The Utter Optimist
Updated: Nov 3, 2022
[Old Brooklyn Bridge, Joseph Stella, c. 1941. Museum of Fine Arts (MFA), Boston, MA, US.]
When hopelessness arrives, what to do?
The hopeless person looks around and as far as the mind’s eye can see, drear desert stretches. Once this state has been reached, hope must somehow become greater than the infinite nature (or trickery) of despair. How? Recently my tack has been: Good rules and that means no bad or wrong is admitted. The desert is composed of mini, golden gems. Reality and perfection are synonymous.
Sitting in a faux-wicker chair near
Gare du Nord,
I asked life what more I could do.
The answer came in the form of a hand
thrust by the sun
into my chest
and, as it pulled from around my heart
that frost-cage, anxiety’s trellis,
I heard these words
breathed for my health:
to your plain self.
Lauren Berlant has described optimism as an attaching force. In her 2011 book, Cruel Optimism, she writes that ‘an optimistic attachment involves a sustaining inclination to return to the scene of fantasy that enables you to expect that this time, nearness to this thing will help you or a world to become different in just the right way’. Berlant’s concept is broadly future-orientated (we go back to a fantasy in order to anticipate succour) and portrays the optimist as assuming the solution, the distress-killer, is something external and additive.
What about hope minus aspiration for a better way of being on the horizon? Maggie Nelson’s latest essay collection, On Freedom: Four Songs of Care and Constraint (2021), unpacks this style of sanguineness. Toward the end of a chapter on sexual optimism, she imagines a world
in which we cease measuring the status of our liberation against the ideal of an unfettered, static, happy sexuality, and commit instead to the ride, knowing that certain unfreedoms and suffering will always be part of it, even as we work to diminish their prevalence and force.
Nelson therefore invites ‘us to leave behind the poles of pre- vs. post-liberatory, negativity vs. positivity, optimism vs. pessimism’ and come to terms with the fact that ‘everything is not going to be OK, that no one or nothing is coming to save us, and that this is both searingly difficult and also fine’. On one level worlds away from the philosophy of all-is-well, Nelson’s confidence is nonetheless premised on acceptance. Things are very tough and troubled, but they are ‘also fine’. Fantasised perfection must be thrown away so that we can practice liberation in all its faulty, proliferant, patchy forms now.
About two years ago, I had an epiphany staring at a bunch of daffodils in a vase. I was living with my parents in North Yorkshire, thirty-three years old and mourning the end of a relationship. My revelation took the form of: For so much of my life I have been negating the present, often fiercely, in favour of bodiless utopias. As this thought sunk in, the daffodils appeared to magnify themselves; they became richly sufficient and so did I.
Accepting ‘the ride’ as foundationally positive––worth committing to––approaches a worldview I would like to call monistic optimism (monism being a doctrine which sees everything as one). Monistic optimism goes beyond Nelson’s stance by dissolving all poles (contentment vs. suffering, unfreedoms vs. freedoms) except one: the pole of a benevolent universe. When monistic optimism prevails, the relationship between oneself and reality becomes trusting, loving. The concluding lines of Stephanie Sy-Quia’s epic, Amnion (2021), I read as sketching a sort of monistic-optimistic state:
And the bitten truth is this:
When I am with you, teleology drops away,
And the days need have no given meaning.
For, in the quiet of your company,
I am of consolate closeness
And bristle of it along every pore.
What I get from this passage is not only complete, exquisite peace (‘every pore’ consoled) but the idea that in order to get to the optimum––a ‘closeness’ without goal, without time’s spur (future-orientated optimism!) or the need control by sense-making––you have to go through the apparent worst. Hence ‘bitten truth’.
Poets extolling monistic optimism are rare. However, I believe gay, Ohio-born Hart Crane promoted something like it despite his early death (you can visit his birthplace, Garrettsville, where he is remembered today by a small cenotaph bearing the inscription, ‘LOST AT SEA’). Literarily active during the interwar period, Crane’s hopefulness is especially on display in The Bridge, an epic he started composing a few months after reacting with disappointment to the grim cast of Eliot’s The Waste Land (1921), and which was eventually published in early 1930.
By calling Crane an optimist, I’m following in the footsteps of critic Michael Snediker who has written persuasively about Crane’s work as ‘a recuperation of optimism’. Snediker, however, is at pains to distinguish Crane’s outlook from the optimism Leibniz promulgated in Theodicy (1710), which could be summed up like this: Our world is the best of all possible worlds because God exists, is perfect, and therefore only brings into being what is perfect. Snediker dubs this brand of cheerfulness ‘chronic’ and ‘imperialising’ as it ‘converts all crises (past, present, future) into manifestations of the good’. On the other hand, there is ‘queer optimism’, which Snediker claims to find in Crane’s poetry, and which is ‘non-Leibnizian in its resistance to faith at the expense of thinking’.
My take is different. I think the buoyancy in Crane’s poetry is much closer to Leibniz’s than Snediker allows. Though I would call it queer as well since Crane was deeply that.
In 1926, roughly half-way through The Bridge and living in a family residence on the Isle of Pines (Isla de la Juventud) in Cuba, Crane wrote to critic and fellow versifier, Yvor Winters:
The “new Metaphysics” that Whitman proclaimed in Democratic Vistas is evident here and there in America today. I feel it in your work and I think I can sense it in some of my own work. […] That sine qua non evidently has to be fought for and defended. I’m doing my best about it here and now, fighting off miasmas, bugs, hay fever, bats and tropical sqeks and birds––toward The Bridge a very long poem for these days, extending from Columbus to Brooklyn Bridge and Atlantis. It is three-fourths done, and I may have to flee the torments (now settled in my nerves) to New Orleans soon to finish it. It will be a book by itself. And in it I shall incidentally try to answer all my friends who have for three years, now, sat down and complacently joined the monotonous choruses of The Waste Land.
In fewer words, Crane wanted to foster Whitman’s ‘new Metaphysics’ by writing The Bridge, while providing an energetic response to The Waste Land. He wished to remain on his feet––fighting and defending certain ideas articulated by his nineteenth-century forebear, ideas without which America would cease to be what it essentially is––rather than smugly join the unchanging voices of Eliot’s poem on the ground.
But how to describe Whitman’s metaphysical stance? In a nutshell, and based on the 1881 edition of Democratic Vistas: Not one thing will miss out on (supernatural) joy.
Whitman thought one’s perspective must be as expansive as possible, tracking the ‘whole Orb’ rolling through ‘illimitable areas’. He saw the material world as pointing to humanity’s joyful ‘destination beyond the ostensible, the mortal’ in the spiritual world. As he wrote about midway through Democratic Vistas, ‘little or nothing can be absolutely known’ except ‘one permanency’, which is ‘that Time and Space, in the will of God, furnish successive chains, completions of material births and beginnings, solve all discrepancies, fears and doubts, and eventually fulfill happiness’. Little or nothing can be absolutely known except that God knows best––might be another way of putting it.
Encapsulating, idealistic, theistic. This is the breed of optimism Crane adopted.
My incredible smallness
and sand-like, collapsing legs––
these facts don’t matter one mote.
Who gave you the right to declaim that?
I have grip of some force, friend,
which stretches exuberantly relaxed
beyond & beyond
our scrutinized cosmos.
One of the most effervescent moments in Crane’s The Bridge can be found in ‘Atlantis’, the section which concludes the epic. Here the speaker is addressing a deific Brooklyn Bridge:
Migrations that must needs void memory,
Inventions that cobblestone the heart,––
Unspeakable Thou Bridge to Thee, O Love.
Thy pardon for this history, whitest Flower,
O Answerer of all,––Anemone,––
Now while thy petals spend the suns about us, hold––
(O Thou whose radiance doth inherit me)
Atlantis,––hold thy floating singer late!
The lines start with movement (‘Migrations’) and heaviness (the heart is covered in stones), then lifts in the third line: Brooklyn Bridge is represented as something of a portal to ‘Love’, as well as (in the fourth and fifth lines) a merciful and unburdening power, making time right (note, this is not futural or aspirational optimism, but an atemporal one). The ‘Bridge’ responds to ‘all’, implying monism and the ‘Love’ being evoked (or Bridge-to-Love being evoked) is 100% embracing, indiscriminate.
Then we have a description, in the last three lines, of a close meeting. The protagonist, along with ‘us’, is brought to the centre of a holy flower larger than multiple suns, the light of which possesses––‘inherit[s]’––the poet. Because ‘hold’ is repeated twice, I think it safe to say the word is probably the passage’s key verb, denoting how supernatural answers human. The person who is part of ‘history’ is raised and embraced ‘late’––that is, after the usual or expected time, perhaps after time itself. What lives beyond the chronological grasps the speaker, and almost everything else with its ‘radiance’. ‘Atlantis’ disburses suns, which suggests it is vaster than solar systems.
It would not be accurate to label this a passage of transcendence, though, in the sense of ‘going beyond oneself’, as Sarah Allen has phrased it. The singer remains delineated. The historical/collective and the individual are gathered by the divine, not totally subsumed or transformed, and the effect of experiencing intimacy with something greater than the self is delightful. In the next stanza, results are described: ‘Now pity steeps the grass and rainbows ring’. What might have been perceived as empty––the sky––becomes filled with soft, calling-and-responding voices. The Bridge ends: ‘Whispers antiphonal in azure swing’.
Whispers antiphonal in azure swing.
Optimism comes from the Latin word ‘optimus’, meaning ‘best’. The best a mind might conjure.
And what could be better than the notion that space is filled with benign, conversant, gentle, jivy power?
Love has visited every place conceivable, even the most desolate, and found all worthy to be gathered in. That’s my imagination’s ceiling.
Crane once wrote that the dour stoic looks at apparent badness and says, perhaps rather arrogantly: I can bear this. It can be inferred, then, that the optimist looks at badness and says, maybe more humbly: I cannot bear this. The Bridge’s hopefulness is grand because the extent of its grandness, magnificence or hysteria is proportionate to the terror it has to beat out. In Crane’s work, the positive––beauty, ecstasy––must have sway over everything else, or else.
I would like to end with what I think is an illustrative biographical example: the poet’s romantic relationship with sailor Emil Opffer. After experiencing an ‘ecstasy of walking hand in hand across the most beautiful bridge in the world [Brooklyn Bridge]’, Crane wrote in the spring of 1924 to his friend Waldo Frank that the love between himself and Opffer––denominated ‘indestructible’––had not only made the pains of the past worthwhile, but every possible misfortune to come. The blessedness Crane tasted in the arms of his beloved, and in the night-lifting arms of Brooklyn Bridge, cast the world for all time right: ‘It’s true, Waldo, that so much more than my frustrations and multitude of humiliations has been answered in this reality and promise that I feel whatever event the future holds is justified beforehand’.
There is no need to be better.
There is just
sun beading the wands of the willow––
to get loaded
as it rushes back to you without finding any fault,
as if from each far needle point
of the compass, home.
____  In Spinoza’s Ethics, the writer declares, ‘By reality and perfection I understand the same thing’ (in George Eliot’s translation). I remember reading this when I was an undergraduate and simply not being able to compute. I reasoned Spinoza’s meanings for ‘reality’ and ‘perfection’ must have been different from our present-day understanding of the terms!  Lauren Berlant, Cruel Optimism (Durham, North Carolina: Duke University Press, 2011), 1-2.  Maggie Nelson, On Freedom: Four Songs of Care and Constraint (London: Jonathan Cape, 2021), 126.  Sy-Quia, Amnion (London: Granta, 2021), 108.  Michael Snediker, Queer Optimism: Lyric Personhood and Other Felicitous Persuasions (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2009).  For a thorough exposition of Leibniz’s optimism see Lloyd Strickland’s very readable Leibniz Reinterpreted (London: Continuum, 2006).  Snediker, Queer Optimism, 27-29.  Hart Crane, Complete Poems and Selected Letters, ed. Langdon Hammer (New York: Library of America, 2006), 491-492.  Walt Whitman, Democratic Vistas: The Original Edition in Facsimile, ed. Ed Folsom (Iowa City: Iowa University Press, 2010), 64-66.  Whitman, Democratic Vistas, 65.  Crane, Complete Poems and Selected Letters, 74.  Sarah Allen, The Philosophical Sense of Transcendence: Levinas and Plato on Loving Beyond Being (Pittsburgh: Duquesne University Press, 2009), 15.  Crane, Complete Poems and Selected Letters, 599.  Ibid, 384.
Nadira Wallace can be found on Instagram at @nadirawallace