“A relation of cruel optimism exists when something you desire is actually an obstacle to your flourishing ” (Berlant, Cruel Optimism, 1).
Yes. Go on.
“Whatever the experience of optimism is in particular, then, the affective structure of an optimistic attachment involves a sustaining inclination to return to the scene of fantasy that enables you to expect that this time, nearness to this thing will help you or a world to become different in just the right way. But, again, optimism is cruel when the object/scene that ignites a sense of possibility actually makes it impossible to attain the expansive transformation for which a person or a people risks striving; and, doubly, it is cruel insofar as the very pleasures of being inside a relation have become sustaining regardless of the content of the relation, such that a person or a world finds itself bound to a situation of profound threat that is, at the same time, profoundly confirming” (Berlant, Cruel Optimism, 2).
I think that this explains so much. Small things – why we rented the mansion, regretted it, and continue to dream of our very own home – ; big things – why individuals actively and hopefully participate in the reproduction of messed up power structures – ; and lots of stuff in between (and not just Camper dog).
But what’s so surprising to me is that Berlant pitches the book as a historical argument – that it’s about 1990 – the present. For her, this is the time of cruel optimism, the time that the ordinary breaks down, fantasies of the good life become more complex, and people become overwhelmed by the presentness of the present moment.
Certainly, there are historical arguments to be made about cruel optimism. But is a 1990s- onward phenomenon? I don’t think so. Isn’t this what so many nineteenth-century novels are about? Cruel optimism? I’d point towards Eliot’s The Mill on The Floss and Flaubert’s Madame Bovary to make my case. Eliot, because I love that book so much, and what is it other than cruel. Maggie Tulliver, one of the most lovely and lovable characters of all time (even George Moore agrees!), takes risk to create “expansive transformation” only to be thwarted by her attachments – to the past, to her family, even, perhaps, to the bildungsroman form and all its gendered implications. She remains optimistic at the end, and, I think, the reader is supposed to be hopeful as she meets her watery death with her brother at her side. I can’t think of the ending of this book without crying. It’s affective and effective precisely because its duality – so cruel, so optimistic.
I’ve thought less about Madame Bovary – I only just read it for the first time – but I think that it’s another iteration of cruel optimism. Madame Bovary’s desire for love, for escape from the banality of marriage, for the extraordinary rather than the ordinary creates all kinds of attachments to objects that prevents her from flourishing (she also dies – it’s less watery).
In these novels, there’s a more confirmed sense of what ordinary life is – it’s fidelity to convention, attachment to the past, and routine. There is an expectation that one can have and build a life. And yet, there is profound uncertainty about what constitutes the present moment, and what creates collective, shared time. There are impasses, there is slow death, and forces that define the present differently. Also, it’s worth remembering that the novel is – at least according to Bakhtin – the genre of becoming.