The Obscenity of Hope

Jonathan Dickstein
5 min readJan 11, 2021


Which is more obscene, optimism or hope?

Each of these dispositions stems from the desire for an outcome. The optimistic parent and the hopeful parent both desire the recovery of their sick child, but the phenomenon of the optimistic parent is only possible with favorable odds. Optimism cannot exist in the absence of probability or in the presence of certainty. I cannot be optimistic when the physician tells me that the odds of my child’s recovery are one-in-fifty, or, alternatively, fifty-in-fifty. To be optimistic is to desire-with-expectation a probable but not definite outcome. With one-in-fifty odds, I can only hope for my child’s recovery, not be optimistic about it.

Unlike optimism, hope ignores probability and thereby ignores reality. In fact, hope evaporates the more probable its desired outcome. To hope that my healthy child survives a night’s sleep is a hollow sort of hope, for not only is it probable but nearly certain that they will survive. With such odds the feeling of hope is inappropriate. So while optimism and hope are sometimes, mistakenly, used interchangeably, hope is appropriate only when optimism ceases to be. Optimism must die or never be born in order for hope to live.

Yet hope neglects not only probability but also possibility. I can legitimately hope for miracles and other fantastic outcomes that are materially impossible, or so improbable that they resemble the impossible. Such hoping is legitimate in the sense that since hope assumes immunity to the facts of the world, to hope for the impossible is logically sound. To be hopeful is to desire, no matter the facts, a particular outcome. To hope is to fantasize.

There is no obscenity of optimism so long as it is true to facts. Being true to facts makes optimism a more intellectual disposition than hope, which is dominantly, if not actually defined as, an affective state. Optimism too is affective, for it derives from a desire, but it distinctively takes into account the possibility and probability of various outcomes. When one is optimistic they justifiably expect the outcome they desire — since it is probable — and accordingly have relatively little to fear. The less they can expect the more reason they have to fear, and thus the more they can only hope.

Hope is an affective disposition summoned to withstand the probability, frequency, and inevitably of the fearful and undesired. A train barrels towards me with no way to stop, and not only do I want the train to stop but also hope that it does. What is so obscene about my hope? Very little. Little hangs in the balance other than my own life, but what good does even this little hope do? Even this hope is essentially obscene in its flight from the facts of the world. It fabricates a world that is not this one, pretending that events will “work out” no matter how facts and odds determine what even can or will “work out.” And here lies an irony: the contemporary trend to “believe science” and reject “alternative facts” often includes an encouragement of both optimism and hope, no matter the findings of science or lessons of history. The trend thus paradoxically insists on both facticity and delusion.

Honest hope confesses itself as the affective result of, and response to, despair. A honestly hopeful person admits that they hope only in order to survive, to live, in the darkest sense of the word: to carry on. They hope as reprieve from — the German Weltschmerz captures it perfectly — “worldpain.” They do not attempt to justify their hoping intellectually. Camus writes that “the feeling of the absurd is not, for all that, the notion of the absurd,” and the same can be said of hope. The feeling of it is not the problem, but rather the notion.

Dishonest hope (the common form) embraces the fantastical notion of hope and even masquerades as optimism, deflecting the implications of probability by heralding marginal theories and events to tilt the scales of prognostication. The dishonestly hopeful person distorts reality to make its outcome appear quite possible, if not also probable. And since optimism is commonly, and mistakenly, understood to be a response to the merely possible and not probable, hope needs only to convince itself of the possibility of its outcome to satisfy its intellectual queasiness. Clutching the maxim that “anything is possible,” hope insists that it is not despair, but rather the facts of the world itself, which propel it. Hope survives only by disguising itself as that which seems reasonable.

Hope is thus essentially obscene. Worse than also repugnant calls for equanimity, indifference, or maturity in response to the myriad awfulnesses of the world, hope is alternatively, and principally, a response of denial. Hope rightly suspects that “beginning to think is beginning to be undermined” (Camus again) and hence dodges confrontation with these definite and probable — and abundant — miseries, imagining that they will not in fact come to pass when they assuredly will. Hope contributes to a manner of living that repeatedly casts “misfortune” as the exception when it is decidedly the rule.

Whereas hope is essentially obscene, optimism is only circumstantially so. This world offers no plausible basis for optimism so its adoption as an intellectual disposition is also obscene. While another, imagined world may justify optimism, that world is not this one. Hence the obscenity of optimism here lies in its artificial confidence as optimism, when in truth it is nothing but hope. It appeals not to history or data or experience but only a faith in an eventual “working out.” Such optimism, even more so than hope — as hope is more fragile than optimism — breeds docility and complicity. “Despite everything, things will work out for the best,” is the slogan of the hopeful-as-optimist, who fends off sadness, anger, fear, and also action with bold claims that they have absolutely no right to make.

The intrinsic obscenity of hope does not mean that we have no reason to hope: We have every reason to hope. But this does not make hope any less obscene. Our reason to hope is not that it will ever bear fruit, for it almost never will, but that to live in dread unrelentingly is unbearable, no matter how fitting to our circumstances. Hope will remain with us because we need to hope to remain with ourselves. Thus to even hope for the end of hope is absurd.

To be intellectually post-hope requires abandoning the idea that hope is anything but an emotional salve for living-with-pessimism, the latter being the proper intellectual disposition for any life true to facts. Yet while many pessimists have long viewed the fundamental question of pessimism as whether one should carry on or not — at all — a post-hope perspective merely anticipates the question. As an affective disposition, post-hope accepts the tragic necessity of hope for bare living and sustained action, but remains repulsed by thoughts and deeds that hope the world away, opting for the realm of dreams no matter the costs. Far from stigmatizing sadness, loneliness, fear, depression, lethargy, anxiety, despair, and yes, even suicide, a post-hope perspective acknowledges the absolute propriety of all of these feelings and dispositions.

So cry. Be sad. Be angry. Be afraid. It makes all the sense in the world.



Jonathan Dickstein

PhD candidate, UC Santa Barbara