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Terry Eagleton on "the banality of optimism"


Bookforum has an excerpt from Marxist literary critic Terry Eagleton’s new book Hope Without Optimism. In the excerpt, Eagleton excoriates baseless optimism and compulsory happiness, especially of the American variety. Here’s a snippet:

Optimism does not take despair seriously enough. The emperor Franz Joseph is reputed to have remarked that whereas in Berlin things were serious but not hopeless, in Vienna they were hopeless but not serious.

Cheeriness is one of the most banal of emotions. One associates it with cavorting around in a striped jacket and red plastic nose. The very word “happiness,” as opposed to the French bonheur or the ancient Greek eudaemonia, has chocolate-box connotations, while “contentment” has too bovine a ring. “A man of no understanding,” writes the author of the Book of Ecclesiastes, “has vain and false hope.” The French philosopher Gabriel Marcel doubts that there can be any deep optimism. Perhaps it is best seen as a degenerate, incorrigibly naive form of hope. There is something intolerably brittle about it, as there can be something morbidly self-indulgent about a pessimism that feeds with thinly disguised glee off its own glumness. Like pessimism, optimism spreads a monochrome glaze over the whole world, blind to nuance and distinction. Since it is a general mind-set, all objects become blandly interchangeable, in a kind of exchange value of the spirit. The card-carrying optimist responds to everything in the same rigorously preprogrammed way, and so eliminates chance and contingency. In this deterministic world, things are destined with preternatural predictability to work out well, and for no good reason whatsoever.


I think “hope”, which may be biologically predetermined for the survival of the species, animates the human race; people continue to have children in the direst of circumstances, even if everything militates against it (though modern Japan may be the first society to go against this trend but it is an isolated symptom of urban selfishness). I mistrust the tendency to be lovely about everything; frankly it seems psychotic; how can anyone be cheerful in a world so riven with hopeless situations, of which we are no longer ignorant through speedy global communication, and which affect us however far away we are? But not being jolly does not imply despair, it is a realistic acknowledgement of the world as it is. As I write, the BBC is broadcasting about the Dalai Lama’s invocation to happiness, which sadly will be misinterpreted into a new flurry of sentimental posterettes on social networking and snappy epithets to sum up recommended states of being. Happiness and hope can exist in the face of despair and come from a deeper source that the superficial which rules ko.