‘Hope’ is the thing with feathers –
That perches in the soul –
And sings the tune without the words –
And never stops – at all –
– ‘314’, Emily Dickinson
How do you trace the deaths of hope? Is it when you read that, after years of warnings, the Great Barrier Reef is dying? When you finally understand that no amount of evidence will change the fixed convictions of a bigot? When, in the parade of democratic debate, journalists expose once again the criminality of vast corporations – bribery, corruption, wanton environmental and social destruction – and after a dutiful flurry of outrage everything subsides back into ‘business as usual’?
I don’t know. There are a billion knives sticking into that thing with feathers. It’s bleeding to death in front of our eyes.
Meanwhile, parrots are squabbling in the trees outside my window. They have no need of hope. They live their lives in the vivid present. I envy them.
I catch the train to the country. Between Melbourne and the Pentland Hills the earth is parched, gasping, raw as a wound. Great scars are scrawled across its rashy surface: highways, industrial developments, new estates. Around their boundaries is the detritus of our superior civilisation: bits of abandoned cars, shredded plastic bags, rotting boxes. Gum trees everywhere, thirsting in the drought, surrounded by white, dropped limbs. The only growing things have thorns: thistles silvered in the summer heat, prickly pears.
I remember driving past those same paddocks in December 1979, sixteen years old, fresh back from eight months in England. For the first time I realised the beauty of the Australian landscape, its hues of gold and blue-green shimmering under the clear light. I remember the drought of the 1980s, when every field was naked earth, scoured of grass. Back then I had confidence that nature could renew itself, that bare paddocks could grow lush again.
I do the things I do every day. Try to work. Tidy the house. Talk to friends. Family stuff. I count my blessings. I have so many blessings, and all of them are so easily broken.
I think of the people who live in the shadow of Chernobyl. They fled massacres in the fallout of the collapse of the Soviet Union and ended up in the relative peace of the forbidden zone. They eat the radioactive produce they grow there, they drink the water. What else can they do? There is nothing else to eat. Better to die later of cancer than now of hunger.
Perhaps it is better not to think of the future at all. I buy some cosmetics from an online supplier. I can’t really afford it, but what the hell.
There are two ways to think about death. Medieval philosophers clutched skulls to remind them of the vanity and transience of material things, which were worthless in comparison to their immortal souls. The empty promise of heaven that still creates our present hell.
But death might also be a reminder that the vast, fleeting beauty and pain that comprises a mortal life is immeasurably precious and irreplaceable; that while it is here, it must be cared for, noted, valued; that the present is the only thing we have within our grasp.
It’s wise to be sceptical of hope. We see its mendacities everywhere: in the debased sheen of political promises, the shining world that advertising reveals between the voyeuristic failures of reality television, the bland affirmations of faux religions. Hope is the thing that precedes disillusion, the breakage. And so often when the illusion is broken, we generate another illusion: a chaos of conspiracy theories, another corrupt god.
Is hope only a desperate mirage to combat despair, an expression of our inability to comprehend the reality of our own mortality? Could it also be, perhaps, this light, falling now, on that tree?
As an artist, it is hard in times of crisis to know that art is no consolation, that art solves nothing. It’s difficult to keep faith in the real magic that art enacts when it names those things we need to have named, when it speaks our unspeakable desires and fears. How do you embrace the powerlessness that art demands, its myriad refusals, when power is the only thing that speaks in a world deafened by meaningless noise?
And yet art is a wager, however contingent, on a present that we create with our own hands, our minds, our bodies. To say it is pointless is to say that our lives don’t matter. Perhaps our lives are pointless unless we make them matter, unless together we find a way to pay attention to the evanescent beauty of our worlds.
It’s so easy to forget why I make this tiny wager in the face of everything that disavows and disclaims and betrays it; why I sit down and labour every day before a blank screen. The rest, all the noise, the good and the bad, the illusions and the realities: that’s how we live, how we survive, how we fight. But inside, there’s only the fleeting light of the present, its fragile wager on the future. This thing with feathers that may take flight. We don’t have anything else.