hope


I recently finished reading Infinite Jest, David Foster Wallace’s mammoth novel about the near future. It took me nearly four months, and would have taken longer if I had not had extra time on my hands as I recovered from surgery. Reading the middle third of the book was like wandering through a wilderness; I kept going out of sheer determination, but it seemed like I was getting nowhere. There’s some satisfaction at having persevered to the end, but mainly there’s relief.

One of the reasons I initially decided to read the book was that I had seen the DFW interview movie The End of the Tour (2015) when it was first released, and that movie (which I discussed here) had made me curious about DFW’s analysis of the struggles those of us living in modern (or postmodern) USA have with living meaningful and genuine lives. As I read IJ, I paid attention to anything that shed light on this issue. There is of course much more to the novel than this, and I don’t want to suggest that DFW wrote primarily to offer advice about how to live with American entertainment, excess, and irony. I do want to focus on that issue in giving my thoughts about the book, though.

Just a couple of caveats before I begin. I have no particular expertise at literary analysis and only limited knowledge of DFW’s life and works, so readers are likely to find more astute information about IJ elsewhere. I’m merely sharing some of the thoughts the novel prompted in me. Also, I haven’t taken especial care to avoid spoilers, so if you’re reading IJ and don’t want to know what happens, it may be best to wait until you’re ready for such information before you read what I have to say.

To start, then, this post will focus on one feature that stood out as I read, namely that IJ portrays a world in which human desire is prevalent and problematic. Pretty much everyone is pursuing something they yearn for, usually something they hope will make them whole, or at least better. These desires aren’t a sufficient guide for life, though. In fact, they are likely to make life worse. In one of the two main settings for the novel, the Enfield Tennis Academy, the pre-adolescent and adolescent students all begin with a desire to make “The Show,” the professional tennis circuit. Not reaching this goal is problematic, but achieving it is even more fraught with danger:

“It’s possible that the only jr. tennis players who can win their way to the top and stay there without going bats are the ones who are already bats, or else who seem to be just grim machines….” (p. 437-8)

Thus Schtitt, the head coach of the academy, is as interested in helping his charges avoid the perils of success as he is in helping them succeed. As one of the staff explains,

“The point here for the best kids is to inculcate their sense that it’s never about being seen. It’s never. If they can get that inculcated, the Show won’t fuck them up, Schtitt thinks.” (p. 680)

In the other main setting, Ennet House–a halfway house for recovering drug addicts–the residents had desired what they thought drugs could provide, be that pleasure or escape or peace, but eventually they were always disappointed. More than this, they became trapped. For example, one of the residents, Joelle van Dyne, attempted to kill herself by overdose just because she had been imprisoned by her addiction. Here’s where she found herself:

“It is the cage that has entered her somehow. The ingenuity of the whole thing is beyond her. The Fun has long since dropped off the Too Much. She’s lost the ability to lie to herself about being able to quit, or even about enjoying it, still. It no longer delimits and fills the hole. It no longer delimits the hole.” (p. 222)

Desire is dangerous; it’s likely to become our master. DFW sounds almost as pessimistic as philosopher Arthur Schopenhauer here, sharing with him the idea that what motivates human beings is primitive, illogical desires that can never be satisfied. Many of the characters in the book are caged in some way; typically this is the result of having pursued desires that seemed to offer bliss but end up causing harm.

Schopenhauer thought all we could do to mitigate the force of desire was to lead very constricted lives; fortunately, Wallace is more hopeful. I’ll discuss where he finds hope in a later post; let me close here by noting that for him at least one path to release could be found in addiction recovery organizations such as AA or NA. That this approach works is a surprise even for those in recovery. At one point, Don Gately, a staff member at Ennet House, reflects:

“Substances start out being so magically great, so much the interior jigsaw’s missing piece, that at the start you just know, deep in your gut, that they’ll never let you down; you just know it. But they do. And then this goofy, slapdash anarchic system of low-rent gatherings and corny slogans and saccharin grins and hideous coffee is so lame you just know there’s no way it could ever possibly work except for the utterest morons…and then Gately seems to find out AA turns out to be the very loyal friend he thought he’s had and then lost, when you Came In.”  (p. 350)

We all could use a little help; the trick is to figure out what will genuinely provide assistance and what promises to do so but ends up harming us instead.

 

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I wrote earlier about Baz Luhrmann’s adaption of The Great Gatsby , suggesting that, despite its many fine features, the movie doesn’t do a particularly good job of conveying a couple of themes that are central to Fitzgerald’s novel.   I didn’t explain my point concerning one of those themes, so I’ll do so in this post.

St. Augustine said that we are what we love.  Human unhappiness results from disordered love—from having the greatest love for something that is insufficient to satisfy us.  Gatsby’s love for Daisy was disordered in two ways.  First of all, he was putting his ultimate confidence in something temporal—in a human being who would one day die.  Over the five years from when Gatsby had last seen Daisy, he had created an image of Daisy that envisioned something that could provide him with perfect happiness.  He had, in essence, idolized her, in the sense of making her worthy of worship.  His illusion was bound to be shattered.  Here is how Fitzgerald describes the aftermath of Gatsby and Daisy reuniting:

“As I went over to say good-by I saw that the expression of bewilderment had come back into Gatsby’s face, as though a faint doubt had occurred to him as to the quality of his present happiness.  Almost five years!  There must have been moments even that afternoon when Daisy tumbled short of his dreams—not through her own fault, but because of the colossal vitality of his illusion.  It had gone beyond her, beyond everything.  He had thrown himself into it with a creative passion, adding to it all the time, decking it out with every bright feather that drifted his way.  No amount of fire or freshness can challenge what a man will store up in his ghostly heart.”

There is no way that Daisy or anyone could have lived up to the idealized image that Gatsby had created of her.  Daisy was also bound to disappoint in another way.  Not only did she display the ordinary limitations of human flesh, but she was a particularly fickle and untrustworthy manifestation of such flesh.  Her life of privilege made her ill-suited to reciprocate to Gatsby’s love with anything like the dedication and commitment that he showed.  She pulled back from him rather than support him when Tom questions his integrity, and when he died he was waiting anxiously for a phone call from her that never came.  Fitzgerald’s final statement about Daisy lumps her with Tom:

“They were careless people, Tom and Daisy—they smashed up things and creatures and then retreated back into their money or their vast carelessness, or whatever it was that kept them together, and let other people clean up the mess they had made.”

Luhrmann seems to have wanted this tragedy to be seen as a romance, and so he makes Daisy into a weakling overwhelmed by Tom’s bullying rather than the deeply flawed, unreliable person that she is in the novel.  He even gives the suggestion that she was in the process of calling Gatsby at the moment that Gatsby was killed.  Here’s how Christopher Orr of The Atlantic describes how the movie changes Daisy:

“It is with her character that Luhrmann most clearly displays his incomprehension of the work he’s adapting—or perhaps, more cynically, his assumption that audiences would be unable to comprehend it. This Daisy is indecisive rather than “careless,” a co-victim in the story’s central tragedy rather than its principal architect, a smash-ee rather than smasher. Among other consequences, this transformation renders Fitzgerald’s closing judgment on the Buchanans (which Luhrmann reproduces faithfully) all but meaningless.”

Luhrmann seems to suggest that things might have worked out for Gatsby were it not for a few unfortunate circumstances.  That’s not the tale that Fitzgerald tells; his Gatsby is doomed because he has all his incredible capacity for hope on a single person, and one singularly ill-equipped to bear it.  What we put our hope in is as important as whether we have hope.  Luhrmann does us no favors by obscuring this point.

Gatsby

Going to see a film version of a favorite book, especially one so highly regarded as F. Scott Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby, is likely to be disappointing.  I loved Gatsby since I read it in college, and enjoyed re-reading it again last month in preparation for Baz Luhrmann’s adaption, starring Leonardo DiCaprio as Gatsby, Tobey Maguire as Nick Carraway, Carrie Mulligan as Gatsby’s love object Daisy Buchanan, and Joel Edgerton as Daisy’s husband Tom Buchanan. I approached the movie with trepidation—what favorite scenes would be omitted?  What dialogue mangled?  How well would the book’s atmosphere survive?

Gatsby

I was pleasantly surprised at how carefully the book’s plot was followed.  Only one of my favorite scenes has been omitted—the interaction between Nick and Gatsby’s father when the latter showed up for his son’s funeral.  The dialogue is faithful to the original.  The excesses of the Jazz Age are portrayed effectively, with the switch of musical style to hip-hop rather than jazz very appropriate for conveying the swagger and brashness of the era.  The parties are every bit as gaudy and extravagant as I imagined, and the contrast between the mansions full of revelers and the bleak valley of ashes reveals the vast inequity between rich and poor.  DiCaprio is a wonderful Gatsby and Edgerton is suitably loutish as Tom.  Unfortunately, Maguire is too befuddled and Mulligan too innocent for their respective roles; the former shortcoming was merely an annoyance, but the latter contributed to what for me was the main flaw of the movie, namely that, despite adhering closely to the book, it significantly modifies the character of the story.  I’ll take the rest of the post to explain what I see as Fitzgerald’s central themes and how well the movie does with these.

The three main themes that I find in the book are the arrogance and destructiveness of wealth, the dangers of self-invention, and the problems that occur when one constructs an object of longing that differs from the original source for that object.    As noted above, the movie shows the excesses of the age effectively, and Edgerton’s Tom Buchanan, the embodiment of old wealth, is every bit the haughty, chauvinistic cad that Fitzgerald made him.  Thus, the movie does well with the first of these themes.  It is with the other two themes that it lets us down.

Jay Gatsby is a classic self-made man, even his name being an invention.  Near the end of the novel, Gatsby’s father shows Nick the back cover of a book in which the boy Jay had written his daily schedule for self-improvement as well as his “General Resolves,” the latter including “No wasting time at Shafters,” “No more smokeing or chewing,” and “Read one improving book or magazine per week.”  Following such routines left the teen-aged James Gatz well-prepared to turn a chance encounter with a wealthy old man into an apprenticeship in the ways of the world, and, later, to success in the halls of power.  All this seems admirable, seemingly a case study in achieving what would later be called the American Dream.  Yet, as Fitzgerald portrayed him, Gatsby was fatally flawed.  Here is Fitzgerald’s most direct statement about Gatsby’s self-invention:

“His parents were shiftless and unsuccessful farm people—his imagination had never really accepted them as his parents at all.  The truth was that Jay Gatsby of West Egg, Long Island, sprang from his Platonic conception of himself.  He was a son of God—a phrase which, if it means anything, means just that—and he must be about His Father’s business, the service of a vast, vulgar, and meretricious beauty.  So he invented just the sort of Jay Gatsby that a seventeen-year-old boy would be likely to invent, and to this conception he was faithful to the end.”

Gatsby himself could be considered meretricious—superficially attractive but lacking in inherent worth.  The web of favors and relationships that had sustained him would be insufficient to support him in the end.  Nick describes him as having “an extraordinary gift for hope,” and such hope is certainly a central driver for self-invention.  Why bother to remake oneself unless motivated by hope that one’s efforts could change the future?  The movie seems to regard Gatsby’s self-invention as admirable, and in particular extols his hope for an idyllic future with Daisy.  In contrast, Fitzgerald saw the danger of Gatsby’s brand of hope.  Here is how the novel ends:

“Gatsby believed in the green light, the orgiastic future that year by year recedes before us.  It eluded us then, but that’s no matter—tomorrow we will run faster, stretch out our arms farther . . . . And one fine morning—

“So we beat on, boats against the current, borne back ceaselessly into the past.”

Hope that sees only future possibilities is never likely to reach fulfillment.  The past that we try to erase with our efforts at self-invention is part of who we are, and to deny our origins is to fight against a current more powerful than us.  Fitzgerald’s caution against the ahistorical impulse towards endless self invention that has always been part of the American character has never been more pertinent than now, surrounded as we are with life coaches, personal branding experts, motivational speakers, and various other largely self-made experts telling us we can be whatever we want to be.  Only a small fragment of Fitzgerald’s warning has survived in Luhrmann’s movie.

I know I have one more theme to consider, but this post is getting long and my time is getting short, so I’ll come back to that in a future post.

Surveys find that reported life satisfaction and positive emotions tend to increase as we age, at least until we reach the point where infirmity starts detracting significantly from our quality of life.  Most of the elderly are fairly optimistic about their remaining years.  In fact, author Paula Span suggested in a recent New York Times article that many of them are much more optimistic than circumstances warrant.  She cites findings from the “United States of Aging,” a telephone survey of Americans over age 60.   Among those over 70, 23% thought their overall quality of life would improve in the next five to ten years, and 49% thought it would stay the same.  Eighty-six percent of those over 70 thought they would be able to stay in their home for five to ten years without making significant modifications.  The vast majority of survey respondents thought that they would be able to maintain their health over the next five to ten years and that, should an accident or unexpected medical problem occur, they would be able to pay the associated expenses.  Span says, “I see much grimmer tidings elsewhere on a daily basis,” citing statistics showing paltry savings and frequent medical problems among the elderly.   She tries to puzzle out the reasons for the respondents’ optimism, concluding that it reflects at least in part a developmental change associated with aging.

Right now I’m something of an exception to the rule that we become more happy and optimistic as we age.  I’ve had a dip in life satisfaction over the past six months or so as I’ve retired from my primary job and moved to Michigan to be of assistance to my parents.  I still work part-time; my three part-time jobs  together equal about three-quarters of a full-time job.  My income is reduced, and I’m driving back and forth between Michigan and North Carolina frequently.  Less money and a peripatetic lifestyle trouble me some, but the biggest change is that I’ve developed more negative expectations about the future.  That in turn comes from the time I spend with my parents.  It’s not so much that their advanced age reminds me that they’ll soon die—and that I’ll eventually follow them.  Thinking about death is disconcerting only for those who haven’t quite come to terms with their inevitable mortality.  There is actually a substantial body of research indicating that thoughts of death can have beneficial effects on how we live our lives (see a report of this research here).  I’m less troubled by death than by what might come before death.

My parents are in their own home and, for now anyway, are able to cover their expenses reasonably well.  That doesn’t mean that they have a very pleasant life, though.  My dad has dementia.  He still knows who he is, recognizes family members and some friends, and can feed himself and help dress himself.  However, he has to be told the most basic things, remembers very little (even the household schedule, which is repetitive to the point of monotony), and is miserable whenever away from my mom.  He fears being alone, and, whenever my mom is away, he anxiously awaits her return.  At night, he always needs to be reassured that someone will come to get him in the morning.  My mother works hard to keep up the household and keep dad satisfied.  She is plagued with various physical limitations, tires easily, and is clearly weary of the task of answering the same questions and trying to comfort someone who can’t be comforted for more than a moment.  My mom has said, “I think we’ve just lived too long.”  I understand why she has that view.

So I’m no longer much of an optimist when it comes to the end of life.  Perhaps I’m even a pessimist, in the sense of having mostly negative expectations for what it will be like should I live to my mid-eighties or beyond.  I would say that I’m a hopeful pessimist, though.  Health may deteriorate, memory may fade, and friends may die, but I hope to still be sustained by qualities that can survive all these losses.  The Christian tradition talks about the fruit of the Spirit—qualities that God’s Spirit develops in those who open themselves to his activity.  The Apostle Paul’s letter to the Galatians lists these as love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control.  Take the first three of these—if my heart were to constantly be filled with love of others, if I were to be always joyful about God’s faithfulness and mercy, and if I had an abiding sense of peace that is unperturbed by life situations, then deprivation and decrepitude would matter much less.  Some days, I seem to be showing exactly the opposite of the qualities that Paul cites.  I know that spiritual formation is a lifelong process, though, and I trust that God’s Spirit knows better than I do how to develop these characteristics in me.  So, at this point I’m a hopeful pessimist, the in-breaking kingdom of the heavens being the only real reason I see for hope.

I wrote previously about optimism, ending with the suggestion that optimism and hope differ from each other.  In this post, I’ll say a little about what I found when I did a web search on “hope vs. optimism.” Though some links were to writers who didn’t distinguish meaningfully between the two, the majority made some distinction.  In fact, many of those who thought hope differed from optimism made overdrawn contrasts between them.  Here’s an example–a quote attributed to Scottish theologian John Macquarrie: “Hope is humble, trustful, vulnerable. Optimism is arrogant, brash, complacent. Hope has known the pang of suffering and the chill of despair.”  So if I’m optimistic about something, I’m being arrogant and brash?  I can’t hope if I haven’t suffered?  At best, this passage seems hyperbolic.  Both hope and optimism are similar in that they both involve positive expectations of some sort about the future; it’s best not to lose sight of their commonalities.

I found a few scientific studies differentiating between hope and optimism.  These tended to muck around in the slough of statistical analysis, and none turned up anything that I found particularly helpful.  Careful thought about  distinctions between the two seems to have an advantage over empirical research. Several well-known writers have tried to distinguish between hope and optimism—I encountered quotes from Miroslav Volf, Henri Nouwen, John Ortberg, and Vaclav Havel.  Here, for example, is a quote from Ortberg, as reported by  Smitten Kitten:

“Optimism and hope are not quite the same thing. Optimism requires a belief in progress—that things will in fact get better for me. Hope includes all the psychological advantages of optimism, but it is rooted in something deeper. When I hope, I believe that God is at work to redeem all things regardless of how things happen to be turning out for me today.”

Here is Nouwen, as quoted by KG:

“Optimism and hope are radically different attitudes. Optimism is the expectation that things—the weather, human relationships, the economy, the political situation, and so on—will get better. Hope is the trust that God will fulfill God’s promises to us in a way that leads us to true freedom. The optimist speaks about concrete changes in the future. The person of hope lives in the moment with the knowledge and trust that all of life is in good hands.”

I found that my fellow Christians often focus on a distinction made by both Ortberg and Nouwen.   Optimism is said to have as its object ordinary human events, whereas hope has to do with expectations about God.  Wouldn’t that imply, though, that a non-Christian (or at least a non-theist) can’t hope?  Isn’t it more accurate to say that nonbelievers hope as well, just in something different than believers?

Nouwen’s point that hope is related to trust is a useful one.  Hope more than optimism seems to depend on a sense that there is something benevolent that underlies our lives, though many attribute that benevolence to nature or karma or destiny or spirits rather than to God.  Optimism is often constructed out of selective interpretation of the evidence or simple denial that bad things might happen; hope is built on a foundation of faith in something larger than oneself.  Vaclav Havel, whose experience of living hopefully in the face of oppression gives him a more profound understanding of the concept than I will ever have, expresses it like this:   “Hope is not prognostication. It is an orientation of the spirit, and orientation of the heart; it transcends the world that is immediately experienced, and is anchored somewhere beyond its horizons.”

Vaclav Havel

So hope is an ability to sense a deeper reality than what is visible.  It consists not merely of thinking that things might improve in the future, but of recognizing—not with the senses but with the heart—that something in present reality is right, and knowing that that present reality will pervade the future as well.   Havel thinks that such hope results in action. “Hope, in this deep and powerful sense, is not the same as joy that things are going well, or willingness to invest in enterprises that are obviously heading for success, but rather an ability to work for something because it is good, not just because it stands a chance to succeed.  The more propitious the situation in which we demonstrate hope, the deeper the hope is. Hope is definitely not the same thing as optimism. It is not the conviction that something will turn out well, but the certainty that something makes sense, regardless of how it turns out.”     (From Disturbing the Peace (1986), quoted here.)

The story is told of an incurably upbeat man who jumped off the Empire State Building. As he hurtled down past the 20th floor, he was heard to shout, “So far, so good!” According to neuroscientist Tali Sharot, we’re all like that. Sharot describes our strong proclivity to don rose-colored glasses in her book The Optimism Bias: A Tour of the Irrationally Positive Brain. I haven’t seen the book yet, but did read an excerpt in the June 6, 2011 edition of Time.

According to Sharot, the optimism bias is the belief that the future will be much better than the past and present. As her subtitle implies, we humans incline toward optimism even when the evidence for our positive expectations is weak. She reports the results of numerous brain imaging studies showing that the brain areas most associated with having positive thoughts about the future are the amygdala and the rostral anterior cingulate cortex, but I was less interested in the neural basis for optimism than the reasons she gives for its pervasiveness. Sharot notes that optimism is useful; being optimistic provides a variety of benefits. Optimistic heart patients are more likely to take vitamins, eat a proper diet, and exercise than are their pessimistic counterparts. Optimistic cancer patients have longer life spans. Depression is associated with an absence of the optimism bias. Sharot isn’t just a cheerleader for optimism, though, noting that in some circumstances it is maladaptive. In this context, I like British psychologist Havelock Ellis’s quip: “The place where optimism flourishes most is the lunatic asylum.”

Sharot gives an origin myth for optimism. She suggests that optimism developed in conjunction with our ability to imagine ourselves in the future, that is, to engage in “mental time travel.” The capacity to picture the future was a mental advance that probably aided our survival tremendously. However, with it came the awareness that we would die one day. Following biologist Ajit Varki, Sharot claims that awareness of our impending death would have rendered us unable to function had it not emerged alongside irrational optimism. Sharot provides no argument to support this theory (though of course I’m drawing only on her article, not the book), and it’s not too hard to poke holes in it. For example, our optimism only pertains to our expectations for such things as getting a good job and a loving spouse; it is not an expectation that we’ll cheat death. So if awareness of mortality would immobilize those of our ancestors who didn’t have an optimistic bias, why wouldn’t it have done the same for ancestors who think they’ll have a few successful hunts or harvests before going the way of all flesh? If awareness of death leads to despair, it should do so for everyone, not just pessimists. Also, since our ancestors were for the most part members of collectivist societies for whom the survival of the group was more important than individual survival, shouldn’t their optimism have focused more on prospects for the group than on their individual well-being? As Sharot notes, we more easily become pessimistic about the future of our group than about our personal futures. That seems contrary to what would be expected from the evolutionary theory she advocates.

I don’t think of myself as much of an optimist, at least in the sense of having a general expectation that the future will be better than the past. In many ways, I’m convinced it won’t be. My aching knees will only ache more, and that little bit of difficulty I now have with glare when driving at night will get worse. I’ll have more trouble remembering people’s names, and words won’t come to mind as easily (I had the hardest time this week remembering the word “embalm” after someone mentioned dead people being injected with formaldehyde). My income will be falling in a few years, and I expect finances to be tighter. Despite such pessimistic expectations, I see myself as a person with hope.

Sharot seems to use optimism and hope synonymously, but I think there is a meaningful but subtle difference between the two. I did a web search on “hope vs. optimism” that helped me think about how they differ. This post is already long, though, so I’ll write later about what I found.