Archive | April, 2020

Immersed in a Calling

20 Apr

Contemplation is not readily classified as a belief that one fights for, and attempts to squeeze its value into the language of justice or dignity or basic human rights will fall flat. It is better characterized as an object of love and reverence, and a source of fulfillment. For humanists, contemplation is not a cause. It is a calling.

-Agnes Callard, “What Do the Humanities Do in a Crisis?” in The New Yorker

My latest reading adventure took me through How to Think Like Shakespeare: Lessons from a Renaissance Education, a new book by Scott Newstok, a Rhodes College faculty member, Duluth native, and friend of this blog. In addition to our hometown and some occasional correspondence, it’s become clear that Newstok and I share a lot in how we look at the world, and his new book encapsulates so much of that shared calling.

I do not consider myself an expert in the realm of Shakespeare. Sure, I had the pleasure of playing the title role and donning a sheet with splotches of red paint in a sophomore English class reading of Julius Caesar at Duluth East. In more recent years, I’ve been a sometime attendee of the Great River Shakespeare Festival in Winona, Minnesota, an annual excuse for some extended family members to get together to eat a lot and drink a lot and enjoy a couple of the Bard’s plays. I’ve developed an appreciation for just how many Shakespearian aphorisms have made their way into our speech today. But I haven’t come close to consuming his collected works.

A deep familiarity with the Bard’s oeuvre is peripheral to How to Think Like Shakespeare, though.The book is not a systematic assessment of education in Shakespeare’s work, nor a thorough overview of Renaissance-era schooling. Instead, it is a defense of a humanistic education, and an ascent into a dialogue down the generations of how best to work one’s way through this thing called life. It is a reminder that expertise and even so-called genius come from discipline, from dedicated work, from immersion in the works of past giants and even occasional outright theft from them. We’re all in this tradition, and the style of the book underscores this on every page. Newstok doesn’t go two paragraphs without citing some great past thinker or literary work, without pulling in one of his friends to show how historical insights all build on one another. He quotes liberally from Shakespeare, of course, but a whole crew of canonical figures insert their insights, from Erasmus to James Baldwin, from Ovid to Hannah Arendt, from Cicero to Bob Dylan. (Newstok is a Duluthian, after all!)

I found myself scrawling down snippets of wisdom from across Newstok’s 14 themed chapters. Of course, I am a sucker for such lines as “if your school says your education has impacted you, ask for a refund—and a laxative,” in an effective early sequence in which Newstok skewers the idea of education as training for jobs that currently exist. But the insights compound on themselves and build to something bigger. Newstok writes of the idea of craft, and the process by which the craftsperson “forms his own self as he works toward the perfection of his craft.” This process, we learn in “Of Imitation,” comes from repetition and careful use of models. Many great writers began by directly re-writing authors they admired, a process replicated across any number of crafts; only by inhabiting existing great writing could they later develop something that measured up to their own idea of greatness. Readers of How to Think Like Shakespeare are immersed in a flow of ideas from very smart people, all of whom together make it hard to claim they don’t have a very strong case.

Newstok’s chapter on place, with its critiques of Descartes’ notion that thinking alone made him who he was, was especially resonant in an age when most education is happening through placeless means. He traces the failed dreams of countless technologies to supplant in-person learning, from correspondence courses to massive open online courses, and shows what a valuable equalizer a classroom can be. Since their dismissal from campuses, privileged college students are free to Zoom in from spare offices in vacation homes while the less affluent sit in shared bedrooms on lousy internet connections in chaotic environments. School, Newstok writes, provides the freedom to think and interact alongside others. The content of communication is what matters, not its medium or speed; computers, to quote Picasso, are “useless,” because “they can only give you answers,” not the underlying questions.

I could go on picking out quotes, but I’ll settle for just telling people to read the book. Its structure proves the point of the Callard quote at the top of this piece. How to Think Like Shakespeare is not the work of an activist militating for his cause but a thinker reveling in his work. Newstok reminds us that this work is, above all, fun, and the calling on display is infectious. People have been attacking the value of the humanities since the humanities came into being (just ask Socrates), but they hold up because again and again. People fall for them and make compelling cases for why we need them in our lives, and again expose the poverty of the belief that a humanistic education is a frivolous luxury. We can wish that more people felt this call, but as Newstok shows, it’s hardly some innate feature. It’s something we cultivate over time, hone and perfect and pass along, and our educations, both formal and informal, decide whether or not we can impose our control on the often-accelerating pace of human life and make it slow down, be masters of our own time instead of letting it master us.

I have a lot of time for contemplation these days. Unlike Callard, I find myself mostly able to pass the humanist test, at least when I am not caught up in lamenting the absence of certain things from my life that would make it more difficult to pass the humanist test. (Solitude, per the Octavio Paz quote in my last post, works well as a temporary condition; it is not healthy as a permanent state.) I am leery of the line “never let a crisis go to waste,” as some people use crises to justify all sorts of nefarious ends, but I’ve been using it in my own internal monologue with some regularity over the past month.

In normal times it’s easy to get caught up in the drift away from thinking about how to think, especially for a rare humanist who, with some notable exceptions, has a day job that offers only occasional brushes up against the academy. (Moreover, coronavirus has cost me the most fertile ground for those exceptional conversations: long, shared car rides with colleagues.) It can be hard to find the time to devote to this activity, day after day. Funnily enough, I’m not any less busy these days: my job still takes up the same amount of my day, at times even more of it; I’ve launched my most aggressive running regimen ever; and an explosion of videochats with friends and family near and far has filled the empty social calendar. But, somehow, the notion that I’m trapped in a crisis-stricken world and ought to make something of it has allowed me to do so.

Sometime about a week ago, the road became ever so slightly clearer. It was a gradual process, one that came in fits and starts and some periods of mental anguish that rank among the less pleasant of my time on earth. I have not achieved nirvana; there are regressions large and small. But, at least in my mind, I am no longer a victim of hard times but an agent capable of using that greatest human capability. It is something I have mustered by knowing that others have traveled this road before, left some signs and guideposts, and any blank spots on the map are adventures to test what we’ve learned, not some fear-inducing void.

Coronavirus Chronicles Continued

5 Apr

[O]n the one hand it is self-awareness, and on the other it is a longing to escape from ourselves. Solitude—the very condition of our lives—appears to us as a test and a purgation, at the conclusion of which our anguish and instability will vanish. At the exit from the labyrinth of solitude we will find reunion (which is repose and happiness), and plenitude, and harmony with the world…Solitude is both a sentence and an expiation. It is a punishment but it is also a promise that our exile will end. All human life is pervaded by this dialectic.

—Octavio Paz, The Labyrinth of Solitude

To write in the time of coronavirus is to become a chronicler of history, whether or not one aspires to such a lofty title. Journaling has, apparently, exploded in recent weeks; people all over now realize their thoughts on these weeks and months will be of interest to posterity. We detail our tedium, our glimmers of hope, the moments that we know will define a generation. The indelible images: a hospital ship steams past the Statue of Liberty into the New York harbor, a very different beacon of hope; Pope Francis, resplendent in white, before an empty St. Peter’s Square under an ominous, rainy sky. Deadened streets, all commerce at a standstill, silence save from the very welcome pets and children in the background on Zoom meetings.

As with any crisis, coronavirus produces some case studies in uncommon heroism. I now thank grocery store clerks for their work in the way I’ve seen some people thank soldiers for their service. When I do takeout or delivery to support local restaurants, I leave the largest tips I’ve ever left. The body shop down the street has a sign offering a discount for healthcare workers, and I look out at the snowboard bro of a FedEx driver who lives across the way in an entirely new light. While my role is somewhat distant from the front lines, a situation that leaves me feeling an odd remove, some of my colleagues in economic development and local government are putting in yeoman’s hours trying to keep their communities’ businesses afloat. My firm was born at Duluth’s economic nadir in the mid-80s, when northeast Minnesota found itself in need of someone to facilitate recovery processes, and we may get to play that role again in the coming months and years.

In my own mundane quarantined corner, I adjust to a work life of marathon Zoom meetings, which means I spend an inordinate amount of time staring at my own face on a screen. My attire regresses to that of a ten-years-younger version of myself, and after toying with the idea of growing my hair out again, it now seems safe to say it’ll happen unless I decide to get creative with scissors. My work habits take me back to days spent struggling away at term papers in my glorified closet of a bedroom in Burleith. My life is an eternal return. Perhaps the best piece of advice I read over the first three weeks of working from home: wear real pants every day.

I recognize my luck: I can spout off in droll good humor while a third of the country gets furloughed or laid off, has to navigate a convoluted system of unemployment benefits and business support programs that seems designed to maximize confusion. This crisis has only exacerbated the gap between those of us who trade in the knowledge economy (even for those of us who are not in its more lucrative arms), and the people whose jobs are not so easily sustained via screens. Tech skeptic that I am, I’m not sure my class will get off so easily next time crisis hits—or if this one drags out—but for now, we sit pretty, American divides exacerbated once again.

The biggest divide I encounter myself, however, is the one I find between myself and other people. I live alone, and have not had meaningful contact with another human in weeks. Sorry, those of you who feel like you’re cooped up with your families too much: I’ll trade places in a heartbeat. Individual living may help slow the spread of disease, while multigenerational mixing, as the Italians can attest, can cause more harm than good. But the virus, if we needed one, is a reminder that humans are not built to live like this long-term. “Never is a man more active than when he does nothing, never is he less alone than when he is by himself,” Hannah Arendt wrote in a quote from Cicero attributed to Cato, a bit of wisdom passed down the chain. It’s a sentiment I need right now, because never have I been more by myself than I have been these past few weeks.

“Do you live around here?” one acquaintance calls to me in pleasant surprise as I scoot by on my daily run. “No!” is my cheery reply. I might just run every street in Duluth by the time this is done, or at least all of them on the east side, more easily accessible from my front door. I’ve started tracking my destinations on a calendar, a register of Duluth neighborhoods and other convenient destinations. Even as I run, the signs of a changed world abound. The morning the stay at home order comes out, the streets are eerily dead. I wonder if the young couple I pass sleeping in a running car off Kenwood Avenue are among the newly homeless.

For the most part, though, these runs are my saving grace, a luxury afforded by a blessedly mild Duluth spring. Every few days I scoot past a work colleague or a stray acquaintance, all of us pulled out into various forms of activity as our only release. A profusion of chalk art decorates the streets of Morley Heights and Congdon; in Woodland, kids wish their friends a happy birthday in chalk on the driveway. A few houses throw up impromptu art exhibits in their windows. The Lincoln Park parkway, liberated from traffic, teems with hikers and disc golfers. I idly house-hunt as I cruise the streets, check out lake views and front porches and bay windows, along with those more practical concerns like the quality of the roof and the siding and the garage. Rarely do I feel more alive as when I climb the Hillside in driving sleet; and one evening, I round a bend on the Scenic Highway and gaze down a coastline swathed in a California late afternoon glow, and any weight of the world lifts away into the haze.

I take a vacation that gives me glimpses of the whole world, which means I sleep in my sleeping bag on the spare futon in a second bedroom whose walls are papered in maps. This exotic locale is less a bedroom than a dark, wide hallway to a back door that happens to have a closet, but for one long weekend, it will do. This room has become my refuge now that my living room is part of my office suite: every evening I retreat here for at least a little while with a book or this laptop to inhabit a world away from any of those thoughts. I need just a little more space to endure this easily.

I travel vicariously, learn of the chance meeting between two cyclists crossing Asia, and of the party of rafters on the Colorado who left a world with no coronavirus fears and came back to it when they emerged. I travel away from thoughts of where I would’ve been on my planned vacation by now, away from wondering if a backpacking trip in July will still hold up. The social distancing paradox: if we flatten the curve successfully, the restrictions may go on for longer, the terror of overwhelmed hospitals and pop-up morgues replaced by a low-grade, endless dread, a fitting new normal if we truly are in an age of decadence.

One thing I am not, thankfully, is bored, except perhaps when the Zoom meetings drag on for too long. I will never lack things to read or write. I won’t pretend the coronavirus has led to any great writing projects—there’s a challenge, perhaps—but I have been able to noodle out some mindless stuff, and make a real dent in the pile of books. (The latest addition: an advance copy of a new book by a reader of this blog!) Hearteningly, sales of classic literature have exploded over the past month. We are still indeed all readers, a reminder that deteriorating attention spans are not some congenital defect but an entirely correctable drift forced upon us by our thoughtless consumption of certain forms of media that are ill-attuned to human focus.

Technology has made this misery infinitely easier to bear. Even two years ago, my office would have been hopelessly lost, lacking laptops or file-sharing opportunities. Still, the shortcomings of that world become more and more glaring with each passing day, and my hope is that, instead of accelerating the move to more online existence as some forecasters have predicted, coronavirus will remind us that screens have their shortcomings. Deprivation can lead us to place new value on certain forms of human interaction, better appreciate why it is we go to concerts or sporting events or festivals or bars or even just hang out with large groups of friends or family. I don’t know when I’ll be able to do any of those things, but may we never take them for granted again.

Sweet, Sweet Decadence

1 Apr

A coronavirus outbreak seems an appropriate time to read a book about the fate of the human race, and so I dove right in with the latest from Ross Douthat, the New York Times’ lonely religious conservative opinion columnist. The Decadent Society: How We Became the Victims of Our Own Success is peak Douthat: a widely roving history of late modernity and its seeming stasis, one that touches on a dozen themes that this blog has also featured over the years because his concerns tend to nibble at me as well, to greater and lesser degrees.

Douthat’s strength as a social commentator is his refusal to accept easy explanations. He makes good cases for how a variety of factors can come together, and he is often among the most original analysts of contemporary American life. Agree or disagree, he can pull out unexpected theories while at the same time resisting the temptation to claim he’s found the answer to everything. He can imagine a variety of different outcomes and explain, succinctly, why each of them might be true. This new book follows in the same tradition as it pulls together all of the possible causes of decadence and explains that decadence may in fact be stable, and then imagines every possible way out of this stable decadence, from environmental catastrophe to the socialist international to a religious revival to aliens, and imagines how they can all work together in feedback loops that reinforce each other. (Well, except maybe for the aliens.)

Jacques Barzun, a French-American historian, supplies Douthat’s definition of decadence:

All that is meant by Decadence is ‘falling off.’ It implies in those who live in such a time no loss of energy or talent or moral sense. On the contrary, it is a very active time, full of deep concerns, but peculiarly restless, for it sees no clear lines of advance. The forms of art as of life seem exhausted; the stages of development have been run through. Institutions function painfully. Repetition and frustration are the intolerable result. Boredom and fatigue are great historical forces.

Douthat is also careful to acknowledge that this version of decadence gets a lot right. Modern society is rich, stable, and has eliminated a lot of past prejudices. Despite the seeming political unrest of Trump era America, most of the violence is rhetorical; when someone actually did die in Charlottesville, the right-wing marches did not continue to surge but instead mostly retreated back to a world of online cosplay. The appetite for actual confrontation is low.

But, then, it also features stagnant income growth, lurching political institutions, and general ennui. It offers potential ecological ruin, though we will likely muddle through in ways that are problematic for poor people at lower lines of latitude but bearable for affluent Westerners. Aside from the world of tech, which Douthat convincingly skewers for its minimal meaningful progress and lack of profitability outside of communication platforms and Amazon, human technological innovation is flatlining. Even popular culture is stuck in an endless loop of Star Wars and comic book movie reboots, and now we’re trapped in an algorithmic death spiral in which few unique things can break out into the mainstream.

More worryingly, The Decadent Society shows how the cultural arbiters of an aging society lock in to place attitudes of risk reduction and dull, safe choices in place of youthful dynamism. Here, Douthat makes his most interesting critiques of liberal society: we’re not reproducing much, we’re having less sex, and we’re giving up on shaping our own future. Workforce participation has declined, and a large swath of the population is now more interested in self-medicating through drugs and video games, with the most extreme cases lurching toward deaths of despair. Porn has not driven young men to pursue elaborate sexual feats, but desensitized them to feeling. Our dystopia comes to resemble Brave New World, perhaps not as clean in its horrors but amounting to the same end: numbed to old life-giving forces and subjected to the soft totalitarianism of norm enforcement by a privacy-free online world. What fun.

Douthat’s other useful point is that decadence can be a very stable state of affairs, even if certain moralistic narratives would prefer to predict its imminent demise. Rome endured for 400 years between Nero and the Visigoth sack, and Douthat sees no reason the American empire can’t lurch along for a similar period of time, dull and uncreative but still the clear colossus bestride the world. Our world is neither on the march toward a liberal dream nor (pandemic horrors aside) headed toward the demise prophesied conservative prophets of woe. It plods along, its most obvious alternatives fundamentally flawed, and some anti-decadent responses to this era run the risk of being very bloody or unequal or just subject to a lot of unintended consequences. Perhaps we should just carry on, elect Joe Biden, and keep trying to make people’s lives marginally better.

Douthat rambles on a tour of geopolitics in the book but gives some valuable international context to what is unique, or mostly not unique, about the American condition. He necessarily oversimplifies but points at some trends that will no doubt shape the next century, from the effects of mass immigration on Europe to the African population boom to the question of whether China is an authoritarian, and perhaps eugenicist, threat to the world order or an aging, poor society with a rickety economy propped up by a corrupt regime desperately trying to put on a good face. Japan, for Douthat, is the canary in the coal mine, a step ahead in reaching flat economic growth and political gridlock and weird, tech-abetted sexual fantasylands instead of the real thing. (It has also made some progress in reversing some of these trends under Prime Minister Shinzo Abe in recent years, though his marginal success shows the limits in how far a decadent society can move even with skilled leadership.) By and large, the world is converging on its decadent destiny, no matter where we come from or what we believe in our politics or our faith.

The Decadent Society became rather, well, decadent as it went along. Part of the trouble comes from the inherent challenge in trying to predict the future, especially in a broad and yet merely 240-page book that pays lip service to all answers rather than making a concerted case for a handful. The diagnosis is convincing, but the tale of what comes next is so sweeping and eager to check every possible box that I don’t feel any more enlightened as to what may come next. Symbolically, I enjoy Douthat’s riff on the closing of the frontier with the end of the Apollo missions, but as one with a weak interest in science fiction, I don’t buy that shift as a source of existential dread for any but a narrow, nerdy subset of society. There is no shortage of earthly frontiers available to us, if we choose to pursue them; the societal upheaval of the 1960s may well have ushered in some decadence, but they were baked into the cake long before the U.S. began to ratchet down its space program.

I’ve been fumbling over the end of this review for a week now, so I might as well lay out my writer’s block for the world to see. One false start explored Douthat’s religious aspirations for a non-catastrophic escape from decadence, a conservative Catholic’s probably-not-wrong view that a concerted movement will take some surge of faith, in some unknown form, to give enough lives added meaning to flip the script. I don’t have good answers here, but the secular world’s general inability to grapple with that need for myth and wonder at the core of the human psyche is one of its great analytical failures. Another ending took the opposite tack and riffed on Joan Didion, who I’ve read extensively in recent weeks. She gets a passing mention in The Decadent Society as an exemplar of how stuck our culture is, as her 1960s prose still seems strikingly contemporary. Maybe Didion and her generation set a high bar for us in their incredible detachment, and there’s no shame in standing on the shoulders of giants as we reach for the stars.

In a way, I think both are right: flawed as a decadent society may be, anything that breaks through its comforts should have to answer all those droll and rationalist critiques, should have to inspire a deeper sense of faith and mission. You want an Apollo-level mission, Ross? Well, there it is, right there in front of you. Go a bit further, take that argument you make for twinning faith and reason and beef it up into something serious. Make us believe.