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A Hope on the Wall by Anna Metcalfe

A Hope on the Wall is a creative-critical mediation by Anna Metcalfe.

A Hope on the Wall
by Anna Metcalfe
A timely response to our troubled political times, this creative-critical meditation shows how hope might yet be found and sustained. Acclaimed short story writer Anna Metcalfe brings us – via a fennel stalk on fire, a spider chasing a cricket, and a hot girl with a jar – a fresh thinking of hope as something communal, vital and available. Written in hope, it brings hope, and shows that hope is really always there.

Scroll down to read an extract.
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A Hope on the Wall
by Anna Metcalfe
A creative-critical meditation about finding and sustaining hope.

Scroll down to read an extract.
Order now.

The myth of Pandora often conjures a box as opposed to a jar. The box, most classicists now seem to agree, was a simple mistranslation, an accidental remoulding of an object’s shape and form. In the translations I’m using here, we have a jar, and I have become accustomed to imagining it as one that Zeus might previously have used for apricot jam or lemon curd but has since washed it out to recycle it for the special purpose of gifting evil to humanity.

So here’s the story of hope: Elpis, hope’s mythological personification, arrives in Pandora’s jar as part of a punishment that Zeus thinks up while seeking retribution for the Promethean stealing of fire. It’s unclear, among the multiple versions of the tale, whether man had fire or not before Prometheus took it upon himself to steal it. There’s one version of the story that tells of re being taken away as a punishment for something else — something to do with one gift that tempts on the outside but is rotten on the inside, and another that looks rotten from the outside but on the inside is delicious. It was a trick that, for a time, pulled the wool over the eyes of Zeus, and one which angered him enormously once he had finally unmuddled the insides and the outsides, and got everything the right way round again. In that version of the story, as a punishment for their inside-outside trickery, Zeus decides to take fire away from men until further notice. But other versions suggest that man had never had fire at all and that Prometheus discovers it this way on our behalf, and makes off with it in a giant fennel stalk. Even while Pandora waits off stage, the insides and the outsides, the befores and the afters, are narratively muddled.

As Hesiod has it, Zeus declared that he would ‘give men as the price for fire an evil thing in which they may all be glad of heart while they embrace their own destruction.’ This evil thing is Pandora, who is, as will become traditional, a beautiful woman. Pandora is properly kitted out and bedecked by all kinds of ornaments, beauties and graces that are kindly bestowed upon her by the Pantheon. The rest, courtesy of Hesiod and via Hugh Evelyn-White’s translation, goes as follows:

Only Hope remained there in an unbreakable home within under the rim of the great jar, and did not fly out at the door; for ere that, the lid of the jar stopped her, by the will of Aegis-holding Zeus who gathers the clouds. But the rest, countless plagues, wander amongst men; for earth is full of evils and the sea is full. Of themselves diseases come upon men continually by day and by night, bringing mischief to mortals silently; for wise Zeus took away speech from them. So is there no way to escape the will of Zeus.

So here we are. Victims of the will of Zeus and his unleashing of the world’s evil things by means of a hot girl and a jar. And by the same will that produced the jar, hope is allowed or forced to remain inside, meaning that she is not part of the world, but still ours to hold on to in times of need. Or meaning that she is no-one’s, because she never becomes part of our world, so we never know her. Perhaps meaning that she is safer, and that we can protect her, in the face of all the other evils. Or, perhaps, and on the other hand, meaning that we are stupid in the face of these evils because we continue to hope when things are obviously hopeless. Meaning that there is no hope. Meaning that there is always hope.

If hope is still in the jar and was never released into the world with the other evils to wander among humanity, then we have to choose what we are to make of that. We choose what we are and we choose what to make and then we choose what we are to make. Do we choose to understand the story of Elpis as one that declares the absolute hopelessness of the world? Though perhaps we have been saved from the burden of hope and the desire to carry on in the face of hopelessness? Or is hope kept in her unbreakable home because she has somehow been internalised, domesticated, kept out of the public realm, to ‘perch in the soul’? We know that hope is not released, she is the thing that remains and the last thing to get out, but we still don’t know if that makes her more or less ours. We can only determine that by deciding how to talk about her at all.

In another version of Hesiod’s Work and Days, translator Bruce MacLennon writes ‘[a]lone there, Elpis in her indestructible home, remained within, beneath the lip’. The word lip, here, posits hope as a sense of something just beyond the possibilities of utterance, indescribable, and therefore not quite part of our shared world. But before we can decide what to do with hope, we have to make some decisions about the jar. Is it a prison or a safe-house, for example? Are we better off with Elpis on the inside or the outside? If she is our object, contained by the jar, our first test is to consider how we can most advantageously negotiate the jar in order to be closer to her.

The other evils — Thanatos, Ker — enter into the world when Pandora opens the lid, but Elpis remains inside, abundant with prepositions in Evelyn-White’s translation: ‘in an unbreakable home within under the rim of the great jar’. These prepositions are a further indication of the confusion represented by Elpis and her precarious ontology. Pandora’s gift is multifarious. It is deceptive in its appearances from the off (as well as from the within and the under). We can use this mythological paradox to say something about our ‘hope to show’.