some bagatelles on the misanthropy of art II: a few kinds of misanthropes


“What we need is hatred. From it our ideas are born.” – Jean Genet

“Where, I ask you,” cries Verneuil, “is the mortal stupid enough in face of all the evidence to claim that all men are born equal, in law and in fact? It was left to a misanthropist like Rousseau to put forward such a paradox, since, being extremely weak, he wanted to pull down those to whose level he was unable to raise himself. What effrontery did it take, I ask you, for this pygmy four feet two inches tall to compare himself to the model of stature and strength whom nature had endowed with the strength and figure of a Hercules? Is that not the same as comparing a fly to an elephant?” – Sade

One of the most generic understandings of misanthropy has been that it arises from a kind of disappointed idealism. The misanthrope is not so much a hater, but rather a jilted lover, à la Molière’s Alceste, that infamous cantankerous inamorato, whose unfortunate attitude had sprung from loving not wisely but too well. It’s the kind of assessment you get from a shrink or a Marxist: of course it isn’t what it blatantly is, it must be something else… A starkly different conception of the misanthrope emerges in Nietzsche, who recognizes in this figure that which can never be contemporary, that which refuses the community of significance and rejects the pseudo-reality of cultural life. Instead, the misanthrope is an untimely figure “lost in the present, waiting for the past, and haunted by the future.” In Deleuzean terms they would be the paradox, that which refuses the common sense of the world and remains resigned as a witness that never experiences anything – that which is always there but never caught in either being or becoming. Rather like a photograph or a painting.

In spite of the frequency of people hating, it tends to be lucratively pathologized, usually under the umbrella of some sort of phobia. This is clearly stupid. People scarcely hate because they fear, but they seem to pathologically fear hate. And this fear is a deep one because when confronted with hatred, people are confronted with the limits of what constitutes being a person. As soon as there is doubt cast on this sacred definition, usually one furnished and policed by the state, a certain uneasiness arises. This is the result of the fact that one’s humanity, and certainly that of any imaginary Others, is nowhere near self-evident. The pathological and totalitarian insistence on the broadness of humanity has become the backbone of the contemporary academic and artistic economy. Anything that transgresses this imperialism of subjects is immediately stigmatized. Generally this is termed the unhuman, sometimes the demonic, likewise we might call it the perverse, either in Deleuze’s sense or in that of E.A. Poe.

florenceking-withcharitytowardsnoneNow deceased, but once professional human hater, Florence King, schematized misanthropes into two basic types. First was that of the naked intellect, who could passionately hate humanity and coolly vivisect it, relishing the surgery. “The misanthrope of the naked intellect hates people straight down the line with no exceptions and no regrets. Regarding mankind as hopeless, he tends to be apolitical. Regarding mankind as loathsome, he tends to be an apolitical arch-conservative, a purely temperamental stance whose sole purpose is hands-off apocalyptic revenge. Presented with Thomas Hobbes’s assessment, ‘The life of man is solitary, poor, nasty, brutish, and short,’ he replies: ‘If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.'” She contrasts this with the tender misanthrope, a Rousseau type who hates humanity too, but clings to optimism, sure he or she could love humanity if only encountering it in some ideal and uncorrupted variety. Real, authentic, people are all that is required for the cure. They project this onto the oppressed of all shapes, stripes and spasms whose pathos rescues them from the sickness of artifice. If only we eliminated inequality, they suggest, these real and good people could come to the fore. And the only way to reveal their real authentic goodness is to save them from the world of artifice and science, from all the discriminations that are piled up on their humpbacks and inflame their goiters. Without all of that art getting in the way, we could finally see that the derision cast on these creatures is only a vile prejudice and they are actually beautiful and tender souls. They are more beautiful than art, and they don’t even need to be cured of their ills by science because that would be caving to a horrible aesthetic prejudice masquerading as medical treatment. Misanthropes don’t care for misanthropes, but no one hates them more than these sentimental haters. In both cases, there is a type of idealism at play that is both fuelling and feeding off of disaffection with the species. In his look at Victorian-era misanthropes, Christopher Lane describes the idealistic variety succinctly:

christopherlane-hatredandcivilityThe ensuing strain touches on psychology and philosophy. As truculent idealists, misanthropes are society’s conscience and scold. Like revolutionaries, they question what we expect from other people; unlike revolutionaries, they can’t stand other people. Dismissing the idea of harmonious coexistence, misanthropes scorn fellow feeling, to say nothing of loyalty, conformity, and altruism. Ignoring Enlightenment philosophers who claimed that humans rationally would pursue pleasurable activities, many nineteenth-century misanthropes realized they would experience more happiness spoiling other people’s.


Some, such as David Konstan, have argued that the misanthrope stands as the representative of an ideal that had been betrayed. We might say they are a kind of rigid formalism trapped in an organic body and left to the ridiculousness of a society in flux.

There are, of course, misanthropes who hate people because of the misery that people cause, either to their own species or to the non-human world at large. Such people may identify themselves as anti-natalists and volunteer themselves for extinction. But a more cynical misanthrope might suggest that their uncomfortable knitting together of delirious compassion and self-congratulatory loathing is little more than a reduction to absurdity of the most asinine elements of liberal mythology. And it is. Suicidal volunteerism is only one or two peanuts short of welfare advocacy. There is a kind of Buddhist misanthropy here – a condemnation of life because it is suffering. Dolorism, by contrast, affirms the misery of life. In the Occident, this was crystallized in two distinct brands of Christianity, one which extolled the virtues of misery and sought their increase to gain knowledge of divinity; and one that condemned suffering as an evil to be extinguished through acts of mercy. The history of aesthetics, with their enrichment of the capacity for intensification, can be squarely placed in the Dolorist camp, though, unlike suffering (actively or passively), few have ever acknowledged either the aesthetic or ethical superiority perpetuating misery. The history of art institutions, theory, and publicity have largely been founded on obscuring this fact and overcoding its residue in terms more amenable to our phenomenal fancies. But stripped of the fantasies encased in social signalling, it may be best to recall Dostoevski’s suggestion that the only thing societies have ever done is increase the variety of sensations to suffer.

220px-Howard-TimonAct4There is also a middle road between what appears to be the Scylla and Charybdis of misanthropy. That’s when the idealistic misanthrope loses their idealism. This can either turn to a pure venting of spite and vitriol, the Timonist manner of misanthropy, or something more dejected. Although King insists on the passion of misanthropy, even among its coldest adherents, the hatred of the species can wear some out. Eventually, they might realize that people are not worth the bother of hating. And while relishing their misery may offer some tangential pleasure, unless you possess a profoundly sensitive palate, what you have to endure for that meagre taste of sadism isn’t quite worth it. Unlike pleasure, which is tediously finite and gets boring fast so it requires aesthetic laws to make it tenable, suffering seems more genuinely infinite: there never seems to be nearly enough of it and it can be exponentially increased.

What resulted from Rousseauist misanthropy was people going on crying jags in the woods and then writing about it to their friends. Today they use social media or go to political protests. Unfortunately, many of them also attend art schools. Even more unfortunately, artist-run centres and state funding seem to exist to foist them on the public. To continue with King: “Only a tender misanthrope could screw up the world as Rousseau did. The misanthrope of the naked intellect, disdaining such categories as real people on the grounds that if indeed they exist, they must be even worse than the other kind, has no wish to liberate the repressions of a species that he already finds intolerable. If he must share the world with people, he wants them to be as decorous and self-controlled as possible. He is thus an Age of Reason unto himself who, for purely selfish motives, places humanity on a pedestal and holds it to the highest standard of behavior. Ironically or not, the misanthrope of the naked intellect is the true friend of mankind.” Driving the irony home, she notes that “Madame Bovary, the work of a misanthrope, is the most user-friendly novel ever written.”


In practice, one might argue, that whether you love or hate really does not make any difference. Or, to paraphrase a dead Irishman, there are two kinds of people who become socialists: those who hate the poor and those who love them. The Rousseauists have, for the moment at least, won out on monopolizing hatred, doing so not too wisely but too well. Soon, any other variety of loathing untempered by the hypocritical sadism of compassion mongering and moral blackmail may indeed be illegal.


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