“Pessimism of the intellect, optimism of the will.”
At a New Year’s gathering of friends last night, we spent the last hour before midnight sharing our answers to two questions: “What gives you hope?” And “What is your mission in 2011?”
The answers ranged across the map of the human heart. Some people drew hope from the next generation; others from the conviction, based in science, that life will abide even if humanity completes its ongoing self-destruction project. The hope I shared was grounded in direct experience, a shorter timeline, a smaller scale. I mentioned two things that generate it.
The first is the persistence, the uncanny abundance, the heart-opening, brain-boggling profusion of beauty, meaning, and pleasure in the world. Earlier this week, at another gathering, a smaller group of friends shared their intentions for the coming year. As at the New Year’s Eve party, all of us are of an age, give or take a few years. All of us said, in perfect concord, that our task was to allow and enable ever-greater congruence between our inner and outer selves, to erase the distance between person and persona.
For one friend, that meant clearing away the detritus of the past, including an accumulation of possessions no longer needed—the stuff that clogs a long lifetime tumbling through the world as a snowball picks up twigs and pebbles. For another, there was a sense of shells, or veils, or membranes falling away, the emergence of desire and essence from their confining disguise. For me, the action was peeling: allowing the vulnerability—the risk—that comes with opening the heart to the flow of love, love coming in, love going out.
Each of us drew an image of our intention. Here is mine:
My friends were sitting on the couch, so I took an unaccustomed seat across the coffee table, facing them. As we spoke, I turned my head to the left, and a beautiful prospect came into view. Two blooming orchid plants were arranged in such a way that the flowers in the foreground formed a bower. Through it, in the candlelight, I could see the clustered blooms of the second plant, a convocation of butterflies performing a synchronized ballet on the wing. I was reminded of this last night. It is raining this morning as I write, but at midnight, the sky was perfectly clear. We gathered at the window, high above the Bay, to watch a remarkable fireworks display in San Francisco, enormous iridescent butterflies dancing in the year.
Beauty is consolation, inspiration, breath. “Without realizing it,” Milan Kundera wrote, “the individual composes his life according to the laws of beauty even in times of greatest distress. ” May it always be so.
My second source of hope is related, to be sure. It is rooted in what I have perceived during this last year of traveling the country to spread my message, to propose a vast enlargement in our understanding of art’s public purpose, so that we begin to comprehend culture as the crucible in which value, meaning, and identity are created, from which the possibility of a modus vivendi emerges. Wherever I go, I see in people’s faces—in their shining eyes and the desire that is palpable in every breath—that they are finished with the pervasive conviction that value is only what can be weighed, counted, tested, bought, and sold. They are fed up with the delusion of a diminished life that this worldview has inculcated, the Datastan mentality that has gripped us for a very long time. They know what they know, and they are done pretending otherwise.
My mission, of course, is to put my shoulder on the side of that knowledge. Of all life’s beauties, surely one of the tenderest and most delicious is to witness that instant of dawning realization, the moment when a life is reclaimed from the false consciousness and imposed reality of these times, and set free to grow as it will.
Most of the friends at last night’s party thought in spiritual terms about the meaning of hope. Me too, but not only spiritual terms. I kept thinking of the quotation from Gramsci I recorded at the head of this essay. I was going to explain it to you, but when I googled it, I happened on such an elegant little exegesis from the blog of someone I don’t know at all, a physicist called Stephen Hsu:
I often get questions about the slogan on my homepage:
Pessimism of the Intellect, Optimism of the Will.
Some recognize that it’s a quote from Antonio Gramsci and mistakenly think it means I’m a Marxist.
In fact, the meaning of the slogan is quite simple.
Pessimism of the Intellect means, simply, be a scientist: see the world as it really is, not as you might like it to be. Try to identify and, if necessary, overcome hidden biases or prior assumptions. Always ask yourself: What assumption am I making? What if it is incorrect? How do I know what I know?
In many cases, the correct answer is: I don’t know. Never be afraid to admit you don’t know.
Optimism of the Will means, have the courage to attempt difficult things. Sometimes, Will can overcome the odds.
To live is to yearn. Each inhalation enacts the partnership with the world outside our bodies that enables us to fulfill that desire for the space of another breath. Happy New Yearn, friends! May this be a year of clear sight and powerful vision; of liberation from delusion, and courage that flows like water. And may each and every one of you walk in beauty, making meaning, seeking congruence between inner and outer, enjoying health, happiness, a garden of earthly delights.
Set out as you mean to go on with an exemplar of the fiercely courageous Catalan people, the brilliant, incandescent, late jazz pianist Tete Montoliu, a man blind from birth, accompanying the great Flamenco singer Mayte Martin in a beautiful song by Carlos Gardel, “El día que me quieras,” (The Day That You Want Me).Click to read about live-blogging for your next conference