The celebrity novelist Jonathan Franzen got it in the neck recently for a piece in The New Yorker which some read as advocating surrender to impending environmental and civilizational collapse. For me, the criticism – see here and here for example – isn’t constructive or relevant. Franzen simply offers an account of one person’s journey towards begrudging acceptance of the way things are heading, and it resonates.
There must be mountains of philosophical and religious thought dedicated to exploring the art of acceptance. If I ever knew about them I seem to have forgotten now, but what sticks in mind is Voltaire’s story Candide. It’s about a naïve, good-natured optimist who is convinced at the outset that all is for the best and that ultimate outcomes are by definition happy outcomes. He somehow sustains that faith through a torrent of misfortune and suffering — inflicted upon himself, on those he cares for and apparently on everyone he encounters on his road through life — until it can’t be sustained any longer.
Mercifully for Voltaire’s readers, things eventually turn out passably well for the protagonist. Candide and his companions find a practical way of living and working together, on a small plot of land, as a community of equals in a state of mutual dependence. They garden, and philosophize, and keep themselves at arm’s length from the civilized world of greed, cruelty, hypocrisy and vice. They accept there’s little they can do about that wider world, and concentrate their energies on cultivating a modest, bearable little fellowship of their own. A kernel of optimism lives on in Candide — ‘Let’s dig in our garden’ is the last we hear from him — but it’s no longer blind.
I think I discern a deep strain of all-is-for-the-best optimism in myself. Perhaps it’s at the core of the animal condition in all of us: that urge to keep sniffing out a yet-to-be-realised opportunity. The impulse to crawl from the den and carry on, day after day. I think that’s partly what draws us to stories with happy endings, no matter how daft and overblown. It feels absolutely right that Odysseus should slay a crowd of suitors to reclaim his home and throne at the end of The Odyssey, and that Katniss should outwit the forces of tyranny to prevail in The Hunger Games. It would be crap if those tales ended otherwise, and audiences would feel let down. We want stories which raise a smile and provide at least a glimmer of hope. So I’m relieved, in Voltaire’s story, that things turn out more or less okay for Candide and his friends.
But what’s the story when our instinctive, irresistible optimism – for example: ‘we can fix this climate thing’ – runs smack into the immovable object, the dawning realisation that, as Eleanor in TV’s The Good Place would put it, we’re forked?
I think, like Candide, we rewrite our assumptions for a new paradigm.
There was no paradigm in my upbringing to prepare people for a world sliding rapidly towards some version of oblivion. Millenarian ‘the end is nigh’ sects were objects of ridicule and had no traction in society. Even the threat of nuclear Armageddon, terrifying though it is… well, we could convince ourselves that when push came to shove, fingers crossed, they probably wouldn’t press the button. They wouldn’t be so stupid. But accelerating climate chaos, mass species die-back, rising sea level, catastrophic soil erosion and ocean acidification, the vanishing polar ice-cap, the liquefying Greenland ice-sheet and the drying out and increasingly likely savannization of the Amazon rain forest… that’s different. There’s no ‘get out of jail’ card this time, no narrative convention to comfort us.
Could the young school strikers be our cavalry to the rescue? How I wish so. But still I see a remorseless new reality which cannot be undone and is beyond anyone’s ability to make sense of, made worse by the gnawing sense of guilt that we’re actually responsible for this horror show. It’s a brain-scrambling affront to me as an individual, and I suspect each of us has to find our own way to adapt, to arrive at some kind of settlement with things as they are and how they’re going to be. Which I think is what Franzen tries in his article to describe.
Like Candide we may in the end choose to tend only our own garden, to favour at least a local balance in what we take from and give back to our social and biotic community, and to pursue a good and meaningful life in the lee of gathering changes in the macro-environment. Not the best outcome, by any means, but maybe the best any of us can realistically do.
Would that be optimism, I wonder, or defeatism?
Image: ‘A view of the artist’s house and garden’ by John Glover, courtesy of Wikimedia Commons