Posts Tagged ‘optimism’

Writing is an act of optimism

June 15, 2012

I was disappointed to miss Richard Ford‘s appearance here last night. He signed my copy of Independence Day in June ’96 at the old Davis-Kidd in Nashville, and we had a brief but engaging conversation about teaching and living. Oh well. Oh Canada.

So I did the next best thing, and hunted up his recent appearances on YouTube. There are a few. I’m impressed by Ford’s seemingly effortless ability in Q-&-A sessions to call up just the right illustrative quotation.

I’m also impressed by Ford’s commitment to always finding something, in even the bleakest of stories, to affirm and assent to.

Q. Would you say you are a positive writer who explores existential failures in your books?

I feel that’s exactly what I am – an optimist, who believes with Sartre, that to write about the darker possible things is an act of optimism. But what I’m looking for is drama, which occurs when people are at a loss, and not succeeding. I try to find a vocabulary which makes those things expressible. In the process of making those expressible to a readership, it becomes an act of optimism, because it imagines a future in which these things will be understood, and be mediated in some way. Writing for me is always an act of optimism. I probably wouldn’t do it otherwise, no matter how dark things are. CSM

He discourages young writers from setting out to make a career of it, unless they just can’t help themselves. Every author he knows, successful or not, works “like a dog.” (Strange expression: my dogs actually have it pretty easy.) But that’s because they want to, are driven to, are unable to settle for any other vocation.

But, he wonders, if you’ve made that commitment why would you settle for less than the best in terms of your own output? Why would you be content merely to cobble competent sentences rather than try to craft something truly great and enduring?

It’s obvious, as a review noted recently, that Ford takes extreme care in the production of each of his sentences. (“I estimate my success by how the words sing to me.”) Sorry I didn’t get to see him doing that live and in person last night. Next time.

Ford in the great white north… Road tripExplain nothing in publicFord on livingfiction’s business

We went to the (bleeping) MOON!

April 25, 2011

Looking forward to three or four more presentations in NW today. It’s getting very near the end for our course. But optimistic eco-pragmatists like to think it’s near the beginning for our species.

In chapter seven of Whole Earth Discipline Stewart Brand (who considers himself a “green” as well as a pragmatist) complains of ideological narrowness among some environmentalists.

I saw a version of this narrowness played out after 1966, when I was inspired by a rooftop LSD trip to distribute buttons that read, “Why haven’t we seen a photograph of the whole Earth yet?” Everyone in the New Left opposed Kennedy’s space program, seeing it (correctly) as a cold war episode that they thought (incorrectly) was being carried out to no good purpose by crew-cut military squares. (Only Abbie Hoffman disagreed with his compatriots: “Are you kidding? We’re going to the fucking MOON!”) Environmentalists joined the leftist opposition to the space program: “We have to clean up the earth before we can leave it.”

That was a false dichotomy that got locked in as core environmentalist ideology. It’s not constructive, from an eco-pragmatic point of view. Is it?

We may differ about that, about “solidarity,” and about Brand, but I think most of us are glad his rooftop reverie inaugurated that first Earth Day in ’70 and has us thinking today about the future of life on this rock.

It takes all kinds. Romantics, scientists, and engineers are Brand’s “stock characters” but he knows there are countless, varied, particular, real people behind “the largest movement in the world.” They’re meliorists, not ideologues. They’re focused on results. Read Blessed Unrest and try to sustain a pessimistic mood, I dare you.

Biomimicry, I think we can claim to have learned in our course, is central to what we’ve been calling native wisdom. Ask not what we can extract from nature, but what she can teach us.

There are two kinds of people in the world: those who think the world is irreducibly complex, and those who think it can be explained strictly in terms (for instance) of hedgehogs and foxes. More stock characters. Contrary to the message of this clever little film, Einstein and Darwin both knew many things and had grand theories. The point Brand wants to make about successful politicians, statesmen, and friends of the earth is that they’re skeptical, flexible, and pragmatic, open-minded and experimental, not hidebound confirmation-biased ideologues.

Chapter Eight takes us back to the garden. Not to Eden, but to the pre-Columbian Americas of 1491 and before. “It’s All Gardening.” It’s not all a “bogus” tale of “native spiritual teachers who impart ancient wisdom.” Brand says beware The Education of Little Tree, The Teachings of Don Juan, and the like. Wonder what he’d think of our reading list this semester? More importantly, what do we think of it?

Yet, he (like Gary Snyder and Kat Anderson) claims to have learned important lessons from native Americans like “how to be an American in a way that had nothing to do with the Pledge of Allegiance.” But it has plenty to do with the Conservation Pledge, both the Boy Scout and Buddhist versions. Give  life. Undo harm.

We’ve been planet-killers lately, and it’s hard to live sustainably in the Garden when our peers are trashing it. But the native wisdom we’ve been studying offers the encouraging lesson that we can “settle down” and pay closer attention to the conditions of life on our homeworld. We can protect it from ourselves and for ourselves, both tending the wild and leaving it alone as intelligence and empathy require.

We can do good work for the wild. We’re all native to this place, after all. We just need to “reinhabit” it, take the “Where You At” bio-regional quiz, and finally know our place. Then, we can explore other places without remorse. (Maybe even “boldly go” with Chakotay?) Call that the return of the native. And now we’ve come nearly full circle in our course.

rational optimism

May 19, 2010

People will ask what Matt Ridley’s been smoking.

Prosperity spreads, technology progresses, poverty declines, disease retreats, fecundity falls, happiness increases, violence atrophies, freedom grows, knowledge flourishes, the environment improves and wilderness expands.

That’s his line and his vision for the century ahead in The Rational Optimist, whose thesis is supposed to be “in your face”– or in the faces of those fashionable pessimists who insist that the end is nigh. (NYT reviewamazon)

The catch, for some of us, will be the book’s advocacy of unrestricted global trade and its implicit faith in perpetual growth and economic expansion. But the allure is the upbeat recognition that, for solid evolutionary reasons, we’re becoming better co-operators (or mutual enablers) and are living better (at least materially and medically), longer lives. “Everybody is working for everybody else.” (There’s a Hitchhiker’s Guide-style video blurb under that title on YouTube and at Ridley’s site.) Unlike Arthur Dent, Ridley’s not “gone off the idea of progress.”

We can quibble about particulars, and will in the “Future of Life” course this Fall. But on balance he’s right, by most tangible measures of species well-being we’re better off than our ancestors, and the past is no paradise. All who want to transport back to the 13th century and stay there, raise your hand.

Thought so. Of course, the future’s still in the balance. No guarantees. But don’t panic.

hard problem

May 15, 2010

There are many hard problems in philosophy– in life– but Owen Flanagan is right to identify the problem of meaning in a material world as among the very hardest. (Here it is at amazon. Monetize me!)

He’s right, too, to say that we can meaningfully differ in our respective solutions.

We can adopt different legitimate attitudes toward the truth about our nature and our predicament. I recommend optimistic realism. Joyful optimistic realism. Life can be precious and funny. And one doesn’t need to embrace fantastical stories– unbecoming to historically mature beings– about our nature and prospects to make it so.

I agree, enthusiastically… but you’ll still have a hard time persuading me of the legitimacy of Sorrowful Pessimistic Irrealism. Hit me with your best shot.

In any case, I’m excited that Flanagan is lined up as the keynote speaker for the next annual Tennessee Philosophical Association conference in the Fall, and motivated to prepare a submission on a consciousness-related theme.

And, to trot out again the “Meaning of Life” course I last taught at Vanderbilt in 2005.  Stay tuned.

WJ bio – 12

December 4, 2009

We rejoin James in his early sixties, in 1903: a time of rapid (by the standards of the day) mechanization. “A Packard accomplished the first automobile trip across the United States,” San Francisco to New York, in the astonishing time of just fifty-two days. The Wright Brothers have just gone aerial. And Henry Adams is yearning for the thirteeth century’s cult of the Virgin of Chartres.

To get slightly ahead of our story: James exchanged letters with Adams not long before his death, responding to the latter’s dark musings about the Second Law of Thermodynamics, the inevitable “heat death of the universe” and so on, this way:

“Though the ULTIMATE state of the universe may be its… extinction, there is nothing in physics to interfere with the hypothesis that the PENULTIMATE state might be a happy and virtuous consciousness… In short, the last expiring pulsation of the universe’s life might be, “I am so happy and perfect that I can stand it no longer.”

That’s looking on the bright side.*

James’s great intellectual excitement at this time is his discovery of the “process” philosophy of Henri Bergson, his elan vital and his perception of time’s inexorable forward momentum. “It is like the breath of the morning and the song of birds. And to me it tells of reality itself and not merely of what previous dusty-minded professors have thought about reality.”

(Note that it’s always other professors’ dusty-minded ideas one must shake off.)

This is when James wrestles, somewhat ineffectually, with “the Ph.D. Octopus.” If exclusionary formal credentialing was already out of hand then, how much worse is it now? Short answer: lots.

This is also when he really first appreciates his fundamental consanguinity with John Dewey, who “makes biology and psychology continuous” and whose “favorite word is situation.” (His second-favorite was “reconstruction”).

And this is the time of the Emerson centenary, when James orates in memory of New England’s great Socratic Transcendentalist:

“The deep today which all men scorn” receives thus from Emerson superb revindication. Other world! there is no other world.” All God’s life opens into the individual particular, and here and now, or nowhere, is reality. “The present hour is the decisive hour, and every day is doomsday.” Such a conviction that Divinity is everywhere may easily make of one an optimist of the sentimental type that refuses to speak ill of anything. Emerson’s drastic perception of differences kept him at the opposite pole from this weakness. After you have seen men a few times, he could say, you find most of them as alike as their barns and pantries, and soon as musty and dreary. Never was such a fastidious lover of significance and distinction, and never an eye so keen for their discovery. His optimism had nothing in common with that indiscriminate hurrahing for the Universe with which Walt Whitman has made us familiar…

1904 brings the nominal birth of  James’s “radical empiricism,” made radical by its refusal to concede the reality of “any element that is not directly experienced nor exclude any element that is directly experienced.” Bertrand Russell, famously disapproving of James’s “Will to Believe“– make-believe, Russell had sneeredsaid James “was right on this matter, and would on this ground alone deserve a high place among philosophers.” (More Russell quotes)

*Russell also agreed with James’s rejection of cosmic pessimism, even supposing our sun and galaxy and universe must someday expand and collapse and disappear:

I am told that that sort of view is depressing, and people will sometimes tell you that if they believed that, they would not be able to go on living. Do not believe it; it is all nonsense. Nobody really worries about what is going to happen millions of years hence. Even if they think they are worrying much about that, they are really deceiving themselves. They are worried about something much more mundane, or it may merely be a bad digestion; but nobody is really seriously rendered unhappy by the thought of something that is going to happen to this world millions and millions of years hence.

Long-term thinking is good, wondering what life will make of itself is vital… but let’s not get carried away! The end of the universe is (almost) unimaginably remote, much moreso than the potential end of a humanity victimized by its own self-destructiveness. This would have been Russell’s answer to young “Alvy Singer”… it was in fact the essence of what “Dr. Flicker” advised:

NOTE to students: the James story still has a few years to tell… but this is all you’ll “have to know for the test.”


September 29, 2009

“They suffer, Majesty.”darius1_01

That’s the squashed version of human history, boiled down from 36 thick volumes for the King of Persia (as recounted by Matthieu Ricard).

“Yes, they suffer, at every moment and throughout the world. Some die when they’ve just been born; some when they’re giving birth. Every second, people are murdered, tortured, maimed, separated from their loved ones. Others are abandoned, betrayed, expelled, rejected. Some are killed out of hatred, greed, ignorance, ambition, pride, or envy. Mothers lose their children, children lose their parents. The ill pass in never-ending procession through the hospitals. Some suffer with no hope of being treated, others are treated with no hope of being cured. The dying endure their pain, and the survivors their mourning. Some die of hunger, cold, exhaustion, others are charred by fire, crushed by rocks, or swept away by the waters…

These are not mere words but a reality that is an intrinsic part of our daily lives: death, the transitory nature of all things, and suffering.”

Bleak. But not so bleak as the misnamed optimism of a Leibniz, one of those western philosophers “for whom suffering is inevitable and happiness out of reach” (though of course he’d never say so). Sartre, in his very different style, may be another. (He pretty much does say so, despite all the existentialist bravado about radical freedom.)

And so Buddhists commit to alleviating as much of it as they can for others, and liberating themselves.

Suffering is real, and an enumeration of instances can overwhelm. But all is not suffering. If it were, there could be no meaningful alleviation– let alone liberation. The problem of evil is mirrored by the happy problem of gratuitous good: there is a lot of “pointless” joy to be had in the world, by those who’ll have it. (“Cards win. Cards win!”)

But the melioristic impulse Ricard highlights in ch6 is admirable. I’ve written about it:

Above all, his keynote celebrates
the fight and the spirit of sober-yet-cheerful work (as we may
prefer to call it, with a less martial turn of mind), as we push
back against the stubborn sources of our discontent.
These reflections surely underscore the Jamesian refusal,
the radical empiricist’s refusal, to allow that either the
optimists or the pessimists, as conventionally and historically
defined, can be right. If “the optimist proclaims that we live in
the best of all possible worlds, and the pessimist fears this is
true,”13 James will insist on another way around or through the
poles of this dilemma. It cannot be true that total perfection
reigns in the actual world of our experiencing. We can only
believe so by shutting our eyes to the obviously real ills and
injustices by which humans are regularly visited—by disallowing,
in short, the evidence of our experience. Those rare individuals
who are personally charmed to lead lives free from affliction
must know—or, minimally, must have heard or read of—others who
are not; or else they are living ostrich lives and are more to be
pitied than envied.
What is more, unqualified optimism that denies real
suffering and deficiency in the world insults our real
capacities; it disables our remedial impulses. Can our
humanitarian and compassionate responses be so misguided, our
felt regrets so misplaced? James certainly had no tolerance for
dilettantism and the effusion of idle regret, disconnected from
responsive action. But what of the active regret that fuels
reform? Are the heroic deeds of good men and women, the noble
benefactors of humanity (not merely the acclaimed, the
Schweitzers and Mother Teresas, but the unsung and under-
appreciated community volunteers, the “Habitat for Humanity”
workers, et al.) superfluous? Or (what comes to the same thing
for anyone possessed of the kind of philosophical temperament
James exemplifies) necessarily ineffectual?
It needs saying, here, that of course the Leibnizian
optimist has his “theodicy” and his rational response and denies
that anything—absolutely anything—is “superfluous,” or gratuitous, or unnecessary. All is
Rational Necessity. For Hegel “the Real is the Rational, the
Rational is the Real.”14 What a startling, potentially
stultifying attitude, for anyone who purports to live and act in
the world of our collective experience!

Meliorists relish the fight and the spirit of sober-yet-cheerful work (as we may prefer to call it, with a less martial turn of mind), as we push back against the stubborn sources of our discontent.  These reflections surely underscore the Jamesian refusal, the radical empiricist’s refusal, to allow that either the optimists or the pessimists, as conventionally and historically defined, can be right. If “the optimist proclaims that we live in the best of all possible worlds, and the pessimist fears this is true,” pragmatic meliorists will insist on another way around or through the poles of this dilemma. It cannot be true that total perfection reigns in the actual world of our experiencing. We can only believe so by shutting our eyes to the obviously real ills and injustices by which humans are regularly visited—by disallowing, in short, the evidence of our experience. Those rare individuals who are personally charmed to lead lives free from affliction must know—or, minimally, must have heard or read of—others who are not; or else they are living ostrich lives and are more to be pitied than envied.

What is more, unqualified optimism that denies real suffering and deficiency in the world insults our real capacities; it disables our remedial impulses. Can our humanitarian and compassionate responses be so misguided, our felt regrets so misplaced? James certainly had no tolerance for dilettantism and the effusion of idle regret, disconnected from responsive action. But what of the active regret that fuels reform? Are the heroic deeds of good men and women, the noble benefactors of humanity (not merely the acclaimed, the Schweitzers and Mother Teresas, but the unsung and under-appreciated community volunteers, the “Habitat for Humanity” workers, et al) superfluous? Or (what comes to the same thing for anyone possessed of the kind of philosophical temperament James exemplifies) necessarily ineffectual?

It needs saying, here, that of course the Leibnizian optimist has his “theodicy” and his rational response and denies that anything—absolutely anything—is “superfluous,” or gratuitous, or unnecessary. All is Rational Necessity. For Hegel “the Real is the Rational, the Rational is the Real.” What a startling, potentially stultifying attitude, for anyone who purports to live and act in the world of our collective experience!

And so I give Ricard and Buddhism all credit for working to make the best of suffering and even learn from it. “Resigning ourselves to it with a simple ‘that’s life!’ [ignores] any possiblity of the inner change that is available to everyone…”

Right. But this talk of mainly- inner change is a shift from the bolder meliorist resolve to push back at suffering’s external sources. I confess, I’m not much impressed by this suggested exercise:

gray cloud“Imagine that you are taking upon yourself, in the form of a gray cloud, the disease, confusion, and mental toxins of [suffering] people, which disappears into the white light of your heart without leaving any trace. This will transform both your own suffering and that of others… “

It will? Or will it transform how I feel about suffering? Sounds pretty Stoic. Is that the change we need?

Don’t misunderstand me: we should do what it takes, internally, to allow ourselves (amidst suffering) to “feel a great happiness.” But we should also refrain from describing that inner transformation as (in itself) effective remediation. Moral holidays are  necessary. They’re not sufficient.


September 19, 2009

Went, on my GP’s advice, for a precautionary chest x-ray yesterday morning. It revealed an unwelcome little swirl of  infection in the lower quadrant of my left lung, nothing much to look at but the tech said it raised a flag that could spell pneumonia.

Had that before, a few years ago, when it responded quickly to targeted treatment. And my doc, having seen it before too, was a step ahead and had already started me on the appropriate meds when I arrived for my morning snapshots yesterday. So I had no medical reason to panic, and no contagious fever. That might be why I took in the news with stoic calm and relative indifference, then phoned home to share it, and then hopped in the car and drove to work. All just like normal, on what turned out to be a very good day of classes.

dont-panic-copyOr maybe I didn’t panic because I’ve always been a diligent follower of Douglas Adams’ travel advice.

Or maybe it’s because I had Seneca on my mind, and his praemeditatio:

The wise will start each day with the thought…

Fortune gives us nothing which we can really own.

Nothing, whether public or private, is stable; the destinies of men, no less than those of cities, are in a whirl.

Whatever structure has been reared by a long sequence of years, at the cost of great toil and through the great kindness of the gods, is scattered and dispersed in a single day. No, he who has said ‘a day’ has granted too long a postponement to swift misfortune; an hour, an instant of time, suffices for the overthrow of empires.

How often have cities in Asia, how often in Achaia, been laid low by a single shock of earthquake? How many towns in Syria, how many in Macedonia, have been swallowed up? How often has this kind of devastation laid Cyprus in ruins?

We live in the middle of things which have all been destined to die.

Mortal have you been born, to mortals have you given birth.

Reckon on everything, expect everything.

Or maybe it’s because I’m one of the lucky winners of the cortical lottery and, being a glass-half-full kind of guy, just always expect things to work out. “Optimists have a high happiness set point, habitually look on the bright side, and easily find silver linings.” (Jon Haidt)  Not sure that’s really me, or (if it is) that it came by way of the genetic lottery. But I do mine for silver.

Or maybe my health care safety net, provided by my employer the state– I work for its  Enormous State University– accounts for my confidence that the  little invasive blip will soon  be  gone, at no crippling expense to our family budget or my emotional equanimity. That’s a confidence I share with a great many state and national politicians who’ve been ranting about the evils of socialism and railing against the the very “public option” we take for granted. I hope the ranters remember that in these unsettled times, state employees like us don’t have the job security or safety net to support long-term confidence in the containment of personal health costs.

Well, whatever the source I’m grateful for the resources that made yesterday’s little bump in the road nothing to rage And I’m amused to discover that my pulmonary consultant from years back was also Younger Daughter’s softball coach. We didn’t recognize one another as doctor-patient, after a single office visit, at the ball-fields. We were wearing different hats there.

Barnes on Updike

June 3, 2009

Julian Barnes is a first-rate English novelist who has written a first-rate memoir centered on his lifelong attempt to quell his fear of death, Nothing to Be Frightened Of. It includes poignant reflections on losing his parents, a point of particular interest when I picked it up in search of solace after losing mine last year.

Barnes’ book was good source material for my talk at the baseball and literature conference in March. Now I learn that he, like me, was a big fan of the late John Updike – one of the subjects of that talk, and of Barnes’ wonderfully sympathetic tribute in a recent edition of the NYRB (thanks, Andy). There he traces death’s saliences in Updike’s corpus expertly:

The underlying, paradoxical dream of Updike’s characters [is] to be away, and yet to be safe. The Rabbit Quartet is bookended by Harry Angstrom’s two instinctive southerly fugues: his opening panicked drive from home and family and life in the ’55 Ford in Rabbit, Run (1960)… and the mirror trip in Rabbit at Rest (1990), Harry’s closing, migratory trek in the Toyota Celica down to Florida to find his place to die. Updike’s epitomal marrieds, the Maples, try the easiest escape from marriage, adultery; then the second one, divorce. But what lies beyond? A second marriage, perhaps further dreams of leaving, and so on, until life’s final escape, into death. If Lee, at the end of “The Guardians,” finds temporary consolation in the fact that his DNA at least promises him longevity, Martin Fairchild, in “The Accelerating Expansion of the Universe,” knows that in cosmological terms, “We are riding an aimless explosion to nowhere.”

And so Updike found himself compelled to attest faith in a religious frame larger than the cosmic. In a 2002 Atlantic story self-consciously echoing William James’s “Varieties of Religious Experience,” a character embraces atheism at the very moment of witnessing the collapse of the World Trade Center’s south tower… only to reaffirm his religion months later, “because human consciousness always insists on narrative and meaning, and so, for him, on faith.” He believed because he thought he needed to. This is one of the continuing points of contention in my own ongoing conversation with Updike, and with William James, which mere extinction on their parts will not cause me to suspend.

Finally Barnes notes Updike’s valedictory, in his last New Yorker story last May:

a former insurance salesman turned floor sander, now approaching eighty, reviews his life through the prism of water (the sea, the body’s constitution, human tears, the glass of the stuff he needs to swallow his “life-prolonging pills”). Most people tend to see life as a glass that is, according to temperament, half-full or half-empty…

If I can read this strange old guy’s mind aright, he’s drinking a toast to the visible world, his impending disappearance from it be damned.

Impossible not to think of and feel for Updike as he tapped out that sentence and then added his last full stop, his fictional endpoint. Impossible equally not to honor and thank him with a reader’s raised glass, full to the brim—though preferably not with water.

Cheers, John Updike and Julian Barnes. Nice toast. Nice remembrance.

half full

Bright side

May 19, 2009

“You come from nothing, you’re going back to nothing. What have you lost? Nothing! Always look on the bright side… of death” – which is, of course, life.

Give the Pythons credit: they weren’t just goofing, they showed they really meant it at Graham Chapman’s memorial service. The standard implication: because we get to live, we must die. Inverted, coeval wisdom: because we die, we got to live. That’s worth singing about! And as “Brian” said:


“You’ve got it all wrong. You don’t need to follow me. You don’t need to follow anybody. You’re all individuals.”

The message here need not be construed as necessarily atheistic. If you choose to believe in some sort of eternal life, make that choice as a free-thinking individual – and not because that’s what they say we must all believe.

In any case, the finite lives we lead are intrinsically valuable, potentially impactful,  and worthy of full-throated celebration by those who remain to sing our praises and share our foibles.

(By the way: that is John Updike in the congregation, no?)