“I stand between two worlds, I am at home in neither, and this makes things a little difficult for me. You artists call me a bourgeois, and the bourgeois feel they ought to arrest me . . . I don’t know which of the two hurts me more bitterly. The bourgeois are fools; but you . . . who say . . . I have no longing in my soul . . . should remember that there is a kind of artist so profoundly, so primordially fated to be an artist that no longing seems sweeter and more precious to him than his longing for the bliss of the commonplace. . . . I admire those proud, cold spirits who venture out along paths of grandiose, demonic beauty and despise ‘humanity’—but I do not envy them. For if there is anything that can turn a literary man into a truly great writer, then it is this bourgeois love of mine for the human and the living and the ordinary. It is the source of all warmth, of all kindheartedness and of all humor, and I am almost persuaded it is that very love without which, as we are told, one may speak with the tongues of men and of angels and yet be a sounding brass and a tinkling cymbal.”—Thomas Mann, Tonio Kröger (1903)
Trying to argue with a die-hard cynic is much like trying to argue with a die-hard conspiracy theorist or a religious fundamentalist: they’ve got an answer for everything, regardless of how much evidence you muster. This leads me to suspect that radical cynicism is, in fact, a species of faith. The irony of this is that cynics usually like to see themselves as hard-nosed realists: e.g., I’m just telling it like it is, son; everybody’s selfish; everybody’s out to get theirs; altruism is a myth, it’s the way of the world. In fact, the cynic’s metaphysical stance towards the world pretty much ensures that they will willfully ignore or explain away any evidence that contradicts their interpretation of the world. Though they’d surely hate the comparison, the cynic’s bulletproof worldview is, at bottom, strikingly similar to that of the devoutly religious.
In The Doubter’s Companion: A Dictionary of Aggressive Common Sense (1994), the Canadian philosopher John Ralston Saul defines cynicism thus: “An effective social mechanism for preventing communication. Cynicism is found in people who see themselves principally as members of a class or ideological group and not as individuals. It indicates a lack of self-confidence. Through an appearance of world weariness it attempts to suggest the possession of inside knowledge. The cynic knows and can’t be bothered to tell those who are ignorant. Since no real distinction is possible, the cynic’s group-attitudes cannot be questioned. Cynicism is thus an aggressively superior attitude which abhors debate in order to disguise inferiority. As a result, the eighteenth-century idea that wrongdoing was caused by ignorance has been reversed. Instead, the possession of expert knowledge is regularly used to argue that only the naïve don’t understand why it is necessary and even good to do wrong.”
The golden nuggets of insight produced by the cynical perspective are dazzling in the dark—they sparkle and shine before dawn, in dimly-lit cafés and smoky symposiums. But look at your newfound treasures by the warm light of day—under a cloudless blue sky, sobering sunshine in your face—and you’ll see them for what they really are: fool’s gold.
If religion is the opiate of the masses, a certain kind of mean-spirited cynicism is the opiate of the hipster.
—John Faithful Hamer, From Here (2016)