Certainly it is important to distinguish genuine Hope from wishful thinking.  But how does one avoid the paralysis of things looking hopeless?   That is, especially if an individual aims at being honest, where does the energy and focus of Hope come from?  There certainly is not any easy answer to that one.  But, since I am currently reflecting on a couple of literary examples that I use in class, let me suggest a direction.  The key to hopefulness, it seems to me, is imagination.  One must be able to imagine a course of action or the achievement of a self – identity outside the boundaries of the oppressive situation one is stuck with.

In my experience, the philosopher best able to marshal this use of imagination was William James.  And he was most insistent that the enemy was the smothering impact of the Absolute.  In some contexts he was using this as a covering term for metaphysical idealism, but it also applied to the psychological syndrome of turning every problem or difficulty into THE ONE OVERWHELMING factor.  Some aspect of one’s situation would become so dominant that obsessing about that difficulty literally cancels the effort to seek alternative solutions.  This could be described as “The Absolutizing Instinct” (cf. William Lynch S.J.) or an instinct toward losing oneself in an absolute.  It drives that individual into at least one manifestation of what Sartre called “Bad Faith.”  Once again, as with James, we have a category that describes both a metaphysical condition and a psychological experience.

I think the most fab literary examples of Sartrian dynamics of consciousness can be found in Malraux’s Man’s Fate.  But I suspect many of you are familiar with those, so let me suggest one great example from a less often read source.  In Manhattan Transfer, by John Dos Passos, the most important female character is Ellen Thatcher.  Her life is a series of deceptions and strategies that are expressive of both ambition for success in the theater, but also fear of facing life on her own.  Toward the end of the novel, but perhaps not of her journey, she steels herself for a grand gesture, a compromise that will result in a direct submission of talent and imagination to the service of comfort and security.

        Ellen stayed a long time looking in the mirror…She kept winding up a hypothetical doll self and setting it in various positions.  Tiny gestures ensued, acted out on various model stages…

        Through dinner she felt a gradual icy coldness stealing through her like novocaine…An invisible silk band of bitterness was tightening around her throat…Beyond the plates…his face above the blank shirtfront jerked and nodded….

His taught lips moved eloquently over his yellow teeth.  Ellen felt herself with her ankles crossed, rigid as a porcelain figure under clothes, everything about her seemed to be growing hard and enameled…His wooden face of a marionette waggled senselessly in front of her…

         “Well what about it?” he said as they got up from the table…

         “I guess I can stand it if you can George, “she said quietly.

He was waiting for her…Mechanically she squeezed the hand that helped her into the cab.

         “Elaine,” he said shakily, “life’s going to mean something to me now…I‘ve been like a tin mechanical toy, all hollow inside.”

         “Let’s not talk about mechanical toys,” she said in a strangled voice.

Manhattan Transfer   pp.374-75 (1925)


Dos Passos ends this scene with George kissing Ellen in the taxi, but she is looking through the corner of her eye at the “nickelglinting” wheels in the streetlights.  For Dos Passos it is always “the machine” or “the system” that grinds the life out of people.  Her hope is “strangled” precisely by the process of becoming a certain sort of mechanical doll.  She has given up her freedom in exchange for the “absolute” need of financial security and the guarantee of praise for her fading charms.  She is Elaine now, and will never go back to being Ellen from Hoboken again.  But that image of Elaine, that construction which took such mechanical calculations before the mirror, strikes the reader as so limiting precisely because Ellen had such talent and promise.  But the fear of poverty grinds the capacity of her imagining other possibilities out of her.


Well, perhaps the reader has a new illustration of Bad Faith to think about.  One way of attempting to snuff out “etre pour soir” is to make oneself into a toy object with its motions defined.  It seems to me that it is the strangling of the imagination that leads to the submission of free will here.  If Hope were the equivalent of mere wishful thinking it would suffer from the same surrender of free will, and the same failure of imagination, that makes Bad Faith a dead end.