let’s not form a showtunes choir about it.
Though Saltus highlights several threads in Schopenhauer—the esteemed subject of most of The Philosophy of Disenchantment—that could be almost directly traced to the modern antinatalist movement, he never waxes too humorless about the pointlessness of life. Obviously modern antinatalism didn’t exist in his time, but Saltus seems too intellectually eager to pick apart the pros, cons, and biography of the next pessimist on his list to have ever gotten bogged down in anyone’s nightmare., call it what you may. Then again, I don’t know what horrors passed in the privacy of his own rooms.
Nor would I call Saltus a disciple of his own wit—in fact he seemed to find wit unsettling, if not uncanny. In “An Idler’s Impression” he said of Wilde: “He exuded wit and waded in it with a serenity that was disconcerting.”
Of Voltaire: “Now wit is little else than the commonplace in fine clothes; and Voltaire, who treated the humdrum with the skill of a modiste, drew the threads of fancy, and worked an elaborate hemstitch . . .”
Rather than a poet, per his aspirations, Saltus was a linguistic technician, but an inspired technician; a thankless job, especially if you factor in all the misery to which inspiration is generally heir. I suppose the best Saltus’ shade (in which he most likely didn’t believe, though I like to think I’m helping him anyway) could hope for today is to become a writer’s writer once again. I will certainly read more of his fiction, if I ever dig through this pile of tortured souls on my desk.