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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. 

 

 

 

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 by-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.