The news from across the world gets more grim: shut downs or their violations, predictions of the looming economic depression, political standoffs, riots after yet another African American dies of excessive police force, or a student who asks to be excused from an online class because her aunt has just passed away from Covid. All this against the backdrop of the abject poverty of some and the excessive wealth of others, conflict refugees struggling to survive, millions of children without education or clean drinking water, the oppression of Kashmiris, Palestinians, the Rohingya and the Uyghurs.
Some respond with despair and pessimism, others look for signs of optimism. All human endeavour appears to swing between these two approaches to life’s complexities. Nuances have evolved between these two extremes, with wise pessimism being considered the most realistic approach, especially since the ’90s when matters spiraled out of control with the first Gulf War and when climate change reached alarming proportions.
Wise pessimism accepts the bitter realities and aims to make gradual improvements. The United Nations, the World Bank, the IMF, intelligence agencies and diplomacy are some global examples, and each country has its own mitigating policies. Foolish optimism, that blithely believes the solution lies just round the corner, is scorned by wise pessimists.
Yet a brilliant mind like Albert Einstein could say, “I had rather be an optimist and a fool than a pessimist and right.”
The fact is that no invention, no music composition or artwork, no blockbuster film or political revolution would have come about without foolish optimism. Otis created the first safety elevator long before skyscrapers were designed, and Mauchly and Eckert created the first gigantic Eniac computer not knowing it would become an indispensable personal device. The Pharaohs created monumental stone pyramids in the desert; Beethoven composed the Moonlight Sonata and six symphonies after losing his hearing, and Van Gogh continued painting without gaining any recognition in his lifetime. Stephen Hawking wrote a book and made major discoveries about deep space while unable to speak without a device or move without a wheelchair.
The very nature of invention, discovery or creativity has to be an act of optimism, as they are essentially a step into the unknown, armed only with blind faith in an idea. Traditional practices and methods are upturned, re-examined or discarded. The sharing of these in the form of exhibitions, academic papers or approaching manufacturers is only possible because there is an optimistic belief that like-minded believers and users are out there. An artist may be conveying a dark reality, but the act of making and sharing comes from a place of optimism. The artist Jules Breton said, “If the man in me is often a pessimist, the artist, on the contrary, is pre-eminently an optimist.” The philosopher Šliogeris reminds us that the beautiful flower emerges from the turbid depths of dark soil.
The Fool in the Tarot pack is numbered 0 – the number of unlimited potential and represents beginnings, innocence, spontaneity and a free spirit. There are fewer naive or foolish optimists than there are cynics, which is as it should be, since the role of optimists is to reawaken faith.
But they may not be equipped to take the arduous journey to implement change.
Pangloss, a character in Voltaire’s novel Candide, is a satire of the philosopher Gottfried Leibniz, who believed that the world we live in is the best of all possible worlds, and has come to represent baseless optimism, contributing to the association of optimists with foolishness. Perhaps it is time we reverse the adjectives and call the optimist wise and the pessimist foolish.
Durriya Kazi is a Karachi-based artist and heads the department of visual studies at the University of Karachi Email: firstname.lastname@example.org
Published in Dawn, EOS, June 7th, 2020