Pessimism can create a possibility for greater compassion and political solidarity, argues a new book by UVM scholar of French literature Joseph Acquisto, “Living Well with Pessimism in Nineteenth-Century France” (2021).

“Pessimism is really about a sense of limits, about realizing what we can and can’t control and then working to improve things with no illusions about being able to ultimately solve all of these problems,” Professor Acquisto said. 

Acquisto studies French literature from the 19th and early 20th centuries during which there was great cultural and technological transformation and upheaval that became a major subject for artists and writers of that time.

“There was a real ambivalence,” Acquisto said. “Can we affirm human progress or is there something really sinister behind what we’re doing?”

This widespread doubt transformed the intellectual landscape. Pessimism, a term unheard of before the 18th century, entered into popular French vocabulary. The development of pessimism is central to Acquisto’s research, and is the subject of his new book.

In a new book that he is currently writing, Acquisto examines how the French poet Baudelaire’s poetry incorporates the musical idea of dissonance. Poetry — traditionally a medium of harmony, rhyme and consonance — was challenged by Baudelaire’s revolutionary approach. Baudelaire didn’t, want to “overturn notions of harmony,” Acquisto said.

“You can’t really perceive harsh or awful sounding things unless you have a notion of harmony against which it’s going,” Acquisto said. “Dissonance needs consonance.”

Research isn’t Professor Acquisto’s only priority. He teaches classes for students ranging from first-years to advanced Honors College students. When working with them, he facilitates an environment based on exchange.

“The most important thing is to make it text-centered,” Acquisto said. Whether he approaches the text through analysis or discussion, understanding the material at hand is paramount. 

“I always try to make the text the star of the show, because it’s really not about me.”

“I have an equal passion for both research and teaching.” Acquisto said. He was drawn to UVM because “teaching and research are equally important for their faculty members,” creating agreeable balance of the two.

“I love the quiet of reading and writing in my office and the dynamism of my classes,” Acquisto said.

Acquisto was the first in his family to attend college. He double majored in French and music. Following his first experience on campus, he immediately fell in love with the atmosphere. “Once I set foot on a college campus,” Acquisto says, “I decided I never wanted to be any other place.” Each day, he aims to inspire his students with that same enthusiasm for learning.

That enthusiasm has inspired his students. Last year, Acquisto was one of four faculty members to receive the University Scholar Award for distinguished excellence in research and creative and scholarly work. 

Acquisto joined the faculty in 2003. Some of his other books include: “Poetry’s Knowing Ignorance” (2019) and “Proust, Music and Meaning” (2017). 


Noah Lafaso is a student at the Community College of Vermont who is intending to join the UVM community next year. He writes out of habit, not necessity. His passion for the written word knows no earthly bounds. 


Noah Lafasato