The Banality of Optimism

41hDdSqWwuL._SL500_SY344_BO1,204,203,200_Terry Eagleton at Bookforum:

Nations, like political creeds, can be upbeat or downbeat. Along with North Korea, the United States is one of the few countries on earth in which optimism is almost a state ideology. For large sectors of the nation, to be bullish is to be patriotic, while negativity is a species of thought crime. Pessimism is thought to be vaguely subversive. Even in the most despondent of times, a collective fantasy of omnipotence and infinity continues to haunt the national unconscious. It would be almost as impossible to elect a US president who advised the nation that its best days were behind it as it would be to elect a chimpanzee, though as far as that goes there have been one or two near misses. Any such leader would be a prime target for assassination. An American historian remarked recently that “presidential inaugural speeches are always optimistic whatever the times.” The comment was not intended as a criticism. There is a compulsive cheeriness about some aspects of American culture, an I-can-do-anything-I-want rhetoric which betrays a quasi-pathological fear of failure.

In an excruciatingly styleless study entitled The Biology of Hope, the American scholar Lionel Tiger, anxious to place his country’s ideology of hope on a scientific basis, is much preoccupied with drugged monkeys, mood-altering substances, and chemical changes found in the excretion of parents grieving for their dead children. If only one could search out the physiological basis of joviality, it might be possible to eradicate political disaffection and ensure a permanently ecstatic citizenry. Hope is a politically useful stimulant. “The possibility exists,” Tiger comments, “that it is a common human obligation to augment optimism.” Stalin and Mao seem to have held much the same view. It is our moral duty to insist that all is well, even when it self-evidently isn’t.

more here.