The Hopeless

By Düttmann, Alexander García | Philosophy Today, Fall 2016 | Go to article overview

The Hopeless


Düttmann, Alexander García, Philosophy Today


I

Who dares to affirm that there is still hope without an intimate sense that he is engaging in some manipulative endeavour, or without a shared sense that he is placing the notion of hope between ineluctable quotation marks? Who dares to affirm that historical events may still fill us with hope when we relate to them as dispassionately as we can, or that there may still lie hope in a realm no longer historical, to be attained after history will have come to an end? But must one not always speak of hope, if one wants to speak of hope at all, from a position, a perspective, an experience of hopelessness, of hope abandoned, of an abandonment that hope already entails and on which it depends?

Walter Benjamin suggests as much at the end of his critical treatise on Goethe's novel The Elective Affinities. For if it is true that there is hope only for the other, for the one who must be oblivious of such hope; if it is true that there is never hope for oneself, for the one who harbours, fosters, cherishes hope, for the one who catches its glimpse and understands the other's existence as secretly, invisibly, incomprehensibly affected by it-then conceiving of hope must begin with the recognition that it is impossible to do so, to conceive of hope, if one wants to claim it for oneself, if one wants to partake in the very hope whose notion one is trying to develop. Benjamin speaks of hope in terms of"the last hope,"1 perhaps because, as the most "paradoxical" the most "extreme" and the most "fleeting" hope, as the hope that proves most difficult to seize, "the last hope" comes closest to what hope is all about, to its essence. The famous final sentence of Benjamin's treatise reads: "Only for the sake of the hopeless ones have we been given hope."2 Hope, when it is "the last hope" and hence hope at its most essential, is something we are given, something we can conceive of on the basis of receiving it, though we must remain forever excluded from what we receive, receiving it only for the sake of the other who has not received it, and who cannot receive it. I cannot tell the other that I have received hope for his sake, for the sake of the hopeless one. Perhaps I, hope's involuntary witness, cannot even tell myself that I have received hope. Hope is neither something we spontaneously or laboriously devise and feel, nor something we jealously keep so as to benefit from it, nor something we can transmit. At best, hope is something we host in place of the other, who cannot know anything about it. The place of hope is vicarious. It is not the place where we dwell yet it is not the other's place either. It is a place of substitution, of an improbable if not impossible replacement. Hope makes a detour, it passes through us without ever reaching the other to whom it is directed or for whom it is reserved. It entrusts itself to us and demands of us that we keep it without touching or appropriating it since it is not consigned to us for our own sake. Thus hope engenders its own temporality, its own history. It falls short of agents who could act and justify their actions in its name, in the name of a hope that would serve as a unifying bond. The history of hope lacks a subject. Only to the extent that we cease to feel hopeful will hope give itself to us, come to us, as if from the other and in view of the other.

Hope, then, is attracted by hopelessness, emerges out of hopelessness without remaining hopelessly enmeshed with it. When, in the later theses on history, Benjamin stresses that past generations have made a "secret appointment"3 with present ones, and that we, the members of a present generation, have been "expected on earth" the secrecy of this appointment, the faintness or the weakness of a redemptive or "messianic force" required to make the appointment, should be interpreted in accordance with the secrecy of hope, of a "last hope" that belongs to no one. Each time we struggle for a goal to be attained, it is not as a result of a hope that would be ours, and that would contribute to our self-preservation. …

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