Along a hope hill and fields
when dreams crush like petals
in a protective foil
against our fate.
We move on, carrying I say a singular faith in death
the only companion in this valley
On 3 April 2020, US Democrat and presidential hopeful Joe Biden—or more likely one of his team of social media minions—tweeted: ‘Now more than ever, we need to choose hope over fear. We will beat COVID-19. We will overcome this. Together.’ It’s hard not to appreciate the banality of this little squitter. Its kitschy burble so manfully yet sagely seeks to convey the urgency of the current situation; the starkness of our choices; the clear and present danger of a named enemy; the necessity and value of our solidarity. Behind Biden’s thumb-pumping bumpf lurks a lineage of inspirational North American wisdom literature, from Ralph Waldo Emerson to Maya Angelou. ‘Hope and fear cannot occupy the same space,’ Angelou announces. ‘Invite one to stay.’ Exhortatory, buoyant, on-topic, what could be more uplifting than such clear-eyed, courageous messages of triumph-in-togetherness in these terrifying times?
Still, it’s pretty SAD!!!! that Biden (or his minion) entirely lacks the social media genius of President Donald Trump, whose own compulsive tweeting seems to have single-thumbedly—not that the man has small hands, mind you!—revived the fortunes of the platform itself.2 Without the electrifying braggadocio of Trump’s sour ’n’ salty tweets, Biden’s ‘Together’ simpers where it should stand. For ‘Together’ no longer means what we used to think. It doesn’t, for instance, mean mobilising on the streets in vast numbers, arms linked and chanting slogans, waving placards and banners, taking it to parliament or the White House, demonstrating the powers of manifestation and civil disobedience.
In fact, it precisely doesn’t mean this, given that Biden—like almost all of us bien pensant personages—is doing the right thing by declaring his adherence to so-called ‘social distancing’, to closures, lockdowns and epidemiological phronesis. After all, who are the mad, bad and dangerous idiots still out there protesting together, but the MAGA crowd demonstrating against stay-at-home orders? ‘Give me liberty or give me COVID 19’ declared an all-caps texta message scrawled on cardboard, carried by a bearded white man in a tell-tale red hat and a Stars- and-Stripes windcheater at a Washington State rally; another, from a California protest, read ‘Freedom over fear’, disported by a dyspeptic blonde with sunnies and an extra-large takeaway coffee. Aussies were doing it too: protestors gathered at parliaments around the country brandishing placards about 5G towers and chanting ‘Arrest Bill Gates!’ These guys weren’t preaching hope in its abstraction, but practising freedom in activism. Not that kind of together, then. So what kind did Biden mean?
I was invited to write this essay while the unprecedented bushfires of late 2019 were raging across Australia. Well over a billion animals burned alive in the conflagrations as toxic smoke choked cities and smeared the sun with a befuddling haze, while the Australian Prime Minister soaked up a few well-earned rays offshore. Commissioned amid an inferno, the essay was completed in a pandemic. Public institutions were still mostly shut down or on high alert, pubs, clubs, restaurants and casinos emptied. Almost everybody was working from home and home-schooling, while memes of old women being beaten in suburban supermarket aisles and images of a Brisbane toilet-paper delivery truck ablaze were sputtering out across all social media platforms. A big win for Amazon, Facebook, Google, for surveillance and data-analytics specialists, for multinational corporations dedicated to non-renewable resource extraction and cost externalisation, for secret agencies and sinister interests; for the people, the demos, not so much.3
These two geopolitical events—apocalyptic fires and terrifying plague—bracketed and merged with a sequence of personal disasters. My father died suddenly before Christmas, followed by our beloved cat Ferris Mewler, killed in a hit-and-run on Hoddle Street, and my elder daughter’s stargazing budgie Curtis, who literally spun himself to death in his cage. My mother was hospitalised for several weeks with a mystery condition and no accepted diagnosis. I went down with an illness with suspiciously ‘flu-like symptoms’ and couldn’t get out of bed for two weeks—though I didn’t qualify for a COVID-19 test at the time.
The etymology of the word ‘pandemic’ is suggestive. The first half comes from the ancient Greek ‘pan’, all, also the name of the horned theriomorphic god who lends his name to panic. The suffix derives from ‘demos’, the people, present in words such as ‘democracy’ and ‘demagoguery’. John Milton originally coined the word pandemonium, in his epic poem Paradise Lost, as the name for the city the devils build in hell, literally the place of all the demons. Pandemic: the uncontrolled terror of all people. Not the together of solidarity, then, but the together of contagious psychological and physical scissiparity; not the bonds of clarity and sense, but the turbulence of babel and confusion. Under such dread circumstances, where will hope and fear their objects find?
Being in lockdown, separated from most of my books and unable to access a library, I picked up the first book of poems to hand, Ali Alizadeh’s latest collection, Towards the End. It contained, coincidentally enough, a piece called ‘Hope?’ This is how it starts:
And what can we do about it?
About what? Who’s we?
You know what
is the only thing
I can talk about. Sorta abstract
impossible to ignore
The poem quickly moves to invoke the only-too-familiar situations of ‘our’ everyday lives. The matrix of ordinary life is fear: of losing our jobs, of not being able to buy gifts for a child, of extortionate food and rental prices. These fundamental struggles to be clothed, housed and fed are further unsettled by the insidious, ceaseless noise of managerial emails, themselves ghosted by apocalyptic global figures such as ‘Vlad the Putin’ and ‘Syrian children / in hellish refugee camps’. The names and sites are simultaneously specific, synecdochal and satirical, figures of the never-ending global civil war of individuals, families, cities, states, ecologies, of what Paul Preciado calls ‘a politics of universal extractivist predation’.5 Despite preceding the global pandemic, you couldn’t say that Alizadeh’s description had been substantially falsified.
The ‘Hope?’ of Alizadeh’s title—observe the isolating, intensifying majuscule and question mark—turns out only to be meaningful against such a backdrop of fears. These fears are simultaneously concrete and abstract. They jostle against each other, inconsistent and insistent, urgent yet distant. It is by such fears that our lives are simultaneously oriented and disoriented, causing us to hope while instilling the fear that such hope will be useless given the nature of the terrors that beset us. The poem enacts what it describes: the odd disjunction of the lines’ enjambment keep us off guard, wrong-footed by the sad entangled passions that are hope and fear.
John Ashbery’s contribution to the subject of hope and fear in ‘An Additional Poem’, published in 1962, couldn’t be further in manner and matter from Alizadeh’s:
Where then shall hope and fear their objects find?
The harbor cold to the mating ships,
And you have lost as you stand by the balcony
With the forest of the sea calm and gray beneath.
A strong impression torn from the descending light
But night is guilty. You knew the shadow
In the trunk was raving
But as you keep growing hungry you forget.
The distant box is open. A sound of grain
Poured over the floor in some eagerness—we
Rise with the night let out of the box of wind.6
Subtle, insinuating, seething with implications never made fully explicit, the first line poses questions that cannot quite be answered. What has happened, or might happen, that such a question has to be posed at all? Is the event in question so patent and well known as to go without saying; or, alternatively, so overwhelming as to evade all saying; or, yet again, an unknown presence haunting saying? Whatever has happened has undone the established correlates of affect we need to orient ourselves. ‘Hope and fear’ are not only fundamental personal, social and political affects; they need designated objects to function properly. Our orienting affects have been separated by the unnamed event from their familiar objects: stripped of proper coordinates, we cannot reach harbour.
Yet hope and fear are still at work, unconstrained in the miasma of their unmooring; we cannot see the sea in the grey forest it has become. The poem’s indeterminate second-person address suggests that ‘you’—Who, Me? We?—are stationary, halted, able only to watch the indifferent waters from a lonely balcony, struck by a fall of luminescence and persecuted by an incarcerated shade whose ravings dissolve into sense as the ‘you’ ravens into amnesia. Our hunger turns our knowledge to delusion.
The final lines suggest that there will be a restoration, a renewal of objects for our hope and fear. But such a restoration is conditional on our having forgotten our forgetting, our disorientation and loss, the prior objects of the world of day. Trauma piles on trauma, forgetting upon madness. The box of wind has opened so that we can rise again, guilty as and with the released night. The modesty of the poem’s title contains multitudes: an additional poem suggests just one more, a little one, not essential, but it also literally works by and through adding, both internally (the title drawing attention to the accretion of lines as such) and as an addition to something else (that ‘something else’ being perhaps the other poems in the volume, or perhaps the event to which the poem adds itself but of which it doesn’t directly speak, or even something else again).
Several years after my encounter with Ashbery’s poem, I read Samuel Johnson’s The Vanity of Human Wishes for a university English class. First published in January 1749, the poem begins with a synopsis of the state of the world:
Let Observation with extensive view,
Survey mankind, from China to Peru;
Remark each anxious toil, each eager strife,
And watch the busy scenes of crowded life;
Then say how hope and fear, desire and hate,
O’erspread with snares the clouded maze of fate,
Where wav’ring man, betray’d by vent’rous pride,
To tread the dreary paths without a guide,
As treach’rous phantoms in the mist delude,
Shuns fancied ills, or chases airy good;
How rarely Reason guides the stubborn choice,
Rules the bold hand, or prompts the suppliant voice;
How nations sink, by darling schemes oppress’d,
When Vengeance listens to the fool’s request.
Fate wings with ev’ry wish th’ afflictive dart,
Each gift of nature, and each grace of art,
With fatal heat impetuous courage glows,
With fatal sweetness elocution flows,
Impeachment stops the speaker’s pow’rful breath,
And restless fire precipitates on death.7
As does Alizadeh in his survey of figures of the world’s pain, Johnson makes much of minatory bogeymen: not only near-contemporaries such as the Swedish King Charles XII, ‘a frame of adamant, a soul of fire’, and Charles Albert of Bavaria, who ‘tries the dread summits of Cesarean pow’r’, but also the historical examples of Cardinal Thomas Wolsey and the Persian Emperor Xerxes. All, so promising and powerful, so rapaciously power hungry, end in disaster: Charles Albert ‘steals to death from anguish and from shame’; Xerxes is left with nothing but ‘a single skiff to speed his flight’. Vanity, moreover, explicitly imitates Juvenal’s tenth satire. Its formal structure and representative figures are modelled upon and extend Juvenal’s own references, which include Sejanus (the Emperor Tiberius’s ill-fated second, and also, incidentally, the subject of one of Ben Jonson’s greatest tragedies), Julius Caesar, Cicero and Hannibal.
These proper names denominate ‘real people’, historically significant characters from very different times and places, as they function as negative moral archetypes. Their notable acts and passions—Xerxes having the refractory Hellespont whipped with chains, or Charles XII sweeping across the scorched earth of Russia—are particular yet paradigmatic. On the one hand, we are presented with lists of bumptious mass murderers as emblems of what we should expect from the ‘eager strife’ of humankind, the ineradicably toxic extremity of ordinary life; on the other hand, the poem provokes us to wonder whether the lessons we purport to draw from such lists are not part of the problem.8
In a draft of the poem preserved by Johnson’s biographer James Boswell, Vanity’s third line read: ‘Then say how <fierce> desire and raging Hate’ (91). One reason for its emendation by Johnson was undoubtedly to sharpen the focus from the start on a fourfold—not just a duet—of deranging affects. The characteristic Augustan techniques of opposition, apposition and stock adjectivalising present in the draft—still there throughout the published version, e.g. ‘anxious toil’, ‘eager strife’, ‘busy scenes’, ‘crowded life’—are here reduced to the abstract nouns of hope, fear, desire, hate. You can see the conceptual as well as the prosodic value in Johnson’s alterations—three of these keywords are monosyllabic—given that these affects are tricks and traps that trope us away from reason’s light, impelling us to follow airy vapours and mad schemes unto our own obliteration.
Hope and fear breed denialist fantasies—on the part of the rulers as on those of the ruled. Although all the signs were there from the early reports of the COVID-19 infections in late 2019—that a global pandemic was at once likely and imminent—the preposterous blathering of politicians and journalists, the refusal to pay serious attention to the World Health Organization and comparable institutions, the ostrich-politics of power in general proved the universal soupe du jour. Despite the taste, we all lapped it up. Moreover, medical and environmental experts had been clearly and loudly warning polities for years about an impending plague. A range of political and social techniques, ranging from the crassly authoritarian to the supple and complex, were available. Instead, we got smug-and-shrill sermonising by self-professed experts of all stripes, the bunkum speculations of home-grown epidemiologists, and even a terrifyingly widespread flat-out enthusiasm for the mass euthanasia of old people. The plague ship Ruby Princess sailed gaily into Sydney Harbour on 19 March 2020 with the imprimatur of NSW Health.
The worst-hit countries in the world have been led by notorious denialists, whether Jair Bolsonaro, the British Tory and Swedish social democratic versions of ‘herd immunity’, or Trump himself. Yet, if denial may be disastrous, it can still be profitable. Although autocrats are certainly not the only opportunists in this trampled paddock, Trump in particular acted like one of those calamity entrepreneurs so familiar from the dismal history of plague literature. As Daniel Defoe puts it in A Journal of the Plague Year (1722), a fictionalised account of the Great Plague of London of 1665 (undoubtedly more cited in 2020 than for many decades):
It is incredible and scarce to be imagined, how the posts of houses and corners of streets were plastered over with doctors’ bills and papers of ignorant fellows, quacking and tampering in physic, and inviting the people to come to them for remedies, which was generally set off with such flourishes as these, viz., ‘Infallible preventive pills against the plague …’9
Presumably fuelling his compulsive blackmailing of US state governors, Trump’s own drugs of choice included hydroxychloroquine and remdesivir—don’t those names just slip off the tongue?—while he (briefly) proselytised for the amazing potential benefits of light treatment and chlorine dioxide. As Juvenal so famously writes, difficile est saturam non scribere: it’s hard not to write satire.
Yet the real payoff for Johnson’s alterations—of desire and hate to hope and fear, desire and hate—comes later. The poem’s last major movement begins: ‘Where then shall hope and fear their objects find?’
Ha!—it was only then that I realised that Ashbery had stolen the line that marks the turn of Johnson’s poem, the place from which it makes its last stand. The former, just as the latter, suggests that madness and malice are the furies of our hopes and fears. Johnson immediately continues:
Must dull suspence corrupt the stagnant mind?
Must helpless man, in ignorance sedate, Roll darkling down the torrent of his fate?
Must no dislike alarm, no wishes rise,
No cries attempt the mercies of the skies?10
Hope as comforter is an ancient trope, as is its ambivalence, its capacity to lead us astray, to confuse and delude, to dupe us into persisting in a course of action or inaction that is doing us harm. Hope is an abyss between anticipation and fulfilment, inspiration and consolation, procreating ever more upsetting disappointments, unreliable when not downright treacherous. Present hope breeds future suffering; all hope is false hope. Such features render hope inseparable from fear. So Johnson’s lines are (shockingly) Leninesque, insofar as they pose the personal and political question par excellence: what is to be done?
Well, what is to be done? It’s not clear that Lenin’s famous equation ‘Communism = the Soviet + electrification’ is going to hold today as a solution to the world’s pain. Despite the multifarious memes on pandemic social media hopefully proclaiming things like ‘The goats are returning. Nature is healing’, Nature isn’t healing at all. It is also pretty clear that more electrification isn’t going to stop the rot. On the contrary: the appetite for earth-annihilating engines of energy is only accelerating, as are the distressing negative indications. Just scanning the ‘Top Headlines’ on ScienceDaily gives us ‘Long-term data show hurricanes are getting stronger’, ‘Potentially fatal combinations of humidity and heat are emerging across the globe’ and ‘NASA space laser missions map 16 years of ice sheet loss’.11 Whatever countervailing forces there are—Greta Thunberg? Extinction Rebellion? The Greens?—they seem dispersed and weak compared to the overwhelming power of the fossil and mining industries, which have now fused almost seamlessly with state governments the world over.
For a long time it was felt that Juvenal’s writings were too scabrous to be translated into the common tongue. The first translation of his work into English was in 1647, during the Civil War. Once the dam was broken, the waters swept in. In the clash of translations and imitations, John Dryden’s floated to the top. Part of the difficulty concerned the transition from paganism to Christianity, and ‘Satire X’ posed specific issues in this regard. As Paul Murgatroyd writes:
Juvenal’s tenth Satire is concerned with prayer, and has a simple and clear structure. In the introduction, at 1–55, comes the main thesis (because humans cannot distinguish between true blessings and their opposite they pray for pointless, excessive and harmful things) with a few short examples (such as petitions for wealth) by way of illustration. The ‘proof’ of that thesis comes in the main part of the poem, which provides much longer examples of such misguided prayers—for political power (56–113), eloquence (114–32), military glory (133–87), a long life (188–288) and beauty (289–345). Finally, the conclusion (346–66) rounds off the satire by telling us what we can pray for (the genuine blessings of 356–62), but adds that we don’t need to pray for them (we can acquire them by our own efforts), mocks the process of sacrifice and questions the whole concept of prayer (and divinity). This piece also addresses the whole concept of individual aspiration, and the value systems of individualism in and aside from society.12
Line three of Dryden’s translation reads: ‘How void of reason are our hopes and fears?’ to which Johnson is clearly alluding.13 Since imitations of the ancients were the bread and butter of the poetics of the time, Johnson’s imitation is not only ‘of ’ Juvenal, but both ‘of ’ and ‘against’ the many contemporaneous imitations of Juvenal already out there.14 The lines at issue are: quid enim ratione timemus / Aut cupimus? Cassell’s Latin Dictionary gives ‘to desire, long for, wish for’ for cupio, cupere. The Pocket Oxford gives ‘long for, desire, covet’. ‘For what do we fear or desire with reason?’ would then seem a more straightforward translation. Christianity is probably the main culprit for this shift insofar as, doctrinally at least, it tends to prefer ‘hope’ to ‘desire’.
Yet, given that everyone recognised that words and practices such as ‘wishing’, ‘praying’ and ‘desiring’ had different senses in pagan Rome, this difference became an opportunity and an alibi for Juvenal’s English imitators. If only a very rare Englishman of the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries could mock prayer and doubt divinity so explicitly and ferociously as Juvenal—the Earl of Rochester was perhaps one of them— seemingly innocuous imitations could slyly indicate, through their ‘corrections’ of the original, their own doubts about prayer, providence and divinity. Moreover, Dryden’s and Johnson’s translations owe a great deal to a new, modern dispensation of politics and to its radical new linkages of thought, action and affect. Hope and fear are now inextricably coupled, doubled and reversed, as they are placed at the centre of human political action.
Benedict de Spinoza gives an exemplary formulation of this coupling in his Ethics. In Book III, Proposition 18, Scholium 2, Spinoza writes: ‘For hope is nothing but an inconstant joy which has arisen from the image of a future or past thing whose outcome we doubt; fear, on the other hand, is an inconstant sadness, which has also arisen from the image of a doubtful thing.’15 Spinoza underlines the inconstancy of these affects, their reliance upon dubious images, their insufficient comprehension of temporality. To be prey to hope and fear is to have succumbed to a false consciousness of causation, rendering these affects continuous with the vicissitudes of superstition. As Genevieve Lloyd puts it in an unpublished paper, although this means that hope and fear ‘do not form part of the ideal of seeking one’s own “true advantage” through the cultivation of reason … they figure in strategies of governance directed to the general good’.16 It is the latter part of this claim that Johnson’s poem mistrusts: the general good is undermined by the ungovernability of the hopes and fears required to support it. Hope and fear are forms of time-sickness, which evade the present, project illicitly into the future, and express and shape our (lack or excess of) agency.
Spinoza famously lost it when the De Witt brothers were horrifically murdered by an Orangist mob in August 1672—their livers were cannibalised, other parts were souvenired, and their mutilated bodies hanged on the public gibbet—and, so the anecdote goes, the philosopher had to be forcibly prevented by his landlord, Hendryk van der Spyck, from taking to the streets wielding a placard reading ultimi barbarorum (you ultimate barbarians!).17 Perhaps many philosophers are being similarly restrained by their landlords from taking to the streets today, on hearing about the treatment of prisoners or refugees or the aged or the homeless, or even, as one headline put it, ‘overloaded morgues, mass graves, and infectious remains’.18 For reasons already mentioned, it seems unlikely. What is indubitable, however, is the swarming of predators heartened by the new opportunities, whether we think of the Australian government shafting the arts and the universities, or when, as Naomi Klein put it in The Intercept: ‘Under cover of mass death, Andrew Cuomo calls in the billionaires to build a high-tech dystopia’.19 If the mobilising 5G truthers didn’t seem so dementedly Orangist (in a more current sense of that word), you might start to appreciate the (distorted) truth of their fear and loathing of Bill Gates.
Whatever its novelty, Spinoza’s position has august antecedents. Seneca the Younger, Stoic philosopher, one-time tutor, advisor and, finally, victim of the Emperor Nero, is one of them. Juvenal too had carefully read Seneca, whose epigrams he draws on, if often to contest.20 In ‘Epistle V’ Seneca writes:
I find in the writings of our Hecato that the limiting of desires [cupiditatium] helps also to cure fears [timoris]: ‘Cease to hope [sperare],’ he says, ‘and you will cease to fear [timere].’ ‘But how’, you will reply, ‘can things so different go side by side?’ In this way, my dear Lucilius: though they do seem at variance, yet they are really united. Just as the same chain fastens the prisoner and the soldier who guards him, so hope and fear, dissimilar as they are, keep step together; fear [metus] follows hope [spem].21
This Stoic enchaining of hope and fear precedes and influences Christianity, as well as Spinoza’s break with it. Seneca establishes the imagination of the future as an irreducibly ambivalent negation of the present that bears upon the possibility of achieving any political good. We can also see how the language of Seneca’s passage permits Johnson to legitimately—that is, with reference to the testimony of a great Roman authority— translate cupimus as ‘hope’. Thus the allegedly disinterested equanimity of the philosopher-sage is answered by the quarrelsome hysteria of the littérateur: Juvenal’s savagery confronts Seneca’s tranquillity, Johnson’s errant febrility the geometric clarity of Spinoza.
There are further allusions still. In the Laws—a dialogue Leo Strauss considered to be Plato’s most important political work22— the Athenian Stranger proffers an image of the human being as a puppet of the gods. He asserts that everyone contains two unwise and conflicting councillors, pleasure and pain, and:
has, besides, anticipations of the future, and these of two sorts. The common name for both sorts is expectation [elpis], the special name for anticipation of pain being fear [phobos], and for anticipation of its opposite, confidence [tharros]. And on top of all, there is judgment [logismos], to discern which of these states is better or worse, and when judgment takes the form of a public decision of a city, it has the name of law [nomos].23
Elpis, translated here as expectation, is usually rendered as ‘hope’. In this instance, fear has become a subset of hope, correlated with pain and opposed to confidence. As Douglas Cairns comments, ‘the use of elpis as the generic term reflects the fact that it may be neutral, a kind of belief or opinion; but its division into subcategories both of which are emotions also reminds us that it encompasses forms of motivation that may not align with rational calculation (and thus may involve an element of moral danger)’.24 Once again, the imbrication of hope and fear, an image of futurity induced by affect, of a lack of agency, of moral risk, of the immixture of the personal and the cosmic, is in play.
Plato’s image of the puppet is a likely allusion to the Prometheus–Pandora story from Hesiod’s Works and Days. Zeus, furious with the titan Prometheus (whose name means ‘forethought’) for stealing fire from the gods and giving it to mankind, decides not only to punish Prometheus—by chaining him to a rock where his liver will be eaten daily by an eagle and regrow each night—but Prometheus’s beneficiaries too. Zeus’s plan is to give men an ‘evil to love and embrace’: he commands Hephaistos to make an automaton from water and clay, Athena to teach it weaving, Aphrodite charm, Hermes to give it shamelessness and deceitfulness, the Graces and Horai to ornament it. Finally Hermes
gave her a speaking voice and announced that her name was Pandora,
‘The Gift of All’, because all the gods who dwell on Olympos
gave a gift to this plague for men who are eaters of bread.25
Adrienne Mayor has emphasised how Pandora, the first woman, is constructed as a malicious AI agent, a puppet of the gods, whose sole mission is to infiltrate and infect mankind.26 The ‘pan’ of Pandora is the same prefix as in pandemic, a marker that ‘all’ the gods contributed to her making, as she was intended for ‘all’ men. She is expressly figured in terms of contagion and disease. Of all the texts I have cited, this is the only one in which sexual difference is explicitly named as the instrumental cause of the disaster; that this feature is thereafter repressed or modified should suggest not its irrelevance but its absolute centrality to the issue.27 Led off by Hermes and delivered to Epimetheus— literally, ‘Afterthought’, the less quick-witted brother of Prometheus—Pandora bears a container. She descends among men and opens it, releasing multitudinous evils into the world. Subsequently:
those numberless miseries, they wander among men,
for the earth is abounding in evils and so is the sea.
And diseases come upon men by day and by night,
everywhere moving at will, bringing evil to mortals
silently, for Zeus of the Counsels has deprived them of voices.28
Only one thing remains when the lid is closed again: Elpis, Hope. The Prometheus–Pandora sequence has recently been revivified for use beyond the circles of classical scholarship in the work of Bernard Stiegler, who has built an entire media metaphysics around the myth. ‘Labor,’ he writes, ‘that is, technics—and generation in sexual difference are stamped with the same mark: that of the vengeance of Zeus, disappearance.’29 Note that the numberless miseries, abounding evils and manifold diseases Pandora unleashes are silent, voiceless: they function as media whose messages cannot be heard until it’s too late. And the hope that remains enjarred may not be our last fragile bulwark against the torments that beset us, but the greatest of evils, insofar as it not only serves to dissimulate the truth but also tricks us into enduring suffering that it simultaneously intensifies.
Fracking the vagaries of hope and fear through Alizadeh, Ashbery, Johnson, Juvenal and Hesiod releases gas from the poems that otherwise might remain trapped in the linguistic bedrock. We can see, for instance, how Ashbery’s images of the ‘distant box’ are linked to Pandora, to an erotics of night and an eristics of technics, or how Johnson’s assiduous religious orthodoxy is shot through with an ambivalence directed against his own beliefs. All the poets flirt with a poetic vision of politics as essentially and always a knot of pandemic, sexual difference and technology.
That the current pandemic may be only a particularly intense revelation of normality—and not its contravention or overturning—is one possible lesson to take from these poets. Another is that poetry consistently proposes that it too participates in pandemic. As David Steel puts it: ‘A case can be made, and indeed it is perhaps too easy a one, to show how the inroads of epidemics and the tracks of cultural dissemination coincide. Literature and disease have in common that they are both a living and sometimes deadly culture carried by man across wide areas.’30 Hope and fear are entangled in a Gordian knot no Alexander can cut without thereby losing the realm they wish to conquer. Let us then brutally reduce the reflexive decision induced by the poetry of hope and fear—what is to be done, governed as we are by these affects?—to the following: consolation or commitment?
The poetry of consolation proposes that every attempt to escape or modify the way of the world only unleashes further flames and phantoms, the eternal return of self-destructive impotence. ‘Literature’ in such an optic provides an affective analytic vision of this situation, and the only real—though modest—means of treating one’s own anxieties, one’s hopes and fears. The poem of consolation presents the futility of action to change the futility of action. It offers itself—that is, the distractions of reading and writing imaginative literature—as the only realistic, rational course of action. For Johnson and Ashbery, for instance, it seems that the only cure for the world can be found in literature that suggests that there is no cure for the world.
The poetry of commitment, by contrast, presents the futility of the situation as a consequence of unjust actions that can and should be transformed by right action. For example, the ‘abstract noun’ mentioned in the opening lines of Alizadeh’s poem turns out not to be, as one would expect from the title, hope, but something quite different:
I can’t help cringing when
food revolution, IT revolution, fashion revolution, AI revolution.
There’s only the Revolution.31
For Alizadeh, ‘The Bastille was stormed. / The Revolution was here.’ Against potential doubters, he offers a sequence of reasons why the self-annihilating barbarism of the current situation has to conclude with a paean to hope understood as the reality of revolution. The revolution is possible, because it was accomplished; because it was accomplished, it has not been defeated; because it has not been defeated, it will again become necessary. But such a triumph will have to be accomplished outside poetry.
For the poetry of commitment, then, at best the poem offers itself as a goad and a guide to action, as a self-annihilating, inspirational propaedeutic to the main event, which is personal and political revolution in the name of justice. This revolution is unlikely, even impossible—yet ubiquitous and already in our grasp. It must be called for, though it cannot be represented.
One of poetry’s problems is that it immediately sets about undermining the starkness of the divisions to which it subscribes. For, just like hope and fear, consolation and commitment cannot be separated; sometimes they cannot even be told apart. Alizadeh’s and Ashbery’s work may, for instance, seem to have little in common. The former is descriptive and declarative, the latter evocative and evasive. Yet it is no accident that Ashbery’s poem appeared in The Tennis Court Oath, a title derived from a decisive moment in the French Revolution, when the Third Estate, having constituted themselves as the National Assembly, retired to a nearby sporting venue to commit to their fateful course. Ashbery’s reference could also be to Jacques-Louis David’s famous images of the event: the ekphrastic art of politics. In any case, the motif of revolution is inexpungible. At the same time, Alizadeh’s poem cannot prevent its own radical announcement of the event merging with the consolations of irreligious prayer, ‘the box of wind’, such as we find in Hesiod or Johnson or Ashbery as a revolution of the word—but not the world.
Amid and against the Bidens and Borises, the Ciceros and Caesars, the tweeters and Trumps, the petty warlords, disaster capitalists, snivelling lickspittles, pandemical pursuers of power and profit, what the poetries of consolation and commitment also share is an absolute hostility to the instrumentalising of hope, to its severance from fear, and to the puppet brutalities of the alpha predators who rule over us. Poetry, in requiring us to read with attention, separates us from the regnant powers of the world, delivering a larger, stranger complex than reality demands. This is not a question of supposedly political or topical ‘content’, nor even of the potentials of aesthetic form; rather, it is a poetic nomination of the essence of hope and fear. Poetry impels us towards crucial decisions we all have to confront, without forcing us to make them as our masters do. Like active politics, such poems mandate a risky togetherness that is neither reactionary nor prudential—but an insurrection against injustice.
Just as this essay was finished, the Black Lives Matter movement re-erupted in the United States in response to the murder of George Floyd. It immediately found enthusiastic echoes worldwide, toppling statues of slave traders, falsifying the togethers of liberal platitudinising and reactionary truthing, showing us all what together must be today if justice is to be done: ‘Passages to a new time / To a new existence’.32
Justin Clemens is an associate professor in the School of Culture and Communication at the University of Melbourne. His most recent book is Limericks, Philosophical and Literary (Surpllus, 2019).
1. Kofi Awoonor, ‘Life’s Winds’, in The Promise of Hope: New and Selected Poems, 1964–2013, with intro. K. Anyidoho, University of Nebraska Press, Lincoln, 2014, p. 134.
2. This relationship seems to have (at least momentarily) soured since Twitter ‘censored’ one of the president’s tweets for allegedly ‘glorifying violence’ and issued a ‘fact check warning’ to others.
3. One might suggest, however, that the entire category of disaster entrepreneur is strictly tautological. For a liberal journalistic take on this phenomenon of ‘pandemic profiteering’, see Jack Kelly, ‘Billionaires are getting richer during the COVID-19 pandemic while most Americans suffer’, Forbes, 27 April 2020, accessed 9 May 2020. For a more leftist view, see William I. Robinson, ‘Global Capitalist Crisis: Deadlier than Coronavirus (Three Parts)’, Arena, <https://arena.org.au/global-capitalist-crisis-deadlier-than- coronavirus-part-i/>, accessed 15 May 2020. The establishment view is clear: the poor will have to die to keep the profiteering going, and it is moreover their ethical responsibility to do so.
4. Ali Alizadeh, Towards the End, Giramondo Publishing, Sydney, 2020, 52.
5. Paul Preciado, ‘Learning from the Virus’, Artforum, May–June 2020, <https://www.artforum.com/print/202005/paul-b-preciado-82823>, accessed 4 May 2020.
6. John Ashbery, The Mooring of Starting Out: The First Five Books of Poetry, Ecco Press, 1997, 101.
7. Samuel Johnson, Johnson’s Juvenal: London and the Vanity of Human Wishes, with intro., notes, Latin texts and translations Niall Rudd, Bristol Classical Press, Bristol, 1981, p. 45.
8. Helen Deutsch says, ‘The Vanity makes us aware of the inadequacy of its own attempts at order, despite how such attempts are as insatiable in their own way as those of the ambitious, greedy subjects it portrays’: Loving Johnson, University of Chicago Press, Chicago, 2005, p. 77.
9. Daniel Defoe, A Journal of the Plague Year, Oxford World’s Classics, Oxford, 2010, 73.
10. Johnson, Johnson’s Juvenal, 53.
11. See <https://www.sciencedaily.com/news/earth_climate/global_warming/>, accessed 21 May 2020. This is not even to plunge into the ‘Latest Headlines’, such as ‘Mississippi Delta marshes in a state of irreversible collapse’.
12. Paul Murgatroyd, Juvenal’s Tenth Satire, Liverpool University Press, Liverpool, 2017, 1.
13. John Dryden et al., The Satires of Decimus Junius Juvenalis translated in English Verse; together with the Satires of Aulus Persius Flaccus, Jacob Tonson, London, 1697, p. 245.
14. For an illuminating stylistic analysis of rival contemporaneous translations of Juvenal’s ‘Satire X’, see John Burrows, ‘The Englishing of Juvenal: Computational Stylistics and Translated Texts’, Style, 36, no. 4 (2002), pp. 677–98, which notes that one of the key elements of Johnson’s style is a singular use of the article the: ‘His habit of generalising by translating a typical case into real or virtual specimens of synecdoche and metonymy is what turns his use of the into a mannerism’, p. 695. Another aspect of Johnson’s style is his relative suppression of personal pronouns and ‘a dearth of many common conjunctions’. This technique of Johnson’s is inseparable from his nominalisation of verbs.
15. Benedict de Spinoza, Ethics, and trans. E. Curley with intro. S. Hampshire, Penguin, London, 1996, p. 81.
16. Genevieve Lloyd, ‘Spinoza on Hope and Fear’. I would like to thank Genevieve Lloyd for sharing this paper with me, and for permission to cite it.
17. Steven Nadler, Spinoza: A Life, 2nd edn, Cambridge University Press, Cambridge, 2018, 355–6.
18. Ahmad Samarji, ‘Overloaded morgues, mass graves, and infectious remains: How forensic pathologists handle the coronavirus dead’, The Conversation, 9 April 2020, accessed 21 May
19. Naomi Klein, ‘Screen New Deal’, The Intercept, 9 May 2020, accessed 21 May
20. See Gilbert Highet, ‘The Philosophy of Juvenal’, Transactions and Proceedings of the American Philological Association, 80 (1949), pp. 254–70.
21. Seneca, Ad Lucilium Epistulae Morales, R.M. Gummere, Harvard University Press, Cambridge, 1917, pp. 23–5.
22. See Leo Strauss, The Argument and the Action of Plato’s Laws, University of Chicago Press, Chicago and London, 1975.
23. Plato, Laws, A.E. Taylor, in The Collected Dialogues of Plato, eds. Edith Hamilton and Huntington Cairns, Princeton University Press, Princeton: 1961, 644c–d, p. 1244.
24. Douglas Cairns, ‘Metaphors for Hope in Archaic and Classical Greek Poetry’, in RR Caston and R A Kaster (eds), Hope, Joy and Affection in the Classical World, Oxford University Press, Oxford, 2016, p. 8. See also Eric Voegelin, Plato, University of Missouri Press, Columbia, 2000, pp. 231–6.
25. Hesiod, The Poems of Hesiod, with intro. and comments R.M. Fraser, University of Oklahoma Press, Oklahoma, 1983, p. 99, l. 80–2.
26. See Adrienne Mayor, Gods and Robots: Myths, Machines, and Ancient Dreams of Technology, Princeton University Press, Princeton, 2018.
27. In their recent edition of Juvenal Satire 6, Cambridge University Press, Cambridge, 2014, Lindsay Watson and Patricia Watson underline Juvenal’s misogyny, and its modelling upon Hesiod; for her part, Helen Van Noorden shows how Juvenal directly rewrites Hesiod’s epochal sequencing in Playing Hesiod: The ‘Myth of the Races’ in Classical Antiquity, Cambridge University Press, Cambridge, 2015.
28. Hesiod, pp. 99–100, l. 100–4.
29. Bernard Stiegler, Technics and Time, 1: The Fault of Epimetheus, trans. Richard Beardsworth and George Collins, Stanford University Press, Stanford, 1998, p. 196.
30. David Steel, ‘Plague Writing: From Boccaccio to Camus’, Journal of European Studies, XI (1981), 107.
31. Alizadeh, Towards the End, 55.
32. Charmaine Papertalk Green, ‘Yagu and Gadja’, in Ali Cobby Eckermann and Ellen van Neerven (eds), Australian Poetry Journal, vol. 7, no. 1 (2017), p. 54.