Pragmatic Pessimism

Liveright | 2020

Reviewed by Jerry Ward, Jr.


image frank wilderson III

The stiff-shirt men and ice-bosom women among us may reject its management of truth, preferring to be charmed into a prior century by Fyodor Dostoevsky's Notes from Underground (1864).  Some American readers who possess advanced book learning   and bourgeois yearnings do not want to deal with virtually unfiltered testimony as it growls and laughs in Wilderson's book..  

They want perspectives on the human condition to be shaped like Dostoevsky's fiction.  They want the safe, socially distanced thrills of best-selling novels.  The traumatic mirrors in Afropessimism reflect what they wish not to see:  their Dorian Gray faces.  For them, denying inconvenient realities is crucial.

One can take or leave fiction without registering guilt or shame provoked by x-ray non-fiction.  That is the rough magic of narratives that don't demand verification.  Wilderson's non-fiction, replete with riffs and grace notes, leaves its fingerprints in the mind; it promotes a medieval "agenbite of inwit." Inwit is a severe disadvantage in the dystopian crevices of the contemporary United States of America, is it not?  Those who have won advantages and privileges by dint of hard work or strokes of fortune or criminal acts seek to minimize social horror and inequity with daily doses of optimism.  They remind one of the classic monkeys who see nothing, say nothing, hear nothing.

Afropessimism  is  a serious, tantalizing book.  If you don't read it with judicious skepticism, you'll find yourself jailed in abjectness.  The term "Afropessimism" was first used in political discourse to name how doubtful the West was with regard to the African continent's having a viable future.  There was noteworthy hypocrisy in the term's being coined by a Frenchman  who apparently had no qualms about post-colonial exploitation of Mother Africa.  It wasn't his mother who was being raped.  

Later, Afropessimism drifted into meaning belief that one is an antithesis of the Human, a mental condition that readily manifests itself in nihilism and benign genocide. Wilderson  does not give his readers the luxury of selecting one point and not another on the spectrum of meaning.  He provides angles to cover all bases.

Wilderson is a gifted writer.  In the words of  Louise Glȕck, he makes expert use of "the intimate, private voice, which public utterance can sometimes augment or extend, but never replace" (2020 Nobel Lecture).  It is a relief that Wilderson illuminates and critiques pain (the pet topic of 21st century publishing) with wicked humor.  

He doesn't bludgeon his readers with pomposity.  He   asserts independence in departing from the styles and structures chosen by such thinkers as   Orlando Patterson,  Claudine Rankine, Audre Lorde,  Kiese Laymon,  Ta-Nehisi Coates, Cornel West,   Jesmyn Ward, and Tommy J. Curry to deal with social death, social pain. 

He forges compelling poetic prose to give substance to his intentions.  And one of his aims is exposing the difficulty of locating allies outside or inside the boundaries of ethnic identity. There is no necessary and sufficient reason to authorize trust among  red, yellow,  black, brown, and white peoples.

The rigor of Wilderson's  contrarian posture radiates in one of the more difficult passages about the ontology of Afropessimism:

"Throughout this book I have argued that the Black is a sentient being though not a Human being.  The Black's and the Human's  disparate relationship to violence is at the heart of this failure of this analogy. The Human suffers contingent violence, violence that kicks in when he resists (or is perceived to resist) the disciplinary discourse of civil society's rules and laws.  But Black peoples' saturation by violence is a paradigmatic necessity, not simply the performance of contingency" (245).

The passage is ambiguous.  If it read with what legal scholars and judges call strict construction, one concludes the Black woman and man are sentient aliens.  If it is read symbolically, the Black is a sentient pawn in the most cruel, anti-human game God's wretched children  are capable of imagining. 

 To the extent the passage is informed by psychoanalytic  gestures, it is disconcertingly suspect.  It moves toward   the dangerous territory of blatherskite.   I trust literary use of psychoanalysis  as much as I trust an angry rattlesnake. But given that Wilderson was mentored by Edward Said and Cornel West and a few other thinkers who possess authority, I think I know from where he is coming.  He is emerging from the historical, instructive spaces of ancient African/Black thought.

Another passage that gives me pause reads:

"In the tribal meeting hall, the Indians had no use for either of my parents: Whether we are White and wealthy or Red and poor, we don't want a nigger telling us what to do……

The force of both White and Indigenous affect spoke with one voice: a chorus of libidinal economy.  In the collective unconscious of Indigenous imagining, the specter of Blackness was a greater threat than the settler institution that had dispatched a Black professor to do its dirty work" (45).

Here the words Yellow and Brown can assume linguistic equality with Red and White. And the words truly assume intensity when Wilderson employs Solomon Northup's Twelve Years a Slave to achieve specificity about rampant psychosexual disorders in the United States of America.  Such raw treachery.  Such cannibalism. Such unmitigated horror.  Pragmatic pessimism is condemned to do unending battle with THE HORROR.

Afropessimism is one of the most serious books published in 2020.  It should be read by a global audience for what it tells us about demonic ignorance throughout this world.   And in time the book might be rewarded with the special corrective attention given to Django Unchained in Black Hollywood Unchained (Chicago: Third World Press, 2015). Pragmatic pessimism is a beautiful thing that anoints a few people with wisdom.

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