on nihilism and hope

A remarkable passage by the psychoanalyst Adam Phillips at the end of his Forbidden Pleasures, pg 181. We have to choose between them: the stark nature of the dichotomy is often unclear but this is little more than wilful obsfucation, on the part of the social order if not the individual. To give up on hope ultimately entails nihilism.

The idea that it would have been better not to have been born presents the future as without promise, and the past before the past as desirable. The unknowing and the unknowable is preferred to the apparently all too known. Not the pleasure of there being no pain and no pleasure, and not the desire for more pleasure than pain, but release from all the pleasure–pain calculations, the appropriately phrased nineteenth-century ‘hedonistic calculus’. It is the ultimate wish: the wish not to be done with pleasure and pain, but for the pleasure and pain never to have begun. More ambitious, in some ways, than suicide or a death wish, the desire not to have been born is the desire to have been exempted from all such considerations. It spells the futility of all the questions, all the preoccupations, all the desires, that being alive presents. But only in retrospect, when such a state can only be imagined; and you have to be alive, of course, to imagine it. The precondition for wanting never to have been born is to have been born. It is not a wish for an end before the beginning, but a wish for the abolition of beginnings and endings. It is the imagining of no imagining, a release from the need to be released from anything. Instead of the so-called perfectibility of man –the sense that there can be better future versions of ourselves, more just societies, more equable economic conditions, the hope in anticipation –it promotes the irrelevance of all ameliorative projects. As though every wish, except the wish to have never started wishing, were a fundamental misrecognition of what life was really like.