Friday, April 25, 2014

Answered Prayers


“Lasciate ogni speranza voi ch’entra,” were the words which Dante famous cited on the way through the Inferno. Abandon all hope, ye who enter here. “Arbeit macht frei,” work makes (man) free were the more hopeful sounding words which like the McDonald’s Big M, greeted those who entered Dachau, Auschwitz and other Nazi franchises. And the dichotomy is instructive when one considers the stoic approach to the question of hope Simon Critchley puts forth in his recent Times Sunday Review piece, “Abandon (Nearly) All Hope,” (NYT, 4/19/14) Critchley, a professor of philosophy at The New School, demonstrates his always prodigious knowledge of antiquity in quoting Aeschylus’ Prometheus Bound and an anecdote from Thucydides’ The History of the Peloponnesian War to demonstrate his contempt for Panglossianism. He quotes Prometheus to the effect that he “stopped mortals from foreseeing doom...I sowed in them blind hopes.” It’s these kind of blind hopes that lead to the defeat of the Melians by the more powerful Athenians in Critchley’s rendition of Thucydides. Turning to the present Critchley turns his skeptical eye to President Obama a well known dabbler in hope. “ “He recalled a phrase that his pastor…used in a sermon: the audacity of hope. Obama said that this audacity is what ‘was the best of the American spirit,’ namely ‘the audacity to believe despite all evidence to the contrary.’” One wishes Critchley could have given our beleaguered president the benefit of the doubt. Obama bashing has become one of the most self-congratulatory hobbies on both the left and he right. The anti- Obama forces are like old-fashioned aristocrats out with their hounds and horses for the hunt. In fact the hope that Obama is trading in has nothing to do with the Melians or Prometheus, but in employing “the strict hard factuality” and the kind “of courage in the face of reality,” that Critchley quotes Nietzsche as advocating. Let’s not forget that Obamacare, which might or might not augur a revolutionary change in our health system, did pass. In a TLS review of John Gray’s Heresies: Against Progress and Other Illusions, David Hawkes quotes Gray as saying “Belief in progress is the Prozac of the thinking class.” And commenting on the substance of another Gray title, The Silence of Animals, Hawkes notes, "To lose faith in progress is to lose the ability to see meaning in life. It is to abandon the notion, central to rationalism and religion alike, that empirical appearances conceal substantial essences. It breaks with any concept of a non-material mind, self or soul concealed within the body. It assumes, with neo-pragmatists and postmodernists, that signs do not refer to an external reality, but create their own referents. To lose faith in progress is to view the world as a depthless simulacrum with no underlying significance.” Yes! W.B. Yeats famously said something like this even more succinctly in “The Second Coming,” “The best lack all conviction while the worst are filled with passionate intensity.” And let’s not forget Truman Capote who cited Saint Teresa of Avila in his unfinished novel Answered Prayers to the effect that “There are more tears shed over answered prayers than over unanswered prayers."

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