Thursday, December 19, 2013

An End of Semester Contemplation

“They died in their homes, not from an assassin’s bullet, and in their 60s, not in their prime. When C. S. Lewis collapsed in his Oxford bedroom, the presidential motorcade was leaving Love Field. When Aldous Huxley requested a final shot of LSD, a TV set in the next room had just blared the news that the president had been shot. And then the coincidence of two of modernity’s keenest critics dying on the same November day was lost in a storm of headlines and public grief.” — Ross Douthat, “Puddleglum And The Savage,” New York Times, 11/23/13

Thanks to a dear colleague for sending me a copy of Douthat’s piece in the New York Times. I missed this when it came out in the paper, but commend it to you now. A number of things happened between the publication of Douthat’s piece and today, notably the passing of Nelson Mandela, that are worth comment. But before doing so, let me return to Douthat’s piece; it sets up a string of thoughts percolating in my head (perking, but not necessarily clear, as you’ll see further on in this missive).

Douthat identifies Lewis and Huxley as “two of modernity’s keenest critics.” This raises the question: what were their critiques? Douthat answers the question:

Huxley and Lewis did not share a worldview — one was a seeker drawn to spiritualism, Eastern religion and psychedelics; the other was (and remains) the most famous Christian apologist in the modern English-speaking world. But they shared a critique of contemporary civilization, and offered a similar warning about where its logic might end up taking us.

For Huxley, this critique took full shape in “Brave New World,” his famous portrait of a dystopia in which the goals of pleasure and stability have crowded out every other human good, burying discontent under antidepressants, genetic engineering and virtual-reality escapes.

For Lewis, the critique was distilled in “The Abolition of Man,” which imagined a society of “men without chests,” purged of any motivation higher than appetite, with no “chatter of truth and mercy and beauty” to disturb or destabilize.

In effect, both Huxley and Lewis looked at a utilitarian’s paradise — a world where all material needs are met, pleasure is maximized and pain eliminated — and pointed out what we might be giving up to get there: the entire vertical dimension in human life, the quest for the sublime and the transcendent, for romance and honor, beauty and truth.
(emphasis mine)

Douthat makes other observations about the relationship of Huxley, Lewis, and Kennedy over the arc of history, but what I want to focus on is the critique of a “utilitarian’s paradise,” “what we might be giving up to get there,” and how this might touch on Mandela’s passing (or, for that matter, the Pope being named “Person of the Year.”) These things seem appropriate items for an end of semester contemplation.

I note this in part because recently I have had a distinct sense that my own work is being robbed of those vertical dimensions. This is not to fault anyone with whom I work. It is simply a statement of condition, one that has been building for decades and symptomatic of much in higher education (and other realms of work). My job—or how others perceive my job—now seems much more tied to managing, counting, or commodifying the items under my care. A sense of transcendence is being lost. (I commented—or at least hinted at this—in my last post.) For all the wonders that surround me in my work, I do not have a strong sense from colleagues or others that a library or archive is a place appreciated as a locus for mystery and wonder, i.e. transcendent or sublime.

Somewhat tangentially, but still relevant to this thread of thought, consider what Time gave as reasons for naming the Pope “Person of the Year”:

For pulling the papacy out of the palace and into the streets, for committing the world's largest faith to confronting its deepest needs and for balancing judgment with mercy…. What makes this pope so important is the speed with which he has captured the imaginations of millions who had given up on hoping for the church at all. People weary of the endless parsing of sexual ethics, the buck-passing infighting over lines of authority when all the while (to borrow from Milton), ‘the hungry Sheep look up, and are not fed.’ In a matter of months, Francis has elevated the healing mission of the church—the church as servant and comforter of hurting people in an often harsh world—above the doctrinal police work so important to his recent predecessors. John Paul II and Benedict XVI were professors of theology. Francis is a former janitor, nightclub bouncer, chemical technician and literature teacher.

I’m related to (and sometimes part of) the professorial class, so I cringe a bit at those last words. What may be one tiny thread connecting my own work with the Pope’s is a sense of “hands-on.” I like to get my hands on “the stuff.” It is one of the best ways I know for getting an intimate knowledge and feel for a collection. It is a sublime and transcendent mode of communication and one that is less available to me these days. Granted, this is not like feeding or clothing the poor. Higher education is still, in the eyes of a majority of the world’s population, a luxury. I need to keep reminding myself of this as I work through boxes, folders, or volumes of what the world might consider ephemera.

I don’t know if this makes sense; it still feels muddled to me. Mandela’s passing—or at least how his life and passing is interpreted by others—confuses that matter even more (at least in my mind). Consider, for example, the ending of President Obama’s eulogy:

We will never see the likes of Nelson Mandela again. But let me say to the young people of Africa, and young people around the world—you can make his life’s work your own…. He speaks to what is best inside us. After this great liberator is laid to rest; when we have returned to our cities and villages, and rejoined our daily routines, let us search then for his strength—for his largeness of spirit—somewhere inside ourselves. And when the night grows dark, when injustice weighs heavy on our hearts, or our best laid plans seem beyond our reach—think of Madiba, and the words that brought him comfort within the four walls of a cell:

It matters not how strait the gate,
How charged with punishments the scroll,
I am the master of my fate:
I am the captain of my soul.

What a great soul it was. We will miss him deeply.

His, was, indeed a great soul, a transcendent soul. But was he, really, the master of his fate and captain of his soul? Or did a little child lead him?

No comments: