Three American stories of hope

In The Real American Dream: A Meditation on Hope, literary critic Andrew Delbanco writes:

Human beings need to organize the inchoate sensations amid which we pass our days—pain, desire, pleasure, fear—into a story. When that story leads somewhere and thereby helps us navigate through life to its inevitable terminus in death, it gives us hope. And if such a sustaining narrative establishes itself over time in the minds of a substantial number of people, we call it culture. Without some such symbolic structure by which hope is expressed, one would be, as the anthropologist Clifford Geertz has put it, “a kind of formless monster with neither sense of direction nor power of self-control, a chaos of spasmodic impulses and vague emotions.” We must imagine some end to life that transcends our own tiny allotment of days and hours if we are to keep at bay the “dim, back-of-the-mind suspicion that one may be adrift in an absurd world.” 

When I teach American literature, I owe a significant debt to Delbanco’s perspicacious schema of our national history into three sequential stories of hope:

images.jpegA fundamental question of our literature has always been how to find release from this feeling of living without propulsion and without aim; and every writer drawn to the theme has concluded, with the English philosopher Michael Oakeshott, that hope depends on finding some “end to be pursued more extensive than a merely instant desire”

In the first phase of our civilization, hope was chiefly expressed through a Christian story that gave meaning to suffering and pleasure alike and promised deliverance from death. This story held the imagination largely without challenge for nearly two hundred years. In the second phase, as Christianity came under pressure from Enlightenment rationality, the promise of self-realization was transformed into the idea of citizenship in a sacred union. This process, which began before the Revolution and did not run its course until the 1960s, has been efficiently described by Conor Cruise O’Brien, who makes clear that it was by no means unique to the United States: “The Enlightenment removes a personal God . . . delegitimizes kingship, by desacralizing it,” and substitutes “the people—a particular people in a particular land . . . the idea of a deified nation.” Finally, in the third phase—our own—the idea of transcendence has detached itself from any coherent symbology. It continues to be pursued through New Age spirituality, apocalyptic environmentalism, and the “multicultural” search for ancestral roots; but our most conspicuous symbols (to use a word considerably degraded since it appeared at the opening of the Gospel according to John) are the logos of corporate advertising—the golden arches and the Nike swoosh. Though vivid and ubiquitous, such symbols will never deliver the indispensable feeling that the world does not end at the borders of the self.

This is our contemporary dilemma: we live with undiminished need, but without adequate means, for attaining what William James called the feeling of “elation and freedom” that comes only “when the outlines of the confining selfhood melt down.”    

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