Oracle

You want an oracle? Consult Neruda. This morning, I was mulling over a very persuasive argument against hope from the latest issue of Orion magazine. If hope is counter-productive, I wondered, what will take its place? I opened The Book of Questions at random, and read:

Se convierte en pez volador
si transmigra la mariposa?

Which William O’Daly translates as:

If the butterfly transmogrifies
does it turn into a flying fish?

Though I think transmigra actually means transmigrate, i.e. reincarnate.

If hope isn’t to be trusted, what about other religious or quasi-religious impulses? For example, what about faith, belief, or simply trust in the universe? Let us consult El libro de las preguntas once again.

No te engañó la primavera
con besos que no florecieron?

Did spring never deceive you
with kisses that never blossom?

It occurs to me that Bible doesn’t say that hope or faith are essential to understanding. Instead, fear or awe are held to be the beginning of wisdom. To most contemporary North Americans, fear is without any virtue; we like to quote Roosevelt — “There is nothing to fear but fear itself.” But let me put it to Neruda.

Tendré mi olor y mis dolores
cuando yo duerma destruido?

Will I have my smell and my pain
when, destroyed, I go on sleeping?

I think about the dour ending of the book of Proverbs, with its magnificent (and often mis-translated) poem about the ruined face in old age. I can never make up my mind whether or not tragedy or sorrow have anything in common and wisdom. It often feels as though laughter is the only sane response to the slings and arrows of outrageous whatever. What say you, Pablo?

Por que razón o sinrazón
llora la lluvia su alegría?

By what reason or injustice
does the rain weep its joy?

But perhaps this is an abuse of Neruda’s poetry. He was, after all, a committed atheist, so presumably he wouldn’t think much of bibliomancy. Would he?

Dónde puede vivir un ciego
a quien persiguen las abejas?

Where can a blind man live
who is pursued by bees?

19 Comments


  1. An ideal toy for the Apocalypse: the Neruda Magic-8 Ball.
    (We’ll be avoiding the GM fortune cookies.)

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    1. It’s easy to imagine a post-apocalyptic, Mestizo American future in which the collected works of Neruda replace the Bible for a new, biocentric humanism.

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  2. This is a beautiful post, Dave, though the Orion article didn’t do anything for me and struck me as a bit straw man. I am sure there are people more learned than both myself and Mr. Jensen who would readily assert hope is not so narrow and pitiful and easily pigeonholed.

    Nevertheless, I have resolved to read more Neruda; for that, I thank you.

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    1. Hi Matthew – Now you have me thinking I should read that article again. As a sometime activist and an environentalist, I found it powerful, but it may well be that some of the states of mind covered by the word “hope” have more value than the desperate hope of the political subject.

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  3. Beautiful! I’m going to be smiling and thinking of butterflies reincarnated as flying fish all day.

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    1. Neruda makes it look so simple, too, doesn’t he? But few of us possess such a powerful sense of curiosity. I think that’s the real secret to his endless, protean inventiveness.

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  4. beautiful post, Dave

    (and I’m looking forward to your poetical take
    on the found “Missing Link”)

    NB: the link
    to the missing link is
    missing

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    1. Hi Suzanne – I think the “missing link” publicity is absurd. Most evolutionary lineages have gaps. But if the term “missing link” means anything in reference to humans, it’s the link between hominids and other great apes — which I’d suggest was found 30 years ago with the discovery of the oldest Australopithecines. This newest fossil appears to be transitional between lemur ancestors and monkey/ape ancestors, so calling it a missing link in human evolution is misleading and species-centric in the extreme. A crass attempt to create publicity by manipulating a science-ignorant media and enflaming Creationists.

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  5. I have been noticing lately that I have no hope but I don’t feel hopeless. I think fear precedes religion, but awe inspires wisdom. Even though pronouncements like that fill me with fear, I still have no god.

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    1. I think awe is a form of fear, but one that includes a measure of wonder. I have it on the authority of the great 20th-century theologian Abraham Joshua Heschel that the KJV mis-translated, and that we should read “awe of God” instead of “fear of God.” I don’t buy that religion is a response to fear, though I agree that fear is often used by priestly religions to keep the masses in line. Fear in its pure form, unadulterated by wonder, leads to a paralysis of the imagination, whereas most religions are imaginative in the extreme. I also don’t think religion and wisdom overlap very often, but that’s another discussion.

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  6. There are times when the conscious mind is still when one finds bits of unfolding wisdom in reading and glimpses, some kind of secular grace which gets lost as one remembers the agenda. Karen Armstrong wrote a book called ‘The Battle for God” about the Fundamentalist religions and their basis in fear, politically what I see on the extreme right is a disappointment that the sinful world continues when somehow it should have ended with the millenium.

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    1. Thanks for the comment. I admire Armstrong, though I haven’t read that book. Interesting observation. I try to be tolerant, even of the chronically intolerant, but the manifest hatred for the world that such religionists evince is very hard for me to take. On the other hand, I do think some feeling of exile is as near to universal as any element of human consciousness can be.

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  7. Dave, Derrick Jensen has an all-or-nothing view of hope I don’t buy and has made it the premise of his article. At least as I read it, he says hope means you have no control. If I have hope, it does imply some lack of control, but does not mean total lack of control. Plenty of situations in life and on earth I can think of allow for partial, not complete, control.

    There is almost a kind of hubris in the statement, “I do not hope coho salmon survive. I will do whatever it takes to make sure the dominant culture doesn’t drive them extinct.” No one can know that their efforts will be successful: life on this planet is far too vast, complicated, mysterious, and chaotic a system to ever be completely sure of anything. I work on behalf of the environment without being sure our work will do enough, but I retain hope that it will make a difference and determination to do the work. Another potentially hubristic and certainly oversimplifying statement: “You don’t simply hope your beloved survives and thrives. You do what it takes.” If my beloved has a deadly form of illness, I’ll do what it takes — I’ll make sure he gets whatever treatment or therapy is possible — but his survival is not all in my control. I will still be hoping for his survival, and that is not an “excuse for inaction.”

    In my view, Jensen’s oversimplification makes him guilty of his own charge, of “forget[ting] that it is possible to feel many things at once.” It’s a reductionist argument.

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    1. Thanks for the thoughtful comment, MB. I hope some other readers respond to it, too, but here are a couple of my own preliminary reactions:

      I think Derrick is right in saying that hope implies a surrendering of agency, though certainly he may have resorted to a little bit of hyperbole there. But I think your critique of his possible hubris is accurate, too — and jibes with my own observations of successful agitators and activists. They are quite often on the arrogant side. In pondering this further, I think my own reservations about our cultural emphasis on hope relate to my intense suspicion of progressivist narratives. Without necessarily romanticizing the past, I don’t think the anthropological evidence supports the view of continual progress from the days of small-band, gatherer-hunter societies. I also find myself much more sympathetic to a fatalistic view that says that ultimately the universe is way, way bigger than us, and all our efforts amount to fairly little. And that being the case, I feel reverence and humility are imperative. Though not Muslim, I often find myself mentally (or actually) adding “inshallah” to hopeful statements, because it strikes me as presumptuous to count on favorable outcomes. So I guess I do come down on your side here, though I’m not sure Jensen would disagree too strongly with this view of things, either. Thanks to you and Matthew for pushing me to think more deeply about this (and to re-read the essay).

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  8. Thanks, Dave, for your response. I guess I view hope as a more complexly interrelated thing than he seems to, or perhaps than you do. As much as it can imply a surrendering of agency, it can spur and nourish action, in precisely the opposite manner to that which he describes. Which is not to dismiss the idea that for some it does cause reliance and inaction, only to point out that, in my view, for others it can be productive because a complexity exists that he appears to not accept.

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  9. I went back and read some of what Pema Chodron has to say about hope. It’s more or less the flip side, I think, of what Jensen’s saying. She doesn’t seem to see hope as a surrender of agency but as a way of moving out of mindfulness and into an imaginary, more abstract, less grounded place. Out in front or behind this thing that’s happening now. She says,too, and I hadn’t remembered this, that hope and fear are connected and imply an inherent lack. So does Jensen, of course, and I think he’s right, that so much of contemporary civilization mandates transformation at a bare minimum. I’m becoming aware of a disconnect here for me between the idea of mindfulness and being here now and the need to tear down so many of the walls of our dysfunctional, corroded, hobbled society. This is all part of what’s frustrated me from time to time about Buddhism or what I know of it: it seems to me to imply a passivity that I just can’t quite get with much of the time.

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  10. MB and Laura – Thanks for sharing these additional thoughts. I keep needing to relearn the lesson that certain language and practices that may be medicine for one person might be poison for another. I think it’s that way with hope and mindfulness. The trouble is, without an accomplished guide or teacher, it’s difficult to know which prescriptions to follow.

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  11. Remember that Hope was the last daemon out of Pandora’s Box….

    I’ve spent a long time dealing with a lack of hope — slowly, it’s trying to lure me back unto its clutches.

    Technical nitpick: Your link to Neruda seems to be missing its beginning “h”.

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  12. That’s not a nitpick; it’s vital info. I hate broken links. Thanks.

    I guess I’m in some space between hope and despair. Maybe denial.

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