In Dante’s Commedia there is a sign above the entrance to Hell. “Abandon all hope ye who enter here.”
Hell only tells half the story. There is another side to hope. Martin Edmond writes in Dark Night: Walking With McCahon: “Hope itself may be a cross to bear, especially once faith is gone. You can nail yourself to hope in a manner that will not banish despair the way faith does.”
The things we long to abandon but cannot- they are the crosses. The reasons we cannot abandon them – they are the nails. When the reasons you cannot abandon something are hammered through you, and into the thing you long to abandon – what then?
Raymond Carver liked to have his favorite mottos near at hand when he wrote. “Isak Dinesen said that she wrote a little every day, without hope and without despair. Someday I’ll put that on a three-by-five card and tape it to the wall beside my desk.”
R.A.K Mason, New Zealand’s “first wholly original poet”, is rumoured to have taken the 200 remaining copies of his first collection of poems The Beggar and disposed of them in the Waitemata Harbour. When I first heard that story I feared it was the story of an embittered artist abandoning his destiny. I refused to empathise. Now I understand the other side of hope and I see the story in a new way. I allow myself to empathise. Sometimes you have to let go in order to hold on.
In Lester Bangs’ review of the Van Morrison album Astral Weeks he ponders the protagonist of the song Madame George, a young man who seems to suffer within himself more than a shard of compassion for the “lovelorn dragqueen”of the songs title. He is destined to flee from the scene of the song, even if the scene is shot through with an affection that verges on mutual. Bangs relates it to the way everyone he knows in New York has at some point learnt to just step over the bodies of the derelicts they pass in the street. They have learnt do so without pain because they remember what happened the time they listened to their instincts and tried to reach out. “You got their hopes up. Which makes you viler than the most scrofulous carrion. Viler than the ignorant boys who would take Madame George for a couple of cigarettes. Because you have committed the crime of knowledge, and thereby not only walked past or over someone you knew to be suffering, but also violated their privacy, the last possession of the dispossessed.” Does the young man see hope in the eyes of the lovelorn? Does he see himself reflected in those eyes? Say goodbye before hope has sunk its nails in. Get on the train.
There is another side to hope. The evidence piles up like so many lost souls spilling over the shoreline, waiting for Charon.
I have taken the sign from Hell’s Gate and I have nailed it to the door. The door that leads into the room where the songs arise. That’s where it should have been all along.