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Negativity: Part 1



Over the next three weeks I’m going to be writing about negativity, which can be defined as “the expression of criticism or of pessimism about something”, and I shall discuss contrary states of mind and forms of expression such as hope and optimism. I shall be looking at a television sitcom (comedy series) and re-telling a very long joke, a more sophisticated shaggy dog story than the one I inflicted on you a few weeks ago. I shall also talk about the work of Antonio Gramsci, one of the most important Marxist philosophers of the twentieth century, who coined the phrase “pessimism of the intellect, optimism of the will.” And I shall discuss the work of Terry Eagleton, a British Marxist Catholic thinker and the author of over 50 books, whom I’m proud to say was my main tutor when I was an undergraduate at Oxford, and who has been described (by Michael Morton) as “one of the foremost commentators and writers of the English-speaking world.” So I’m going to be bouncing back and forth between very serious stuff and a bit of fun. Here goes. I guess most of us realise how important it is for parents, teachers and friends not to pour cold water on their children’s, pupils’ and friends’ aspirations, plans and dreams, however absurd these might seem to a more mature and experienced mind. To do so is to be guilty of negativity, which can cause severe hurt and resentment and even psychological damage. There are dozens of sites on the internet on how to deal with negative people at the workplace and elsewhere, or what to do if you fear you are yourself negative (but watch out, because some of these apparently altruistic sources of advice may be money-making scams, like so many “how to” pitches on the net). There is a very popular television series called The Goldbergs, which has to do with the mishaps of a family living in Pennsylvania, USA. It is a favourite show of mine, despite the fact that the scenario—that is, the structure of the comedy—is pretty well the same every week (well, I guess that’s true of most, maybe all, sitcoms). The central character is schoolboy Adam, who lives with “his overbearing mother, his sister and his Dad, and his idiot brother.” Each week one or the other or all three kids—Adam, Erica and Barry—come up with some lunatic scheme or indulge in some crazy enthusiasm, which their common-sense parents put down with hurtful scorn. These schemes and enthusiasms include going to Star Wars camp (the cute but irresponsible Adam), becoming a rock star (the lovely and by no means talentless Erica) or becoming a leading sportsman (the lovely but clueless Barry). In each episode Mum and Dad demolish their kids’ dreams and aspirations and the kids are reduced to sulks or tears or worse. And then at the end of each episode the parents realise they have been insensitive and make up with the kids (cue for more tears, but happy ones) and the kids realise how much they are loved and protected from their own dumb plans. In this way, negativity is defused. There is another character, a grandfather called Pops, who combines common sense and protectiveness with an ability to enthuse about the kids’ enthusiasms; this he manages through a plan of action that amounts to “fine, great, but how about doing it a different way?” Pops is played by an excellent actor called George Segal, who, sadly, died a few weeks ago. Mention of this brings me to a relevant anecdote. In 1966 he starred in a brilliant but shocking film called Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? alongside three other actors, Elizabeth Taylor, Richard Burton and Sandy Dennis. All four were nominated for Oscars in their respective categories. On the awards night, Taylor, Burton and Dennis won their Oscars, but Segal lost out to another nominee in his category. He must have been the most forlorn guy in the auditorium and at the party that followed the awards ceremony. I do hope his co-stars and his partner and family did not react to this outcome with negativity. As a footnote to this week’s column, I note that recently Tsepiso S. Mothibi in his “View Point” column discussed Ernest Hemingway’s novel The Old Man and the Sea. That book can be read in part as a parable about overcoming negativity. For those of you who can’t get hold of the novel but can access on the internet, there is a very fine film version starring the superlative Spencer Tracy. To be continued Chris Dunton

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