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Abandon hope

29 Nov

oliver-burkeman I’m pleased to learn that journalist Oliver Burkeman shares my sceptical attitude to hope. Last week on Radio 4, in a series on the power of negative thinking, he pointed out that relentless optimism can be quite dangerous. If you’re a safety supervisor on an oil rig, for example, just hoping that everything will be OK would be really stupid. Rather, you have to plan for disaster. If the worst case scenario actually happens, then you’ll be far better equipped to deal with it.  

Hoping for the best can be a sloppy approach on quite a few levels of existence. It doesn’t work all that well in your personal life, and it certainly doesn’t work  if you’re trying to tackle major global problems. Climate disaster isn’t going to be averted if we think, ‘Oh, it probably won’t happen.’  Hope robs us of our agency – our will and power to change things. Don’t shrug and hope for the best – do everything you can to halt it. 

Burkeman ended his programme with a quote from the Roman philosopher Seneca, my favourite constructive pessimist. ‘Cease to hope,’ Seneca wrote, ‘and you will cease to fear.’ (Moral Letters 5)

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Not a happy superman

14 May

man and superman

I love Bernard Shaw’s plays, mainly for their wordiness and their single-minded focus on ideas. The wordiness in particular means that these days they are not performed very often; but last week I saw the outstanding production of ‘Man and Superman’ at the National Theatre, with Ralph Fiennes playing the part of the anti-hero Jack Tanner.

The desirability of the pursuit of happiness is one of the many themes of the play. Shaw expresses a mistrust of the concept that is similar to Chekhov’s, but with a far more cynical edge to it. When Jack Tanner tells his friend Tavy that he is trying to save him from the clutches of the woman he wants to marry, Tavy says that in that case he’ll be saving him from his highest happiness. ‘Yes, a lifetime of happiness,’ Tanner responds. ‘If it were only the first half hour’s happiness, Tavy, I would buy it for you with my last penny. But a lifetime of happiness! No man alive could bear it: it would be hell on earth.’

Like Camus and Ionesco, Shaw also questions the value of hope. Tanner dreams that he has gone to Hell in the guise of Don Juan, and there he meets the Statue of the irate father whom he killed during his life on earth. The Statue has grown tired of Heaven, and is on a visit to Hell. ‘Written over the gate here,’ he tells Tanner/Juan, ‘are the words “Leave every hope behind, ye who enter.” Only think what a relief that is! For what is hope? A form of moral responsibility. Here there is no hope, and consequently no duty, no work, nothing to be gained by praying, nothing to be lost by doing what you like. Hell, in short, is a place where you have nothing to do but amuse yourself.’

Camus and Ionesco identify hope with an absurd insistence on meaning and purpose in life. Shaw seems to agree , but for him the quest for meaning is not absurd.  Tanner/Juan chooses the moral responsibility which is abjured by the Statue: when he gets the opportunity, he decides to abandon Hell, where he is free to practise ‘the tedious, vulgar pursuit of happiness’, and to exchange it for an eternity of contemplation in Heaven.

This is the dream. Back in his dramatic real life, conventional romance wins out, and Tanner finally agrees to marry the woman he loves. But he rejects the idea that the object of marriage is  happiness. ‘I solemnly say that I am not a happy man. Ann looks happy; but she is only triumphant, successful, victorious. That is not happiness, but the price for which the strong sell their happiness. What we have both done this afternoon is to renounce tranquillity, above all renounce the romantic possibilities of an unknown future, for the cares of a household and a family.’ The lifetime of happiness Tanner warned Tavy about is not to be his. The visit to Hell has shown him that moral responsibility is far more important. So the convoluted outcome of the play is that Tanner embraces marriage because it will save him from happiness, and position him firmly in the arena of work and commitment.

Hope springs eternal – how absurd is that?

10 Dec

exit the king

      Since I find Camus’ absurdist approach to the subject of happiness very compelling   (this blog, 17 and 29 May 2014), it’s not at all surprising that I  should  have really enjoyed a play by one of   the great exponents of the Theatre of the Absurd, Eugene Ionesco. The weekend before last we saw his Exit the King, first produced in 1962, at the Theatre Royal Bath.

Broadly, the play deals with the themes of mortality and impending death, both for the individual and for human civilisation. Berenger, the king of a nameless country, is now 400 years old. At an early stage in the action his two wives, Marguerite, the elder of the two, and the younger, more fun-loving Marie, learn that the King has got to die by the end of the play.

 MARGUERITE:         It’s the normal course of events, isn’t it?  You were expecting it. Or had you stopped expecting it?

MARIE:                        You’ve been waiting for it.

MARGUERITE:         That way everything’s in order.

MARIE:                        I was still hoping …

MARGUERITE:         You’re wasting your time … Nothing but hope on their lips and tears in their eyes. What a way  to behave…. It’s your fault if he’s not prepared. It’s your fault if it takes him by surprise. … Life was very sweet, with your fun and games, your dances, your processions … ‘We’ve got to live,’ you used to say. But one must never forget …

MARIE:                        He’s so fond of parties …

MARGUERITE:         People know, and carry on as if they didn’t. They know, and they forget …

 When Marguerite volunteers to tell the King that his death is imminent, Marie warns her, ‘Tell him gently… take your time,’ but Marguerite responds, ‘We haven’t the time to take our time… This is the end of your happy days, your high jinks, your bean-feasts … We’ve got a few moments left to do all the things we ought to have done years ago.’

Berenger soon learns the truth, and is distraught. Marie wants him to be allowed more time, but the king’s doctor tells her that an hour will give him all the time he needs. In what I see as a kind of preview of Daniel Kahneman’s views on the value of an ending (this blog, 11 December 2013), he continues:

DOCTOR:               A well-spent hour is better than whole centuries of neglect and failure. Five minutes are enough … ten fully conscious seconds. We’re giving him an hour, three thousand and six hundred seconds. He’s in luck.

 ‘So live for the moment,’ Marie advises her unhappy husband:

MARIE:                   My darling King, there is no past, there is no future.  Remember, there’s only a present that goes   right on to the end, everything is present ..

KING:                    Alas, I’m only present in the past.

Mindfulness is not much help to Berenger, it seems, when he is on the verge of death. He is so attached to the idea of life that when for the first time he begins to question Juliette, the palace’s downtrodden factotum, about the kind of  existence she leads, envy of her ability to carry on living prompts him to play the cock-eyed optimist and  find every dreary aspect of it enchanting. When she tells him about the toothache and the shopping and the endless washing-up, he says, ‘All this is magical, like some celebration …’.  

This kind of senseless mindfulness is the equivalent of telling the poor and oppressed to count their blessings, they’re lucky to be alive. The opium of the masses, in other words. 

Berenger, I think, resembles Admetus, the king in Euripides’  tragedy Alcestis who is told that he can be saved from death if he finds someone to take his place on the journey to Hades. (His young wife Alcestis volunteers, and Admetus allows this to happen). Leaning from the window of his room, Berenger shouts to anyone who can hear him, ‘Who will give me his life? Who will give his life for the King’s? His life for the good old King’s?’

All the other characters gradually leave the stage, and it is Marguerite who finally steers the King towards his end, persuading him to give up all the things that tie him to his existence and make his load a heavy one. ‘It was a lot of fuss about nothing, wasn’t it?’ she says to him when he finally relaxes his grip on life.

In Ionesco’s play, as in Camus’ Sisyphus, the dismissal of the idea of hope represents a refusal to cling on to a sense of purpose and meaning in our absurd lives. Neither author sees this rejection of hope as a counsel of despair. We can still live our lives to the full – in fact the notion that emerges very strongly from Exit the King  is that  we are much more likely to lead fulfilling and useful lives if we accept the inevitability of death at an early stage. Hope is seen by both Camus and Ionesco as a ridiculous and fruitless ploy to evade the all-encompassing Absurd.

 

Footnote to Sisyphus: even bigger rocks

29 May

As far as I’m concerned the Sisyphean rolling of stones up hills involves not just mundane tasks like washing up – ‘in three hours the pots gleaming on the draining board will be dirty again’ – but more serious pursuits. Every time I finish a play or an article I feel as though this particular piece of work can have no validity unless I start another one almost immediately. When I mentioned this to my partner, he understood exactly what I meant. ‘It’s not just the same rock, either,’ he said. ‘Every time you set off you think you have to roll an even bigger rock.’

In his Sisyphus essay Camus has interesting things to say about rocks and about hope, a state of mind that has intrigued me ever since I learnt that it was the only thing left in Pandora’s jar of evils after she’d lifted the lid on them. Sisyphus had a passion for life and so tried to overcome death. But in the underworld – according to Camus’ interpretation – he achieved the understanding that defeating death is impossible. Every time he saw his rock roll down the hill, he knew for sure that he was going to have to roll it up again, and that once again it would hurtle back to the bottom. There’s no meaning that transcends death, no final end towards which we strive, no big idea. To hope otherwise – to hope that life involves a meaning that we will discover either before or after death – is a bi-product of the condition of the absurd. If we’re going to come to terms with absurdity, then we have to do away with hope. When we start rolling the rock, we mustn’t imagine for one moment that this time it’s going to stay at the top of the hill.

“If Faust and Don Quixote are eminent creations of art, this is because of the immeasurable nobilities they point out to us with their earthly hands. Yet a moment always comes when the mind negates the truths that those hands can touch. A moment comes when the creation ceases to be taken tragically; it is merely taken seriously. Then a man is concerned with hope. But that is not his business. His business is to turn away from subterfuge.”  (The Myth of Sisyphus, trans. Justin O’Brien, Penguin Great Ideas, p.134).

The story of Sisyphus is one of many Greek myths which warn us that it is a mistake to yearn for immortality. Instead, we need to get to grips with the here and now. This is an idea which has been expressed many times in many different ways. Last week I was reminded of one of the most effective when Radio 4’s ‘In Our Time’ was discussing Edward FitzGerald’s wonderful version of the Rubaiyat of Omar Khayyam.

Come, fill the Cup, and in the fire of Spring
Your Winter garment of Repentance fling:
 The Bird of Time has but a little way
 To flutter – and the Bird is on the Wing. …. 

Alike for those who for Today prepare,
And those that after some Tomorrow stare,
A Muezzin from the Tower of Darkness cries,
“Fools! your Reward is neither Here nor There.”

There are no rewards. Don’t hope for them.