Station Eleven is a difficult book to summarize. Covering a tight but dynamic set of main characters and a sprawling timeline, the book layers settings, memories, people, and situations, jumping back and forth between a world devastated by a pandemic, the early moments of the disaster, and the years and decades before the event. But most of all, the book explores a range of themes: loneliness, longing, belonging, meaning, and survival.
But, if anything, the core tenet of a post-apocalyptic roving Shakespearean acting troupe and orchestra acts as a sort of leitmotif, even a mantra, lurking in the back of most scenes and tying the text together: “Survival is insufficient.” What we mean by survival, what we do to attain it, and what it may mean to transcend it.
So it is once a book about plague, about Shakespeare and acting, about failed relationships and drifting conversations, about loneliness and hope, and most of all, about what it means to live.
I listened to Station Eleven during a series of long car rides a few years ago, and I found myself hooked. I had wanted to read it during the early days of the COVID-19 pandemic but lacked the mindset, preferring escapism to reflections on a pandemic-ravaged world. Revisiting it then, over a year and half later, I felt more distant, more ready to reflect. And a few things struck me. So I started reflecting on some of those changes. I put it, as well as a lot of non-required writing, on hold. Here are some of those thoughts, though rather late.
I have other more “pressing” things to do this morning. Perhaps some housework. Definitely some teaching prep and student feedback. Maybe research. But I feel like I needed to write this morning to get rid of a certain clogged feeling. So I’m setting a timer for 30 minutes and writing. Let’s see what happens.
I guess I’ll start looking at the feeling more directly. I’m not quite sure what it is, but it feels a bit like cabin fever for the mind, like I’m stuck doing similar intellectual activities. Or just sort of stuck in a general life way. I was doing a freewrite the other day, and this came out describing the feeling:
I don’t know how I got here. Well, I know in a literal sense, the sense that if a cop were to ask me how I got there, I could tell him. Tell him in pretty solid detail. And I’m not trying to be all abstract, thinking about genetics and geology and all that—how I got here in space time or geologic time. No, it was really more of a feeling, really. Like I was drifting in an aimless current and suddenly beached like a piece of drift wood, with the current flowing further down stream.
I think this sort of mood is pointing to some of the intellectual ambiguity that comes from overthinking existence. To thinking, learning, being, but not necessarily acting because despite all this thinking and learning, sometimes it’s hard to figure out what to do. Or how to do what you want to do. Or what there is to do.
Right now, in terms of my life, I’m on summer break before entering my second year of coursework in a 4-year PhD program in composition and cultural rhetoric. I’m teaching a summer class. I’m vaguely trying to work through an idea about video games, trying to improve my programming literacy, and read for exams next summer. But I am, largely speaking, in coursework.
This brings me back to writing and that clogged feeling. One of my friends and colleagues described that coursework feels like being a sponge loaded up with water, and since you are not doing much non-reflective writing, you don’t have an outlet to squeeze out all this intellectual saturation.
I also think this feeling has a connection to another conversation I had–a few times, actually–about the “selfish” nature of grad school, especially when it is intensive and absorbing. Doing all of this learning feels a bit cut off. A professional writer has an audience, but in coursework, I’m not sure why I’m learning quite yet, what all this knowledge is supposed to lead to, what I’m supposed to do with it.
This seems to be one of the difficult things about knowledge production to me. In the past, I’ve generally looked at intelligence and what I would term intellectual productivity in an emergent, almost playful sense. That ideas come from playing with other ideas, thinking through them, talking through them, etc. I’m having a hard time transitioning to the “production” of knowledge, from learning as work in stead of play. Learning, even when it was difficult, has always been play to me, not “work.”
I suppose I’ve been dwelling on this “work” and “play” distinction lately, which I imagine is inevitable when researching play and games. I’m not sure what keeps sticking me to it, though.
I suppose it’s the question of why work matters. Why we work. Why we work hard, in particular. Many don’t have a choice–it’s work or die–but I think a lot of people do have some choice about work, or at least the illusion of choice, and the existential anguish involved with that (maybe false) choice. This is one issue. That sense of “am I doing what I love?”Or even, “Can I do what I love?”
But that’s not the only question. One has issues like “fullfilling work,” a fairly recent idea, or the odd tyranny of play that may happen when one is expected to know certain media and play becomes work. The difference between productive hobbies and wasting time. Production v. play. What it means to earn a “living” and not just “an earning.” When a passion becomes something else.
My timer is winding down, so I guess I’ll end in this messy set of contradictions. But I think this this particular fixation does point to larger things, or could. I’m just not quite sure yet.
As the years go on, I see the false idol of long hours. Long hours, when meaningfully deployed are great, but so often quantity takes the place of quality. I worked x hours, instead of getting x done. Or in its more haunting form, I still have time and work to do today, so I can’t rest.
I think of a distinction raised in Sogyal Rinpoche’s Tibetan Book of Living and Dying between what I call lazy laziness v. busy laziness. Lazy laziness refers to what we normally consider lazy: the archetypal the couch potato, the binging of Castle reruns, the downing of Atomic-Fire-Lazer-Charged chips. Busy laziness refers to the layering on of hours that ultimately distract us from more meaningful activities, simply exhausting us until we pick back up the next day to do the same thing, ad infinitum. Though I think we rarely fall in either extreme, that spectrum has followed me through the years.
I’ve been carrying these ideas around for a while now and am still thinking through them. With Trump, Brexit, Orlando, anti-trans bathroom laws, and other issues cycling through the media–or at least my media–lately, I keep coming back to Hannah Arendt’s The Human Condition, written in 1958 as a defense of philosophy’s role in “the active life” and a critique of its preference for “the contemplative life.”
Arendt opens the book discussing Sputnik. Being the first human-made object to leave the Earth, Sputnik represented, in the words of one reporter, the first “step from men’s imprisonment on Earth.” Arendt goes on to argue that science and technology have increasingly tried to make human life “artificial.” Extending lifespans, splitting the atom, in vitro fertilization, etc., for Arendt, “offer a rebellion against human existence as it has been given.”
I’m not as concerned with this “rebellion” and would side with others in the post-human view that technology and artifice have always been part of the human condition. Instead, what interests me more is Arendt’s next critique: “The trouble concerns the fact that the ‘truths’ of the modern scientific worldview, though they can be demonstrated in mathematical formulas and proved technologically, will no longer lend themselves to normal expression in speech and thought.” In other words, we’re getting ahead of ourselves. We can do things, like a split an atom or raise an embryo in vitro, but can’t talk about it as a public.
I’ve been getting into Joplin lately, playing and listening. He’s know for “The Entertainer,” which my mom always calls “The Sting” after the movie of that name, and “The Maple Leaf Rag.” These are fun pieces, but he wrote a lot more. Many are similar, like “Binks Waltz,” as these were his primary money makers, but then one has “Bethena.”
Joplin published “Bethena” in 1905, shortly after his wife Freddie, of two months, died from pneumonia. Between the death and early 1905, we don’t know much about Joplin’s location and actions, but finances were tight. The piece also fell into obscurity for some time, and we don’t know how successful it was when Joplin was around. We also don’t know who Bethena was. Some speculate it was a nickname for Freddie. And the figure on the cover of the original cover is also a mystery, though she is often considered Freddie as well.
The song showed up again in Benjamin Button, with NPR doing a little write up, and it has garnered critical attention on its own. For one, it’s a beautiful piece. Wistful, simple, and ultimately affirming. Joplin uses that initial coda and shifting key changes to weave a powerful emotional journey. His use of the coda, in particular, reminds me of Beethoven’s “Pathetique” Sonata’s first movement, grounding a roving piece in sad reflection. But it doesn’t have the drama of Beethoven, replacing it with lyricism. “Cantible,” say the directions, “like singing.”
It’s also rhythmically complex, mixing a baseline from classical waltz with the subtle syncopation found in cakewalk and rags, itself slightly altered. But the contrast is elegant, gently carrying the piece along, almost invisible.
I say all this for two reasons. One, I love finding these little gems–moving pieces that are not well known. And in this particular case, I find it sad that one of America’s best composers remains a bit obscure. I can easily YouTube Beethoven and Messiaen, finding loads of videos, but Joplin generally yields player pianos, ragtime enthusiasts with poor microphones, or still images with songs in the background. Not professional performances.
Second, I find the (inter)textuality of this music fascinating. For one, there’s the obscurity of the piece’s origins and its possible connection to Freddie’s death. Then, why did it disappear? How did it get rediscovered? Who is Bethena, if anyone? Why did Joplin write this? Was it to make money like most of his work, or was it like his failed opera, something more serious?
And the layering of classical waltz with cakewalk and rag also has a lot to it. The privileged, ritzy connotations of classical waltz rubbing elbows with the folk rhythms of plantation slaves doing cakewalk and player pianos grinding out rags.
And then the piece’s use in Benjamin Button, interlacing and helping to build a film in a completely different context.
Music is much like poetry, presenting a nut that may be beautiful on the surface but gets more beautiful and complex as one cracks it open. One listens to the melody and rhythms, the weaving tonalities and structures, the counterpoint and traditions, the forms and genres, themselves dancing, interlaced with stories and affect, and the piece transforms.
One of my poetry teachers once wrote that good prose is like good beer and good poetry is like good gin, more distilled and compact. Exceptions exist–Joyce and Wolfe have pretty ginny prose, I think–but the distinction has stuck with me. Only now, I’m not sure where music falls. Maybe wine. Taking the time to let the flavors waft over you, with little recognitions gathered in new ways. Each playing a slightly different experience, a slightly different piece of ephemeral craft.
Whatever the case, I’m glad I found this piece a few years ago and that it comes along still, at least now and then.
Days are pretty packed affairs. Like over-stuffed omelets. Seemingly compact and straightforward on the outside–24 hours, dawn to dusk, 9-5, breakfast to dinner–but within the structured folds of our narrating scheme a lot can take place.
Today, in a mundane sense, I didn’t do much. I prepped for teaching, which involved me reading a lot of articles and book chapters. I talked a bit with a friend, dropping him off while navigating construction-marred streets further thinned with parked cars. I drove home in an oddly bristling, bustling early bird rush hour. I discovered that my car may need a new tire, is overdo for inspection, and has a wonky door. Stressed and a little sickened by the world–like Trump’s remarks this afternoon on the shooting–and the layered little anxieties of my own life, I meditated. Now, I am writing.
I don’t know why I list this little litany. I don’t suspect it makes for good reading, much like those old journals of daily meals or routines that historians–and few others–go bonkers over. But I feel like I just wanted to put some of the basic things I did, leaving out even more granular things like meals or a nap I took.
It may be an odd connection, but doing this reminds me of Lev Manovich’s distinction between the non-narrative, collective pool of data that comprise databases compared to the more narrative, often linear data in a novel. A novel has a beginning, middle, and end with well-orchestrated plot points punctuating the read, making “arcs” or “movement.” And essays do the same thing, for the most part.
Hey all, it’s been a while. Though I’ve kept blogging on a school-based site, the nature of the blogging has been more academic, mostly reaction to readings or conferences. It wasn’t the sort of writing I was doing here.
But I think I’ve come to miss this space. Primarily for three reasons. First, it’s a chance to voice my thoughts in a public setting that is a more involved than most social media. It’s uncanny, for example, that my last post before the hiatus was about gun control, since the news of the Orlando shooting has left me blank and sort of shell shocked without a space to vocalize anything. The echo of the news is sort of reverberating in my body and thoughts but not really going anywhere. I’m not ready to talk about it, but I need a space to just sort of say that. That I am literally sickened and dazed at the news and can’t seem to figure out next steps or previous steps or any steps at all. This blog used to be that space, and I guess it is today.
Second, while I’ve been doing a lot of writing, I’ve been writing in a vacuum. True, I’ve been writing to peers and professors, occasional strangers, and fellow academics at conferences, but I miss a public place interface with an audience on a semi-regular basis outside of academia. Not a big one. Or a constant one, likely. But someone. Because I miss the sense that now and then my writing was doing something. It was a small something, but the occasional thank you message or thought was more nourishing than I gave it credit.
Most of you are probably familiar with the ALS Ice Bucket Challenge. Celebrities have taken part, including Bill Gates, and it’s been filling social media.
But for those of you who aren’t familiar, it’s pretty simple: when challenged, you either dump ice water on your head or donate $100 or ALS research and treatment. Many donate the money regardless, but if you do dump the ice water, you can challenge three more people, giving them 24 hours to comply. In effect, it goes like this:
The goal, besides raising money, is to spread awareness. The viral quality of the campaign has proven particularly effective, raising over $100 million dollars, according to this article from Aug. 15, and bringing ALS to the forefront of the public sphere. It is a brilliant viral campaign, seeming to make a positive difference.
But for some the project feels too public, too self-broadcasting. It reeks of shallow millennial-led narcissism and low-effort activism, where over-rich Americans throw cold water on themselves, film it, send it to the world, and think it constitutes “help.”
I apologize for not posting lately. I’ve been moving into school and prepping for the semester. I have a post in mind that I hope to write soon, but in the meantime, I wanted to post a video that I come to now and then: Alain de Botton’s take on Epicurus.
Epicurus and the “Epicurean” way of life has taken an odd turn through the ages, earning the connotation that it’s easy, hedonistic, and pleasure-focused. We have Epicurean.com, for example, which is all about food. It often contrasts Stoicism’s emphasis on endurance and austerity with a fat, easy life of comfort and self-gratification.
But, as you can probably expect, the original Epicurus and his followers were not nearly so “epicurean” and had much in common with their rival school, the Stoics, in ways of general beliefs and lifestyles. Both wanted the good life and both emphasized that one’s behavior required a certain logic and virtue in order to find it. Moreover, both emphasized simplicity.
For Epicurus and his philosophy, one of the key means to this happiness was simplicity. Simply your life, he might say, and you have less to fret over. A bit like Thoreau’s philosophy with Walden: strip life to its must fundamental points, and you can live it with fewer distractions, getting more out of it. Or as he famously put it:
“I went to the woods because I wished to live deliberately, to front only the essential facts of life, and see if I could not learn what it had to teach, and not, when I came to die, discover that I had not lived. I did not wish to live what was not life, living is so dear; nor did I wish to practise resignation, unless it was quite necessary. I wanted to live deep and suck out all the marrow of life, to live so sturdily and Spartan-like as to put to rout all that was not life, to cut a broad swath and shave close, to drive life into a corner, and reduce it to its lowest terms.”
Epicurus also wanted to “reduce [life] to its lowest terms,” emphasizing fundamentals like friendship, freedom, meaningful tasks, and time to reflect. He ate simply, preferring water, bread, and vegetables over wine and and banquets. He also worked hard. But he kept those fundamental “pleasures,” like friendship, nearby.
Epicurus and Thoreau are not alone in this perspective. It’s common to many religions and many self-help guides–from the mundane to the truly helpful. The Buddha, for example, has a famous story in which a farmer interrupts his teaching to ask if they have seen his cows. The farmer is fretting and saying he might kill himself if he can’t find them. The Buddha cannot help. When the man walks away, the Buddha tells his followers how lucky they are that they do not have to worry over such things. For him, the greatest possession is freedom.
Currently moved into my townhouse, I have a very simple arrangement–few decorations, the basics in kitchen, clothes, and hygiene. I’m sure I’ll acquire more, especially as my fellow suite-mates move in, but for now I must content myself with these and seek out other, deeper pleasures. We shall see how that goes. But for now, I’ll remember Epicurus:
Arthur Schopenhauer (1788-1860), a German philosopher, and a regular in past posts on Backyard Philosophy, stands out for a few reasons–not counting his love of puddles and his obstinant rain-or-shine walking schedule.
He was one of the first major modern thinkers to actively, even aggressively, take an atheistic stance. He was also one of the first to incorporate Eastern Philosophy into his thought, particularly the Hindu Upanishads and Buddhist discourses. He influenced Wagner, Freud, Nietzsche, and Albert Swietzer, among others, and remains a favored philosopher of musicians.
Schopenhauer also coined the word “pessimism,” using the Latinate pessimismus in 1835. This is his main claim to fame, exemplified by the oft-quoted advice, which he may have never said: eat a frog each morning, so that the rest of the day won’t be as bad.
Indeed, Schopenhauer may be one of the most “pessimistic” thinkers in Eastern and Western thought, earning him the dour sobriquet “The Great Pessimist.” And this, not his love of poodles (unfortunately) has stuck.
But despite this pessimism, or maybe because of it, Schopenhauer’s writing has a certain power. While many of his thoughts are “old” and remain warped by egotism, misogyny, and indignation–particularly his spiteful essay On Women–other pieces offer a unique, applicable insight for life, even in the present day.