If I were committed to wiping the United States from the face of the earth—and I am not—I might begin with defacing statues and memorials with graffiti.
My graffiti would be more literate than most. I imagine the Statue of Liberty’s base with the plaque bearing Emma Lazarus’ poem that begs the ancient world to send to us the “refuse of your teeming shore,” men “yearning to breathe free.” “I lift my lamp beside the golden door,” says Lady Liberty. And I would augment the sonnet with these lines:
Such was the spirit of men who knew no fear,
But they are gone; their land knows them no more.
Abandon all hope, you who enter here.
I might likewise make many another sign more striking and accurate with the addition of Dantesque verse: “I am the way into the city of woe,” would greet you upon entering the Kennedy Expressway on Chicago’s outskirts. “Welcome to the University of California, ‘where men have lost the good of intellect,’” would be another. “Come see the masterpieces at the Guggenheim, for there you may see works ‘plunged deep in just the sort of dung / you dump from human privies and latrines.’” At the Guggenheim, that description is sometimes not just figurative.
top right: Svidrigailov from Fyodor Dostoevsky’s Crime and Punishment, in an illustration by Dementy Shmarinov (SPUTNIK / Alamy Stock Photo)
“To America,” says the old rake Svidrigailov, when the beggar in Crime and Punishment asks him where he is going. The reply is a bitter jest. He has been rejected by the girl Sonia, and so he has no more hope in the world. America, for Dostoevsky, is a symbol of false liberty, the liberty of man cut free from God, who sees then that all things are permissible, because all things are equally without meaning. Svidrigailov puts a bullet through his head.
I am not optimistic about my country. Why should I be? We tear down more art than we erect. We burn more great novels, or flush them down the memory hole, than we write. Our social institutions? The healthiest are coughing up blood.
No, not optimistic. I want to shelter hope instead. It is my duty. And here we must be careful to note the difference between hope and optimism.
“The optimist is essentially a maker of speeches,” said Gabriel Marcel, the French philosopher and Christian existentialist, in his “Sketch of a Phenomenology and a Metaphysic of Hope.” In Marcel’s view, the optimist lays his whole wager on objects and developments exterior to himself, and uses his powers to persuade himself and others that the future must be so. That usually requires a lot of persuading, a lot of talk, for Marcel saw in that to which the optimist “so complacently clings something which readily lends itself to oratorical sequences and written expression.”
above: French philosopher Gabriel Marcel (public domain)
But let not the optimist get near a loaded pistol, as “there is a pessimism which is the exact counterpart of such optimism,” said Marcel. “It is oratorical in the same way, and there is no fundamental distinction between them. They are like the inside and the outside of the same garment.”
In contrast to the optimist, the man of hope does not pretend to force the future, or to know what it will bring. He does not presume to know “the right side of history,” as an entomologist might articulate the veins of a butterfly he has chloroformed and pinned on a plate. Yet he gives himself to the adventure of life, an adventure that may bring him much suffering. Will he see the end of that suffering? He does not know, but he trusts in the Divine, and he carries on. In his very suffering he is more cheerful and more at peace than is the pleasure seeker in his jittery bursts of optimism.
Perhaps America has always swung between hope—in all its lighthearted youth and decision never to yield to the darkness—and optimism, which is never more than a disappointment or two away from cynicism and despair. In American literature, think of Melville’s Confidence-Man, the deceiver who sells a thoroughly American brand of self-serving sociality as a substitute for faith, hope, and love. Or think of the movement of Mark Twain, from the high-hearted Tom Sawyer to the cynical Connecticut Yankee, whose main gifts to Arthur’s court are baseball and soap, and whose chief military victory is to electrocute his enemies.
Are we now in a time of wan hope—to use that wonderfully expressive old word? I see no reason to doubt it. Think of what men of hope used to do, and consider that Americans, far from doing the like, cannot or will not even hold their deeds in cherished memory. Think of the Pilgrim or the pioneer.
What were people such as the American Pilgrims and pioneers like? What moved their hearts? We must not ask in today’s progressive body politic. We must think of Pilgrims as merely religious bigots, and pioneers as merely thieves. We cannot or will not imagine what it might have been like for men—and sometimes their women also—to leave the Old World and its material wealth and reliable ways, to make a perilous voyage across the ocean to a land utterly unknown and wild. And to make such an expedition without the most ordinary of necessities for a new community of farmers; no homes, no corrals, no barns, no kilns, no mills, no salt pits, no smithy, no cities, no trade, no merchants, and no officers of the law.
No mere optimist would do such a thing, because the optimist reckons up advantages, and runs his mental account in his own favor. He turns from the darkness and the threat of utter dissolution.
To do what the Pilgrims did was not to hope that something specific would happen, but purely to hope, “as a response of the creature,” said Marcel, “to the infinite Being to whom it is conscious of owing everything that it has and upon whom it cannot impose any condition whatsoever without scandal.”
above: Pilgrims Going to Church by George Henry Boughton, oil on canvas, 1867 (New-York Historical Society / public domain)
When we read the journal of William Bradford, that calm and wise governor of Plymouth Colony, we feel we are in the presence of a man of hope, not optimism—indeed, his view of human nature is not rosy. He is engaged in an adventure, which is far more, and far other, than a planned excitation of the nerves. It is not even enough to say that Bradford and the others put their lives on the line. Mountain climbers and mercenaries do as much. The Pilgrims put themselves at the complete disposal of the unknown, all that they were, all that they had known and held dear, trusting that the God whom they had not seen face-to-face would somehow take their part, even if they should all perish.
The true believer, as Marcel says so clearly and uncompromisingly, must “be ready to accept the death and ruin of his dear ones, the temporal destruction of his country, as possibilities against which it is forbidden to rebel.” In hope we are no creditor demanding from God or from life some good thing we have counted on. We are free.
We might say the same of the pioneer. Laura Ingalls Wilder is now sniffed at because “Ma” in her autobiographical stories didn’t like Indians, especially when they showed up at her cabin in Kansas clad in nothing but breechcloths and skunk hide. “Pa” was far more kindly disposed toward them, but that is not enough, as there is no sin too small for the envious to condemn.
But what of the sheer daring of it all? What Pa Ingalls craved was the unsafe space, the unpredictable, the wide open skies, and he craved it for the sake of his children too. Marcel again provides more insight into this relationship between hope and accepting risk:
Perhaps the human condition is characterised not only by the risks which go with it and which after all are bound up with life itself, even in its humblest forms, but also, and far more deeply, by the necessity to accept these risks, and to refuse to believe that it would be possible—and, if we come to a final analysis, even an advantage—to succeed in removing them.
If we do not feel in our veins the hope of the Pilgrim or the pioneer, we are likely not to feel the pulse of love, either. Again we must choose between possessing something we can count on as a certainty, and giving ourselves up to the light and darkness of life. “The woman who is expecting a baby,” said Marcel “is literally inhabited by hope.” This was a man who lived before our child-starved time and who could not imagine our modern view of a child as an accessory to a lifestyle if it is wanted, and a ball and chain if it is not.
Also inhabited by hope, Marcel wrote, is “the adolescent who anxiously awaits the coming of love.” Those words bring the mist to my eyes. Where, in my poor lost land, is there an adolescent who anxiously awaits the coming of love? Who perceives it as a great and world-opening mystery, to which he will be called to surrender himself without assurance of success, or what the world calls happiness?
Our youth are instructed in decrepitude by the decrepit, in spiritual destitution by the destitute, who will have all others be so. “Just you wait,” says the divorcee, flicking the ash from the end of her cigarette. “I was in love like you, once.” The undergraduate in our time is already raddled with a kind of undead sex, all robotic body and no soul.
The optimist is sure he is going to get something worth his effort, and he lists his reasons, or the justifications of his demands. The pessimist is sure he is not going to get his due, or rather, since he delights in raining on other people’s parades, that you are not. When it comes to politics, they are both apt to fall from hope, to expectation, to reliable claim, to demand.
Here it hardly matters what kind of propaganda the optimist and the pessimist fall for. It may be that of a peerless leader like a Lenin or a Mussolini, who has “succeeded in paralysing not only any critical spirit in their minions, but all true sense of values,” as Marcel said. It may also be that of democracy, which he said “has helped in the most baleful manner to encourage claiming in all its aspects, the demanding of rights—and indeed to bring a mercenary spirit into all human relationships.”
Think of this statement in light of the feminist, who looks with hate and envy upon her female forebears—they who served their families because it was a good and enriching thing to do, even for an unreliable husband or a wayward child. Or think of the sexual exhibitionist of our time. He or she has no love for the human body and its mysterious nature, male or female. He or she collapses it into a thing, to be possessed, to be used; and the whole world must be compelled by political force to alter its laws, customs, language, and even its belief in God. All to comply with the exhibitionist’s self-product, to buy it, so to speak, at the price of heart and soul and mind and strength.
If we hope in a person we love, rather than hope, expect, or demand that he do this or that, we must be patient, says Marcel, and that means more than just waiting. It means that we allow to the other the room to unfold, “to preserve his vital rhythm, as that [hope] tends to exercise a transforming influence upon him which is comparable to that which sometimes rewards love.” We do not give up on him. We do not take his folly or prodigality as a determined fact. The father in the parable of the prodigal did not put his ungrateful younger son away.
What we say of what the loved one may do in the future, we may say also of what the loved one has done in the past. The father who every day looks for his son returning home is like the son who looks back upon a father he no longer can speak to in this world, who forgives his faults, or who can, in imagination, begin to enter his mystery, the mystery of another human being. To hate your father is to instruct your son to hate you in turn. To instruct him so is to hate yourself, though you may not be aware of it. It is despair, what Marcel describes as a spiritual self-consumption.
What applies to persons, I think applies to a nation. America is not, for me, an idea, no more than she is an inanimate object, or a patient etherized upon a table. She is the land and its stories. She is the Pilgrim and the pioneer, the Indian and the missionary, the slave and his owner; she is the baseball player, the snake oil salesman, the whaler, the linemen bringing the telephone and telegraph. She is no angel, no matter what Lady Liberty says. Nor is she a devil. Nor a mere thing to analyze, to murder in the dissection.
If I say, “I love my country,” I cannot mean “I am satisfied with her virtues, which redound to my benefit,” because that is not love. Nor can I mean, “I can help to thrust perfection upon her, by such and such measures,” because that is not love. If I love my country, I am more likely to ask whether I am good enough for her, than whether she is good enough for me. But in any case, we dwell in a relationship, and there is no determinism in that. Call it the adventure of the patriot. If glory is in the offing, I thank God for it; and if it is darkness and a grave, yet will I sing of her for what she was, and what she might have been.
“Son of man,” said the Lord to the prophet Ezekiel, “can these bones live?”
Not on their own. The sun will bleach them, and the wind and sand will scour them to dust.
But since I love my country still, I am not permitted to write her off as dead. I must live in hope, I must be true to her who has given so much to me. As her past was not one saga of misery, so her future need not be death and burial and oblivion. I do not simply declare her to have been great, though there was greatness in her. I want her to be “good, far more than great or high,” as Milton puts it, and I think that she can become good again, just as the madman in delirium can come to his senses again.
How long that will take is not up to me, or whether it will happen at all. That is in the hands of God—and of Americans to come, to whom I believe He will give sufficient grace, which if they will accept, they may mend, and rise, and walk again, and turn their steps toward that true and only country, whereof these countries among us, which we are bound to love, are the beautiful and shadowy borderlands.