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.