Today, Time magazine released a prose poem by Titus Kaphar entitled “I Cannot Sell You This Painting,” intended to accompany his painting that appears on the cover of the June 15 issue of the magazine. It is deeply moving and powerful short work, and I would encourage everyone to read and meditate on it. (I have posted links at the end of this essay to the poem and a few other pieces I touch on.) Well into the poem, Kaphar cries out, “Do/ not/ ask/ me/ to/ be/ hopeful;” and then again a little further on, he observes, “And so those without hope…/ Burn./ This Black mother understands the fire./ Black mothers/ understand despair./ I can change NOTHING in this world,/ but in paint,/ I can realize her…./ This brings me solace…/ not hope,/ but solace.”
In January 2019, the extraordinary young climate change activist Greta Thunberg concluded her stirring address to Davos World Economic forum in a similar fashion:
Adults keep saying: “We owe it to the young people to give them hope.” But I don’t want your hope. I don’t want you to be hopeful. I want you to panic. I want you to feel the fear I feel every day. And then I want you to act.
I want you to act as you would in a crisis. I want you to act as if our house in on fire. Because it is.
As someone who has just completed a book with the title, Invoking Hope: Theory and Utopia in Dark Times, both Kaphar and Thunberg raise questions that have been on my mind for a good while now. There is a long tradition of deeply committed artists and intellectuals decrying the false comforts of shallow hope or easy optimism. Such a critique is at the heart of Joseph Conrad’s summary statement on European civilization issued at the dawn of the twentieth century and in response to atrocities he witnessed first-hand: “The horror! The horror!” It is also at the center of Theodor Adorno’s formulation of negative dialectics; and in his book of that title, Adorno notes, “People to whom despair is not a technical term may ask whether it would be better for nothing at all to be than something.”
In the preface to his first collection, Na Han (Call to Arms) (1922), Lu Xun—in a passage I often refer to in my teaching—recalls a parable he had presented a few years earlier to a close friend:
Imagine an iron house without windows, absolutely indestructible, with many people fast asleep inside who will soon die of suffocation. But you know since they will die in their sleep, they will not feel the pain of death. Now if you cry aloud to wake a few of the lighter sleepers, making those unfortunate few suffer the agony of irrevocable death, do you think you are doing them a good turn?
Lu Xun tells us that his friend replied, “But if a few awake, you can’t say there is no hope of destroying the iron house.” Lu Xun then concludes his anecdote by noting, “True, in spite of my own conviction, I could not blot out hope, for hope lies in the future. I could not use my own evidence to refute his assertion that it might exist. So I agreed to write, and the result was my first story, ‘A Madman’s Diary.’ From that time onwards, I could not stop writing, and would write some sort of short story from time to time at the request of friends, until I had more than a dozen of them.”
I am convinced that Lu Xun’s words offer an effective means to understand the import of what Kaphar, Thunberg, Adorno, and Conrad touch on each in their own unique way. I would suggest that all of these great figures are in fact not referring to authentic hope, but rather to its shallow cousin, optimism—what Antonio Gramsci refers to as an “optimism of the intellect,” and especially, as Thunberg also so effectively underscores, when such an optimism is accompanied by a “pessimism of the will.” And in this I fully concur with Gramsci in relationship to his terrible moment and Kaphar and Thunberg to our own: there is nothing more dangerous than the false promise of this shallow form of hope.
However, the true negation of hope is despair, and despair—a pessimism of the intellect and will—is expressed in passivity and silence; and it is precisely such passivity and silence that both Kaphar and Thunberg refuse in the very act of writing. A figure of such a despair is to be found in Conrad’s work in the novel that is perhaps his masterpiece, Lord Jim (1900): in Captain Brierly, who after coming to a fundamental realization about himself (“A man may go pretty near through his whole sea-life without any call to show a stiff upper lip. But when the call comes . . . Aha! . . . If I . . .”), we learn “committed suicide very soon after.” The opposite of Brierly, and a figure for Conrad of authentic hope, is to be found in the narrator of both “Heart of Darkness” and Lord Jim, Charles Marlow, who tells the truth of what he has experienced to his sole remaining audience member on board the Nellie and to the “privileged man” who receives his final letter. For Marlow, as for Conrad, it is lies—and that most insidious form of the lie which is silence—that are “too dark – too dark altogether . . .” Similarly, in the case of Lu Xun, Adorno, Thunberg, and Kaphar, the depth of their hope becomes manifest in the fact that even though each of them “knows” things are hopeless (pessimism of the intellect) they nevertheless continue to act (optimism of the will), painting their pictures, telling their stories, teaching their students, and working to change the world. (Need I add that such a stance is very different from either romanticism—an enthusiastic but quickly spent optimism of the intellect and will—and cynicism—the combination of a pessimism of the intellect with an optimism of the will, the willingness to act as if everything is fine even though we know the house is on fire or the air is running out in the iron house). They all offer their message, as Adorno and his co-author Max Horkheimer write near the climax of Dialectic of Enlightenment, “not to the ‘masses’ and not to the individual (who is powerless), but to an imaginary witness—lest it perish with us.”
We need this form of hope now more than ever in these increasingly dark times and I truly thank people like Thunberg and Kaphar who give such a gift to us. It is such a hope that Pope Francis also had in mind when he recently observed, “Optimism disappoints, but hope does not.”
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