Over the last decade I have had to make peace with the unavoidable reality that I am an optimist. This was more challenging than you might think. Growing up, my two literary heroes were T. S. Elliot and Ernest Hemingway. When Prufrock asked, “Do I dare disturb the universe? In a minute there are times for decisions and revisions that a minute will reverse,” I felt he was speaking for me; and when Fredric Henry walks back to his hotel “in the rain,” after his beloved Catherine dies delivering their stillborn child, I thought I had read one of the greatest endings in literature.
But I was a young man then, and I was deeply moved by anyone capable of peeling back the layer of everyday life to unearth the roots of our collective despair. Despair, after all, seemed to me to be everywhere; despair was the hobgoblin beneath every bed, the villain lurking in every shadowy street corner. If we reveal the beast, perhaps then we might slay him. This, I believed, was the writer’s job, his (my) highest calling. Anything else was avoiding the truth, capitulating to the silent denial that was otherwise all around me.
Yet the silent truth turned out to be more generous than I had at first understood. When I was a freshman in college, we studied The Waste Land. Of all the poems in Western Literature’s cannon, none cries out for teaching more than The Waste Land. In a way, it is a literature professor’s dream, so packed as it is with references and clues as to make it virtually opaque to the unschooled reader.
I was captivated. As the professor walked us through Dante and the quest for the grail, I felt as if life itself were being shown to me. That life was a wasteland did not bother me at all. In fact, weeks later the subject of the poem came up during a history class. I felt compelled to say of The Waste Land, “It’s strangely uplifting.”
The professor looked at me blankly and asked, “Why?”
I couldn’t answer. The full reply was too large for my eighteen year-old heart, yet it was this: If we are despairing, there must be something worth despairing over. What all the rats and bones literature was really pointing me toward – whether the writers intended it or not – was that which they seemed to have lost. I was strangely uplifted because I understood I had a job to do. It was an important job, and that’s all I wanted from life.
I became an optimist the day I found what I was looking for, exactly where I had left it, years before.
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