The Perspective of Redemption

Tom Whyman, Infinitely Full of Hope: Fatherhood and the Future in an Age of Crisis and Disaster

Repeater, 216pp, £10.99, ISBN 9781913462253

reviewed by Tom Cutterham

If you have a small child, you may hold out some hope that the world they grow up to inhabit will be reasonably safe, even pleasant. That it won’t, for example, have its air and soil filled with the burned or buried remains of billions of plastic nappies. As a result, you may find yourself, more regularly than you would ever have imagined, kneeling by the toilet, carefully scraping your small child’s shit out of the reusable, organically-grown bamboo alternative with cute little pictures of sloths on the outside. Tom Whyman’s book about fatherhood doesn’t have much to say about the shit. Conveniently, it ends with his son’s birth. What it’s about, instead, is the hope part — the part where you remember why you got into this in the first place.

One immediate problem is that your particular approach to managing waste won’t change anything. What’s some thousand-odd fewer nappies on the landfill, in the scheme of things? It’s not even completely clear that plastic nappies are the worse option, in terms of overall environmental impact. So maybe it doesn’t matter what you do. On one account Whyman addresses, which may feel familiar to parents of small children, hope has a lot in common with despair. In both cases, the point is that you’re not in control. What you do might make some difference, or it might make none at all, but hoping is only necessary when you don’t know how it ends. Despair, then, is what happens when you do know what’s coming. There’s not only nothing you can do, but also nothing left to hope for.

Let’s say you don’t have a child yet, but you’re thinking about it. Adding another human to our overheating, toxifying planet can seem perverse, risky at best. There are plenty of people who think people are basically the problem. David Attenborough said a few years ago that ‘all of our environmental problems become easier to solve with fewer people.’ Whyman doesn’t share that view. His book is a riposte to ‘anti-natalists’ who, at their most intense, argue that all new human life primarily adds to the sum of the world’s suffering. Clearly, there’s a temptation to that kind of thinking. To resist it, Whyman suggests, we have to learn how to hope better.

First of all, we should think of hope as something other than just helpless optimism. If you really hope for something, you’re compelled to seek out ways of making it happen. Whyman’s hope is an active force driving you through the world, working within—but also, necessarily, against — the constraints and conditions of your life. It involves an ongoing encounter with the real world, not a resignation from it or surrender to it. Whyman contrasts hope with cynicism: the attitude that hoping for a better world, and therefore working to make one, is just a delusion, bound to fail. Cynicism, like despair, gives you a license to give up on the hard work of hope.

Hope is an attitude you can cultivate — inside yourself, or perhaps better, among a community. The book is both an expression of Whyman’s hopefulness, and an effort to help others tune into it. The second chapter unfolds as a journey, partly autobiographical, from one way of looking at the world to another. Whyman offers a rereading of Theodore Adorno’s legendarily pessimistic philosophy which, by way of Søren Kierkegaard’s conception of despair, leads us towards ‘the perspective of redemption’. Where might our redemption come from, if we aren’t religious? Well, from other people, and specifically, from our children. There is hope, said Franz Kafka to his friend Max Brod, ‘an infinite amount of hope — but not for us.’

Whyman’s approach to philosophy doesn’t involve trying to capture the view from nowhere. Instead, he takes his own feelings as the starting-point for moral reasoning. One of the book’s jobs is to justify something he and his partner wanted to do anyway: have a child. That kind of motivated reasoning works the other way here, too. When Whyman asks — following Kafka and, all too briefly, the abolitionist philosopher Sophie Lewis — if the family itself is ‘any sort of fit vessel for the future’, his discussion stalls on the frank acknowledgement that a family is what he wants. Being a father is ‘probably the biggest and most fundamental desire I have.’ Even if desiring something doesn’t make it right, you have to start from where you are: somewhere, not nowhere.

So it’s not just some bland, platitudinous idea of human continuity ('children are the future!') that Whyman pitches as his vessel for redemption. It’s his own actual son, the one whose foetal ultrasound image appears on the book’s second page. At its most sympathetic, the effect here is something akin to the secular theology of Martin Hägglund’s This Life, advocating a commitment to finitude as the only real source of meaning, and therefore of hope. But it’s hard not to wonder how it might read to anyone who is involuntarily childless. If not in a family, or the entire human race, then where is their perspective of redemption to be found?

Maybe the answer lies in the ‘community focused on the future,’ through which ‘we can take joy in existence and forge a secular path out of despair,’ which Whyman invokes at the end of chapter two. In the next chapter, that community appears as a political movement — specifically, the one that supported Jeremy Corbyn and his reawakened Labour Party. Here, the lesson is not to make a fetish of hope, not to imagine it could possibly be enough on its own to solve any of our problems. At the same time, nothing but real hope can motivate the honest, realistic assessment and practical action that is necessary to actually change the world. Hope is work, Whyman emphasises, but it’s also joy — ‘a big bag of cans, in the park, with the lads.’

Corbyn’s defeat in the 2019 General Election was a reminder of why hope is necessary in the first place, and why it can be so difficult to hold onto. The worse things get, the closer we come to catastrophe, the more important it becomes to resist despair and cultivate hope. Whyman’s final chapter prescribes an Aristotelian approach: ‘It is by cultivating virtues such as charity, solidarity, and modesty, that we can start to hope better today.’ We need these virtues even to begin to work out what it is that we should hope for, let alone to carry that hope forward into action. Whyman doesn’t say so, but it’s possible that parenting and childcare — in whatever kind of family you like — is one way of helping to cultivate them, just as it is one way of remaining hopeful.

Still, I have to wonder about what it means to make your own child the focus of your hope for the world. In Cormac McCarthy’s apocalyptic novel The Road, a nameless son is the last refuge of hope for the doomed protagonist. But what other path might he have taken if he wasn’t so relentlessly focused on protecting his family? What if his unyielding conviction that all hope lies in the boy isn’t the source of strength he thinks it is, but instead helps to make the rest of the world seem as horrifying as it does?

If the hope we have can’t be for us, it has to be for someone else. We can find it by orienting ourselves to the future and its inhabitants — our own children, sure, but all the others too. No-one is scraping the shit out of nappies to create a better world for their own child alone. Nor do you need to have a child of your own to have a path to the ‘perspective of redemption’. By cultivating Whyman’s hopeful virtues — charity, solidarity, modesty — we might begin to recognise and build new kinds of kinship beyond the family, and beyond fatherhood. Hope for a better future can lead us beyond the desires we happen to have right now. Like new fathers the world over, we may find ourselves doing and wanting things we never thought we would.

Tom Cutterham teaches history at the University of Birmingham. His son is nearly three.