A Somewhat Pessimistic View on Optimism

I’m not generally this negative. But, sometimes this type of retrospection is necessary. In any case, this blog was written for a class, therefore it comes from being assigned a prompt, not an organic mental musing. It’s pessimistic tone might have something to do with the fact that I was sick all weekend and therefore had a very stressful catch up Tuesday. I’ll try to write something more upbeat next time. 🙂

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Optimism, it seems, is for the young. And by that I do not necessarily mean that the young are intrinsically optimistic by nature. True, there is a natural optimism that comes with youth, a sort of sanguinity that survives only in the absence of jaded experience. But optimism in a cultural, social, or even a deeply personal sense, is an emotion felt by the old for the young. As an exiting generation looks back upon the world they shaped, they look to younger generations and can be optimistic of one of two possibilities: the old can hope they successfully built a future for the young, or perchance, the old can hope the young are capable of repairing the damage caused by their elders. 

In the final pages of An Artist of the Floating World, Masuji Ono stands on The Bridge of Hesitation and observes some nameless members of the younger generation just coming to power, power in business, or perhaps politics, but none the less people who have reached the age at which their actions from henceforth may haunt them in their old age. Ono remarks that these young people are “full of optimism and enthusiasm (205),” and that one young man, “was laughing in a particularity cheerful manner, with something of the open innocence of a child (206).” But these young people are not children, though nor have they, it appears, done anything yet that can be criticized. These vague figures of youth represent a generation, not individuals. They are not characters but part of a larger, ambiguous concept. From where Ono stands, he sees that his actions at their age potentially had a profound impact on the future of these people. Have he and hisgeneration  ruined their chances of a bright future? Or have they provided the youth with some valuable lessons to learn from? Perhaps both, perhaps neither. Ono, it seems, is optimistic, optimistic that the next generation will be ok: “Our nation, it seems, whatever mistakes it may have made in the past, has now another chance to make a better go of things. One can only wish these young people well (206).” In this closing statement, Ono makes the successes and failures of a nation a constant continuum.  The actions of each past and present generation are directly influenced by and for each other, lessons are learned and society continues, we can only hope, toward something better. But do we ever really learn? Or does each new generation simply commit the same errors in a different package? 

 

I am reminded of a song. The anthem “O Children,” by Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds has a few darkly ambiguous things to say about the relationship between entering and exiting generations. Meant to be a song sung by the old to the young, the third verse alone drives in the message hard:

 

O children

Forgive us now for what we’ve done

It started out as a bit of fun

Here, take these before we run away

The keys to the gulag

 

This heavily loaded (and WWII related) imagery suggests an older generation will hand the young the metaphorical keys to the complex and possibly atrociously broken systems of society and simply hope they do better with them. But keys mean power, and if history has taught us anything, a lust for power seems intrinsically human. And so, history arguably hasn’t taught us much of anything. Nick Cave states as much, essentially revealing the sobering possibility that human kind has all the answers it needs. We’ve learned these lessons one thousand times over. Yet it seems we are incapable of adequately sharing them between generations. 

 

O children

We have the answer to all your fears

It’s short, it’s simple, it’s crystal clear

It’s round about and it’s somewhere here

Lost amongst our winnings

 

But what does all of this say about Masuji Ono, a Japanese propaganda artist standing upon The Bridge of Hesitation five years after the end of the war that defined his generation in every possible sense? Enter Ichiro, a member of the first generation growing up in post-war Japan, grandson of our narrator. In the first interaction between Ono and Ichiro, Ono has just gifted his grandson with art supplies, which he seems to have dabbled with, but abandoned in the interest of pretending to be a cowboy. Ono chides his grandson for this, telling him it’s better to be a samurai. Realizing the effect losing his temper has had, Ono quickly corrects himself and tells Ichiro: “I shouldn’t have interrupted. Of course you can be anyone you like. Even a cowboy. You must forgive your Oji-san. He was forgetting for a moment” (30). A few lines later, Ono examines Ichiro’s unfinished drawing and exclaims, “Very impressive, Ichiro… But you could be better if you wanted (31).” This exchange shows that Ono, the old generation, has an obsessive desire to make Ichiro, the young generation, exactly like himself, assuredly because it is all he knows. But he checks himself, realizing that Ichiro will grow up to shape a different world, therefore his grandfather’s worldview, politics, even social skills are of little use to Ichiro. This is especially difficult to comprehend coming from a novel that deals with a culture that holds elders in such high esteem. It seems that with the loss of the war, western individualism swept the East like the tired metaphor that is the mounted cowboy. Ono’s generation can only quietly watch as they straddle a bridge between two cultures, even in their very own families. 

I do not believe that Kazuo Ishiguro means to state that the old have nothing to teach the young. Contrarily, I think in An Artist of the Floating World, he illustrates that the old have much to teach, but in many cases, it is an issue of “Do not repeat my mistakes,” and unfortunately, the lesson is rarely learned. The Allied Powers of WWII can look back and feel proud that they stopped a massive force of unspeakable evil. But the United States can look back and also see great shame in their treatment of Japanese Americans. Generations are defined by such actions. Have we learned from them? In a decade or two, what will the twenty-somethings of today blame our parents and grandparents for? But a far scarier question is what will we be blamed for as we are the ones standing upon the bridge eternally optimistic that the blamers will do better? Better yet, where has blaming the players of the past gotten us? Crack open a history book, or any numberof  great political novels from any country in the world and the clear and sobering answer is more of the same. 

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