Washington and Lee students often refer to their version of Lexington, Virginia as “the bubble,” as if were a protected from the world by those soft, old mountains. It’s not, nor would that be a good thing, and they know that. But seeming out-of-time is part of the attractive weirdness of some universities in the U.S. I know the damages people sometimes suffer even this privileged place, sometimes because of the privilege, and yet I appreciate the fantasy too sometimes as I walk through my gorgeous campus with arms full of library books, thinking poetic thoughts. It’s gothic, as my well-read firebrand of a daughter recently commented. Beneath the floorboards of wonderful intellectual conversations, a heart is beating out an accusation, and everyone tries to ignore the sound. (She really does talk like that and it’s part of why I miss her.)
The uncanny pulse gets louder this time of year, when the town hosts a different crowd every few days–family weekends for the two colleges, or trustee meetings, during which stray piles of cash drift over our academic mission like fallen leaves. Good work depends on that fundraising, so I’m happy it succeeds, but it makes me uneasy, too, because the emphasis so often falls on the wrong things. This past weekend was homecoming at W&L so the streets were rowdy with young alums. The graduates I’m closest to are often skeptical-minded literary types, too clear-eyed for unreserved cheering about a very good college with some very real culture problems. I ask if they’re coming back and many say, um, not my scene, unless they’re a retirement bash for a favorite professor in the offing, or some other content to the weekend than rah-rah-school-spirit.
So it was unusual but very cool to walk downtown Saturday for a beer with a former student (and football-playing-poet) who became a college counselor and a fierce advocate for literary study at small liberal arts colleges. On the way I bumped into other former English majors, now passionately committed to teaching middle and high-schoolers. All are vocally grateful for those hours talking critically about books, writing and revising essays, figuring out what kind of people they wanted to be. My own elder child, a first-year at Wesleyan University, loves English but worries about focusing on it—will she be able to afford organic vegetables when she grows up? (She is really fixated on the cost of produce.) This question does not make me anxious at all. She’s smart and engaged and will graduate with skills employers want, no matter what undergraduate specialty she chooses. Finding the right path, the kind of job that satisfies employee as well as employer, can take time but I have no doubt others will value her intelligence and fire. My own graduates—lawyers, ministers, physical therapists, doctors, HR professionals, writers, editors, artists, arts administrators, diplomats, FBI agents, teachers at every kind of institution—give me high confidence that studying poetry can lead to a good life, however one measures that. (They could level some pretty smart arguments, in fact, for better ways of measuring of the good life.)
On Sunday, however, I fell into a bleaker mood, worrying about my mother in hospital, so I picked up a little book by Roy Scranton, whose first-year-seminar my daughter can’t stop talking about. I ordered it a few weeks ago, but hesitated to jump in, given the title: Learning to Die in the Anthropocene: Reflections on the End of a Civilization (City Lights, 2015). And it is, in fact, a dark book, full of facts and figures about climate change—a rational person can’t deny a catastrophe is unfolding, but most of us prefer fictional televised zombie apocalypse to consideration of how our grandchildren, if they make it at all, might be subsisting on farmed algae in the new temperate zone of the Arctic Circle. That is the future to worry about.
Scranton was deployed to Iraq in 2003 as a private in the US Army. He managed his terror by following advice from an 18th century manual for samurai: Meditation on inevitable death should be performed daily. He ritually contemplated his own demise in graphic detail, then, “before we rolled out through the wire, I’d tell myself that I didn’t need to worry anymore because I was already dead. The only thing that mattered was that I did my best to make sure everyone else came back alive” (22). He applies the same logic to human civilization: the Holocene is already over; we have to come to terms with living in a different era, with a very uncertain future.
There’s a lot to disagree with in Scranton’s book, but I was moved to watch it turn, eventually, into a fervent argument for the humanities. “Through the ice ages of the past and into the long summer of the Holocene,” he writes, “we carried tools, furs, fire, and our greatest treasure and most potent adaptive technology, the only thing that might save us in the Anthropocene, because it is the only thing that can save those who are already dead: memory” (95). And: “The study of the humanities is nothing less than the patient nurturing of the roots and heirloom varietals of human symbolic life. This nurturing is a practice not strictly of curation, as many seem to think today, but of active attention, cultivation, making and remaking. It is not enough for the archive to be stored, mapped, or digitized. It must be worked” (99).
When we make literature central to our thoughtful lives, generate new art out of ancient myths, or read poetry to remember the dead, we are working the humanities. I’m glad people fund and value the labor, although I wish we could talk more openly and seriously outside the classroom, as well as in it, about the costs and benefits of the apparent bubble, who’s excluded from it, and how. In any case, it’s good to be part of the heirloom-seeds-relay, so that my students can go on to share their favorite poems in Baltimore schools or embassy outreach classes in the Czech Republic. I’m also grateful my daughter has such a humane, eloquent teacher to plant Gilgamesh and Blake in her brain. We need optimists—hopeful people focused on the practicalities of getting each other out alive—but we direly need our bleak rememberers, too. We lose so much, so constantly.