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Carrboro's Gordon Theisen discusses the power of pessimism

Daydream nation



We create our own Web sites despite the Internet's apparent failure to found a communal-cum-commercial utopia. We actually think that the most recent war could and should be the last. We take out loans for new houses we can't quite afford with large garages for the new SUVs we can't quite afford because the payments won't seem so bad after the promotion we presume is coming our way very soon. And even if no one visits our Web site and a new war starts and the promotion does not come tomorrow or six months or six years from now, still our optimism shall be our guide.

—Gordon Theisen, Staying Up Much Too Late: Edward Hopper's "Nighthawks" and the Dark Side of the American Psyche

There are six people sitting in Carrboro's Orange County Social Club the night I meet Gordon Theisen, all of them sitting at the bar. In the back, a woman and man flirt in a darkened corner. Four other men sit silently all the way down the bar's long edge; though sitting in pairs, no one is talking. About half the men are smoking; everyone is drinking. Nobody is playing pool.

The only light in the bar, not counting the pink Christmas lights strung near the window and the jagged neon strip hanging from the ceiling, comes from a dim lamp pointed squarely at the hard liquor behind the bartender.

It might have been an Edward Hopper painting—which is why we came here in the first place.

Theisen, who lives in Carrboro with his wife and 3-month-old son, is the author of Staying Up Much Too Late: Edward Hopper's "Nighthawks" and the Dark Side of the American Psyche, a book published last summer by Thomas Dunne Books that surprisingly places the creator of the famous late-night-diner painting at the center of American life, with a pessimistic revelation lurking just behind the empty optimism and "power of positive thinking" our culture publicly affirms. So it's no surprise how Theisen answers when he walks in and I ask him how he's doing.

"I'm exhausted," he says.

Staying Up Much Too Late began its life as a proposed article for Harper's on the opposition between optimism and pessimism in American life. Though an editor was interested, it never was quite right for the magazine, and Theisen was eventually paid a kill fee for the piece. "I made that novice mistake of ranting too much," he admits.

But he was still certain he had something; he just needed the right subject to ground him, to keep his thoughts from turning into just another rant. "Nighthawks" and the quietly melancholic life of Edward Hopper became that thing, and Staying Up Much Too Late was born.

Although he considers Staying Up Much Too Late to be his first book, Theisen has actually published several others, including six historical guides for the History Channel, a book on gambling strategy and a book on how to play to golf. "I don't even gamble and I don't play golf," he says. "That was mercenary work, to pay the rent."

The book begins with Theisen's polemic against optimism, and that's where we start our conversation in the OCSC, too. Optimism isn't all that bad, he tells me; it's just that "taken to an extreme it can be destructive and deeply depressing." The trouble with America, the reason so many of us feel so strung-out so much of the time, is that our optimism drives us to think that perfect happiness and untold riches lie just out of our grasp—and if we work just a little harder, spread ourselves just a little thinner, we can have it all.

But we can't—not all of us, anyway. Maybe not most of us.

"Optimism breaks our fantasies, constantly makes us feel as though we're not really living, not making the grade. It's why people make themselves miserable with hard work.

"Not me, of course," he quickly adds, smiling. "I'm talking about other people."

And when riches don't fall out of the sky, when things don't work out, it's as if you've "brought these things on yourself" by not believing hard enough. "Somebody always has to lose," he says. "We forget that."

This boundless optimism hounds us all the way to the grave. "When my father was dying of cancer," Theisen tells me, "the nurse came over and told me, 'He's a fighter.' And that's the way we always talk about people with cancer, that they're fighters—as if it's their fault when they lose."

"Nighthawks" (1942) by Edward Hopper. Oil on canvas. 33 1/3 in. x 60 in. - COURTESY OF THE ART INSTITUTE OF CHICAGO
  • Courtesy of the Art Institute of Chicago
  • "Nighthawks" (1942) by Edward Hopper. Oil on canvas. 33 1/3 in. x 60 in.

When this is optimism, pessimism becomes a kind of utopian epiphany, a worldview Theisen says is exemplified by the subdued eroticism of Hopper's paintings. So many of these involve some woman—almost always modeled by Hopper's wife Jo, who was still standing in for strippers and horny secretaries even into her 50s and 60s—in a mundane setting that has been oddly sexualized, usually by a hint of cleavage, an exposed leg, or even just a suggestive smile. The New York of "Nighthawks" is urban and desolate, with nary a tree to be found, and nobody in the diner looks happy—and yet, Theisen says, we might find in that desperation a world free from the endless demands and hopeless expectations that optimism shackles us with.

"Optimism is about a dream of perfect—a perfect society, a perfect life," Theisen says. "What we need is a paradise of imperfection, a sloppy life—accepting our flaws, sex without guilt, where money is not so important."

Or, as he describes it in the book:

We have lost our innocence, our individualism, and our strict small-town morals to mechanization and industry, to the harsh demands of capital, to overcrowded yet lonely cities, to unrestrained lust, to a mobility that makes us strangers and transients. Yet we are enthralled by the modern world, and struck by the chance that there may be great beauty in this ugliness after all, there may be desire in this desolation, and that in our very failure we have founded a sort of paradise, if nothing like the one we thought we would find.

The model for this "paradise of no expectations"? Theisen offers the 1970s, after the Vietnam War, after Watergate, after the gas crisis: a time when the change-the-world idealism of the '60s had burned itself out and people were just able to live. Theisen hopes we may be headed to that place again, after Bush and after Iraq, a time in which "things can just slow down again and people can be less freaked out all the time."

He's wistful, now. "That would be a more livable world."

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