MUSINGS ON THE VISCISSITUDES OF HOPE


SISYPHUS

At the end of a week that was filled with a variety of seemingly unending tasks, I found myself falling into a state of significant pessismism about being able to successfuly master those obligations.

My thoughts then turned to the idea of hope. With some irony, I then recalled how modern thought has fallaciously come to reify the ideas of the “ego,” the “self” and “identity” into real, concrete objects. Further, I contemplated, we may well have deceptively done the same thing with the idea of hope.

The following considerations may serve to illustrate some, though certainly not all, of the complications attending the idea of “hope.” For example, the meaning of hope is not exhausted by the distinction between hope as a conscious aspect of emotion associated with our actions (realistic hope) and as magical hope. Further, there are all kinds of mixtures between realistic hope and magical hope.

Hope (and probably also faith) cannot be fully described and its role in the individual not fully understood without at the time describing its relation to acceptance (of reality, of the world, of one’s own situation, of others). The strength (or depletion) of the influence of hope cannot be fully described without at the same time accccounting for the presence or absence, and quality, of disappointment during times of frustrated hope.

It can be claimed that hope is always hope for improvement of one’s own, someone else’s or mankind’s condition. Thus, it becomes particularly vital as an emotional influence that can provide nourishment to the pursuit of our goals. However, the more certain one needs to be that hope will not be disappointed, the more one is functioning in the realm of the idea of hope in which there is reward for effort, participating at some point (either less or more extreme) of magical hope.

At the extreme point of magical hope are those reformers, revolutionaries and prophets who are convinced that ultimately they will succeed, that their paths alone are the right ones and that only those paths can lead to ultimate salvation.

A polar position is pessimism, a view that nothing can be done to relieve man’s painful state in this world. Even the position of pessimism can take different forms. For example, ideological and contemporary political conservatives feed the masses a magical, fantastic sense of hope, in which they themselves do not actually believe.

Another, surely more preferable form of pessimism, is perhaps best represented by Camus’ Sisyphus. In this case, the fact is accepted that we cannot know and yet we still have to make the effort. This is acceptance of reality, of man’s finite situation, without abandoning effort despite being unable to rely upon hope as a resource. It is a position where the effort is still maintained, but because we want to make it, even if it will turn out to have been in vain. This is very difficult and courageous, because it calls for giving up all hope for reward.

Finally, to complicate matters further in the attempt to clearly specify the meaning of hope, the issue of degree of certainty inevitably becomes involved. For example, if I could not expect with some degree of certainty that by taking the subway or bus I will arrive at a certain chosen destination (or goal), I well might give up the effort altogether. In others words: the attempt to specificy the meaning of hope is even further complicated by the need to clarify the many relationships between hope and expectations.

From a comprehensive perspective, the entire effort to define the meaning of “hope” appears to resonate with a hybrid tone combining aspects of the theory of relativity with dialectical social constructivism.

Tony Kushner: Honored as Fellow, The American Academy of Arts and Sciences

ANGELS IN AMERICA

On April 26, 2005, Tony Kushner, playwright and director, was named a Fellow of The American Academy of Arts and Sciences.

Born in Manhattan in 1956, Tony Kushner grew up in Lake Charles, Louisiana where his family moved after inheriting a lumber business. He earned a bachelors degree from Columbia University and did postgraduate work at New York University.

In the early 1980s, he founded a theater group and began writing and producing plays. In the early 1990s, he scored an outstanding achievement with his epic Broadway production, “Angels in America: A Gay Fantasia on National Themes.” The stage production earned Kushner a Pulitzer Prize, two Tony Awards, two Drama Desk Awards, the Evening Standard Award, two Olivier Award Nominations, the New York Critics Circle Award, the Los Angeles Drama Critics Circle Award and the LAMBDA Liberty Award for Drama.

The groundbreaking drama focused upon three households in turmoil: a gay couple, one of whom had AIDS; a Morman man coming to terms with his sexuality; and the vitriolic lawyer Roy Cohn, a historical figure who died of AIDS in 1986, denying his gay sexual identity all the way to his deathbed.

Kushner has also written “A Bright Room Called Day and Slavs!” (from material not used in Angels in America), as well as several adaptations including Goethe’s “Stella,” Brecht’s “The Good Person of Setzuan,” Corneille’s “The Illusion,” and S. Ansky’s “The Dybbuk.”

His works have been produced at The Mark Taper Forum, The New York Shakespeare Festival, The New York Theater Workshop, The Hartford Stage Company, The Berkeley Repertory Theater and The Los Angeles Theater Center, as well as in theaters in over 30 countries throughout the world.

He was the recipient of a 1990 Whiting Foundation Writers Award, as well as playwriting and directing fellowships from The New York Foundation for the Arts, The New York State Council on the Arts and The National Endowment for the Arts. Mr. Kushner is currently a faculty member of New York University’s Dramatic Writing program.

The HBO motion picture adaptation of “Angels in America,” brilliantly produced by Mike Nichols, won a stunning number of Golden Globe and Academy Awards.

Historical Note on Mike Nichols: The Compass Players (1955-1959) was an experimental/improv theater group founded in an old storefront-type building just off The University of Chicago campus. During that short period of time, it’s theatrical alumni included, among many others, Mike Nichols, Elaine May, Alan Alda, Alan Arkin, Ed Asner, Barbara Harris, Valerie Harper, Shelley Berman and Paul Mazursky.

Pope Benedict XVI

Cycle of Evil: Ed Paschke

One can only wonder, worry, about how deeply the new pope’s experience under the Nazis influenced him. He was 18 when the war ended, and it appears that his experience has resulted in a strong transference of those persecutory influences to his view of the function of the church.

Having seen fascism in action, Ratzinger today clearly seems to believe that the best antidote to political totalitarianism is ecclesiastical totalitarianism. In other words, he believes the Catholic Church serves the cause of human freedom by restricting freedom in its (and, therefore, our own) internal life, thereby remaining clear about what it teaches and believes.

Another dangerous form of totalitarianism, indeed, observant critics might say.

Ratzinger has chastised a long list of theologians for straying from official doctrine; his condemnation of “relativism,” or the belief that other denominations and faiths can genuinely lead equally to salvation; his strident and venemous denunciation of liberation theology, gay rights and feminism; his attempt to rein in, control and dominate national bishops’ conferences; his belief that the Second Vatican Council of the 1960s, which led to a near-revolutionary modernization of the church, has brought corrosive excesses.

Hans Kueng, one of the theologians who ran afoul of him, has called his ideology a “medieval, anti-Reformation, anti-modern paradigm of the church and the papacy. To have him as pope will…mean that the church is absolutely unable to reform itself.”

One can only wonder, worry…and worry.

EMMANUEL GHENT: TRUTH IS IN THE MOMENT

Emmanuel Ghent (1925-2003)

Emmanuel Ghent: Paradox and Ambiguity

Ghent (1925-2003) proposed that what we believe can at best only be true at that moment. In other words, what we might refer to as truths or beliefs are momentary bulletins from a continually evolving project. What follows is an abstract from a deeply moving memorial presented following his death:

My heart leaps up when I behold
A rainbow in the sky;
So was it when my life began;
So is it now I am a man;
So be it when I shall grow old,
Or let me die!

William Wordsworth (1802)

Many Ways to Lead a Life

There are many ways to live a life. All of us are privileged to have a hand in shaping something of how we will live ours. Having a hand in the project is decidedly different from having a free hand – picking and choosing at will – having it just as we want, when and with whom we want.

Our pride does not take well to this qualified involvement. We see the possibilities: we could do life oh so well if we could just do it as we imagine it. And we quickly learn that we are sharing the control with a rather unpleasant collection of additional forces. Many of us, unable to shake off a grim awareness of the stark limitations of health and time, the deep rage over deprivations and cruel losses visited upon us, chafe and fret over the unfairness of it all, disappointed in how the impingement of life’s forces has so compromised our vision.

I began to think a great deal about these issues many years ago after seeing Mannie at a psychoanalytic conference that I had attended. I was pleased to see him, a fairly new friend at the time, striding into the hall where I was already seated waiting for the opening address. As he came to the row in which I was sitting, I was happy when he paused to turn in. Perhaps he would sit with me. When I looked more directly at him and heard him speak, I was stunned. His hand groped a bit for the back of the chair at the edge of the row. “Are there any seats open in this row?” he asked quietly (but of no one in particular). He didn’t recognize me. I realized that he couldn’t see – he was basically blind. I later learned he had suffered a recurrence of a chronic medical condition that would plague him for the rest of his life, but, as I could see, would slow him down only a little.

How amazing, I thought: with all the anxiety that most of us can feel in these large and impersonal public meetings, here is this man who has temporarily lost his sight and is moving around in space as though he is dealing with a minor inconvenience. I decided he had a sense that his body was only the vehicle he was travelling in, that while he did not ignore or abuse it, he took good care of himself – he also didn’t identify himself with it. He worked around it when it was not cooperating with him, held himself apart, did not let “the problem,” the limitation, become him.

When Mannie first told me that he was seriously ill and expected to live only a brief period of time, it must have been at least six years ago. At that time, I carried the information close to my heart and painfully. Mannie had by then become a fundamental feature of my experience. I’m sure his many other friends will recognize the feeling when I say that for me, just knowing he was in the world made life better. The thought of losing him was unimaginable. Respecting his wishes and not talking to anyone about this was nearly impossible: so many people I loved, loved Mannie, so many of my friends would want to know if he was ill. How could I bear this sense of living on borrowed time with him and not be totally consumed with it?

I quickly learned that Mannie had taken me into his confidence not because he wanted me to be preoccupied with this or because he wanted anything in our relationship to change. Most of us knew him as a brilliant psychoanalyst, but I can attest to his powerful impact as a behavioral therapist, particularly when employing aversive conditioning. If Mannie discerned even a hint that I was looking at him differently or sadly, or, even worse, being somewhat solicitous of him, he became ever so slightly but unmistakably impatient and irritated. He did not really seem defensive at these times, but, rather, disappointed, and this reaction certainly accelerated the speed of my learning how to bear this pain without sinking into it.

Miraculously, weeks passed, months passed, years passed. Medical crises came – and went. Mannie survived. I think I began to feel that, rather than living on borrowed time, Mannie would never die. And now I watched him more carefully, sensing there was more to learn. I could see that while Mannie contained experience that was distressing, he gave himself fully over to the pleasures, big and small, that life could bring. He found many rainbows in his life, most of them not in the sky. There was his wife’s music – he was so proud of her talent. Whenever he spoke of something good happening for his children, his face would light up. And there was his delight in describing how he chased the bats that showed up in the bedroom after he had gone to sleep one night at his house in the country.

There was his pleasured recounting of the early days at Bell Lab when, as a young man, his versatile brilliance qualified him to be among a small group invited to an ongoing, off-hours investigation of the computer’s capacities to create music.

And, for most of the journey he engaged passionately in these many and disparate aspects of life. Not always an easy task, for, while ever appreciative of the phenomena of rainbows, Mannie was not a light-hearted rainbow chaser. He was a seriously committed intensely focussed person who, once he got started on something – well, I can imagine it might have been difficult to distract him even for dinner. He had a single-mindedness that I think comes with his kind of brilliance.

Knowing Manny was like knowing so many different men all at once: someone deeply spiritual who was decidedly irreverent, the gentlest of men, who could be tough as nails. So while we are here to say goodbye to Mannie we are also here to revel in our tremendous good fortune in having passed through life at similar times, to consider how many ways our minds are expanded, our experience of life has become richer – because of him.

I will miss him very much.

Margaret Black, 2003.

Saul Bellow: “Everyone Needs His Memories”


Saul Bellow: Nobel Laureate

Everyone needs his memories. They keep the wolf of insignificance from the door.” Saul Bellow (1915-2005), Professor Emeritus in the prestigious Committee on Social Thought at the University of Chicago, died on Tuesday, April 5th, 2005, at the age of 89. He was a Nobel Laureate in literature and one of the most influential American novelists of the 20th Century.

As a member of the University of Chicago faculty for more than 30 years, Bellow centered his fictional universe in his hometown of Chicago. Bellow, the Raymond W. and Martha Hilpert Gruner Distinguished Service Professor in the Committee on Social Thought and the Department of English at Chicago, authored more than a dozen critically acclaimed novels and works of nonfiction, including The Adventures of Augie March, Herzog, Humboldt’s Gift and Mr. Sammler’s Planet.

One of the most honored American writers of the modern era, Bellow won the 1976 Nobel Prize for literature, a Pulitzer Prize, three National Book Awards amd a Presidential Medal.

Bellow taught at the University of Chicago from 1962 to 1993 and attended the University’s College in the 1930’s. For countless numbers of readers, his works were extremely moving and reminded all of us of what deep powers that eminently introspective fiction can have.

SEEKING SOLITUDE


On Seeking Solitude

Solitude emphasizes the value of allowing us to formulate our feelings, thoughts and behaviors away from the influence of others. One seeks solitude, because our personalities are not unlike permeable membranes.

When actively involved with mutual interpersonal relatedness, we tend to absorb the feelings, thoughts, moods and opinions of others. We separate from others to sort through all that we have taken in, to review elements of our social exchanges and to evaluate them.

Ultimately, solitude can enable us to reach a sense of internal peace, in which we can attentively listen until we can hear our own notes amidst the discordance surrounding us. The essence of solitude, as with all privacy, is the achievement of a sense of choice and personal control.

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