I have a friend in her early 40s who has never been married—but not by choice. I would admire that choice and support it with all I had, but this woman very much wants to be married. When we are in thrall to our deepest desires nothing we could say matters, so rather than tell her how lucky she is to be single I listen to her express her disappointment and sadness and all the rest and keep silent. But oh, how difficult that is. It’s when she says “It’s never too late, right?” that I find it most difficult to stay quiet. Because sometimes it is too late, and maybe it is better, in my friend’s case, never to have loved at all than to have loved and lost. Or in this case, to have not loved and not lost? To put it a different way, maybe it is better that my friend not be aware of the possibility of marriage. To put it in the most negative way possible, courtesy of Emile Zola in his novel Germinal, maybe “it is better to suffer from what one knew rather than expose oneself to the risk of new suffering.”
As dreary as it is, there is more than a grain of truth in what Zola says. If someone is stuck in a dead-end job or relationship or worse, it’s easy to see why so many stay. The pain, while never actually comfortable, is familiar. If you leave you will still have the pain, but add to that the pain of leaving and the difficulty of striking out toward something new, no matter how promising that new thing might be. If it’s not strictly a false choice, it is at least an unpleasant one. While the choice of being married or unmarried is not comparable to that of staying in an abusive relationship or getting out, there is a commonality—it may be too late in either case. Too late for my friend to enjoy having a family if she chooses to marry, too late for the person in the abusive relationship to get out with her life intact enough. As for my friend who wants to get married and start a family, at a certain point the opportunity cost is going to be too high. She could adopt, but parenting is difficult enough when you’re younger, and, putting aside for the moment that health risks increase for both child and mother the older a woman gets pregnant, it might be best for my friend to pay heed to Zola and suffer from what she already knew.
Writing in the late 19th/early 20th century, Zola may or may not have aspired to be a French Dickens, but that interpretation is available. Much of his work, like Dickens’, was a broad critique of capitalism and the inequalities it seemed to create. Unlike Dickens, however, Zola cut closer to the baser aspects of humanity. While Dickens did not mind getting into the mud, Zola not only got into it but also took everyone’s clothes off while slinging the mud at the factory owners and the government that tolerated, if not openly encouraged, their behavior. Perhaps a more accurate comparison is to call Zola a French Thomas Hardy, who stopped writing novels due to the critical response to his last two books, Jude the Obscure and Tess of the D’Urbervilles, both published near the same time as Germinal and both scorned for their pessimism, bleakness, and overall un-Christianness.
The parallels with the quote from Germinal are easy to see, especially in Jude The Obscure. When Jude applies to and is rejected by the Oxford-like college Christminster, the letter states “Judging from your description of yourself as a working-man, I venture to think that you will have a much better chance of success in life by remaining in your own sphere and sticking to your trade than by adopting any other course.” And there we have the 19th-century equivalent of “stay in your own lane.” Not one to limit his thoughts to his own pessimism, Hardy turns to King Lear in Tess of the D’Urbervilles to depress us, quoting the king himself to describe the carnage in the novel.
“As flies to wanton boys are we to the gods; they kill us for their sport.”
Nonetheless, as the book draws to a close—we, the reader, are ready for it to end, even as we know it won’t end well—Hardy surprises us with this beautiful passage between Angel (Tess’ true love) and Tess at Stonehenge.
“Angel, if anything happens to me, will you watch over [my sister] ‘Liza-Lu for my sake?” she asked, when they had listened a long time to the wind among the pillars.
“She is so good and simple and pure. O, Angel—I wish you would marry her if you lose me, as you will do shortly. O, if you would!”
“If I lose you I lose all! And she is my sister-in-law.”
“That’s nothing, dearest. People marry sister-laws continually about Marlott; and ‘Liza-Lu is so gentle and sweet, and she is growing so beautiful. O, I could share you with her willingly when we are spirits!”
O, would that we could leave the book with that image: Angel, Tess, and ‘Liza-Lu in a blended holy trinity even the non-religious could appreciate. But it was not meant to be. Hardy ruins the party in the final chapter. Tess is hung for the murder of her rapist and cousin, Alec, and as Angel and ‘Liza-Lu stand over her grave, the narrator begins the final paragraph of the book.
‘Justice’ was done, and the President of the Immortals, in Aeschylean phrase, had ended his sport with Tess.
Though he has taken great pains to establish the human factors at work in the destruction of Tess, at critical moments in the novel Hardy looks skyward. Just before the fate-sealing rape scene, our narrator wonders who will watch over Tess as she sleeps, worn out and vulnerable, in the forest.
The obscurity was now so great that [Alec] could see absolutely nothing but a pale nebulousness at his feet, which represented the white muslin figure he had left upon the dead leaves. Everything else was blackness alike. Darkness and silence ruled everywhere around. Above them rose the primeval yews and oaks of the Chase, in which were poised gentle roosting birds in their last nap; and around them the hopping rabbits and hares. But where was Tess’ guardian angel? where was Providence? Perhaps, like that other god of whom the ironical Tishbite spoke, he was talking, or he was pursuing, or he was in a journey, or peradventure he was sleeping and not to be awaked.
As noted above, at the end of the novel he presents again this fantasy of the gods playing with us for sport, led by a “President of the Immortals.” (The heavenly threesome of Tess, Clare, and ‘Liza-Lu is no less of a fantasy.) By this point in his life Hardy was about as religious as the pen he used to compose his last two novels, so the notion of a being or beings in the clouds playing with the destiny of humans is not to be taken at face value. Nonetheless the arrow strikes home, as Hardy takes the ideas of free will, justice, and a caring God and grinds them into his Wessex earth. There is no Providence or Justice, no divine Spirit watching over us; there is barely the illusion of freedom. There is only the bloody soil below and the cruel aquamarine sky above, and the best we can do is to make what peace we may beneath it. As it is for us in the real world, it is difficult to reconcile the physical beauty of Hardy’s fictional Wessex with the punishment so many of his characters endure. As readers, we are also left to reckon with the opposing poles of Hardy’s deep humanism and love for the natural world and for animals (he was a strict vegetarian), and his pessimism.
Or should we call Hardy a realist? It’s an argument as old as the expression as old as the hills—there’s no difference between a pessimist and a realist. Much of it is semantics. If you’re a realist the word pessimism doesn’t apply to you, and if you’re a true pessimist you’re not going to care one way or another; people are going to think the worst no matter. Perhaps it’s best to say that a pessimist would never say “maybe” but a realist would never say “never.” In other words, “realistic” is merely an ingratiating way for pessimists to describe themselves.
On the flip side there are optimists. Hooray for everyone and everything! There’s nothing wrong with having a sunny disposition on the cloudiest of days, but even the most optimistic optimist could not really believe that anything is possible or, worse, the Panglossian nonsense that everything happens for a reason. But, as Hardy said, it’s easier being a pessimist.
You cannot lose at it; you may gain. It is the only view of life in which you can never be disappointed. Having reckoned what to do in the worst possible circumstances, when better arise, as they may, life becomes child’s play.
Glibness aside—I doubt a pessimist would ever describe life as “child’s play”—that represents a clear contrast to the optimistic “anything is possible.” It is also true that being cheerful, looking on the bright side of things, as irritating as that might seem at times, costs very little. You might experience disappointment more than a pessimist—you are guaranteed to, in fact—but at the end of the day it’s not going to matter how cheerful or gloomy you are. If it’s going to rain an hour after you just got your car washed, it’s going to rain an hour after you got your car washed. So if it’s going to happen no matter what, may as well not bring down others along the way to the truth.
There is a third path between optimist/dreamer and pessimist/realist, one I will call the possimist option. The idea, if it can be called that, comes from an essay by Geoff Dyer in his book White Sands. Feted by a Chinese publishing house on a trip to Beijing, Dyer, on the last day of his trip, is given a guided tour of the Forbidden City by a female Chinese guide, Li—who it turns out is not really a guide but rather a friend of the woman who had been in charge of Dyer during his trip. After a sublime day wandering the grounds of the Forbidden City, a mutual attraction develops, and the two agree to meet later that night for dinner, as part of a larger group of people. Despite the exotic setting, there’s nothing new in this boy-meets-girl scenario, even if the boy is a middle-aged English writer and the girl is younger, Chinese, and a fluent English speaker. What is new is an examination of the cruelty of timing. After an enjoyable evening at various places, the group has just left the last restaurant and was waiting for taxis at two in the morning. Dyer, whose flight leaves in eight hours, doesn’t want the night to end at all, let alone ending with a one-person party at his hotel room.
Why was it—what law of the barely possible decreed—that these situations only cropped up on one’s last night, so that instead of falling asleep and waking up with her, instead of eating breakfast and spending the day getting to know her, I would get on a plane a few hours later and leave with an even greater sense of regret because, instead of having missed out on all of this totally, we would have experienced just enough to make us realise how much more we had missed out on by not missing out on it entirely? Li was still by my side. I turned toward her, spoke in her ear. Two taxis pulled up, one behind the other. Doors were opening, goodbyes being said. There were not even minutes left, only seconds before she would turn towards me so that I could kiss her goodbye—or turn towards me and not say goodbye, not turn away.
The law of the barely possible. That is what a possimist believes: all things are theoretically possible, but their realisation depends on factors outside the wishers’ control or the opportunity costs are too high, and in those instances are barely possible. A possimist sees a way out of the optimist/pessimist dichotomy, but may not see a way into the desired situation. Thus possimists are cursed with an uncertainty optimists (it will happen!) and pessimists (it won’t!) do not have. An optimist may be content with the comfort that a thing is there for the taking, a pessimist discontented with the bitterness that a thing is not there for the taking, but a possimist has nowhere to turn.
This brings me back to my friend, who has made no secret of her desire to be married. For her, the law of the barely possible does not apply. She can get married tomorrow if she wanted, and indeed has been engaged not once but twice. Other dreams are more complicated and are subject to the law of the barely possible. In many ways it is far easier knowing something is absolutely out of reach.
What about Dyer and Li? On the surface there really is no good reason Dyer and Li can’t spend the night together. But the law of the barely possible applies here because to get to that point much has to happen. Just before the taxis arrive in the essay/story—Dyer is notorious for blurring the lines of fiction and non-fiction—Dyer writes,
With a little contrivance I could whisper to her, ‘Can I come home with you?’ or ‘Will you come back to my hotel?’ It was premature to propose such a thing and, at the same time, almost too late. And even if she said yes, how to navigate the complications of taxi taking, how to avoid the assumed arrangement of sharing a taxi with [the other people in the group]? There was, in addition, the gulf between the polite reasonableness of the question—‘Can I go home with you?’—and everything the answer to it might allow, all that could become unforbidden.
That kind of inner monologue, surveying the situation with logic while your heart beats insubordinately, allowing yourself a sublime moment to see the desired outcome realised but with no guarantee of it actually happening—that is what it means to be a possimist. There are elements of optimism/dreaming and pessimism/realism in a possimist vision of life, but what makes possimism unique, I believe, is that possimists have the worst of all worlds: they absolutely know a thing is there for the taking and in fact have experienced just enough of it to realise how amazing that thing will be, but that knowledge will only make it worse, as it does for Dyer, if things don’t work out. And, of course, that is the realist in the possimist. Nothing is guaranteed.
So what does happen at the end of Dyer’s story? Do Dyer and Li get together? Probably what you think happened depends on whether you’re an optimist, pessimist, or a possimist. What actually happened is independent of our viewpoint. That might seem to be exasperating, but in reality it is potentially liberating. If, after all, our way of thinking won’t directly dictate the end result, then what is to stop us from pursuing that which we most want to pursue?