My basic premise is that when one is faced with a subject for discussion one need not take it seriously. One can laugh it off, in which case the discussion will not proceed any further. One can then have another discussion about why the subject has been laughed off. That is not the case in this instance, for I didn’t laugh but only chuckled when I read the project outline, and underlying the chuckle was a niggling disquiet. For we must be in a pretty hopeless condition if a consortium of intellectuals and writers has to be mustered to address the state of hope now. And what a loaded word that is, ‘consortium’, redolent of the corporate sphere or the activities of government and non-governmental agencies. Can the ‘Hope Consortium’ realistically hope to bring about any change in the collective mind of humanity; can it go beyond clarifying for itself the hopelessness that we would like to see giving way to hope; or simply fine-tuning our understanding of hope?
‘Hope now’ – the phrase brings to mind the controversial interviews of Jean-Paul Sartre in his book of that title. The controversy, interesting though it is, need not detain us. More to the point is that Sartre was seventy-five, unaware that he was on the brink of death, and still thinking of new, dialogic projects in collaboration with his interlocutor Benny Lévy. In the interviews Sartre highlights, for the first time in his life, the importance of hope – L’éspoir maintenant, ‘Hope now’ – and that too in a historical context that he outlines in terms that apply to us today, as apocalyptic fears rise inexorably.
Right at the start of the interviews Sartre identifies hope as a general condition of human existence. ‘I think hope is part of man’, he declares, because it is a necessary concomitant of ‘human action’, which ‘is transcendent’ and aimed at ‘a future object’. However, Sartre is also quick to point out, ‘I have never envisaged hope as a lyrical illusion.’ In doing so, he distances himself from the popular hope-related sentiments peddled on greeting cards. He argues in his ‘Sketch for a Theory of the Emotions’ that ‘Emotion is a specific manner of apprehending the world’, a mode of being-in-the-world. Hope too, he says in the interviews, is ‘one manner of grasping the goal I set myself, as something that can be realized.’
Contrary to the common view, Sartre argues that despair ‘was not the opposite of hope’; rather, it ‘was the belief that my fundamental goals could not be achieved . . . I saw Despair merely as a lucid view of the human condition.’ Well, one can live with that. Sartre’s despair arose from his awareness that he could not be Shakespeare or Hegel, not to mention God. But he knew that he did some fine work.
Not that dashed hopes can’t elicit heart-rending lamentation. The first great Bengali poet after the colonization of Bengal by the East India Company was Michael Madhusudan Dutt (1824–1873). Dutt failed to realize his youthful ambition of becoming a great poet in English, and switched to his mother tongue, Bengali, with instant success. One of his best-known shorter Bengali poems, a soliloquy, begins by asking what it was that he had longed to achieve when he was lured by deceitful hope; the days go by, yet the addiction to hope will not leave him, such is his sad state. Resorting to anachronism, I surmise that Dutt might have found solace in Eliot’s ‘East Coker’: ‘I said to my soul, be still, and wait without hope | For hope would be hope for the wrong thing.’
No, even if we accept Sartre’s description of hope as a particular ontological alignment of being-in-the-world that is virtually universal in human beings because it’s impossible to carry on with life if we don’t have hope, we have to add that there’s more to hope than that. I think one can do more things with the word ‘hope’ than with any other word denoting an emotion. One can hope for something; one can hope to do something; one can live in hopes; one can have high hopes; one can hope against hope; hope can flicker, it can die (or expire); hopes can be dashed; hope can rise, or fall; one can be full of hope, or see hope drain away; one can pin one’s hopes on something; one can abandon hope, and enter a certain place; and one can google for more such examples. Marvell’s ‘feeble Hope . . . flapp’d its tinsel wing’, but Emily Dickinson’s ‘Hope’ has feathers, and ‘it perches in the soul | And sings’. Hope is one of the seven heavenly virtues (no other emotion is), and, unsurprisingly, in Skelton’s morality play ‘Magnificence’, Good Hope rescues the eponymous king from Despair.
No doubt, hope is a very good thing, even when there is hardly a glimmer of hope. Such was the case, Sartre thought, when he gave the ‘Hope Now’ interviews. At the book’s end he delineates the desperate situation he thought the world was in. It was 1980, the Cold War was still on, and the Soviet Union had invaded Afghanistan. Sartre fears that a Third World War ‘can break out any day’. He thinks ‘our planet has become’ a ‘wretched mess’, and ‘despair has come back to tempt me with the idea that there is no end to it all’, no collective goal to fight for, only individual projects. Now ‘the world seems ugly, evil, and hopeless.’ He fears he may die in despair, but summons up hope to resist. ‘But,’ he adds, ‘this hope must be grounded.’ This can be done by trying to explain why the ‘horrible’ present ‘is only one moment in a long historical development’ and that hope, which has always been a force in history, can illuminate his ‘conception of the future.’
It’s quite uncanny how the last published words of my favourite philosopher–writer, long laid aside and half-forgotten, and looked up now only to find material for this brief talk, have burst like flares to shed light on our dark times. Once again we are full of fears of a Third World War breaking out any day. Terrors of a nuclear apocalypse come on top of long-simmering apprehensions of an ecological apocalypse. There is also an unsuspected connection between the reasons for these two fears. Recently, I came across some disturbing revelations in the Madras Courier (April 29, 2022), in an article titled ‘US Military Emissions Are Causing Heatwaves in the Indian Subcontinent’. The US military is responsible for carbon emissions (about 205 million tonnes a year) that exceed the total emissions of 140 of the world’s 195 countries. Other large military forces add some more: China, Russia, India, the UK (only 11 million tonnes, though), Saudi Arabia, France. Add to that the harm caused by wars and indiscriminate punitive bombing and pointless military exercises. These things aren’t talked about at climate conferences.
In the middle of last year, the University of Swansea and the Dhaka Literary Festival launched a series of lectures and discussions on climate change, and, concurrently, a writing project on the subject involving three Welsh and three Bangladeshi writers. You’ll probably have guessed that I am one of the Bangladeshi writers. When the writers met for discussions with the organizers I pointed out what I’ve mentioned about the military. I also drew attention to the sad fact that while global warming would drown large areas and create climate refugees, it would also make possible the economic, commercial, and military exploitation of the thawing Arctic. There is plenty of information on the internet to support my contention. President Trump offering to buy Greenland, now actually turning green, is also a case in point. After the discussions each of us independently got down to writing something on climate change that could be turned into a fifteen-minute video. My contribution is a poem titled ‘The New Frontier’. It is the longest I have written to date, considerably longer than Eliot’s ‘Prufrock’. The poem has been recorded, and will be launched at an online event on the 9th June 2022. Let me give you a short preview here.
The poem has the narrative structure of a journey. The speaker is a young man who has fallen foul of ‘a big honcho’s sidekick’s gang of goons’ who want to ‘disappear’ him. (It’s dreadful, isn’t it, this new usage of the word ‘disappear’ as a transitive verb?) Lured by the ‘eye-candy views’ of foreign lands and stories of the good life there, and the revelation that ‘the Arctic is the new frontier’ – all this accessed on his smartphone – he disappears and joins the migrant trail, eventually fetching up in Greenland, where he learns that Canada will take a million immigrants for its now-warming-up northern provinces. But he has to start the paperwork in his own homeland. He sails back on ‘an ice raft big enough to last the voyage to the Bay of Bengal’. Then he has a change of heart, realizing that entire populations cannot become refugees and that something must be done in every country to mitigate the damage to the environment, using science and appropriate technology. Above all, there has to be social mobilization, and consciousness-raising. He starts a poetry workshop where he asks participants to suggest a rhyme for the word ‘Anthropocene’. The participants look up rhymes on their mobile phones. Some come up with simple ones ‘like bean and keen’, one suggests:
. . . the whopping 11-syllable
Good for a laugh but getting us nowhere –
When a shy little fellow says softly –
After such wisdom, there can only be hope – however tenuous –
Like the Eid moon’s thin-lipped smile after a month of fasting –
The poem ends by asking whether the deadly process can be reversed; if we will ‘live to see the rewilding of land laid waste’; and ends ambiguously, ‘Maybe – | Maybe not’.
What is this hope with which I have rounded out the poem? Is it like Sartre’s hope, or is it weaker? I must confess I brought it in deliberately as an aesthetic strategy to end on an emotionally satisfying note. Is that bad faith? In my defence, I’d like to say that I am not denying hope altogether, but I think it is only realistic to regard it as provisional. Following Buddhist philosophy, I refuse to cling to hope. I should like to end by adapting a now famous phrase that is the title of a short piece by Samuel Beckett: ‘Imagination Dead Imagine’. There the imagination is dying and watches the process of dying. I will conclude thus: Imagination Dead Imagine Hope.