Dispatches | February 12, 2007
The Power of Positive Illusions
Reading Jim Holt’s article “You Are What You Expect” last weekend in The New York Times Magazine, I encountered for the first time the phrase “positive illusion.” It was coined twenty years ago by psychologist Shelley Taylor, who proposed that people who remain optimistic in the face of insurmountable odds are healthier and finally more successful than those who have a more realistic attitude.
F. Scott Fitzgerald said as much more than seventy years ago when he wrote of the perils of early literary success in his confessional essay “The Crack-up.” Casually, he tells us, before he goes into his personal history, that he would like to make one general observation: “The test of a first-rate intelligence is the ability to hold two opposing ideas in mind at the same time and still retain the ability to function. One should, for example, be able to see that things are hopeless yet be determined to make them otherwise.” His wisdom is often quoted today, perhaps as salve for the aches and pains of daily life. We do fail more than we succeed. These words have even more resonance for writers, largely Fitzgerald’s point. While playwrights such as Tennessee Williams and Edward Albee would have us strip away illusion and stare into the harsh light of truth, Fitzgerald would like us to soldier on, knowing that failure is inevitable yet we must hope to succeed.
Yes as writers we must occasionally stoke the fires of illusion while recognizing that other than J.K. Rowling there no longer exists the level of literary super celebrity achieved by Dickens, Twain or Wilde. In the past we had famous literary couples — Mary and Percy Shelley, the Brownings, Plath and Hughes — but today there’s not a Bennifer equivalent in the publishing world. However, I did notice in a fashion magazine, an advertisement for “Danielle,” a new fragrance named for Danielle Steel. I’ve already chosen a bouquet of sandalwood, jasmine and patchouli with a base fragrance of vanilla-musk for a signature perfume of my own. I think I’ll call it “Illusion” by Kristine Somerville.
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