When are you going to blog about Obama, X asked, while we headed for the Underground. Ah, a good question (1) , instantly appealing to my sense of duty. Of course one should not just revel in morbid-November-autumnal-melancholy, but also engage with the world’s pressing affairs (2).
Boarding the metro and finding a seat gave me some reprieve before answering X's question. So yes, why had I not yet produced an elated blog about the Obama-victory, I asked myself, smugly seated now opposite my companion and feeling quite content in this multilingual carriage full of Saturday people, from all walks of life, of all colors & persuasions (3).
Of course I had felt awed – awed by Obama’s dogged perseverance – awed by the portentous symbolism of his victory (4) . And amazed – it wàs possible – a book-reading, intelligent man of mixed race, with Hussein as his middle name, becoming president of the United States. And moved, oh definitely, I had been moved by the victory of someone who had also known about life at the margins, about not fitting in.
And who in his victory speech, in the very first paragraphs celebrated inclusiveness : “ young and old, rich and poor, Democrat and Republican, black, white, Latino, Asian, Native American, gay, straight, disabled and not disabled “. (5)
But despite all that …. , well I guess I did feel a bit weary around all this audacity of hope. The sheer tediousness of that tiresome, stirring battle cry “yes we can”. Partly this weariness is due to a genuine concern about the current rotten state of the world: it will need more than hope and rousing rhetoric to set things right … (be it economically or politically).
But mostly it is because of the deeply ingrained pessimism of my philosophically inclined nature that I feel so ambivalent about this Institutionalized Hope and Optimism.
Oh let’s be clear about it: I know that “optimism is a moral duty”(6) , a prerequisite for all human enterprise (7). I know that if we let ourselves being crushed under the weight of horrible truths, if we meticulously imagine the perils of the daunting tasks ahead, nothing ever will get done. So it is against one’s own better knowledge that one should , that one ought to be optimist: hope & unfounded over-optimism (8) as an adaptive trait in the struggle for life.
But still, the diligently truthful mind may find it degrading to dupe itself by hope ( or maybe this diligent mind is only cowardly protecting itself against the pain of dashed hopes? ‘thus conscience does make cowards of us all’ ….) (9) .
Sartre cunningly resolved this existential ambivalence by recommending “a pessimism of the mind combined with an optimism of the will”. And Obama may very well have both: a commanding intelligence which does not hide from the distressing facts of the world, and a powerful optimism of the will which can take on the most daunting of tasks.
But personally, as an eternally self-doubting pessimist, when having to force hope&optimism down my own throat, I find William James’ rhetorical question much more useful: “what proof is there that dupery through hope is so much worse than dupery through fear? “ .
Yeah, useful dupery, that’s what hope is….
In the meanwhile (10) we had again emerged above the ground, finding ourselves in a charming part of the Brussels- neighborhood Anderlecht: a place where one could live - with that pleasantly bent row of early 20th century Brussels brick houses (designed in toned down but still playful art nouveau) reminding one of an epoch when the Brussels petite-bourgeoisie had both zest and taste; with those engagingly swooshing gleaming curves of the tram-rails (11) ; with the very Belgian- Bourgundian-Proletarian taverns ; and all this Brussels couleur locale saved from smug provincialism by a most varied set of native & non-native inhabitants. (12)
But I digress – because this urban peregrination did have a philosophical destination! The Erasmus house, tucked away in a quiet enclave behind an endearingly somber church, under a gloomy sky.
There one can roam through rooms with creaking floor-boards, admire heavy leather-bound books , smile ruefully at the crude censorship of inked out sentences.
Or dream away at Erasmus’ time-worn wooden desk, near a glass-in-lead window looking out in the garden, savoring this scholarly stillness, cloaked by the rustling of autumn leaves.
And there one can wander around in Erasmus’ garden – assembled with such loving care to rejoice philosophically & flowerly inclined visitors.
But I digress again – praising gardens instead of folly.
Because, getting to my point, Erasmus, in all his wisdom, knew of course all about the necessary dupery of overconfidence & hope; about this so expedient & useful & indispensable folly of hope …
“ First then, if wisdom (as must be confessed) is no more than a readiness of doing good, and an expedite method of becoming serviceable to the world, to whom does this virtue more properly belong? To the wise man, who partly out of modesty, partly out of cowardice, can proceed resolutely in no attempt; or to the fool, that goes hand over head, leaps before he looks, and so ventures through the most hazardous undertaking without any sense or prospect of danger? In the undertaking of any enterprize the wise man shall run to consult with his books, and daze himself with poring upon musty authors, while the dispatchful fool shall rush bluntly on, and have done the business, while the other is thinking of it. For the two greatest lets and impediments to the issue of any performance are modesty, which casts a mist before men’s eyes; and fear, which makes them shrink back, and recede from any proposal: both these are banished and cashiered by Folly, and in their stead such a habit of fool-hardiness introduced, as mightily contributes to the success of all enterprizes.” (13)
This is as pedantic as footnotes can get: quoting Hamlet, and copying Latin.
(1) that’s the trouble with intelligent & inquisitive companions – they ask all the questions one avoids to ask oneself. Questions one avoids , not only to dodge duties but also because sometimes an honest answer would be too pathetic. Like this other question X asked: why do you blog? How on earth could one admit it is to gather proof to one’s defense. Proof that one is more than the publicly documented persona of a (perhaps soon to be un-employed) bank-economist. (If the 19th C had its sensitive upper classes reading Ruskin to prove they had a soul, now we may have a community of soulful & soul-searching bloggers).
(2) ah “l’engagement” – that politically rousing heritage of my teenage leftist reading of Sartre, de Beauvoir, Goldman et al.
(3) being rather defensive about my beloved Brussels (I know how filthy & chaotic it can seem) I was quite glad that X approvingly noted the diversity of the Brussels population and that she even granted a whiff of New York urban-ness to Brussels’ quite ugly metro-carriages.
(4) I remember how back in March 2008 an American business acquaintance (a white male) had dismissed Obama’s chances, peremptorily stating “America is not yet ready for a black president” – aha … guess who’s coming to dinner my lad ….
(5) Hey why did he not include “men and women” in that all embracing sentence? (And this footnote will be the only & the faintest of hints to the fact that I maybe, just maybe, might be sulking because America was not yet ready for a female president. )
(6) Karl Popper
(7) Cfr Keynes’ animal spirits!
(8) Overconfidence, locus of control and depression: "Overconfidence bias may cause many individuals to overestimate their degree of control as well as their odds of success. This may be protective against depression - since Seligman and Maier's model of depression includes a sense of learned helplessness and loss of predictability and control. Depressives tend to be more accurate, and less overconfident in their assessments of the probabilities of good and bad events occurring to them. This has caused some researchers to consider that overconfidence bias may be adaptive and/or protective in some situations."
“Thus conscience does make cowards of us all;
And thus the native hue of resolution
Is sicklied o’er with the pale cast of thought,
And enterprises of great pitch and moment
With this regard their currents turn awry,
And lose the name of action”
(10) These citations-backed reflections are of course entirely post-factum. Never ever did I during that metro-ride reply thus to my companion (who herself did however already during the conversation dare to oppose truthful & dignified pessimism to propaganda-tainted hope). And, um , actually the Obama question was maybe not even asked at that precise point of our Brussels-walk – but for blog-compository reasons it’s handy to situate it there.
(11) Someone ought to write a treatise, or at least a poem, about the romance of tramrails and tramways. The blog-pic is one of Brussels tramrails by night, though not at Anderlecht.
(12) And that this charm is not a just a figment of my Brussels-Partial imagination was so gratifyingly proven by X’s instant enchantment with the spot.
(13) My Latin has long lapsed , but X’s hasn’t – so here’s to you, X!
"Principio si rerum usu constat prudentia, in utrum magis competet eius cognominis honos: in sapientem, qui partim ob pudorem, partim ob animi timiditatem nihil aggreditur, an in stultum, quem neque pudor, quo vacat, neque periculum, quod non perpendit, ab ulla re deterret? Sapiens ad libros veterum confugit, atque hinc meras vocum argutias ediscit. Stultus adeundis comminusque periclitandis rebus, veram (ni fallor) prudentiam colligit.
Sunt enim duo praecipua ad cognitionem rerum parandam obstacula: pudor, qui fumum offundit animo, et metus, qui ostenso periculo, dehortatur ab adeundis facinoribus. At his magnifice liberat stultitia."