Apocalypse is the Mother of Beauty
by Ed Simon
Consider, Boethius. He was a descendent of a noble Italian family, a beneficiary of a classical education, and in some ways the last of the Romans. In the sixth century he found himself accused of treason in a Lombardy prison. To console himself as he awaited execution, he synthesized all of his philosophical knowledge, and attempted to still his mind even as fortune’s wheel turned. In his De Consolatione Philosophiae he lamented, “Mad fortune sweeps along in wanton pride … Now tramples mighty kings beneath her feet.” He was executed in AD 524, supposedly with a rope around his head pulled so tightly that his eyes popped out.
In this world of entropy, Boethius’ task was both personal and communal, for in stoically embracing the decisions of the goddess Fortuna he admitted that death would soon come. But as he was also a refugee from a world that was dying his manuscript served as an ars moriendi for culture, too. And in subsequent centuries his accomplishment was steadfastly maintained by fellow humanists, laboring in monasteries and libraries dotting Europe, making The Consolations of Philosophy one of the most copied texts of late antiquity, a capsule from one culture’s final moments through the eclipse of the next centuries.
In not unrelated news, it was above freezing at the North Pole last New Year’s Eve. We may not be so different from Boethius. It’s worth thinking about him, and how he faced extinction both personal and communal, and what exactly his and our humanities are good for as we face our own civilization’s possibly approaching conclusion. A rough contemporary of Boethius noted that “in the middle of the debris of the great city, only scattered groups of wretched peoples, witnesses to past calamities, still attest to us the names of an earlier age.” For UCLA professor Linda Marsh, that description of the distant past sounds similar to one of the near future. In her essay “Scorched Earth, 2200 AD” she describes “Once-teeming metropolises … [that are now] watery ghost towns … sparsely populated colonies of hardy survivors who eke out vampire-like subterranean existences, emerging only at night when the temperatures dip into the low-triple digits.” As we face potential climate apocalypse, the question we must ask is: what are the humanities for?
It’s an interesting question how much someone like Boethius could anticipate that their world was coming to an end; it’s an important question to ask if we are adequately anticipating it right now. There is a story that upon the legionnaires leaving Britain that the Romanized Celts sent a request to the Emperor asking for the army’s return. Instead they found themselves waiting for the barbarians. A few centuries later and an Anglo-Saxon poet wondered if Roman stonewalls had been built by giants who once populated the island, memories of technologically advanced civilization now no longer history, but legend. Both the monasteries of the Middle Ages as well as scholars in the Islamic east preserved the classical knowledge that they could, how would things have been different had the Romans more fully seen collapse coming?
We have a benefit in being able to anticipate and plan for the possibility of our civilization’s collapse, a luxury Boethius didn’t exactly have. Roy Scranton in Learning to Die in the Anthropocene explains “even if we banned dumping CO2 right now … we would still be facing serious climate impacts for centuries.” He writes that with this rise in temperature we will face “the imminent collapse of the agricultural, shipping, and energy networks upon which the global economy depends, a large-scale die-off in the biosphere that’s already well under way, and our own possible extinction.” Harvard professor Naomi Oreskes and Erik Conway agree with Scranton that coming “losses — social, cultural, economic, and demographic” may be “greater than any in recorded history.” Humanity after all survived the fall of Rome; it’s a sunny assumption that we will make it through this time. To quote Dr. Johnson, “Nothing focuses the mind like a hanging.” Well it’s time for us to focus our minds.
If science’s role in all of this is to try and save the world, the humanists’ is in part to preserve it. If there are future historians, they may be as befuddled with our “culture wars” as we are with the scholastic abstractions of ancient church councils. This is not to say that our “culture wars” are unimportant — or indeed that what those church councils debated was unimportant either. But perhaps it’s time for a détente, or a treaty of some sort. These arguments will seem less significant once the West Antarctic ice-sheet has collapsed into the ocean. But let us not doubt the importance of what it is that we could offer the world, as Scranton writes, “The fate of the humanities, as we confront the end of modern civilization, is the fate of humanity itself.” The humanities provide a methodology for critical analysis, and also an approach to preservation. Both of these roles are crucial as we decide what material to save, and how to save it.
As we face collapse we must initiate a “New Curating” to preserve what could be lost in the coming darkness. If everything else closes, some of us would do well to try and man the library. Think of what we’ve lost from the past. Unless a dutiful archeologist finds some preserved papyrus in the desert, you will never read Aristotle’s second book of the Poetics (on comedy). Only six of the ninety plays of Aeschylus survive. Aristophanes faired a bit better, of forty written we have eleven. Or of scripture that no one shall ever preach from, we have, or rather, do not have, the Acts of Uziah, Laments for Josiah, or the Story of the Prophet Iddo. Closer to our own time and, considering the subject at hand, a particularly poignant book that none of us can ever read, is the thirteenth-century travelogue Inventio Fortunata in which the Franciscan author describes the North Atlantic — which was cold, once. Of that most prolific author who goes by the name “Anonymous” we have even less. No doubt works of incomparable beauty and truth were spoken and penned by those on the margins — many of them women, slaves, and the conquered — and the bulk of these sit in no library.
The vast majority of our culture, western and eastern, has been lost. It has been victim to war, weather, entropy, disinterest, and decay. What we think of as the cannon sometimes often survived more due to the inscrutable turning of Boethius’ wheel. It was humanists in the past that preserved these works, copying down manuscript to manuscript, in a thread connecting antiquity to their moment to our own day. We must be new monastics, preparing what we can to endure the interim, which we may shortly face. Scholars at places like the Long Now Foundation and Oxford University’s Future of Humanity Institute are asking for us to reorient our perspective, and eco-critical scholars have been asking similar questions as well. Perhaps the humanities train people how to be more innovative thinkers in a market economy, and that might be fine justification in the short run to keep classes full, but in the “long now” the importance of the humanities takes on an obvious and profound import — that is nothing less than ensuring the preservation of our voices and thoughts unto the next generation. And we must consider that since so much of what we think of as the “cannon” are works which survived because of the relative prestige of their authors, that we may now have the chance to curate a more democratic list of artists; ones that reflect a diversity of human experience that was erased in the past, but whose current voices we have a responsibility to preserve for the future.
We need to ensure that scholars on the other side of the darkness are able to read Walt Whitman, Langston Hughes or Emily Dickinson as we wish we could read the lost plays of Aristophanes. Will people be able to listen to rock and hip-hop, or watch Kubrick, Scorsese, and Kurosawa? That so much of our crucial digital culture may be impossible to preserve is the sort of central problem that a New Curating must address.
In speaking of why we must curate such an ark of culture we must remember precisely why it is that the humanities are important. Perhaps apocalypse can help us to clarify that mission in the same way that Wallace Stevens claimed, “Death is the mother of beauty.” At the risk of tautology, what is important about the humanities is the human; the survival of these texts is the survival of humanity.
In the present day we also must undertake this New Curating in part for our own selfish reasons — so that the future may remember us, what was important in our lives, what our experiences were. And what shall be lost, that our monks must copy into codices for future humans to recite? In the future there may be no summer trips down the canals of the Dutch capital, her colorful, resplendent tulip markets long since sunk. The dodge’s palace and St. Mark’s Square shall slide into the Adriatic who will finally be victorious in her war of attrition against the most serene republic. Autumnal Central Park may well sit under Atlantic waves, the Empire State building and World Trade Center rising up out of turbulent, warm waters.
Envision a hypothetical anthology of literature based around the seasons: the frozen landscape of an Alice Munro short story, the melancholic autumn chill of Washington Irving, the Chilean spring of a Neruda love sonnet, or even the frantic, Jersey summer of a Bruce Springsteen song. Now, as climate change becomes more extreme and unpredictable, as a chaos erases those formerly independent, sovereign nations that were the seasons, consider how alien such an anthology’s recorded experiences will seem to your grand-children, and their grand-children. That such a hypothetical anthology might seem so foreign to them is all the more reasons to press the flowers of culture in a New Curating.
Our grandchildren and their grandchildren may not remember the seasons. For our and their sakes the ark must not merely make room for Shakespeare and Goethe, but for the experiential specificity of what it was like to see the leaves change color, or the first snowfall of early winter, or the cool breeze of spring as the ice started to melt. Because it is so omnipresent we do not appreciate the sacred power of the calendar. The twelve months are a liturgy of everyday life, still patterned, structured, and punctuated by the rhythms of temperature and the cycles of seasonal transition. We must resolve to remember what it was like when it still existed. In her beautiful “Elegy for a Country’s Seasons” Zadie Smith wrote of the newly erratic weather, an increasing abolition of the seasons which we’ve all noticed by now. “In the end, the only thing that could create the necessary traction in our minds was the intimate loss of the things we loved.”
By the waters of the Atlantic, and the Pacific, and the Indian we shall lie down and weep, for how shall we remember you Amsterdam, Venice, New York, in this brave new world, with so few people in it? Our tongues should cleave to the roof of our mouths, and our hands should wither, for we did not save you when we could. Memory is but a veil of shadows, but it may be all that we have left, and it is the job of the humanist to preserve these songs, it is to record testimony and to bare witness for the coming wars, and genocides, and collapses. As the humanities had to face apocalypse before, so shall she have to face it again. Let us begin.
Essay first published on Marginalia, June 20, 2016.