Haus der Kulturen der Welt

On Lost Causes (Excerpt)

Edward W. Said

The phrase “a lost cause” appears with some frequency in political and social commentary: in recent accounts of the Bosnian agony, for example, the British writer Jeremy Harding uses the phrase in passing, as he refers to “the lost cause of Bosnian nationalism” in connection with an analysis of British politics. A lost cause is associated in the mind and in practice with a hopeless cause: that is, something you support or believe in that can no longer be believed in except as something without hope of achievement. The time for conviction and belief has passed, the cause no longer seems to contain any validity or promise, although it may once have possessed both. But are timeliness and conviction only matters of interpretation and feeling or do they derive from an objective situation? That, I think, is the crucial question. Many times we feel that the time is not right for a belief in the cause of native people’s rights in Hawaii, or of gypsies or Australian aborigines, but that in the future, and given the right circumstances, the time may return, and the cause may revive. If, however, one is a strict determinist about the survival only of powerful nations and peoples, then the cause of native rights in Hawaii, or of gypsies or aborigines, is always necessarily a lost cause, something both predestined to lose out and, because of belief in the overall narrative of power, required to lose.

But there is no getting round the fact that for a cause to seem or feel lost is the result of judgment, and this judgment entails either a loss of conviction or, if the sense of loss stimulates a new sense of hope and promise, a feeling that the time for it is not right, has passed, is over.


Two other factors need to be stressed: one is the time of making the judgment, which usually occurs at an important juncture […]. I may be about to embark on my sixth marriage, and I have to decide whether I am unfit for wedded life or whether the institution of marriage itself is a lost cause, one that is so hopelessly inconvenient and complicated as never to result even in minimal success. Similarly, one can imagine a great tennis player like John McEnroe at the beginning of the Grand Slam season, trying to decide whether another year of tournaments, an aging body, and a whole crop of new and hungry young players are likely to turn his campaign for more tournament victories into a lost cause. That predicament is more commonly encountered in the life of an individual as he or she nears the end of life, perhaps as the result of serious illness or a failure of capacity or energy due to age. Feeling that one’s life is a lost cause as the possibility for cure or continued productivity appears more and more remote is one such instance: giving up on life, becoming withdrawn and dejected, and committing suicide are alternatives when the going gets rough and when we ask ourselves the question can I go on or is it hopeless, hence only despair is the answer. In these instances a cause is not momentous and public, like the survival of a nation or the struggle for national independence, but the sense of urgency may be greater and the stakes may appear to be higher. We are at the point now where genetics may soon make it possible to predict that a person is going to get Alzheimer’s or a virulent form of cancer: the bioethical question is whether in the absence of known cures to inform that person that he or she is doomed or to withhold information as a charitable form of letting things be.

The second factor is who makes the judgment, the believer or someone who stands outside the cause, perhaps an active opponent, a professional historian, philosopher, or social scientist, an indifferent onlooker? In the world of political causes a common psychological strategy is for opponents to try to undermine confidence in the cause that opposes them; a battle of wills ensues in which one side attempts to pile up one achievement or “actual fact” after another in the hope of discouraging people on the other side, demonstrating to them that they can have no hope of winning. In such a situation “hearts and minds” have to be won, or must be lost. Antonio Gramsci’s political theory of the struggle for hegemony gave this contest a central place in modern politics and explains the motto (taken from Romain Rolland) that he affixed to his journal L’Ordine nuovo: “pessimism of the intelligence, optimism of the will.” Yet no matter how fraught a situation is, it remains for the person whose cause it is to make the final determination, to keep the initiative, retain the prerogative.

Beginnings, endings, middles—these are the narrative periods or termini at which judgments of victory, success, failure, final loss, hopelessness are made. What I find particularly interesting for my purposes here is the interplay between the private and the public, between what appears to be the intensely subjective and overwhelmingly objective, between the emotional, intensely “gut” feeling and the portentously historical judgment, all of which are entailed in thinking about lost causes. Although we can use the phrase loosely to describe a highly circumscribed personal situation—as in “getting John to give up smoking is a lost cause”—I shall confine myself to situations in which the individual is representative of a more general condition. The word “cause,” after all, acquires its force and hearing from the sense we have that a cause is more than the individual; it has the significance of a project, quest, and effort that stand outside individuals and compel their energies, focus their efforts, inspire dedication. Serving the Grail is a cause; acquiring a new car or suit is not. A cause is not often exhausted by the people who serve it, whereas individuals can exhaust themselves in a cause, which is most normally characterized as ahead of one, something greater and nobler than oneself for which great striving and sacrifice are necessary. Alfred Tennyson’s “Ulysses” catches this in its last, syntactically very awkward, lines; the aging hero reflects here on the persistence of his will in the service of a cause.

We are not now and tho’ that strength which in old days
Moved earth and heaven, that which we are, we are—
One equal temper of heroic hearts,
Made weak by time and fate, but strong in will
To strive, to seek, to find and not to yield.

So much of early education in school or family is informed by the need to make young people aware that life is more than self-satisfaction and doing as one likes. Every culture that I know of emphasizes explicitly as well as implicitly the idea that there is more to life than doing well: the “higher things” for which everyone is taught to strive are loyalty to the cause of nation, service to others, service to God, family, and tradition. All are components of the national identity. To rise in the world, that motif of self-help and personal betterment, is routinely attached to the good of the community and the improvement of one’s people. As a child growing up in two British colonies and attending colonial schools during the dying days of the empire, I was soon made conscious of the internal contradiction in the stated, albeit divided, program of my education: on the one hand, I was a member of an elite class being educated to serve the cause of my people, to help raise them up and into the privileges of independence, and, on the other, I was not being educated in Arab but in British or European culture, the better to advance the cause of that alien yet more advanced and modern culture, to become intellectually more attached to it than to my own.

After independence the reemergence of euphoric nationalism, with its pantheon of founding fathers, texts, events strung together in a triumphalist story and contained in newly Arabized institutions, reached out and incorporated my generation. The new cause was Arabism itself, al-‘urûbah; this came gradually to include the notion of a military security state, the centrality of a strong army in national development, the idea of a one-party collective leadership (which favored the ideology of the great leader), a deeply critical, perhaps even paranoid suspicion of and obsession with the West as the source of most problems, and, so far as Israel was concerned, hostility combined with a will neither to know nor to have anything to do with the new society and its people. I mention these early causes not so much only as a way of criticizing them—they seemed inevitable at the time, for reasons I do not have the time to go into here—but as a way of marking the distance intellectual elites have traveled since. Today Arabism is supposed to be virtually dead, its place taken by a host of smaller, less causelike nationalisms; Arab leaders are largely drawn from unpopular and isolated minorities and oligarchies, and although there may be a residual anti-Western rhetoric in public discourse, both the state and its institutions have largely now been willingly incorporated into the American sphere. The emergence of an Islamic counter-discourse during the past two decades is due, I think, to the absence of a militant, secular, and independent political vision; hence reversion and regression, the desire to establish an Islamic state with its supposed roots in seventh-century Hijaz.

Another marker of how different things have become is supplied once we contrast Abdel Nasser (the twenty-fifth anniversary of whose death has just been very modestly observed in Egypt and elsewhere) with his arch-rivals King Hussein of the Hashemites and the reigning king of Saudi Arabia. Nasser was a family man, wildly popular, modest, personally incorruptible, culturally a representative of most average Egyptian Sunni Muslims with no property or class privileges to speak of; his rivals (who have outlived him by a quarter of a century) were heads of clans whose names, Hashemites and al-Saud, have been given to the countries they rule. They have come to represent both a feudal conception of rule and fealty to the United States. One of Nasser’s most representative and unprecedented acts was to offer to resign on June 9, 1967, after his army’s defeat by Israel: this is an unimaginable gesture for any Arab ruler to make today. In any event, it is difficult to discern the presence of a general cause like Arabism in today’s Arab world, except for that of Islam. I shall return to this general subject a little later.

The passage from inculcated enthusiasm for higher causes in the young to the disillusionment of age is nevertheless not restricted to modern Middle Eastern history. The aesthetic form of this trajectory is the great realistic novel, one of whose most typical instances is Gustave Flaubert’s Education sentimentale. Young Frederic Moreau comes to Paris with the ambitions of a provincial youth, determined to succeed in various vocations and causes. He and his friend Deslauriers entertain ideas of becoming prominent literary, intellectual, and political figures, Frederic as the Walter Scott of France, later as its greatest lawyer; Deslauriers has plans to preside over a vast metaphysical system, then to become an important politician. The events of the novel take place during the heady days of the 1848 revolution in Paris, in which upstarts, frauds, opportunists, bohemians, prostitutes, merchants, and, it appears, only one honest man, a humble idealistic worker, jostle each other in an unceasing whirl of dances, horse-races, insurrections, mob-scenes, auctions, and parties.

By the end of the novel the revolution and France have been betrayed (Napoleon III, the cunning nephew of his magnificent imperial uncle, has taken over France) and the two young men have achieved none of their ambitions at all. Frederic “travelled. He came to know the melancholy of the steamboat, the cold awakening in the tent, the tedium of landscapes and ruins, the bitterness of interrupted friendships. He returned. He went into society and he had other loves. … His intellectual ambitions had also dwindled. Years went by; and he endured the idleness of his mind and the inertia of his heart” (411). Not a single cause is left. Frederic is visited by a woman he had once loved; he is filled with desire for her, yet restrained by the fear that he might feel disgusted later. He does nothing: et ce fut tout, Flaubert says. Deslauriers wanders from job to job and is dismissed from his one chance to serve his country. “After that,” Flaubert says, “he had been director of colonization in Algeria, secretary to a pasha, manager of a newspaper, and an advertising agent; and at present he was employed as solicitor to an industrial company” (416).

In his Theory of the Novel, Georg Lukács calls L'Education sentimentale an instance of the romanticism of disillusion as embodied in the very form of the novel. According to Lukács the novel, unlike the epic, expresses the predicament of a world abandoned by God, in which time is felt as irony, and in which the individual hero strives for what he can never achieve, a correspondence between his idea and the world. In the novel of abstract idealism, which Lukács counterposes against the romanticism of disillusion, the hero is Don Quixote, a prototype of the soul that is narrower than the outside world, and whose main driving impulse is furnished by a demon pushing the individual toward the realization of an ideal or cause:

The demonism of the narrowing of the soul is the demonism of abstract idealism. It is the mentality which chooses the direct, straight path towards the realisation of the ideal; which, dazzled by the demon, forgets the existence of any distance between ideal and idea, between psyche and soul; which, with the most authentic and unshakable faith, concludes that the idea, because it should be, necessarily must be, and because reality does not satisfy this a priori demand, thinks that reality is bewitched by evil demons and that the spell can be broken and reality be redeemed either by finding a magic password or by courageously fighting the evil forces. (97)

Although most readers would judge Quixote’s cause to restore the age of chivalry as a completely lost one, Lukács takes the more audacious step of considering it a partial victory, because Quixote manages “to remain unblemished in the purity of his intent and is also able to transmit some of the radiance of [his] triumphant, though admittedly self-ironising, poetry to [his] victorious opponent” (104). Of course the Don is unsuccessful in restoring Amadis of Gaul and the age of chivalry, but the strength of his conviction is such as even to expose the sordid reality of this extremely unheroic world of ours—with its innkeepers, shepherds, itinerant rogues—to an idealism whose self-conviction and fervor look backward to an age that has disappeared:

Thus the first great novel of world literature stands at the beginning of the time when the Christian God began to forsake the world; when man became lonely and could find meaning and substance only in his own soul, whose home was nowhere. … Cervantes lived in the period of the last, great and desperate mysticism, the period of a fanatical attempt to renew the dying religion from within; a period of a new view of the world rising up in mystical forms; the last period of truly lived life by already disoriented, tentative, sophisticated, occult aspirations. (103–104)

The novel, according to Lukács, replaces the epic. Whereas the epic expresses the religious world of heroes and gods living on a par with each other, unproblematically and without a trace of self-consciousness, the novel expresses a fallen world, which God has abandoned. Heroes have been transformed into secular men and women, subject to the interior dislocations, lostness, and madness of what Lukács calls “transcendental homelessness.” A rift has opened between Idea and actuality. That is why all the great novelistic figures, from Don Quixote to Frederic Moreau, cannot really adapt themselves to the secular, historical world because they are haunted by memories of what they have lost, searching in vain for self-realization and the success of a cause that cannot be maintained. In this, Lukács and Max Weber—friends, fellow-members of the Heidelberg circle, sociologists and aestheticians—chart the modern world as a place of disenchantment. Weber says that “the ultimate and most sublime values have retreated from public life either into the transcendental realm of mystic life or into the brotherliness of direct and personal human relations” (“The Vocation of Science,” 155). Hence Don Quixote, whose cause has the efficacity of a private dream with no place to go, or Frederic Moreau and Deslauriers, failures in everything except in their friendship. Ours is not a happy, summertime world, but, as Weber says, “a polar night of icy darkness and hardness” (“The Vocation of Politics,” 128).

Yet even in the religious world view that both Weber and Lukács lament and criticize there exists a patron saint of lost causes, Saint Jude. During the early years of the Christian era, Jude or Judas was regularly described as Judas (frater) Jacobi, Judas the brother of James; along with John the Evangelist the three brothers were disciples of Jesus, although Jude had the misfortune of being confused with Judas Iscariot and was therefore known as Jude the Hidden. He and Saint Simon preached the gospel together in Mesopotamia and were martyred there. A book on modern pilgrimage says that after Peter and James—Santiago—Jude “ranks third among the apostles as a pilgrimage saint with at least nine European shrines to his credit. Saint Jude also has at least five shrines in North America. The cult of this apostle, who replaced Judas Iscariot among the original group, developed slowly and became important only in the twentieth century” (Nolan, 137). Even to someone like myself who is unpracticed in hagiography, Jude seems a required figure in the economy of the apostolic world. Surrounded as he is by larger-than-life figures—Peter the Rock, John the mystic and theologian, James the patron saint of pilgrims and killer of Moors (Santiago Matamoros)—and overshadowed by the great betrayer Judas Iscariot, Jude the Hidden comes to symbolize all those who have failed in distinction, whose promise has been unrealized, whose efforts and causes have not succeeded. And such a personality ultimately validates the Christian vision of charity and humility: there is a place for everyone, Jude seems to be saying, not just for those who have made it. Interestingly, however, Jude provides a last resort in a religion whose central figure is supposed to be the last resort; for even if one’s faith in Christ falters, there is another opportunity afforded the believer by Jude.

It is as a savage attack on any such palliative that Thomas Hardy wrote his last and, in my opinion, his greatest novel, Jude the Obscure, first published in 1895. A mediocre young country boy of some sensitivity and admirable if inappropriate ambition, Jude Fawley aspires to better himself from the beginning to the last moment of his experience. We first see him at age ten, taking leave of his schoolmaster who is off to Christminster—a combination of Oxford and Cambridge—to complete his university studies. Jude is infected with the idea that he must try to do the same, and for the remainder of the novel he drifts in and out of Christminster, in search of learning, success, higher purpose. Yet all he encounters is setback, disappointment, and more and more entanglements that lead him into desperate degradation. Whenever he tries to improve his lot in as direct a way as possible he meets impossible resistance. When he acquires a set of Greek and Latin primers in order to teach himself the two classical languages, he realizes that languages cannot be learned simply by reading a book; he then gives up. The two women who enter his life, Arabella and Sue Bridehead, exhaust him. He goes from job to job, getting poorer and poorer, as each disaster—the suicide of his children, Sue’s relationship with Philotson, Jude’s early schoolmaster model—humbles him further, especially after he and Sue discover an extraordinarily passionate love between them, for which they both risk and undergo social ostracism and even greater poverty. Jude’s death occurs just as the “Remembrance games” take place outside his windows in his impoverished quarters in Christminster; the city and all its religious and educational institutions remain as impervious and insensitive to Jude’s basically harmless aspirations now during his final moments as they did when he began his unfortunate career. Hardy orchestrates the pathetic man’s last moments by interweaving his singularly pertinent recollections from the Book of Job with the triumphant hurrahs and glorious music of the games:

“Throat—water—Sue—darling—drop of water—please—O please!”
No water came, and the organ notes, faint as a bee’s hum, rolled in as before.
While he remained, his face changing, shouts and hurrahs came from somewhere in the direction of the river.
“Ah—yes! The Remembrance games,” he murmured. “And I here. And Sue defiled!”
The hurrahs were repeated, drowning the faint organ notes. Jude’s face changed more: he whispered slowly, his parched lips scarcely moving:
“Let the day perish wherein I was born, and the night in which it was said, There is a man child conceived.”
“Let that day be darkness; let not God regard it from above, neither let the light shine upon it. Lo, let that night be solitary, let no joyful voice come therein.”
“Why died I not from the womb? Why did I not give up the ghost when I came out of the belly? … For now should I have lain still and been quiet. I should have slept: then had I been at rest!”
“There the prisoners rest together; they hear not the voice of the oppressor. … The small and the great are there; and the servant is free from his master. Wherefore is light given to him that is in misery, and life unto the bitter in soul?” (Jude, 321)

The point of all this is to ram home the total hopelessness of Jude’s condition, and at the same time—this is Hardy’s hallmark as an unbeliever—to show that even St. Jude, patron of lost causes, is of no value whatever to Jude Fawley, his modern namesake.

The irony goes well beyond that of the novelists (Cervantes and Flaubert) that I spoke about earlier. Job has displaced Jude in the first place; whereas Don Quixote and Frederic Moreau might have been capable of some attainments, the one a knight, the other a relatively wealthy young man of good education, Jude is incapacitated from the start. Hardy sees to it that both circumstances and his own disabilities undermine everything he does. It is not only that by now God has abandoned the world entirely: it is also that whatever recollection or remnants of an earlier world persist, either they are obliviously mocking of the individual’s misery (as when Jude quotes Job without any result of the sort that the biblical figure experiences after his travails; there is no Eliphaz the Temanite to do God’s will, offer up seven bullocks and seven rams, and restore Job to happiness and justice) or they are deliberately unredemptive and untherapeutic, like the folk doctor Vilbert or the village wench Arabella, who first attracts Jude’s attention by throwing a pig’s pizzle at him.

But what Cervantes, Flaubert, and Hardy have in common is that their narratives are mature works, written near the end of their careers at precisely that moment when the individual feels the need for summing-up, making judgments, tallying up the evidence for and against the success of youthful ambitions and aspirations. That they do their summing-up in novels underscores more starkly than usual the underlying ironies and depressing exigencies of the novel form itself, conditioned by experience and the hidden god, to be a narrative in which time ironically exposes the disparity between reality and higher purpose, and in which the individual is really only afforded two on the whole dispiriting alternatives: either one conforms to the sordid practices of the world, thus sacrificing any hope of a noble cause, or one is killed off as Jude, Emma Bovary, and Quixote are killed off. What the novel offers, therefore, is a narrative without redemption. Its conclusion is not the rounded-off closure imputed to a contrite heart as, under the auspices of St. Jude, it re-accepts the final authority of God, but rather the bitterness of defeat, ironized and given aesthetic form it is true, but conclusive nonetheless. So far as idealism is concerned, then, the novel is constitutively opposed. What remains are the ruins of lost causes and defeated ambition.

A lost cause is unimaginable without an adjoining or perhaps parallel victory to compare it with. There are always winners and losers, but what seems to count is how you look at things. A major part of most official culture is dedicated to proving that if, like Socrates, you are put to death for your virtues, which remain intact, you are the victor, your cause has won out, even though, of course; the obvious winners thrive on. “It depends on how you look at it” has something weasely about it, as if the real winner is only a winner in appearances or is so morally inferior as not to be a winner at all. The most devastating refutation of “hm … despite all our losses, we have really been the winners, and we live to fight on,” is Jonathan Swift’s Gulliver’s Travels, a book that is certainly not a novel but a political satire with an extremely depressing end. Gulliver’s voyage to Lilliput locates him in a tiny country where his strength is both an undeniable strength—as when he can entertain the queen’s cavalry on his handkerchief—and a curious weakness when he is embroiled in Lilliputian politics and, through an act of quick-thinking rescue, he offends the queen when he urinates on her palace to put out a fire. He is so little a courtier that despite his size and strength he finds himself the victim of a palace plot, the net result of which he tells us is either to blind him or to starve him slowly and painfully to death. He goes to neighboring Blefescu seeking refuge there, but is then the object of an extradition request from Lilliput: he escapes, returns home, but is soon on the ocean again.

He ends up in Brobdingnag, as a tiny little humanoid in a country of giants, where once again neither his comparative agility nor his great experience is much of a help to him. He rather patronizingly tries to convince the king there that Europe is more advanced in both culture and practical politics, believing himself to be a representative of his own species and race as he does so. The king’s answer is quite devastating and allows Gulliver not a whit of saving grace: everything noble or good seems, from the Brobdingnagian perspective, to be appallingly depraved:

… you have made a most admirable Panegyrick upon your Country. You have clearly proved that Ignorance, Idleness, and Vice are the proper Ingredients for qualifying a Legislator, That Laws are best explained, interpreted, and applied by those whose Interest and Abilities lie in perverting, confounding, and eluding them. I observe among you some Lines of an Institution, which in its Original might have been tolerable; but these half erased, and the rest wholly blurred and blotted by Corruptions. It doth not appear from all you have said, how any one Perfection is required towards the Procurement of any one Station among you; much less that Men are ennobled on Account of their Virtue, that Priests are advanced for their Piety or Learning, Soldiers for their Conduct or Valour, Judges for their Integrity, Senators for the Love of their Country, or Counsellors for their Wisdom. As for yourself (continued the King) who have spent the greatest Part of your Life in travelling; I am well disposed to hope you may hitherto have escaped many Vices of your Country. But, by what I have gathered from your own Relation, and the Answers I have with much Pains wringed and extorted from you; I cannot but conclude the Bulk of your Natives, to be the most pernicious Race of little odious Vermin that Nature ever suffered to crawl upon the Surface of the Earth. (132)

Nor is Swift done with human illusion, especially of the sort that implies melioristically that a good cause might prevail if the perspective was correct. Having first let Gulliver seem too big, then too small for his context, he thus eliminates the possibility that hidden potential or latent goodness might develop and flourish if the individual was big and idealistic, or small and experienced, relative to the immediate environment. In the final voyage Gulliver becomes a Yahoo, that is, a degenerate savage programmed for lies, duplicity, mendacity, insincerity in a society entirely made up of horses, the Houyhnhnms, whose society produced neither letters nor knowledge of a traditional sort. The plain decency, bland goodness, and inoffensive (if somewhat boring) mores of the Houyhnhnms convince Gulliver that Yahoos—in other words, the human race—represent a totally lost cause, a realization that has no effect on the horses, whose assembly issues an Exhortation condemning Gulliver to exile and deportation. He finally returns to England mortified by his own being and more or less incapable even of enduring the presence of his wife and family. Swift’s severity is so uncompromising, Gulliver’s reduction in moral status so total, as to disallow any possible relief. There are no winners at all; there is no perspective, or right time, or final moment that permits any sort of redemptive cheer; the whole morass, good cause as well as lost cause, is condemned for the impossible congenital mess that it is. Even W. B. Yeats’s “uncontrollable mystery on the bestial floor” is mild and indeed pious by comparison with Swift’s strictures on social life in Gulliver’s Travels.

The implication of Swift’s satire is that when the moment for summing-up finally occurs we must be ready to say without the least fudging that human existence simply defeats all causes, good or bad. In the strictness with which he holds this view he belongs in the company of the novelists I have cited, except that he is unkinder and less charitable than they are. Swift, Flaubert, Cervantes, and Hardy allow us to discern how it is that good causes can be represented and defeated; I adduce them as opponents of a world view that is amply available in the Western tradition that claims that in the fullness of time good will prevail and evil will be overcome. I certainly do not have anything in mind that is so simple-mindedly optimistic as the deism lampooned by Voltaire in Candide; rather, I am referring to great works of art written by poets and dramatists at the end of their career. The phenomenon of late style is something I have been studying for some years, since it concerns the way in which writers confront mortality in their last works, and how a separate, individualistically inflected late style (Spätstil or style tardif) emerges accordingly. A striking difference is to be observed between two types of late work: those like The Tempest and The Winter’s Tale, or Oedipus at Colonus, in which resolution and reconciliation occur, and those like Henrik Ibsen’s When We Dead Awaken and Euripides’ The Bacchae, in which all the contradictions and unresolved antinomies of life are left standing, untouched by any sort of autumnal mellowness. According to Theodor Adorno, who is a sort of high priest of late-style gloom—he speaks here of Beethoven’s third-period masterpieces—late works are the catastrophes.

What I have so far been discussing is a landscape charted by late works of the decidedly problematic and unreconciled second type, in which every decent intention and each admirable cause goes down to defeat and in effect loses, has no chance. Admittedly, I have been using the realm of the aesthetic to grapple with the nature and constitution of lost causes; these ultimately depend on how one represents the narrative course of a cause from intention to realization, but it is plain that the novel and drama, when they attempt to represent the full struggle between successful and lost causes, also tend to concede that good causes have little chance of success. As a student of literature I find this persuasive, in that a reflective and disabused consciousness is likely to render human reality as particularly hospitable to lost causes, and indeed to lost heroes and heroines. But it is essential to remind ourselves that in their sequentiality, originations, maturity, and death fiction and narrative mirror the process of human procreation and generation, which the novel mocks ironically through its attention to the biographies of its heroes and heroines, the continuity of their lives, and their subsequent maturity, marriage, and death.

But even the disillusionment and lost causes that form so essential a part of the Western narrative tradition seem like incidental things when compared with the Japanese tradition of what in a superb essay Marguerite Yourcenar alludes to as “the nobility of failure,” which is the title of Ivan Morris’s book on “heroic and violent aspects of the Japanese spirit.” As befits the author of The Memoirs of Hadrian, Yourcenar elucidates the specific Japanese tradition of portraying and even of enacting the self-obliteration of a hero who is doomed to failure, the prototype for which goes back to the impoverished medieval samurai, whose last action is ritual suicide. Morris’s book is a chronicle of lost causes, all of them Japanese, all of them represented by him (and fascinatingly by Yourcenar) as interesting “despite or possibly because of its complete uselessness”; the chronicle comes up to Yukio Mishima and the Kamikaze pilots of World War Il, whose (to us) appalling self-sacrifice seems a representation of the ancient samurai’s spirit, which “had lost its last effulgence there” (82). Yet Yourcenar adds (correctly I think):

But, on the contrary, love of lost causes and respect for those who die for them seem to me to belong to all countries and all ages. Few escapades are as absurd as that of Gordon at Khartoum, but Gordon is a hero of nineteenth-century British history. Rochejacquelein and “le Gares” in Balzac’s Les Chouans are certainly defeated, and their cause with them, unless one considers the few years’ reigns of Louis XVIII and Charles X as triumph: they speak no less forcefully to our imagination. The same is true if the Girondins and those sent to the guillotine on 9 Thermidor, whose political views one can hardly say triumphed but who count among the great human myths of the French Revolution. And it is probably much more Waterloo and Saint Helena than Wagram which made Napoleon such a beloved subject for the poets of the nineteenth century. I once caused a Roman emperor whose story I evoked to say that a moment comes when “life, for every man, is an accepted defeat.” We all know that, and it is what makes us admire so much those who have consciously chosen defeat and who sometimes have achieved it early on. (83)

Still, there is a difference between the aesthetics of lost causes and the more personal, subjective experience for which no ritual form or ceremony exists. What if we try to grapple with lost causes in the public political world where efforts on behalf of causes actually take place? Is there the same ironized inevitability there, or do subjective hope and renewed effort make a lost cause something to be refused as defeatism?


Lost causes can be abandoned causes, the debris of a battle swept aside by history and by the victor, with the losing army in full retreat. In such a situation the collective and the individual still act in concert, agreeing that hopelessness, loss, defeat argue the end of a cause, its historic defeat, the land taken away, the people dispossessed and dispersed, the leaders forced to serve another set of masters. And then the narratives consolidate that decision, tracing—as I have done here—how something that began in hope and optimism ended in the bitterness of disillusion and disappointment. One could argue that no cause is ever totally and irrevocably lost, that personal and collective will can be maintained, and that as, for instance, the Jews were once defeated and destroyed, they were able to return in triumph at a later date. But that, I think, is an extremely rare case. Do many people now believe that the gypsies or the Native Americans can get back what they lost?

But does the consciousness and even the actuality of a lost cause entail that sense of defeat and resignation that we associate with the abjections of capitulation and the dishonor of grinning or bowing survivors who opportunistically fawn on their conquerors and seek to ingratiate themselves with the new dispensation? Must it always result in the broken will and demoralized pessimism of the defeated? I think not, although the alternative is a difficult and extremely precarious one, at least on the level of the individual. In the best analysis of alternatives to the helpless resignation of a lost cause that I know, Adorno diagnoses the predicament as follows. At a moment of defeat:

For the individual, life is made easier through capitulation to the collective with which he identifies. He is spared the cognition of his impotence; within the circle of their own company, the few become many. It is this act—not unconfused thinking—which is resignation. No transparent relation prevails between the interests of the ego and the collective to which it assigns itself. The ego must abrogate itself, if it is to share in the predestination of the collective. Explicitly a remnant of the Kantian categorical imperative manifests itself: your signature is required. The feeling of new security is purchased with the sacrifice of autonomous thinking. The consolation that thought within the context of collective actions is an improvement proves deceptive: thinking, employed only as the instrument of action, is blunted in the same manner as all instrumental reason. (167–168)

As opposed to this abrogation of consciousness, Adorno posits as an alternative to resigned capitulation of the lost cause the intransigence of the individual thinker whose power of expression is a power—however modest and circumscribed in its capacity for action or victory—that enacts a movement of vitality, a gesture of defiance, a statement of hope whose “unhappiness” and meager survival are better than silence or joining in the chorus of defeated activists:

In contrast, the uncompromisingly critical thinker, who neither superscribes his conscience nor permits himself to be terrorized into action, is in truth the one who does not give up. Furthermore, thinking is not the spiritual reproduction of that which exists. As long as thinking is not interrupted, it has a firm grasp upon possibility. Its insatiable quality, the resistance against petty satiety, rejects the foolish wisdom of resignation. (168)

I offer this in tentative conclusion as a means of affirming the individual intellectual vocation, which is neither disabled by a paralyzed sense of political defeat nor impelled by groundless optimism and illusory hope. Consciousness of the possibility of resistance can reside only in the individual will that is fortified by intellectual rigor and an unabated conviction in the need to begin again, with no guarantees except, as Adorno says, the confidence of even the loneliest and most impotent thought that “what has been cogently thought must be thought in some other place and by other people.” In this way thinking might perhaps acquire and express the momentum of the general, thereby blunting the anguish and despondency of the lost cause, which its enemies have tried to induce.

We might well ask from this perspective if any lost cause can ever really be lost.

Taken from: Edward W. Said (2012; 1st ed. 2001) On Lost Causes. Reflections on Exile and Other Essays. London: Granta Books, 527–53. (Originally published in The Tanner Lectures on Human Values, vol. 18, ed. Grethe B. Peterson, Salt Lake City: University of Utah Press, 1997.) © Edward W. Said, used by permission of The Wylie Agency (UK) Limited.