April 20, 2012

Hope, a Tragedy

From Hope: A Tragedy by Shalom Auslander:

Pessimists, Professor Jove replied, don’t start wars. It was hope, according to Professor Jove, that was keeping Kugel up at night. It was hope that was making him angry.

Give Up, read the sign on the wall behind Jove’s book-covered desk, You’ll Live Longer.

But you’ve been to Yale, Harvard, Cambridge, said Kugel.

That’s how I know, said Professor Jove.

Kugel had waited weeks for an appointment.

We are rational creatures, Professor Jove explained; hope is irrational. We thus set ourselves up for one dispiriting fall after the next. Anger and depression are not diseases or dysfunctions or anomalies; they are perfectly rational responses to the myriad avoidable disappointments that begin in a thoroughly irrational hope.

Kugel wasn’t sure he understood. Professor Jove smiled warmly.

Tell me, he said. Hitler was the last century’s greatest what?

Kugel had shrugged.


Optimist, said Professor Jove. Hitler was the most unabashed doe-eyed optimist of the last hundred years. That’s why he was the biggest monster. Have you ever heard of anything as outrageously hopeful as the Final Solution? Not just that there could be a solution — to anything, mind you, while we have yet to cure the common cold — but a final one, no less! Full of hope, the Führer was. A dreamer! A romantic, even, yes? If I just kill this one, gas that one, everything will be okay. I tell you this with absolute certainty: every morning, Adolf Hitler woke up, made himself a cup of coffee, and asked himself how to make the world a better place. We all know his answer, but the answer isn’t nearly as important as the question. The only thing more naively hopeful than the Final Solution is the ludicrous dictum to which it gave birth: Never Again. How many times since Never Again has it happened again? Three? Four? That we know of, mind you. Mao? Optimist. Stalin? Optimist. Pol Pot? Optimist. Here’s a good rule for life, Kugel, no matter where you happen to live or when you happen to be born: when someone rises up and promises that things are going to be better, run. Hide. Pessimists don’t build gas chambers.

I just want my family to be safe, said Kugel. I just want the world to leave us alone. Is that asking too much?

What, asked Professor Jove, did Jesus Christ say when they nailed him to the cross?

I don’t know, said Kugel. What did Jesus Christ say when they nailed him to the cross?

He said Ouch, said Professor Jove.

I don’t get it, said Kugel.

There’s nothing to get, said Professor Jove. It hurt. First they whipped him half to death, then they held him down and nailed iron spikes through his wrists. If he was lucky, they did the same to his feet. The weight of his body bearing down on his chest made it difficult to breathe, and he died, slowly and agonizingly, from respiratory distress.

I still don’t get it, said Kugel.

There is hurt in this world, said Professor Jove. There is pain. Hoping there won’t be only makes it worse.