An optimist must know what a sad place the world can be.

If you’re afraid to mention or hear about death, dying, or the dead, don’t talk to me about hope.
If you’re afraid to mention, to hear about, much less to face violence, pain, and suffering, don’t talk to me about hope.
If you’re afraid to grieve, to sob, to cry out, don’t talk to me about hope.
If you’re afraid to see that Trump may get his Supreme Court picks, don’t talk to me about hope.
If your hope is just a way to avoid facing death, pain, loss, temporary defeat, and grief, then I refuse to hope.
I will to feel death, pain, loss, defeat, and grief.
I will fearlessly.  I imagine better.

Revolutionary Letter #75.
by Diane di Prima

w/out imagination there is no memory
w/out imagination there is no sensation
w/out imagination there is no will, desire

what you find out for yourself is what you select
out of an infinite sea of possibility
no one can inhabit yr world

yet it is not lonely,
the ground of imagination is fearlessness

the war that matters is the war against the imagination
all other wars are subsumed in it.

the ultimate famine is the starvation
of the imagination

it is death to be sure, but the undead
seek to inhabit someone else’s world

the ultimate claustrophobia is the syllogism
the ultimate claustrophobia is “it all adds up”
nothing adds up & nothing stands in for
anything else


Today the war against imagination takes many forms.  Fake news. Civility. Respect the law. Electability.  As diPrima puts it, the undead seek to inhabit our worlds.

If I’m dubious about faith, I’m schizoid about hope.  Whether you call it “populism” or “fascism,” there’s a dangerous disease spreading in this country and around the world.  I don’t just hope that it will just go away.  But I don’t throw up my hands in despair, either.  I join with others who are rolling up their sleeves to work on changing the direction of where we seem to be heading.

If you’re feeling down about the state of our country, I recommend listening to Belabored Podcast #148.  Just over an hour and a half long, but worth every minute.  It’s called “Organizing Outside the Law” because it consists of a panel of four teachers and education organizers from West Virginia, Kentucky, and Milwaukee, Wisconsin.  They have organized effective actions to protect teachers and public education in states where right-to-work and other anti-union laws combine with budget reductions and charter schools to impoverish teachers, their students, and their schools.

When my wife Laura was dying, we both cringed at messages of hope, telling us that everything was going to be all right.  Laura was frightened and sad, but she didn’t have any false illusions about the course of her cancer.  Facing reality did not lead to despair or depression.  She carried on trying to stop the cancer with all her might without wasting time she didn’t have on hoping.

On the other hand, Peter Ustinov’s explanation for being an optimist has always appealed to me.  Laura’s doggedness was an act of will.  Ustinov describes the intellectual foundations for carrying on.

I am an optimist, unrepentant and militant. After all, in order not to be a fool, an optimist must know what a sad place the world can be. It is only the pessimist who finds this out anew every day.

We’re all in a tizzy about the spread of fascism in the United States and around the world.  I don’t sugar-coat what’s going on and call it “populism.”  It’s fascism pure and simple.

The quintessential fascist Benito Mussolini threw Antonio Gramsci in jail for more than ten years, releasing him only when he was about to die. Gramsci used those years to write profound notes and essays to guide us in the struggle.  In  Passato e presente, he wrote:

On daydreams and fantasies.  They show lack of character and passivity.  One imagines that something has happened to upset the mechanism of necessity.  One’s own initiative has become free.  Everything is easy.  One can do whatever one wants, and one wants a whole series of things which at present one lacks.  It is basically the present turned on its head which is projected into the future.  Everything repressed is unleashed.  On the contrary, it is necessary to direct one’s attention violently towards the present as it is, if one wishes to transform it.  Pessimism of the intelligence, optimism of the will. (1932)

He took the last aphorism from French writer Romain Rolland.  It is a recurring theme in Gramsci’s writings.  In this vein, his Prison Notebooks tell us:

The attribute ‘utopian’ does not apply to political will in general, but to specific wills which are incapable of relating means to end, and hence are not even wills, but idle whims, dreams, longings, etc.

Coming from an entirely different tradition, the taiji teacher Linda Lehrhaupt makes the same point:

Why is it so important to give up hope? Hope in itself is not the problem. But the expectations and projections … can actually sabotage our chance of ever reaching what we have hoped for. Hope can also lead to paralysis because in itself having hope can be very satisfying. As long as we are focused on some future pleasant event, we don’t really have to be present in the here and now, or take care of things that come up or that we mess up.

In yet another cultural milieu, Hope appears as a character in Monteverdi’s opera L’Orfeo, embodying what the warning at the gates of Hell tells entrants to abandon.  In his analysis of the opera, Adam Philips puts Linda’s point succinctly: “hope is hopeless.”  That is, when we make hope “our object of desire; it is not the means but the end.”

Hope becomes hopeless when we substitute hope for hard work, which takes imagination based on fearless attention to the present situation.  Pessimism of the intellect; optimism of the will.


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