Friday, October 24, 2014

Hope is not a course of action

My daughter had a chorus concert a few weeks ago in which they sang an arrangement of the poem  Invictus. In introducing the song, the teacher mentioned that Nelson Mandela was inspired by the message of the poem and recited it to his cellmates during his long incarceration in South Africa. 
Out of the night that covers me,
Black as the pit from pole to pole,
I thank whatever gods may be
For my unconquerable soul.
In the fell clutch of circumstance
I have not winced nor cried aloud.
Under the bludgeonings of chance
My head is bloody, but unbowed.
Beyond this place of wrath and tears
Looms but the Horror of the shade,
And yet the menace of the years
Finds and shall find me unafraid.
It matters not how strait the gate,
How charged with punishments the scroll,
I am the master of my fate,
I am the captain of my soul.

In my mind, the poem conjured an image of "The Pit" - the prison in The Dark Knight Rises
Bane has a different outlook than Mandela:

You don’t fear death. You welcome it. Your punishment must be more severe. … There is a reason that this prison is the worst hell on earth: hope. Every man who has rotted here over the centuries has looked up to the light and imagined climbing to freedom. So simple. So easy. And like shipwrecked men turning to seawater for uncontrollable thirst, many have died trying. I learned here that there can be no true despair without hope. So as I terrorize Gotham, I will feed its people hope to poison their souls. I will let them believe they can survive so you can watch them clamber over each other to stay in the sun. 
Some might dismiss this as Hollywood nonsense. How can hope be a necessary condition for despair? The word despair itself makes this seem absurd. It comes from the Latin despero, de- to lack or give up, -spero hope.

If you dig a bit farther, however, there is something there. The story of Pandora from Greek mythology (specifically Hesiod's Works and Days) shows that the Greeks saw hope -  Elpis - as part and parcel of suffering. Nietzsche explains in Human, All Too Human.
Hope—Pandora brought the box containing evils and opened it. It was the gift of the gods to men, a gift of most enticing appearance externally and called the "box of happiness." Thereupon all the evils, (living, moving things) flew out: from that time to the present they fly about and do ill to men by day and night. One evil only did not fly out of the box: Pandora shut the lid at the behest of Zeus and it remained inside. Now man has this box of happiness perpetually in the house and congratulates himself upon the treasure inside of it; it is at his service: he grasps it whenever he is so disposed, for he knows not that the box which Pandora brought was a box of evils. Hence he looks upon the one evil still remaining as the greatest source of happiness—it is hope.—Zeus intended that man, notwithstanding the evils oppressing him, should continue to live and not rid himself of life, but keep on making himself miserable. For this purpose he bestowed hope upon man: it is, in truth, the greatest of evils for it lengthens the ordeal of man.

Nietzsche's interpretation may be best supported by the epic Dionysiaca by Nonnus, in which Time begs Zeus to ease the suffering that hope has caused in mortals' lives.
But, some may say, a medicine [hope] has been planted to make long-suffering mortals forget their troubles, to save their lives. Would that Pandora had never opened the heavenly cover of that jar--she the sweet bane of mankind!

Are Bane, Nietzsche, and the Greeks correct? Is hope the root of suffering? Hope makes societies think they can do more than they really can. Hope - of a certain kind - makes people "clamber over each other to stay in the sun," as Bane says.

This reminds me of one of my favorite quotes. It comes from Milan Kundera:
Anyone who thinks that the Communist regimes of Central Europe are exclusively the work of criminals is overlooking a basic truth: The criminal regimes were made not by criminals but by enthusiasts convinced they had discovered the only road to paradise. They defended that road so valiantly that they were forced to execute many people. Later it became clear that there was no paradise, that the enthusiasts were therefore murderers.
Hope that they could find utopia, paradise, the end of history. It takes more than hope to cause despair, but a certain kind of hope can surely poison the City of Man.

At the individual level, hope - the shaft of light coming down from above, just out of reach - all too often becomes the tantalizing mirage that keeps people from enjoying their lives. The brighter the light of hope, the closer the unreachable shimmers, staying just out of reach all the while, the more acutely people feel a void in their lives.

It is interesting that Bane's words above echo closely a quote taken from the German philosopher Arthur Schopenhauer: "Wealth is like sea-water; the more we drink the thirstier we become." Whether wealth, fame, success, or some other mission, we all too often deny our mortality and our limits and chase the brass ring. This would be an unmitigated good were it not for that which we set aside to take up the chase. Hope, which blinds us to our fate, skews our calculus. We put off those things we really want to do always for tomorrow, pursuing the chase today.

We treat time and life as an infinite resource, when it is anything but. Paul Bowles eloquently explained this in his novel, The Sheltering Sky:
Death is always on the way, but the fact that you don't know when it will arrive seems to take away from the finiteness of life. It's that terrible precision that we hate so much. But because we don't know, we get to think of life as an inexhaustible well. Yet everything happens a certain number of times, and a very small number, really. How many more times will you remember a certain afternoon of your childhood, some afternoon that's so deeply a part of your being that you can't even conceive of your life without it? Perhaps four or five times more. Perhaps not even. How many more times will you watch the full moon rise? Perhaps twenty. And yet it all seems limitless.
In the end, no one regrets the dollar unearned, the next promotion, the big deal missed. They regret all the plans, all the moments deferred in their real lives. They regret assuming always that there would be another day.

In the end, this is the essence of my novel. This is the lesson I tried to take away from Afghanistan; that I vowed to carry forward for those whose bodies were cooling with the evening as their families woke up on the other side of the globe to a world they did not yet know had changed.

When I think of their last moments, I think of the words of Norman Maclean who wrote of the smokejumpers killed in the Mann Gulch fire.
Although we can enter their last thoughts and feelings only by indirection, we are sure of the final act of many of them. ... After the bodies had fallen, most of them had risen again, taken a few steps, and fallen again, this final time like pilgrims in prayer, facing the top of the hill, which on that slope is nearly east. ... The evidence, then, is that at the very end beyond thought and beyond fear and even beyond self-compassion and divine bewilderment there remains some firm intention to continue doing forever and ever what we last hoped to do on earth. By this final act they had come about as close as body and spirit can to establishing a unity of themselves with earth, fire, and perhaps sky.
These words come on the final page of his book Young Men and Fire, though I think that better closing words are found buried in the middle of the work:
There's a lot of tragedy in the universe that has missing parts and comes to no conclusion, including probably the tragedy that awaits you and me.
We make our conclusions in what we do - too often unthinking - every random day, disconnected from hopes and futures and far-off dreams that rarely come to pass.

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