Cynicism and Hope

I re-read Joyce Carol Oates’ story “Where Are You Going, Where Have You Been” ( for “homework” last night. It’s wonderful but horrible. It is a story of nascent sexuality blossoming into horror. The main character draws the attention of something like the devil—a human devil. It is Flannery O’Connor territory—minor sins, or none at all, punished with absolute and random finality.

I know why I haven’t taught it much before.

I can see the darkness—and take up arms against it. How can one not see it in this time—in any time—in every time. It is a terrible thing to see and know. And too easy to slouch into a raw kind of cynicism. That is the safe havens of scoundrels.

Let me pause on that for a moment. Cynicism is the safe haven of scoundrels. There is no time for cynicism—espousing the essential corruption is a cheap holiday in other people’s misery. And a retreat to a false high ground: because I can cast aspersion I am better than the lot, even if I am corrupt. No. Thank. You.

Whether or not we are corrupt, there is something in us that calls to hope and connection. “But we are animals!” a friend proclaims, “Our genes emerge from the savannah and the jungle. We can be nothing more.” And so scientific fatalism opens the door to nothing. Instead of Homo sapiens we are Homo inertians—unable to escape the gravity of our deeper history.

And yet we build, and not every tool—Kubrick’s 2001 aside—is a refinement of a club. Certainly Kubrick’s 2001 won’t help one win a war, or woo, unless, of course, the object of desire is imbued with an essential and unmitigated nerdiness. Nonetheless, even without some mysterious aid, we grow. Maybe not today, maybe not tomorrow, but soon enough, and we find our way to each other.

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Brian Brennan

I am a writer and a teacher. I have lived in Philadelphia, Binghamton, Pittsburgh, Baltimore, Norfolk, and Northern Virginia. I have sailed on the ocean and flown over the North Pole. I write fiction, poetry, and nonfiction.

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