Archive | August, 2020

It’s the hope I can’t stand

17 Aug

 

George_Frederic_Watts,_1885,_Hope

‘It’s not the despair, Laura. I can stand the despair. It’s the hope …’. Implicit in these words – spoken by a prostrate man who’s been frantically trying to fulfil one of his dreams – is the understanding that hope rather than despair will be the thing that drives him mad.

Most images of hope tend to be upbeat, not to say sentimental. But in the 1886 painting above, by the English painter George Frederic Watts (now in London’s Tate Britain gallery), the allegorical figure of Hope has a less than uplifting effect. She’s blindfold, all but one of the strings on her lyre is broken, and she seems to be weighed down by melancholy. Hope is surrounded by mist, and the globe on which she sits may well be sinking. But still she presses her ear to her instrument, perhaps in one last effort to hear a faint note of encouragement.

The quote I’ve used at the start of this piece comes from the film ‘Clockwise’, written by playwright and novelist Michael Frayn. It was released in 1986, a hundred years after Watts’s painting appeared, and to my mind its take on hope is even more ambiguous. John Cleese plays the part of Brian Stimpson, an accident-prone head teacher whose obsession with clock-watching is rooted in his own previous inability to arrive anywhere quite on time. Now he’s on his way to deliver a speech at the prestigious Headmasters’ Conference, where he will be the first head of a comprehensive school to chair the proceedings. But he boards the wrong train, forgets to pick up the briefcase containing his speech, commandeers a car driven by one of his sixth-form students, steals some petrol, is chased by both his wife and the police, gets stuck in a field full of cows … and so on and so forth. It’s funny, and heart-rending. As Stimpson collapses onto a roadside verge he tells us and the sixth-former just what he thinks about hope. Meanwhile Laura is trying to hitch a lift for both of them … and then a car draws up. Perhaps he’ll make it to the conference after all …

I think what Frayn is getting at here is that in the long run acceptance of failure causes us far less anguish than the renewal of hope. It’s Stimson’s hope that he may still succeed – ‘I’ve still got time’ – which is driving him on and making him suffer. And this encapsulates a crucial element in the human psyche: we continue to strive – to expend huge amounts of physical and psychological energy – in the hope that this time we may at last achieve our goal. Might it not be less painful just to assume that we won’t? 

I’ve written about hope before in this blog. In particular, Frayn’s idea seems to me to be very close to one expressed by Albert Camus in The Myth of Sisyphus. Every time Sisyphus sees his rock rolling down the hill, he knows for certain that he’s condemned to rolling it back up again; he also knows that inevitably it’s going to come hurtling straight back down. There’s no end, no meaning that transcends human striving – we just have to keep on going with the tasks we have been allotted, or have chosen for ourselves. To entertain any hope that this may be the last time we’ll have to roll the rock is, for Camus, part of the condition of the absurd (this blog, 17th and 29th May, 2014). Camus’ view of hope, then, is about as bleak as the one presented by the painter Watts. 

I first became interested in the notion of hope a long time ago, when I was reading the poem Works and Days, by the ancient Greek poet Hesiod. The first woman, Pandora, was gifted to human males at a terrible cost, according to Hesiod. (This, I need hardly add, is a text which has aroused much derision among feminist readers). Pandora brought with her a jar of evils – hard work, disease, and sorrow. When she lifted the lid of her jar, the evils flew out into the world. Only hope was left inside, trapped under the rim, and the lid was shut on her (Works and Days 91-100). 

There have been a number of interpretations of this part of the story. Is hope being preserved for the human race, or is it being kept away from us? And, whether we have it or not, should we regard it as being included among the evils? It’s difficult to say; but perhaps at the very least Hesiod wants to warn us – like Frayn and Camus – that hope is far from being a straightforwardly positive concept. 

And yet …  thinking about happiness in the middle of a pandemic hasn’t been easy, and this is my first attempt to add to my blog since February. The onslaught of Covid 19 has made many of us rethink or modify our ideas, and since finding a reference to the ‘Clockwise’ episode in yesterday’s newspaper, I’ve been reflecting again on hope, and whether we need it or not.

All I can say right now is that I’d love to have a bit more of it … but perhaps it would be better to live in the moment, and not hope for too much when everything is so unpredictable? I’m lucky of course that my current moment is not too anguished – which isn’t the case for a lot of people.