Hope and the Artist

The virtues of enlightenment over feel-goodism

The Burghers of Calais, Hirshhorn Sculpture Garden (Jeff Kubina / Flickr)

I’ve been thinking a lot about the implied notion that writing that does not offer hope is necessarily deficient or somehow useless. To be less coy, I’ve been thinking a lot about the idea that my own writing is somehow cheating the reader because it seems so unconcerned with “hope.” I admit to having a hard time with this notion. No art I’ve ever loved takes the offering of hope (or despair) as its central mission, and a good deal of the art I detest does.

I spent some time with Joan Didion’s The White Album this summer. I was enchanted by Didion’s sparse, clean sentences and her detached, almost bemused view of California. But I did not emerge from her work feeling that the sun would still come out tomorrow. I am (slowly) making my way through her collection of political essays. There’s a beautiful symmetry between her stripped-down aesthetic and her exacting view of politics. Didion has no time for piety. Perhaps people think of her as kind of a downer. But that strikes me as a little silly—like going to a steakhouse and complaining about the falafel.

I’ve gone on at some length about how much I adore The Age of Innocence.  The penultimate scene for me is the dose of realism Ellen Olenska pours on Newland Archer. Newland and Madame Olenska love each other, though Newland is betrothed to someone else. He wants to live in a world where this doesn’t matter, and categories like husband and wife don’t either. Madame Olenska will have none of it:

She drew a deep sigh that ended in another laugh. “Oh, my dear—where is that country? Have you ever been there?” she asked; and as he remained sullenly dumb she went on: “I know so many who’ve tried to find it; and, believe me, they all got out by mistake at wayside stations: at places like Boulogne, or Pisa, or Monte Carlo—and it wasn’t at all different from the old world they’d left, but only rather smaller and dingier and more promiscuous.”

I’ve read The Age of Innocence several times, now. I do not think it would have been better if Newland and Madame Olenska had run off together. This is not a work of life-affirmation, nor a treatise on the ultimate triumph of love and freedom. Olenska says that life has fastened her eyelids open, that it has made it so she can never live in “the blessed darkness” again. I find something of myself here. Hope is not the value that Wharton seeks to impress upon us. Enlightenment—an escape from “the blessed darkness”—is.

I was in my mid 30s by the time I read Wharton, but this perspective—the privileging of enlightenment over hope, of understanding over fables—is old for me. No art more informs my own than hip-hop. This is true from the art of sentence construction to the music’s aesthetic outlook. The third verse of Nas’s “One Love” is an elegantly drawn conversation in which a young hustler recounts educating another hustler—Shorty Doo-Wop—who is younger still. The older hustler is amazed by Shorty’s ruthlessness and when he speaks of murdering someone, part of you wants the older hustler—the voice of “One Love”—to tell the kid to get an education. Nas baits this hopeful desire:

I had to school him, told him don’t let niggas fool him
Cause when the pistol blows the one that’s murdered be the cool one
Tough luck when niggas are struck, families fucked up
Coulda caught your man, but didn’t look when you bucked up

And then he destroys it:

Mistakes happen, so take heed never bust up
At the crowd catch him solo, make the right man bleed.

This is not about stopping the violence. This is about the sagacious delegation of violence. By the time I’d heard these lyrics I’d been a hip-hop fan for well over a decade. But even for hip-hop, advising a kid how to kill other kids felt like a gut-punch. It hurt because the voice in the song is dimly conscious that something is very wrong with his world, but not conscious enough to really join the reader in his urge for uplift.  This is as it should it be. To allow for conversion via light from above, a deus ex machina of hope,  would somehow transform the voice of the piece into a voice of feel-goodism. It would be to lie.

But if “One Love” is not a work of hope, it is very much a work of enlightenment. It’s one of the great illustrations of how living amidst constant violence necessarily alters one’s standards and mores. No one is innocent in Nas’s ghetto—“Jerome’s niece” is shot in the head coming from Jones’ Beach. Revenge is the entire ethos. And whether the listener feels hopeful amidst all of this is irrelevant. Enlightenment—the rendering of academic facts as human reality, the transformation of dead stats into something touchable, the rejection of “the blessed darkness”—is the point.

We don’t like to talk like this—we don’t like to think of “hope” as a kind of darkness. It need not be. If one observes the world and genuinely feels hopeful, and truly feels that the future is not chaos, but is in fact already written, then one has a responsibility to say so. Or, less grandly, if one can feel hopeful about a literal tomorrow and one’s individual prospects one should certainly say so.

But hope for hope’s sake, hope as tautology, hope because hope, hope because “I said so,” is the enemy of intelligence. One can say the same about the opposing pole of despair. Neither of these—hope or despair—are “wrong.” They each reflect human sentiment, much like anger, sadness, love, and joy. Art that uses any of these to say something larger interests me. Art that takes any of these as its aim does not.

The Burghers of Calais don’t need to smile for me. And I don’t need Macbeth to be a fairy tale. Even our fairy tales are rarely fairy tales.