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I am not sure how familiar you might be with the work of Woody Allen. To be fair, the films are fairly well known, he is also fairly well known for a variety of issues around his private life long since the topic of red top scandal. There is an interesting essay to be developed around the relationship between an artist’s work and their personal values; I suspect we might all listen to Tannhäuser a tad differently in the knowledge of Wagner’s less than acceptable views on difference. But to return to Allen, perhaps less well known is his written portfolio. In a collection of writing called Without Feathers, he gathers a collection of stories, plays and essays together with very considerable affect. 

The title references Emily Dickinson’s poem ‘Hope’ where she argues that Hope is the things with feathers. Allen’s apparent challenge to this is nowhere more evident than in one memorable story from the collection when Death comes calling. A hapless/hopeless Grim Reaper attends a New York flat to collect the occupant. Having shinned up a drainpipe and torn his tights, he is entreated to a game of cards and loses! Echoes of Bergman’s Seventh Seal trickle through the reading, but Allen is at his most sublime. The juxtaposition of the role with the character of the Reaper stands at stark contrast to the medieval bringer of doom evident in the western art canon. 

There is a wily New York hutzpah about taking on Death. A self-belief founded on Hope. While richly comic, it invites a consideration of the nature of that Hope. Dickenson had a complimentary view. She describes Hope as an entity, a thing in itself not a quality of things. People may ‘have’ or ‘lose’ hope, we speak of it as something we possess. Dante, in his ‘Inferno’, embellished the gates of the underworld with the phrase “abandon hope all ye who enter”. Sartre may have argued that hell was other people, but perhaps as Dante put it, it is the absence of hope.

In the Christian canon Hope is a virtue. St Paul in writing to the church at Corinth extolls the virtue of Hope but seems to relegate it to a position below love. “Faith hope and love and the greatest of these is love”. I wonder if the translation of greatest is a tad off? I suspect he is suggesting that the culmination of qualities arrives in love where love is the expression and essence of Hope. A view challenged by the Camus. The French philosopher took the story of Pandora’s Box and in developing the myth where after all the ills of the world escape the container Hope is the last one out. Camus argues this is because Hope is also a great evil. Doesn’t make for easy reading, does it? Seems counter intuitive? 

His view is that as long as we hope we surrender responsibility to act to make the world a better place. I would argue that Hope is the inspiration to act and the motive force that drives change or our desire to see it. It seems to me to be an intrinsic quality of human nature and the thing that in some way at least defines us; to be human is to be hopeful. Returning to the Christian canon of theology, losing hope was a great sin; it presumed that the individual thought their circumstance so dire that it was beyond the divine ability to intervene, as such it limited the omnipotence of the Creator. I think this scans well today.

For Orwell, Hope was in the ‘proles’, his 1984 dystopian ‘fiction’. I say this because the omnipresence of media and tele-screens is not so much science fiction or dystopia as our lived reality. The proles lay without the grasp of Big Brother and as such beyond his influence.

I think a community which has a strong sense of itself gives hope to its members because of a shared purpose and enterprise. There is always hope when we identify both with a task bigger than ourselves and a shared ownership in that task. Over the past few days, I have been visited by a number of opportunities to engage in tasks bigger than myself, in a shared enterprise. As the chairs of committees reported back to School Council and formed, shaped, crafted their sense of Embley and what we are about, I never felt that shared purpose more. Sixth formers led their peers in discussions around teaching and learning, our response to our environment and our role in inclusion and celebrating diversity. Their discussions led to action points that will be addressed by their committees and through pupils. They had enthusiasm, energy, reason and a vision to make the place better. They exhibited an open appreciation of and for each other and a sense of shared enterprise with their teachers. I came away thinking that with or without feathers they are our Hope for the future.

Cliff Canning, Headmaster, Embley (@EmbleyHead


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