“I can conceive of no better service… than boldly exposing the weakness, liabilities and infinite corruptions of democracy.”
By Maria Popova
“Progress is never permanent, will always be threatened, must be redoubled, restated and reimagined if it is to survive,” Zadie Smith wrote in her spectacular essay on optimism and despair. The illusion of permanent progress inflicts a particularly damning strain of despair as we witness the disillusioning undoing of triumphs of democracy and justice generations in the making — despair preventable only by taking a wider view of history in order to remember that democracy advances in fits and starts, in leaps and backward steps, but advances nonetheless, on timelines exceeding any individual lifetime. Amid our current atmosphere of presentism bias and extreme narrowing of perspective, it is not merely difficult but downright countercultural to resist the ahistorical panic by taking such a telescopic view — lucid optimism that may be our most unassailable form of resistance to the corruptions and malfunctions of democracy.
I can conceive of no better service in the United States, henceforth, by democrats of thorough and heart-felt faith, than boldly exposing the weakness, liabilities and infinite corruptions of democracy.
Having lived and saved lives through the Civil War, having seen the swell of “vast crops of poor, desperate, dissatisfied, nomadic, miserably-waged populations,” having witnessed the corrosion of idealism and the collapse of democratic values into corruption and complacency, Whitman still faces a dispiriting landscape with a defiant and irrepressible optimism — our mightiest and most countercultural act of courage, then and now and always:
Though I think I fully comprehend the absence of moral tone in our current politics and business, and the almost entire futility of absolute and simple honor as a counterpoise against the enormous greed for worldly wealth, with the trickeries of gaining it, all through society in our day, I still do not share the depression and despair on the subject which I find possessing many good people.
Zooming out of the narrow focus of his cultural moment — as we would be well advised to do with ours — Whitman takes a telescopic perspective of time, progress, and social change, and considers what it really takes to win the future:
The advent of America, the history of the past century, has been the first general aperture and opening-up to the average human commonalty, on the broadest scale, of the eligibilities to wealth and worldly success and eminence, and has been fully taken advantage of; and the example has spread hence, in ripples, to all nations. To these eligibilities — to this limitless aperture, the race has tended, en-masse, roaring and rushing and crude, and fiercely, turbidly hastening — and we have seen the first stages, and are now in the midst of the result of it all, so far. But there will certainly ensue other stages, and entirely different ones. In nothing is there more evolution than the American mind. Soon, it will be fully realized that ostensible wealth and money-making, show, luxury, &c., imperatively necessitate something beyond — namely, the sane, eternal moral and spiritual-esthetic attributes, elements… Soon, it will be understood clearly, that the State cannot flourish, (nay, cannot exist,) without those elements. They will gradually enter into the chyle of sociology and literature. They will finally make the blood and brawn of the best American individualities of both sexes.
American Democracy, in its myriad personalities, in factories, work-shops, stores, offices — through the dense streets and houses of cities, and all their manifold sophisticated life — must either be fibred, vitalized, by regular contact with out-door light and air and growths, farm-scenes, animals, fields, trees, birds, sun-warmth and free skies, or it will morbidly dwindle and pale. We cannot have grand races of mechanics, work people, and commonalty, (the only specific purpose of America,) on any less terms. I conceive of no flourishing and heroic elements of Democracy in the United States, or of Democracy maintaining itself at all, without the Nature-element forming a main part — to be its health-element and beauty-element — to really underlie the whole politics, sanity, religion and art of the New World.
A year passed. When I invited Jane to participate in the second annual Universe in Verse, we chose her spare and lovely poem “Optimism” for the show. Perhaps because it is thematically kindred, or perhaps because adjacent memories so often get enmeshed when encoded, it instantly reminded me of the irrepressible yellow blossoms I had seen the day Jane and I first met. I had a sudden vision of brining the poem to life in an animated stop-motion short film playing with this idea of the improbable and inhospitable environments in which life, against all odds, persists — the raw optimism of nature.
I enlisted the imaginative help of artist, designer, papercraft engineer, and my longtime collaborator Kelli Anderson — a wrester of wonder from ordinary objects and creator of the wondrous This Books Is a Planetarium — and sent her a photograph of the little yellow weed that had germinated the idea, inviting her to explore this concept with her masterly paper engineering.
Kelli poured tremendous time, thought, and craftsmanship into creating a set of delicate, exquisitely engineered paper weeds, then setting them to “grow” in various real-world urban environments around Brooklyn — crawling along a brick wall, sprouting through concrete, blooming in a pavement crack — to the sound of Jane reading her splendid poem and a cello score by Zoë Keating, who was also part of The Universe in Verse. The resulting short film is a collaborative labor of love, celebrating a simple truth we so easily forget, yet a truth that animates the center of existence:
OPTIMISM by Jane Hirshfield
More and more I have come to admire resilience.
Not the simple resistance of a pillow, whose foam
returns over and over to the same shape, but the sinuous
tenacity of a tree: finding the light newly blocked on one side,
it turns in another. A blind intelligence, true.
But out of such persistence arose turtles, rivers,
mitochondria, figs — all this resinous, unretractable earth.
“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.
“To fight unhappiness one must first expose it, which means that one must dispel the mystifications behind which it is hidden so that people do not have to think about it.”
By Maria Popova
“Optimism is an alienated form of faith, pessimism an alienated form of despair,” the great humanistic philosopher and psychologist Erich Fromm wrote in 1972 as he made his elegant case for rational faith in the human spirit, adding: “To have faith means to dare, to think the unthinkable, yet to act within the limits of the realistically possible.”
That selfsame year, across the Atlantic, the philosopher Simone de Beauvoir (January 9, 1908–April 14, 1986) — another thinker of formidable foresight and abiding insight into the human experience — explored this osmotic relationship between optimism, pessimism, and hope in the fourth and final volume of her autobiography, All Said and Done (public library).
Beauvoir, who lived through two World Wars, devoted much of her work to the notion that happiness is not only possible but our moral obligation — a notion rooted not in a rosy wishfulness but in an incisive intellect that used every tool of skepticism to probe untruth and dispel ignorance. A devout lifelong atheist, she reflected at the end of her life that while many of her philosophical ideas evolved over the decades, her atheism remained unflinching. She held a strong conviction that the dogmas of religion preclude the critical thinking and analytical reasoning necessary for philosophical inquiry and for the evolution of human thought itself — an interference particularly pronounced when it came to the question of whether one is to take an optimistic or pessimistic attitude toward life and human nature. Beauvoir writes:
Faith is often an appurtenance that is given in childhood as part of the middle-class equipment, and that is unquestionably retained together with the rest of it. If a doubt arises, it is often thrust aside for emotional reasons — a nostalgic loyalty to the past, affection for those around one, dread of the loneliness and banishment that threaten those who do not conform… Habits of mind, a system of reference and of values have been acquired, and one becomes their prisoner.
With an eye to the ultimate delusion of religion — that of personal immortality, to which the pious cling as a hedge against the terror of the void that death presents — Beauvoir adds:
Faith allows an evasion of those difficulties which the atheist confronts honestly. And to crown all, the believer derives a sense of great superiority from this very cowardice itself.
But out of this courageous confrontation with difficulty arises an unexpected fountain of hope — that more lucid and muscular counterpart to blind optimism. Beauvoir writes:
In what colors do I see this Godless world in which I live? Many readers tell me that what they like in my books is my delight in happiness, my love of live — my optimism. But others, particularly when they write to me about my last book, Old Age, deplore my pessimism. Both these labels are oversimplified.
My natural bent certainly does not lead me to suppose that the worst is always inevitable. Yet I am committed to looking reality in the face and speaking about it without pretense… It is just because I loathe unhappiness and because I am not given to foreseeing it that when I do come up against it I am deeply shocked or furiously indignant — I have to communicate my feelings. To fight unhappiness one must first expose it, which means that one must dispel the mystifications behind which it is hidden so that people do not have to think about it. It is because I reject lies and running away that I am accused of pessimism; but this rejection implies hope — the hope that truth may be of use. And this is a more optimistic attitude than the choice of indifference, ignorance or sham.