Negativity: Part 3

Negativity: Part 3

I’M going to tail off my discussion of this subject by discussing the book Hope Without Optimism (2015) by Terry Eagleton.
To remind you of what I said two weeks ago, Eagleton is an internationally renowned Marxist, Catholic writer, the author of over fifty books. These include works on faith (his first book was titled
The New Left Church) and works on critical theory and philosophy, in other words on modes of thought and analysis (such as his very challenging, combative Postmodernism and its Discontents).
The book I’m discussing is one of a series of short books on key topics: handbooks, they might be called, though they are way superior to the kind of handbook treasured by students looking for a quick fix. (Of course, I am not referring to the students who read my column, who are,
I’m sure, much more talented and responsible). This series is published by Yale University Press and includes titles such as Tragedy, Humour, Radical Sacrifice (starting with Christ) and Why Marx was Right. From the very opening lines of Hope Without Optimism Eagleton shows why he is regarded as such an incisive thinker, and also shows that he can be very
amusing. Here we go: “There may be good reasons for believing that a situation will turn out well, but to expect it to do so because you are an optimist is not one of them. It is just as irrational as believing that all will be well because you are an Albanian, or because it has just rained for
three days in a row.” That last observation prompts me to point out that reasons for hope are time- and space-specific: rain for three days in a row is a much more substantial reason for hope in droughtvulnerable Lesotho than it is in damp old England.

A little later Eagleton formulates the main recognition that underpins the
book: “Authentic hope needs to be underpinned by reason. In this, it resembles love, of which theologically speaking it is a specific mode.”
Much of what follows is thought-provoking, for example a brilliant 200-word critique of Gramsci’s maxim “pessimism of the intellect, optimism of the will”, which brings to mind a comment by Theodore Dalrymple: “Eagleton is a clear, combative writer whom it is always a pleasure to read,
even—or especially—for those who disagree with him.” Hope without Optimism is clear-eyed and provocative throughout and pervaded by
its author’s trademark wit. Sometimes this can be barbed, as in his comment on an incompetently argued book by failed banker Matt Ridley; Eagleton’s comments amused me greatly (though his underlying point is deeply serious): “It would not occur to a man [like Ridley] for whom capitalism is as natural as moonlight that one might regard companies unmotivated by profi t as morally superior to those that will stitch your wounds or teach arithmetic to your children only if you wave a credit card under their noses.” How controversial Eagleton can be is indicated by one of the main contentions in the book, that mistrust or pessimism—or scepticism, if you like—is “in the service of human welfare”, because it impels us towards constructive action, towards change. Friends in the UK who have glanced at thepost online because they know I write for it, have described the paper as a whole as dark, gloomy, pessimistic. “Look,” they will say, “at how it describes politics in Lesotho.” I reply: “yes, but this is for the good. It is a spur to change, to clearing out the stables, for the good of a suffering nation.” I can well understand any Mosotho struggling to make ends meet (that is, the great majority of Basotho) succumbing to negativity. But every Mosotho owes it to his compatriots not to do so. However grim and hopeless things may seem, ways must be found to insist they be made better.
That—to remind you of the first part of this piece—is Pop’s achievement in The Goldbergs.

Chris Dunton

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