Friday, December 18, 2015

Authentic Hope by Terry Eagleton

Ernst Bloch acknowledges the reality of tragedy, but he is not for the most part a tragic thinker – not because he is a utopian visionary, but because he recognizes only fitfully that a transformed existence can spring only from an encounter with dispossession.

There are times, to be sure, when he takes the full pressure of this truth. Only by a confrontation with the void can new life emerge. He writes in The Principle of Hope of how “the humanity of Marx, which turned towards the humblest of his brothers, proves itself by comprehending the humbleness, the resultant nullity of most of his brothers  in its foundation, in order to prize them from the foundations. The zero point of extremist alienation which the proletariat represents now at last becomes the dialectical point of change: Marx teaches us to find out All precisely in the Nothing of this zero point.” It is an arresting insight into the tragic nature of Marxism – a tragedy which is by no means undercut by its positive political goals, since a loss of being is a condition of achieving them. If these words of Bloch are remarkable, however, it is not least because they cut against much else in his general sensibility. Such a tragic perception is by no means the keynote of his work. The Principle of Hope gives one little sense of immersing itself in the malignant impulses with which hope must contend. We do not hear as much as we should of the arrogance of power, the stubborn persistence of violence and self-interest in every epoch of human history, the chronic recurrence of internecine conflicts, the prevalence of false consciousness, the deep-seated drive to maim, exploit, and humiliate. Any humanism which turns its eyes from such unsavory realities is bound to put its hope on the cheap. Past history for Bloch is for the most part a foretaste of paradise, not, as for Marx, a nightmare that weighs on the brains of the living.

Jonathan Lear’s Radical Hope records how Plenty Coups, the last great chief of the American Crow tribe, saw that his people’s way of life was on the brink of a catastrophic collapse, and that “in order to survive – and perhaps flourish again – the Crow had to be willing to give up almost everything they understood about the good  life” with no assurance of a successful outcome. Ravaged by disease, devastated by the rival Sioux and Blackfeet, and almost bereft of their buffalo, the Crow lost nearly two-thirds of their number in the 1890s before they were finally herded onto a reservation. Plenty Coups had received in a dream the divine appeal to accept the ruin of his tribe’s way of life, in the trust that only in this way could his people struggle through to a good end. His hope, in Lear’s words, was that “even with the death of the traditional  forms of Crow subjectivity, the Crow can nevertheless survive and flourish again.” One thinks of Job’s words to Yahweh: “even if you kill me, I will have hope in you.”

In Plenty Coups’ view, to hope was to recognize that there were possibilities that surpassed what could currently be conceived. Faith and hope are most needed when knowledge is hard to come by. When the buffalo went away,” Plenty Coups remarked, “the hearts of my people fell to the ground and they could not lift them up again. After that, nothing happened.” The departure of the buffalo heralded the end of history. As Lear argues, the Crow had lost the concepts with which they might construct a narrative. Since the schema that what counted as an event was shattered, there was nothing more to recount. Yet the death of “Crow subjectivity,” as Lear calls it, might clear the ground for rebirth, so that history might begin to happen once more.

The decisions that the chief confronted were not ones that could be reasoned about in existing moral terms. Only afterward, when a new matrix of understanding had emerged from the cataclysm ,might the significance of his hope become clear to him. A storm is approaching, Plenty Coups dreams, but the devastation that it will wreak will only be understood retrospectively, in the light of concepts that will themselves have been transformed by the impending turmoil. Radical hope, Lear writes, “anticipates a good for which those who have the hope as yet lack the appropriate concepts with which to understand it.”

Revolutionary upheavals transform the very hermeneutical frames within which the occur, so that the attempt to understand them must be deferred. It is an exemplary case of Hegel’s late-flying Owl of Minerva. “If a people genuinely are at the historical limit of their way of life,” Lear observes, “There is precious little they can do to ‘peek over to the other side.’ Precisely because they are about to endure a historical rupture, the detailed texture of life on the other side has to be beyond their ken.” It is in this spirit that Marx begins his Eighteenth Brumaire of Louis Bonaparte by aiming a satirical shaft at those revolutionaries who draw their symbolic resources from the past, rather than being attuned to what he cryptically calls “the poetry of the future.” If radical transformation is a hard concept to seize, it is because it demands foresight and lucidity, precision and calculation, but all in the name of an end that is necessarily opaque. To project a future is inevitably to draw on the experience of the present; and thus to fail to surpass what we know already; yet how otherwise can a future which exceeds our present understanding be brought to birth?

The struggle for a just society involves an instrumental rationality, but it is not only that. The left would continue to protest against sweated labor and mass unemployment even if it were morally certain that capitalism is here to stay. Bertolt Brecht speaks in his poem “An die Nachsgeborenen” of despairing only where there is injustice and no rebellion; but even if rebellion was to evaporate altogether, the fact that men and women have fought for their freedom so tenaciously over the centuries would still be a source of value. There would, so to speak, be something salvaged on Judgment Day. Though justice might not flourish in the end, a life devoted to the pursuit of it remains a credible one. Not to succeed in the end is not necessarily to have failed, any more than it is true that all’s well that ends well. It is only the lure of teleology that persuades us of this fallacy. Even if history were to fall into utter ruin, it would be a matter for despair only if that catastrophe were predestined; and even then it is possible, like many a tragic protagonist, to pluck value from combating the inevitable. Indeed, unless one combats the inevitable, one will never know how inevitable it was in the first place.  The truth, however, is that catastrophe is not written into the march of history, any more than hope is. However desolate the future may prove, it might always have been different. The contingency that can make for misfortune can also make for success. Besides, a lamentable future would almost certainly be the handiwork of a rapacious ruling minority, not the product of humanity as a whole.

Despite all this, one does not need to view hope in excessively existential terms. Goals are important. One does not have to view hope in too absolute or unconditional terms. Bloch is mistaken to imagine that it a question of all or nothing. According to psychoanalytic theory, we shall never be cured of desire, but this is not to say that we cannot strike a diplomatic pact with it. Though there will be no utopia, in the sense of the world purged of discord and dissatisfaction, it is sober realism to believe that our condition could be mightily improved. It is not that all will be well, but that all might be well enough. One does not need a breed of archangels in order to refrain from genocide or put paid to the trafficking of sex slaves. It is those who deny this good sense who are the fantasists, whatever their vaunted pragmatism. Nothing is more otherworldly than the assumption that the world as we know it is here to stay.

Yet though hope need not in general cut to the foundations, it is just this variety of it that is needed for radical change, given the formidable resistance such a project would confront. In the end, one would need what the theologian Herbert McCabe calls a hope that “goes through defeat and crucifixion to resurrection.” Or as Raymond Williams put it in rather more secular terms: “the fact is that neither the frankly utopian for, nor even the more qualified outlines of practical futures, can begin to flow until we have faced, at the necessary depth, the divisions and contradictions which now inhibit them.”

Tragic hope is hope in the extremis. The concept of progress, Walter Benjamin insists, must be grounded in the idea of catastrophe. The optimist cannot despair, but neither can he know genuine hope, since he disavows the conditions that make it essential. Erik Erikson, with the development of a small infant in mind, speaks of hope as “the enduring belief in the attainability of fervent wishes, in spite of the dark urges and rages that mark the beginning of existence.” Only through trust in the love of its parents can the child resist being claimed by those malign  forces.

At the end of Thomas Mann’s Doctor Faustus, perhaps the most magnificent of all literary portraits of evil, the narrator speaks of what he calls “the most frightful lament ever set up on this earth.” It is the symphonic cantata The Lamentation of Dr. Faustus, the final musical composition of the damned Adrian Leverhuhn before his pact with the devil drags him off to hell. It is a work of profound mourning, a “dark tone-poem that permits up to the very end no consolation, appeasement, transfiguration.” Yet is it not conceivable, the narrator asks, “that out of this sheerly irremediable hope might germinate?” He goes on:

It would be but hope beyond hopelessness, the transcendence of despair – not betrayal of it, but the miracle that passes belief. For listen to the end, listen with me: one group of instruments after another retires, and what remains, as the work fades on the air, is the High G of a cello, the last word, the last fainting sound, slowly dying in a pianissimo-fermata. Then nothing more: silence, and night. But that tone which vibrates in the silence, which is no longer there, to which only the spirit hearkens, and which was the voice of mourning, is no more. It changes its meaning; it abides as a light in the night.

It is not that the cantata ends on a tremendously hopeful note. On the contrary, like all pieces of music, it ends in nothing: silence. Yet this particular silence is a peculiarly palpable one, retroactively transforming the final tone of mourning into one of affirmation, and allowing it to make something new of itself in the very act of vanishing. The death of the music generates a ghostly aftermath. It is as if the cantata ends twice: once in reality, as the final note fades, and then again in the mind, the mere specter of a sound, as something mysteriously merges out of nothing. The last note is experienced twice, the first time as living and the second time as dead, but it is in death that it seems most alive. When the note is literally living, it is, like Faustus himself, full of grief at the prospect of its impending demise; but once it has passed into that void, it is repeated with a difference, sounding out again with a transfigured meaning. There is hope, as well as sorrow, in the fact that things pass away. Perhaps there is also hope that some unfathomable source of mercy might extend its favor even to the novel’s demoniac hero, who is caught ,like the final note of his cantata between life and death, yet whose death-driven genius has, after all, given birth to an art in the service of the living.

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