I first came across this latin phrase while living in Montespertoli as the title for Renato Guttuso’s largely autobiographical triptych painted towards the end of the artist’s life after being diagnosed with lung cancer.
Literally meaning hope against hope, this phrase is not only intriguing for its ambivalent meaning but the word spes is transformed into spem by its context. The nominative ‘against’ the accusative, subject vs object. I love the way words are transformed by where they sit in the sentence, it is like a game.
But what does hope against hope actually mean? Is it to hope against all hope, hope despite hope, or the need for hoping becoming hope itself? There have been many interpretations and this kind of phrase appears repeatedly in the Bible.
The preposition contra, meaning against can also be taken to mean towards. It could be taken to imply that it is not enough to hope, but that one needs to become hope. This is mentioned in Paul, Romans 4:18, where Abraham becomes the hope of his people. An alternative reading is that he hopes against hope that he becomes the leader of his people despite being childless.
Contra here acts as allative case, a form not found in Latin but has been used in other languages such as old Finnish and Latvian. Denoting movement towards, in Latin something similar is used to mean towards a place. The place here would be hope itself, in which case one could interpret the meaning as, moving towards hope as a place in which one might inhabit.
Hope: an act and a place, verb and locus
Hieronymus Bosch had the motto, “contra spem spero . . . Et rideo” – “against all hope I hope… And I laugh”. This could be interpreted as Bosch laughing in the face of despair aided by hope. The ever optimistic pessimist, or perhaps the optimistic cynic.
But what does all this have to do with my work? During a tutorial with Jonathan my feelings towards existence and humanity came up in relation to the maquette What is the Difference I had just completed. Am I angry, despairing, curious, regarding the human condition? I think the Latin phrase partly sums how I feel, and I have some kind of kinship with the idea of the optimist cynic. This does not mean I think people are bad, on the contrary, I think that our nature, often self interested in many ways, is such that bad things happen; that individual dynamics are very different to group dynamics and it is for the individual to act in a way that enhances, rather than diminishes the world. This approach may not change the world radically, but it can halt negative cycles of behaviour and start new positive ones. Mahatma Gandhi expressed this as, ‘Be the change you want to see in the world’.
My work is a personal response to the idea of humanity: one of connected continuity with things that might appear alien or separate but with which we share common elements that become manifest in a multitude of ways.