A close friend of mine has mentioned more than once that she reads the final lines of my new book Veiled Spill: A Sequence (“April again/and once more the trees//veiling themselves/in each other”) as representing hope. Of course I get what she means, and I wouldn’t say she’s wrong, but all the same, I’m none too happy with that reading. It reminds me of the cultural pressure I feel to palliate the harshness of the material I’ve tackled in the project I’m now calling On Going On: Under the Sign of Species Suicide.
I don’t do hope. (And anyway, what is that flabby object? It isn’t a concept. Nor is it a feeling.)
I most certainly don’t do it on a day when headlines shout that the man who made hope into a highly effective campaign slogan a long six years ago has just announced a new edition of the forever war, to “degrade and destroy” the entity known as “ISIL” (or “ISIS,” or “IS,” depending what source you read—as though, somehow, the very difficulty in deciding what to call it were evidence of its sinister nature).
“There is infinite hope, but not for us,” Franz Kafka supposedly said, or words to that effect. For the first time it occurs to me that maybe he meant not so much that hope is unavailable to us, the inexplicably outcast, but rather that it’s not for us; we should resist the temptation to avail ourselves of hope; we should try out life in its absence.
I think he’s right, insofar as hoping means that we cling to the expectation of a favorable resolution to a particular story. (For instance: our story about the trajectory of the species we belong to.)
Can we cling like that and live in reality?
Or is there “hope” in the view of my sister and brother-in-law, that some small group of humans will survive in a radically degraded environment, thanks to our brilliant smarts, our famous “adaptability”?
I’m not sure why we need to be so fixated on whether there is or isn’t hope. Instead, let us cultivate our Negative Capability: “that is, when a man [or woman] is capable of being in uncertainties, mysteries, doubts, without any irritable reaching after fact and reason—” (John Keats)
“Keep hope alive.” It’s drilled into us, and we’re not supposed to ask why we should keep doing this even when the hope in question is obviously brain-dead.
For “hope” (to switch the metaphor) is a sort of Krazy Glue, holding the old contraption together, postponing the urgently needed paradigm shift.
“The only recognizable feature of hope is action,” Grace Paley said, possibly wishing to offer a womanist version of Gramsci’s sternly heroic formula: “pessimism of the intellect, optimism of the will.” But why even go there, when we have her wonderful sentence: “Everyone, real or invented, deserves the open destiny of life.” (“A Conversation with My Father”)
But people rush around, grimly shoring up hope, like folks taping their windows because of a hurricane warning.
Hope is the force that surged like acid reflux in people’s breasts when Ronald Reagan invoked Morning in America.
Hope is a pink ribbon, hope is a chirpy song, hope is a new fad diet or an anabolic steroid boosting an athlete’s performance. Hope is imagining a world without cancer (not just a world in which people with cancer have universal access to good medical treatment). Hope, I regret to say, is an ad campaign for the September 21 People’s Climate March whose slogans I found plastered all over a New York subway car as I was heading home a couple nights ago. Once I got over the exhilarating novelty of just seeing an urgent environmental issue get so normalized (kind of like the rush one used to feel seeing same-sex kissers out in public, back in the bad-old-good-old pre-gay-marriage days), I realized that the Climate March slogans (“Walk the dog—grab brunch—change the world!”) conveniently gloss over the not quite hope-inducing fact that averting the worst of the upcoming woes entails smashing capitalism.
I know the drill. “But we have to give them hope, or else they won’t participate.”
What if hope is irrelevant? Like all living beings, we homo sapiens have “the open destiny of life,” it’s just that the context of that openness isn’t looking too rosy at the moment.
We’ll have to do our best, knowing we won’t know the outcome.
As for my own reading of my lines about April trees: maybe I meant that our bodies are like the trees, that we bio-beings go on because we’re alive (for as long as we’re able; then one day, we can’t). And maybe I meant to evoke the rising energies of spring, the way in which we’re made to respond to the lengthening light and the buds opening up, biologically and culturally primed to experience these things as a signal that the circle will continue, that beloved ancient things of the natural world won’t cease, despite all the destruction in which we participate; but at the same time I meant to suggest the way in which the very order of the seasons now gives pain, since we know that even this most basic stability can’t be counted upon. Perhaps I meant to remind of the beloved trees’ unbearable vulnerability, in a volume that contains the earlier lines: “we’re looking at miles/of disenchanted pines//along the interstate–/shouldn’t their boughs be/green instead of orangeish?” And maybe I meant to signal the consciousness of the speaker returning to the here and the now from the errancy of a globalized consciousness, with its farflung realms of conjecture and inevitable projection.
The here and the now that is our helpless gesture of love/hate towards our poor sister, the Future.