“Hope… is not the same as joy that things are going well, or willingness to invest in enterprises that are obviously headed for early success, but, rather, an ability to work for something because it is good, not just because it stands a chance to succeed.”
By Maria Popova
“Mankind is challenged, as it has never been challenged before, to prove its maturity and its mastery — not of nature, but of itself,” Rachel Carson exhorted the young in her final farewell to the world. “Therein lies our hope and our destiny,” she told the next generation, two generations before Rebecca Solnit insisted in her magnificent manifesto for resilience that “hope is a gift you don’t have to surrender, a power you don’t have to throw away.”
I too have long contemplated the question of hope — how it serves as a life-affirming antidote to the cowardice of cynicism, how its active and actionable nature differs from the laziness of passive optimism. Born into a communist dictatorship, one of my earliest memories is sitting atop my father’s shoulders, holding a candle into the night air alongside thousands of others gathered at the plaza before the Bulgarian Parliament in the protests that eventually brought down the dictatorship.
Months after I was born, a handful of longitude degrees north, the great Czech playwright turned dissident (turned, some years later, president) Václav Havel (October 5, 1936–December 18, 2011) addressed the vital role of hope in steering destiny in a series of interviews conducted shortly after his release from prison, where he had spent four years for composing an anti-communist manifesto in response to the imprisonment of the Czech psychedelic rock band The Plastic People of the Universe. Eventually published as Disturbing the Peace in 1990, his timeless insights into the inner life and civic purpose of hope were excerpted a quarter century later in Paul Loeb’s lucid and life-buoying posy of hope-strands, The Impossible Will Take a Little While: A Citizen’s Guide to Hope in a Time of Fear (public library).
Imprisoned multiple times for upholding his ideals of justice and humanism, for his insistence on anti-consumerism and environmental responsibility, Havel, like Viktor Frankl, knew the value of hope with visceral intimacy, not as an intellectual pretension or a spiritual delusion but as a lifeline of sanity and survival, for the individual as well as for the constellation of individuals we call society. He writes:
The kind of hope I often think about (especially in situations that are particularly hopeless, such as prison) I understand above all as a state of mind, not a state of the world. Either we have hope within us or we don’t; it is a dimension of the soul; it’s not essentially dependent on some particular observation of the world or estimate of the situation. Hope is not prognostication. It is an orientation of the spirit, an orientation of the heart; it transcends the world that is immediately experienced, and is anchored somewhere beyond its horizons.
Hope, in this deep and powerful sense, is not the same as joy that things are going well, or willingness to invest in enterprises that are obviously headed for early success, but, rather, an ability to work for something because it is good, not just because it stands a chance to succeed. The more unpropitious the situation in which we demonstrate hope, the deeper that hope is. Hope is definitely not the same thing as optimism. It is not the conviction that something will turn out well, but the certainty that something makes sense, regardless of how it turns out. In short, I think that the deepest and most important form of hope, the only one that can keep us above water and urge us to good works, and the only true source of the breathtaking dimension of the human spirit and its efforts, is something we get, as it were, from “elsewhere.” It is also this hope, above all, which gives us the strength to live and continually to try new things, even in conditions that seem as hopeless as ours do, here and now.
But what is this “elsewhere” and where does it reside? In the hearts of citizens, Havel argues — the individual hearts that harmonize into the symphonic pulse-beat of culture. Writing from the other side of unspeakable atrocities and terrors and oppressions, as the communist regime was beginning to topple after a decades-long rein, he examines the nature of power as a bidirectional valve, flowing not only top-down but bottom-up:
All power is power over someone, and it always somehow responds, usually unwittingly rather than deliberately, to the state of mind and the behavior of those it rules over… No one can govern in a vacuum. The exercise of power is determined by thousands of interactions between the world of the powerful and that of the powerless, all the more so because these worlds are never divided by a sharp line: Everyone has a small part of himself in both.
With an eye to the groundswells of hope and resistance he had begun witnessing — the very groundswells that would, before the decade’s end, topple the dictatorship — he writes in a passage of astounding prescience for his own time and vibrant resonance to ours:
New islands of self-awareness and self-liberation are appearing, and the connections between them, which were once so brutally disrupted, are multiplying… Something is happening in the social awareness, though it is still an undercurrent as yet, rather than something visible… And all of this brings subtle pressure to bear on the powers that govern society. I’m not thinking now of the obvious pressure of public criticism coming from dissidents, but of the invisible kinds of pressure brought on by this general state of mind and its various forms of expression, to which power unintentionally adapts, even in the act of opposing it.
Pointing to “the unstoppable development of independent culture” and the moral awakening of youth as the two greatest motive forces for the coming change, he writes:
[Young people are beginning] to seek, among the diffuse and fragmented world of frenzied consumerism…, for a point that will hold firm — all this awakens in them a longing for a genuine moral “vanishing point,” for something purer and more authentic. These people simply long to step outside the general automatic operations of society and rediscover their natural world and discover hope for this world.
I thought of Havel as I cycled across the Manhattan Bridge to join the breathtaking gathering of young people at the 2019 Climate Strike, the largest environmental protest in history — a magnificent mass of resistance to greed, to consumerism, to the capitalist exploitation of our irreplaceable planet’s oceans and rivers and rainforests and wildlife, whose preservation and administration, as Rachel Carson admonished in 1953 to unheeding ears, “is not properly, and cannot be, a matter of politics.”
The future, Havel reminds us, is a mosaic built of these seemingly small yet combinatorially enormous acts of courage and resistance:
Isn’t the reward of all those small but hopeful signs of movement this deep, inner hope that is not dependent on prognoses, and which was the primordial point of departure in this unequal struggle? Would so many of those small hopes have “come out” if there had not been this great hope “within,” this hope without which it is impossible to live in dignity and meaning, much less find the will for the “hopeless enterprise” which stands at the beginning of most good things?
People who are used to seeing society only “from above” tend to be impatient. They want to see immediate results. Anything that does not produce immediate results seems foolish. They don’t have a lot of sympathy for acts which can only be evaluated years after they take place, which are motivated by moral factors, and which therefore run the risk of never accomplishing anything.
Unfortunately, we live in conditions where improvement is often achieved by actions that risk remaining forever in the memory of humanity… History is not something that takes place “elsewhere”; it takes place here; we all contribute to making it.
“Our respect for other people… can only grow from a humble respect for the cosmic order and from an awareness that we are a part of it… and that nothing of what we do is lost, but rather becomes part of the eternal memory of being.”
By Maria Popova
In his clever 1958 allegory I, Pencil, the libertarian writer Leonard Read used the complex chain of resources and competences involved in the production of a single pencil to illustrate the vital web of interdependencies — economic as well as ethical — undergirding humanity’s needs and knowledge. “We are caught in an inescapable network of mutuality,” Dr. King wrote from Birmingham City Jail five years later, as the material aspects of our interconnectedness became painfully inseparable from the moral. “Whatever affects one directly, affects all indirectly.”
How to inhabit our individual role in that mutuality with responsible integrity is what the great Czech dissident Václav Havel (October 5, 1936–December 18, 2011) addressed in his 1995 Harvard commencement address, later published under the title “Radical Renewal of Human Responsibility” in his collected speeches and writings, The Art of the Impossible: Politics as Morality in Practice (public library).
Havel — a man of immense erudition and literary genius, who embodied Walt Whitman’s insistence that literature is essential for democracy, who went from playwright to president, who endured multiple imprisonments to uphold his ideals of justice, humanism, anti-consumerism, and environmental responsibility — begins by recounting an incident that sobered him to the irreversible forces of globalization: Sitting at a waterfront restaurant one evening, watching young people drink the same drinks as those served in his homeland to the sound of the same music that fills Prague’s cafés, surrounded by the same advertisements, he is reminded of the fact that he is in Singapore only by the different facial features of his fellow diners.
A decade before the social web subverted geography to common interests, values, and sensibilities as the centripetal force of community formation, Havel writes:
The world is now enmeshed in webs of telecommunication networks consisting of millions of tiny threads, or capillaries, that not only transmit information of all kinds at lightning speed, but also convey integrated models of social, political and economic behavior. They are conduits for legal norms, as well as for billions and billions of dollars crisscrossing the world while remaining invisible even to those who deal directly with them…. The capillaries that have so radically integrated this civilization also convey information about certain modes of human co-existence that have proven their worth, like democracy, respect for human rights, the rule of law, the laws of the marketplace. Such information flows around the world and, in varying degrees, takes root in different places.
And yet, with prescience painfully evident two decades later, Havel cautions that there is a dark side to this undamming of information and ideas:
Many of the great problems we face today, as far as I understand them, have their origin in the fact that this global civilization, though in evidence everywhere, is no more than a thin veneer over the sum total of human awareness… This civilization is immensely fresh, young, new, and fragile, and the human spirit has accepted it with dizzying alacrity, without itself changing in any essential way. Humanity has gradually, and in very diverse ways, shaped our habits of mind, our relationship to the world, our models of behavior and the values we accept and recognize. In essence, this new, single epidermis of world civilization merely covers or conceals the immense variety of cultures, of peoples, of religious worlds, of historical traditions and historically formed attitudes, all of which in a sense lie “beneath” it. At the same time, even as the veneer of world civilization expands, this “underside” of humanity, this hidden dimension of it, demands more and more clearly to be heard and to be granted a right to life.
And thus, while the world as a whole increasingly accepts the new habits of global civilization, another contradictory process is taking place: ancient traditions are reviving, different religions and cultures are awakening to new ways of being, seeking new room to exist, and struggling with growing fervor to realize what is unique to them and what makes them different from others. Ultimately they seek to give their individuality a political expression.
With an eye to the dangerously disproportionate dominance of Euro-American values in this global marketplace of values and ideas, Havel writes:
It is a challenge to this civilization to start understanding itself as a multicultural and a multipolar civilization, whose meaning lies not in undermining the individuality of different spheres of culture and civilization but in allowing them to be more completely themselves. This will only be possible, even conceivable, if we all accept a basic code of mutual coexistence, a kind of common minimum we can all share, one that will enable us to go on living side by side. Yet such a code won’t stand a chance if it is merely the product of a few who then proceed to force it on the rest. It must be an expression of the authentic will of everyone, growing out of the genuine spiritual roots hidden beneath the skin of our common, global civilization. If it is merely disseminated through the capillaries of the skin, the way Coca-Cola ads are – as a commodity offered by some to others – such a code can hardly be expected to take hold in any profound or universal way.
Acknowledging that such a line of thought might be dismissed by cynics as unrealistically utopian, Havel insists on not losing hope — lucid hope. “This is an extraordinary time full of vital, transformative movements that could not be foreseen,” Rebecca Solnit would write a generation later in her electrifying manifesto for civilizational resilience. “It’s also a nightmarish time. Full engagement requires the ability to perceive both.”
A decade before philosopher Jonathan Lear made his case for “radical hope,” Havel writes:
I have not lost hope because I am persuaded again and again that, lying dormant in the deepest roots of most, if not all, cultures there is an essential similarity, something that could be made if the will to do so existed – a genuinely unifying starting point for that new code of human co existence that would be firmly anchored in the great diversity of human traditions.
He points out that at the heart of every spiritual tradition, no matter its geographic or temporal origin, is a set of common moral principles upholding values like kindness, benevolence, and respect for human dignity. And yet, in an era of such irreversible triumphs of science as the splitting of the atom and the discovery of DNA — triumphs which Einstein believed united humanity through “the common language of science” — any real movement toward healing the ruptures of our natural interconnectedness lies not in reverting to ancient religions but in integrating the achievements of reason with the core values of the human spirit. Half a century after pioneering biologist and writer Rachel Carson invited us to step out of the human perspective, Havel writes:
Only a dreamer can believe that the solution lies in curtailing the progress of civilization in some way or other. The main task in the coming era is something else: a radical renewal of our sense of responsibility. Our conscience must catch up to our reason, otherwise we are lost.
It is my profound belief that there is only one way to achieve this: we must divest ourselves of our egotistical anthropocentrism, our habit of seeing ourselves as masters of the universe who can do whatever occurs to us. We must discover a new respect for what transcends us: for the universe, for the earth, for nature, for life, and for reality. Our respect for other people, for other nations and for other cultures, can only grow from a humble respect for the cosmic order and from an awareness that we are a part of it, that we share in it and that nothing of what we do is lost, but rather becomes part of the eternal memory of being, where it is judged.
Havel calls for “the search for a new humility” — a search that politicians have an especial responsibility to enact:
Even in the most democratic of conditions, politicians have immense influence, perhaps more than they themselves realize. This influence does not lie in their actual mandates, which in any case are considerably limited. It lies in something else: in the spontaneous impact their charisma has on the public.
In a passage of bittersweet poignancy against the contrast of our present political reality, Havel adds:
The main task of the present generation of politicians is not, I think, to ingratiate themselves with the public through the decisions they take or their smiles on television. It is not to go on winning elections and ensuring themselves a place in the sun till the end of their days. Their role is something quite different: to assume their share of responsibility for the long-range prospects of our world and thus to set an example for the public in whose sight they work. Their responsibility is to think ahead boldly, not to fear the disfavor of the crowd, to imbue their actions with a spiritual dimension (which of course is not the same thing as ostentatious attendance at religious services), to explain again and again both to the public and to their colleagues – that politics must do far more than reflect the interests of particular groups or lobbies. After all, politics is a matter of servicing the community, which means that it is morality in practice, and how better to serve the community and practice morality than by seeking in the midst of the global (and globally threatened) civilization their own global political responsibility: that is, their responsibility for the very survival of the human race?
Standing before “perhaps the most famous university in the most powerful country in the world,” Havel issues a particularly urgent exhortation to American politicians:
There is simply no escaping the responsibility you have as the most powerful country in the world.
There is far more at stake here than simply standing up to those who would like once again to divide the world into spheres of interest, or subjugate others who are different from them, and weaker. What is now at stake is saving the human race. In other words, it’s a question of what I’ve already talked about: of understanding modern civilization as a multicultural and multipolar civilization, of turning our attention to the original spiritual sources of human culture and above all, of our own culture, of drawing from these sources the strength for a courageous and magnanimous creation of a new order for the world.
With a cautionary eye to “the banal pride of the powerful” — corruption of character which Hannah Arendt followed to its gruesome extreme in her timeless treatise on the banality of evil — Havel adds:
Pride is precisely what will lead the world to hell. I am suggesting an alternative: humbly accepting our responsibility for the world.
Looking back at his own life with the astonishment of one who grew up under the locked-in nationalism of a communist authoritarian regime, then went on to travel to places like Singapore and address the graduating class at Harvard, Havel ends on a note of radical, responsible hope:
I have been given to understand how small this world is and how it torments itself with countless things it need not torment itself with if people could find within themselves a little more courage, a little more hope, a little more responsibility, a little more mutual understanding and love.
“One cannot ask for a life, or two lives. One can only warrant the hope of an increasing potency in each man’s heart.”
By Maria Popova
“Life is a dream. ‘Tis waking that kills us,” Virginia Woolf wrote in Orlando — her groundbreaking novel that gallops across centuries of history, across lines of logic and convention, to telescope a vision for a different future of the human heart.
There are moments in life when it is no longer clear whether we dream our dreams or are dreamt by them — moments when reality presses against us with such intensity, acute and overwhelmingly real, that all we can do is sit on its sharp edge of uncertainty, feet dangling into a dream, hoping for clarity and fortitude. And then, on these dream-drenched feet, we get back up and march into the uncertainty, then soar over it on the wingspan of perspective we call hope.
That is what Patti Smith offers with uncommon elegance of thought and feeling in Year of the Monkey (public library) — a dream-driven, reality-reclaiming masterpiece, laced with poetry and philosophy and surrealism and the hardest realism there is: that of hope.
Where her stunning memoir M Train rode on the arrowy vector of time and transformation, Year of the Monkey revolves around the cyclical nature of time and being — of personal, cultural, and civilizational history — evocative of the Australian aboriginal notion of “dream time.” The story — part dream and part reality, haunted and haunting, unfolding in a place where “the borders of reality had reconfigured,” a place with “the improbable logic of a child’s treasure map” — begins at a real motel called the Dream Inn in Santa Cruz, where Smith has traveled just before her 69th birthday to visit a friend of forty years, now comatose at the ICU. The motel sign comes alive, speaks to her, becomes her ongoing interlocutor, demands that she admit to dreaming, insists that she assent to unreality — conversations that become the book’s undergirding creative trope.
As she moves through this unfamiliar world of side streets and taco bars, each unvisited place radiates the aura of what Mark Strand called, in his gorgeous ode to dreams, “a place that seems always vaguely familiar.” At the Dream Inn, she dreams many dreams that are “much more than dreams, as if originating from the dawn of mind.” She dreams of being left behind — on the side of the road, in the middle of the desert, in a flooding apartment; dreams of being a young girl in the 18th century, gazing at Goethe’s color wheel, “bright and obscure”; longs for her long-dead mother’s voice. In that liminal space between wakefulness and sleep — the space Nathaniel Hawthorne so memorably described as “a spot where Father Time, when he thinks nobody is watching him, sits down by the way side to take breath” — she hears her mother recite a Robert Louis Stevenson poem about the meaning of home.
Through it all, there is a fierce commitment to facing reality — the disquieting reality we live in, a reality of unrest and injustice, of ecological and moral collapse. But there is also something else, something mighty. Beneath the blanket of gloom — friends dying, strangers’ children dying, species dying, icebergs melting, truth burning, justice crumbling — she senses something buoyant pressing up, insisting on existence, “like the birth of a poem or a small volcano erupting.” It is this sort of optimism that animates the book — optimism that feels not human but geologic, more kindred to the optimism of a tree, rooted in deep time, in strata of cultures and civilizations who all lived and died, hoped and despaired, foraged for meaning, dwelt in dreams; the optimism of uncertainty, the kind Václav Havel recognized as the willingness “to work for something because it is good, not just because it stands a chance to succeed.”
Lurching into the lacunae between self and world, between poetry and politics, between history and future, Smith invites us to relinquish the different names we give to the living of life and just live it, with all its disorienting uncertainty. Reading this small, miraculous book, I get the feeling of being at open sea, far from land, on one of those rare nights when the surface of the water becomes so still and the reflections of the stars so crisp that the horizon line vanishes and there is no longer a sense of sky or water, of up or down or East or West, of what is reflection and what is reality — only the feeling of being immersed in a cosmic everythingness, with pure spacetime stretching in all directions, star-salted and possible.
She moves through this world as a time-traveler, an eavesdropper, a vagrant, a vagabond in the land of literature and life, where people, always seemingly unwitting of her identity, engage her in diners to talk about Roberto Bolaño novels, take her on as a hitchhiker so long as she pays for the gas and vows to keep perfectly silent, ditch her at a gas station when she breaks the vow to compliment a playlist of songs from her youth. She is nameless, fameless, a human mirror held up to the world — a Borgesian mirror, in which each reflection sparks another reflection, never quite clear whether real or dream-drawn, in an infinity-leaning regress of memories and meditations.
In Venice Beach, passing by a mural of Fiddler on the Roof, she nods at the Yiddish fiddler “commiserating an unspoken fear of friends slipping away.” A woman waves her into a restaurant called Mao’s Kitchen, “a communal kind of place,” which sparks the memory of journeying with a poet-friend “through endless rice paddies, pale gold, and the sky a clear blue, staggered by what was an ordinary spectacle for most,” looking for the cave near the Chinese border where the Vietnamese Declaration of Independence was written. She reads a fortune cookie — “You will step on the soul of many countries.” — only to realize she has misread “soul” for “soil”; she doesn’t belabor the poignancy of the inadvertently revised prophecy and nor will I. She packs her few possessions — “jacket, camera, identity card, notebook, pen, dead phone and some money” — to go visit that same poet-friend in Tucson and remembers him sitting on the wide veranda of a temple they had visited together in Phnom Penh long ago, singing to the children that congregated around him, “the sun a halo around his long hair.” Radiating from the pages is the delicious bittersweetness of life lost to time but fully lived in the course of being. The memory-portrait she paints is suffused with this bittersweetness, tender and transcendent and Blakean:
He looked up at me and smiled. I heard laughter, tinkling bells, bare feet on the temple stairs. It was all so close, the rays of the sun, the sweetness, a sense of time lost forever.
There is also, of course, Smith’s ferocious lifelong love of reading, animating the book as it animates the self from which it sprang. She dreams of a street named Voltaire and a horse named Noun. Shakespeare, Nabokov, and Proust, The Magic Mountain, The Divine Comedy, and Pinocchio flit in and out. Lewis Carroll bends her logic. Gauss and Galileo taunt her with the necessity of proof. A mental trick inspired by Melville helps her salve insomnia. “Do not act as if you had ten thousand years to live,” Marcus Aurelius scolds her on the eve of her seventieth birthday, as he has scolded millions of us across the millennia from the pages of his timeless Meditations. She meets the Stoic’s charge with a Jimi Hendrix retort: “I’m going to live my life the way I want to.” All the while, the Dream Inn sign continues sending her dispatches from the recesses of her own unconscious:
Nothing is ever solved. Solving is an illusion. There are moments of spontaneous brightness, when the mind appears emancipated, but that is mere epiphany.
A recurring dream-companion she meets in a Virginia Beach diner — a Russian-Mexican Bolaño-lover named Ernest with a melancholy, metaphysical bend and eyes that “kept changing like a mood ring, from pure grey to the color of chocolate” — tells her:
Some dreams aren’t dreams of all, just another angle of physical reality.
There’s no hierarchy. That’s the miracle of a triangle. No top, no bottom, no taking sides. Take away the tags of the Trinity — Father, Son and Holy Spirit — and replace each with love. See what I mean? Love. Love. Love. Equal weight encompassing the whole of so called spiritual existence.
Her daily routine at the motel is itself an existential allegory:
Every morning I’d make my coffee in a tin pot, rustle up some beans and eggs and read of the local occurrences in the newsletter. Just negotiating zones. No rules. No change. But then everything eventually changes. It’s the way of the world. Cycles of death and resurrection, but not always in the way we imagine.
Dead friends travel with her as the Collected Poems of Allen Ginsberg — “an expansive hydrogen jukebox, containing all the nuances of his voice” — warm her pocket on a lecture tour. A book acquired in a thrift shop — Gérard de Nerval’s proto-surrealist novella Aurélia, the manuscript of which was found in the author’s coat-pocket when he hanged himself in 1855 — seems to speak to her directly: “Our dreams are a second life.” Billie Holiday sings Strange Fruit from the radio in the wake of an election that uncorked the madness of hate and the madness of apathy.
Her voice, one of laconic suffering, produced shudders of admiration and shame. I pictured her sitting at the bar, a gardenia in her hair and a Chihuahua in her lap. I pictured her sleeping in a rumpled white skirt and blouse on a diesel-fueled tour bus, turned away from a white Southern hotel despite the fact that she was Billie Holiday, despite the fact that she was simply a human being.
Patti Smith pictures this while sitting in a late-night bar in Hell’s Kitchen, mourning for her friend and for her country, and I picture her silver braids falling to either side of the shot of vodka and the glass of water she has ordered, despite the fact that she is Patti Smith, aglow with the fact that she is simply a human being.
Again and again her thoughts return to her dying friend — the poet and music maverick Sandy Pearlman — and with him, inevitably, to death itself, to the finitude of being with which we all must live:
We met in 1971 after my first poetry performance, Lenny accompanying me on electric guitar. Sandy Pearlman was sitting cross-legged on the floor in St. Mark’s Church, dressed in leather, Jim Morrison style. I had read his Excerpts from the History of Los Angeles, one of the greatest pieces written about rock music. After the performance, he told me I should front a rock ’n’ roll band but I just laughed and told him I already had a good job working in a bookstore. Then he went on to reference Cerberus, the dog of Hades, suggesting I should delve into its history.
— Not just the history of a dog, but the history of an idea, he said, flashing his extremely white teeth.
I thought him arrogant, though in an appealing way, but his suggestion that I should front a rock band seemed pretty far-fetched. At the time, I was seeing Sam Shepard and I told him what Sandy had said. He didn’t find it extreme at all. He looked me in the eye and told me I could do anything. We were all young then, and that was the general idea. That we could do anything.
Sandy now unconscious at the ICU in Marin County. Sam [Shepard] negotiating the waning stages of his affliction. I felt a cosmic pull in multiple directions and wondered if some idiosyncratic force field was shielding yet another field, one with a small orchard at its crux, heavy with a fruit containing an unfathomable core.
The harsh reality of it all takes on a surreal air. She watches anime clips on a loop as she slurps flying-fish-roe spaghetti in San Francisco, waiting for visiting hours at the hospital. The Pied Piper haunts her days and dreams, until on her way to sit vigil with Sandy, she suddenly realizes that the story is “not essentially one of revenge but of love.” The prospect of imminent loss clarifies things in this way, reminding us that every story — no matter how enturmoiled by the surface confusions of jealousy and blame — is at bottom a love story and a time story.
“You don’t follow plots you negotiate them,” she wants to write with the candy-stripe pencil that rests on her dying friend’s bedside. Instead, exhausted with travel and grief, she drifts into another existential dream:
The pencil seemed far away, well beyond my grasp, and I actually watched myself fall asleep. The clouds were pink and dropped from the sky. I was wearing sandals, kicking through mounds of red leaves surrounding a shrine on a small hill. There was a small cemetery with rows of monkey deities, some adorned with red capes and knitted caps. Massive crows were picking through the drying leaves. It doesn’t mean anything, someone was shouting, and that was all I could remember.
Yet, somehow, life tumbles on; somehow, we must make meaning. Watching the terrifying turn of her age — age in the sense of cultural era, age in the sense of the personal timespan one is allotted between the bookends of nothingness — Smith writes in the dead of New York City’s coldest winter on the record:
Across America one light after another seemed to burn out. The oil lamps of another age flickered and died.
The cat was rubbing against my knee. I opened a can of sardines, chopped up her share, then cut some onions, toasted two slices of oat bread and made myself a sandwich. Staring at my image on the mercurial surface of the toaster, I noticed I looked young and old simultaneously. I ate hastily, failing to clean up, actually craving some small sign of life, an army of ants dragging crumbs dislodged from the cracks of the kitchen tiles. I longed for buds sprouting, doves cooing, darkness lifting, spring returning.
Marcus Aurelius asks us to note the passing of time with open eyes. Ten thousand years or ten thousand days, nothing can stop time, or change the fact that I would be turning seventy in the Year of the Monkey. Seventy. Merely a number but one indicating the passing of a significant percentage of the allotted sand in an egg timer, with oneself the darn egg. The grains pour and I find myself missing the dead more than usual. I notice that I cry more when watching television, triggered by romance, a retiring detective shot in the back while staring into the sea, a weary father lifting his infant from a crib. I notice that my own tears burn my eyes, that I am no longer a fast runner and that my sense of time seems to be accelerating… I try to be more aware of the passing hours, that I might see it happen, that cosmic shift from one digit to another. Despite all efforts February just slips away, though being a leap year there is one extra day to observe. I stare at the number 29 on the daily calendar, then reluctantly tear off the page. March first.
By springtime, the strangeness is no longer the Lewis Carroll kind but an outright collective insanity:
April Fool’s Day. A kind of madness swept the course of every action, magnifying every reaction. Balls of confusion rolled toward us, scores of steely shooters, tripping us up, keeping us off-balance. The news pounded, and minds raced to make sense of the campaign of a candidate compounding lies at such a speed that one could not keep up, or break down. The world twisted at his liking, poured over with a metallic substance, fool’s gold, already peeling away.
It is the unprecedented heat and the dying reef and the arctic shelf breaking apart that haunts me. It is Sandy slipping in and out of consciousness, battling a run of bacterial infections, while mapping his own apocalyptic scenarios straight from the bowels of the Heart o’ the City Hotel. I can hear him thinking, I can hear the walls breathing. Perhaps a break is needed, an intermission of sorts, withdrawing from one scenario, allowing something else to unfold. Something negligible, light and entirely unexpected.
Again, she converses with the Dream Inn sign in desperate search of clarity, of reassurance, of that inextinguishable flicker of hope:
I did not ask the sign how my husband fared in whatever space was allotted to him in the universe. I did not ask the fate of Sandy. Or Sam. Those things are forbidden, as entreating the angels with prayer. I know that very well, one cannot ask for a life, or two lives. One can only warrant the hope of an increasing potency in each man’s heart.
Slowly, methodically, the tapestry unspools from the enchanted loom of this uncommon mind, revealing the pattern Smith has been weaving all along, reminding us that dreams — that the secret lives of the unconscious — are not an indulgence or a plaything, but a vital vessel into which reality is poured, lifted to the lips, and tasted more intensely.
In the final chapters, she writes:
I was never so hungry, never so old. I plodded up the stairs to my room reciting to myself. Once I was seven, soon I will be seventy. I was truly tired. Once I was seven, I repeated, sitting on the edge of the bed, still in my coat.
Our quiet rage gives us wings, the possibility to negotiate the gears winding backwards, uniting all time. We repair a watch, optimizing an innate ability to reverse, say, all the way back to the fourteenth century, marked by the appearance of Giotto’s sheep. Renaissance bells ring out, as a procession of mourners follow the casket containing the body of Raphael, then sound again as the last tap of a chisel reveals the milky body of Christ.
All go where they go, just as I went where I went… These were not ungraspable dreams but a frenzy of living hours. And in these fluid hours I witnessed wondrous things until, tiring, I circled above a small street lined with old brick houses, choosing the roof of the one with a dusty skylight. The hatch was unlocked. I removed my cap shaking out some marble dust. I’m sorry, I said, looking up at a handful of stars, time is running and not a single rabbit can keep up with it. I’m sorry, I repeated, descending the ladder, conscious of where I had been.
Reflecting on these clarifying dreams, vibrating with worry for our shared future, worry that “the blood of benevolence may not be infinite and will one day cease to flow,” Smith reminds us that the only remedy for a broken reality is more truth:
One cannot approximate truth, add nor take away, for there is no one on earth like the true shepherd and there is nothing in heaven like the suffering of real life.
The book ends with “A Kind of Epilogue,” in which Smith fathoms the oceanic abyss of losses in the Year of the Monkey — Sandy’s death, the last white rhino’s death, the massacre of schoolchildren, the injustices against immigrants, “the flames engulfing Southern California the collapse of the Silverdome and men falling like chess pieces carved from the weight of centuries of indiscretions and the slaughter of worshippers and the guns and the guns and the guns and the guns” — and reaches, with a lucid and luminous hand, for the source of buoyancy that is our only lifeline:
This is what I know. Sam is dead. My brother is dead. My mother is dead. My father is dead. My husband is dead. My cat is dead. And my dog who was dead in 1957 is still dead. Yet still I keep thinking that something wonderful is about to happen. Maybe tomorrow. A tomorrow following a whole succession of tomorrows… No one knows what is going to happen… not really.
Returning to Virginia Beach, that epicenter of her dreaming away from and into reality, she finds herself pacing the boardwalk in search of Eamsean telescopic perspective:
I knew there had to be a brass telescope mounted somewhere on the boards and I was determined to find it, not exactly a telescope but an instrument of beyondness, right on the esplanade… My pockets were brimming with coins so I set up camp and concentrated, first on a freighter, then on a star, and then all the way back to Earth. I could actually see that ball the world. I was in space and could see it all, as if the god of science let me peer through his personal lens. The turning Earth was slowly revealed in high definition. I could see every vein that was also a river. I could see the wavering illness air, the cold deep of the sea and the great bleached reef of Queensland and encrusted manta rays sinking and lifeless organisms floating and the movement of wild ponies racing through the marshes overrunning the islands off the Georgian coast and the remains of stallions in the boneyards of North Dakota and a fleet of deer the color of saffron and the great dunes of Lake Michigan with sacred Indian names. I saw the center which was not holding… And I saw the ancient days. There were bells tolling and wreaths tossed and women turning in circles and there were bees performing their life-cycle dance and there were great winds and swollen moons and pyramids crumbling and coyotes crying and the waves mounting and it all smelled like the end and the beginning of freedom. And I saw my friends who were gone and my husband and my brother. I saw those counted as true fathers ascend the distant hills and I saw my mother with the children she had lost, whole again. And I saw myself with Sam in his kitchen in Kentucky and we were talking about writing. In the end, he was saying, everything is fodder for a story, which means, I guess, that we’re all fodder.
“Progress is never permanent, will always be threatened, must be redoubled, restated and reimagined if it is to survive.”
By Maria Popova
“All the goodness and the heroisms will rise up again, then be cut down again and rise up,” John Steinbeck wrote to his best friend at the peak of WWII. “It isn’t that the evil thing wins — it never will — but that it doesn’t die.”
Caught in the maelstrom of the moment, we forget this cyclical nature of history — history being merely the rosary of moments the future strings of its pasts. We forget that the present always looks different from the inside than it does from the outside — something James Baldwin knew when, in considering why Shakespeare endures, he observed: “It is said that his time was easier than ours, but I doubt it — no time can be easy if one is living through it.” We forget that our particular moment, with all its tribulations and triumphs, is not neatly islanded in the river of time but swept afloat by massive cultural currents that have raged long before it and will rage long after.
Two days after the 2016 American presidential election, Smith — a black Englishwoman living in the freshly sundered United States — was invited to give a speech upon receiving a literary award in Germany. Traveling from a country on the brink of one catastrophic political regime to a country that has survived another, Smith took the opportunity to unmoor the despair of the present from the shallow waters of the cultural moment and cast it into the oceanic context of humanity’s pasts, aswirl with examples and counterexamples of progress, with ideals attained and shattered, with abiding assurance that we shape tomorrow by how we navigate our parallel potentialities for moral ruin and moral redemption today.
Nearly half a century after the German humanistic philosopher Erich Fromm asserted that “optimism is an alienated form of faith, pessimism an alienated form of despair” and a turn of the cycle after Rebecca Solnit contemplated our grounds for hope in dark times, Smith addresses a question frequently posed before her — why her earlier novels are aglow with optimism, while her later writing “tinged with despair” — a question implying that the arc of her body of work inclines toward an admission of the failure of its central animating forces: diversity, multiculturalism, the polyphony of perspectives. With an eye to “what the ancient Greeks did to each other, and the Romans, and the seventeenth-century British, and the nineteenth-century Americans,” Smith offers a corrective that stretches the ahistorical arc of that assumption:
My best friend during my youth — now my husband — is himself from Northern Ireland, an area where people who look absolutely identical to each other, eat the same food, pray to the same God, read the same holy book, wear the same clothes and celebrate the same holidays have yet spent four hundred years at war over a relatively minor doctrinal difference they later allowed to morph into an all-encompassing argument over land, government and national identity. Racial homogeneity is no guarantor of peace, any more than racial heterogeneity is fated to fail.
I find these days that a wistful form of time travel has become a persistent political theme, both on the right and on the left. On 10 November The New York Times reported that nearly seven in ten Republicans prefer America as it was in the fifties, a nostalgia of course entirely unavailable to a person like me, for in that period I could not vote, marry my husband, have my children, work in the university I work in, or live in my neighborhood. Time travel is a discretionary art: a pleasure trip for some and a horror story for others. Meanwhile some on the left have time-travel fancies of their own, imagining that the same rigid ideological principles once applied to the matters of workers’ rights, welfare and trade can be applied unchanged to a globalized world of fluid capital.
Smith reframes the question of her shift in literary sensibility not as a decline toward defeatism but as an evolution toward greater complexity and more dimensional awareness of existence:
The art of mid-life is surely always cloudier than the art of youth, as life itself gets cloudier. But it would be disingenuous to pretend it is only that. I am a citizen as well as an individual soul and one of the things citizenship teaches us, over the long stretch, is that there is no perfectibility in human affairs. This fact, still obscure to the twenty-one-year-old, is a little clearer to the woman of forty-one.
In consonance with Austrian-American sociologist Peter Berger’s classic humanistic antidote to cynicism, Smith locates our reasons for optimism by widening the pinhole of the present:
Only the willfully blind can ignore that the history of human existence is simultaneously the history of pain: of brutality, murder, mass extinction, every form of venality and cyclical horror. No land is free of it; no people are without their bloodstain; no tribe entirely innocent. But there is still this redeeming matter of incremental progress. It might look small to those with apocalyptic perspectives, but to she who not so long ago could not vote, or drink from the same water fountain as her fellow citizens, or marry the person she chose, or live in a certain neighborhood, such incremental change feels enormous.
Smith supplements these grounds for hope with a sobering counterpoint to the historical nostalgia so alluring to the hegemony and so ruinous to the rest of us:
Meanwhile the dream of time travel — for new presidents, literary journalists and writers alike — is just that: a dream. And one that only makes sense if the rights and privileges you are accorded currently were accorded to you back then, too. If some white men are more sentimental about history than anyone else right now, it’s no big surprise: their rights and privileges stretch a long way back. For a black woman the expanse of livable history is so much shorter. What would I have been and what would I have done — or more to the point, what would have been done to me — in 1360, in 1760, in 1860, in 1960? I do not say this to claim some pedestal of perfect victimhood or historical innocence. I know very well how my West African ancestors sold and enslaved their tribal cousins and neighbors. I don’t believe in any political or personal identity of pure innocence and absolute rectitude.
But neither do I believe in time travel. I believe in human limitation, not out of any sense of fatalism but out of a learned caution, gleaned from both recent and distant history.
Applying the tenth of her ten rules of writing — “Resign yourself to the lifelong sadness that comes from never being satisfied.” — to life itself, Smith adds:
We will never be perfect: that is our limitation. But we can have, and have had, moments in which we can take genuine pride.
Speaking from the German stage, Smith recounts visiting the country during her first European book tour in her early twenties, traveling with her father, who had been there in 1945 as a young soldier in the reconstruction:
We made a funny pair on that tour, I’m sure: a young black girl and her elderly white father, clutching our guidebooks and seeking those spots in Berlin that my father had visited almost fifty years earlier. It is from him that I have inherited both my optimism and my despair, for he had been among the liberators at Belsen and therefore seen the worst this world has to offer, but had, from there, gone forward, with a sufficiently open heart and mind, striding into one failed marriage and then another, marrying both times across various lines of class, color and temperament, and yet still found in life reasons to be cheerful, reasons even for joy.
He was a member of the white working class, a man often afflicted by despair who still managed to retain a core optimism. Perhaps in a different time under different cultural influences living in a different society he would have become one of the rabid old angry white men of whom the present left is so afeared. As it was, born in 1925 and dying in 2006, he saw his children benefit from the civilized postwar protections of free education and free health care, and felt he had many reasons to be grateful.
This is the world I knew. Things have changed, but history is not erased by change, and the examples of the past still hold out new possibilities for all of us, opportunities to remake, for a new generation, the conditions from which we ourselves have benefited… Progress is never permanent, will always be threatened, must be redoubled, restated and reimagined if it is to survive.
People who believe in fundamental and irreversible changes in human nature are themselves ahistorical and naive. If novelists know anything it’s that individual citizens are internally plural: they have within them the full range of behavioral possibilities. They are like complex musical scores from which certain melodies can be teased out and others ignored or suppressed, depending, at least in part, on who is doing the conducting. At this moment, all over the world — and most recently in America — the conductors standing in front of this human orchestra have only the meanest and most banal melodies in mind. Here in Germany you will remember these martial songs; they are not a very distant memory. But there is no place on earth where they have not been played at one time or another. Those of us who remember, too, a finer music must try now to play it, and encourage others, if we can, to sing along.