The first definition of the word pessimist, in an anonymous article in the French journal Observateur littéraire (1759), reads simply: “celui qui voit les choses en noir”. And in words like “black vision” and “Schwarzseherei”, pessimism has a synonym in several languages. There is a clear link here to melancholy. Melancholy was traditionally thought to arise from the
either an excessive amount of black bile was formed and spread in the body, or that black bile or some other substance was burnt, which in turn was due to some organ, often the liver, being too hot, whereby black evaporation spread in the body. In severe cases these reached the head and eyes, and dyed the world black for the melancholic. He or she sees in a concrete sense the world in black, carries an eternal darkness within; and is therefore afflicted with sorrow, with anxiety, with fear. The word pessimism was thus created by its opponents. It was coined in melancholy terms, with the obvious purpose of pathologize its predecessors. By implying that pessimists are melancholics, one implies that their gloom is of the pathological kind.
But melancholia is ambiguous, and pessimism became so for the same reason. For melancholy has a creative side. Through a kind of alchemy, the black bile is transformed into artistic inspiration. The proximity of melancholy makes the image of this transformation of darkness and gloom into great art
and profound thoughts also benefit the pessimists.
As we have seen, the narrator juxtaposes Berta’s interest in pessimism with her melancholic disposition. For the very reason that melancholy is a theme that is portrayed on several levels in the novel, pessimism becomes a natural element of it. The imagery is drawn to the iconography of melancholy: the few landscape depictions tend to be bleak autumn and winter landscapes. Berta’s appearance suggests melancholy, in particular the black circles around her eyes are a typical sign of
melancholy. Equally typical is an attraction to the night, which can be seen, for example, when Berta sits on her bed after a ball, too excited to sleep: ‘She sat a little in the dark — the lights in the toilet only cast a scanty glow away there. But it clothed her now — this half-darkness.” Darkness and night are her elements. In Berta’s person, melancholy manifests itself as a lack of will to live. She does not find her role in life; and it
mostly because life does not really interest her. The prescription is an iron-rich diet and trips abroad, but her real problems lie on a completely different level.
The modern pessimism that interests Berta Funcke, however, and important to be clear, something more than a mental disposition to to see existence in black. It is above all a philosophical doctrine which for some decades at the end of the 19th century was a fashionable trend. 80s pessimism is not a psychological phenomenon but a metaphysical To fully understand Berta Funcke, we also need to understand this side of pessimism.
The only pessimistic philosopher who is read today (and who strictly speaking belongs to an older generation) is Schopenhauer, but there was a group of pessimistic philosophers, in itself heterogeneous and loosely coherent
at the time. Alongside Schopenhauer, the most influential of these was Eduard von Hartmann. “Schopenhauer ist Gott und Hartmann ist sein Prophet,” one of the pessimism’s critics wryly exclaimed.Hartmann’s magnum opus Die Philosophie des Unbewussten was first published in 1869 and went through twelve editions, each time in ever larger pagination. Under the title The Essence of the Process of the World, or The Philosophy of the Unconscious, the book was translated into English in 1877 by a group of writers. A 28-year-old librarian named August Strindberg was one of the most prominent names in the eyes of posterity, if not of his time. Among the pessimists was Hartmann’s wife, Agnes Taubert, whose small book Der Pessimismus und seine Gegner (1873) made her one of the most influential voices in the debate on pessimism and the value of life that Hartmann’s philosophy generated. Julius Bahnsen, like Hartmann a prolific private scholar whose major work is Der Widerspruch im Willen und Welt (1880–82) also deserves mention. Philipp Mainländer, whose Die Philosophie der Erlösung (1876) was one of the most drastic reinterpretations of Schopenhauer. Friedrich Nietzsche’s early writings Die Geburt der Tragödie (1872) and Unzeitgemäße Betrachtungen (1873–76) are usually often counted among them.