as essential as bread

People often talk about the death of the humanities, or hard times for the humanities, but when they do what they really mean is the death of or hard times for humanities departments in universities. But humanities departments in universities are not the humanities. There’s a really interesting passage in Leszek Kołakowski’s book Metaphysical Horror in which he discusses the many times that philosophers have made a “farewell to philosophy,” have declared philosophy dead or finished. Kołakowski says that when all of the “issues that once formed the kernel of philosophical reflection” have been dismissed by professional philosophers, that doesn’t actually silence the ancient questions that once defined philosophy.

But such things, although we may shunt them aside, ban them from acceptable discourse and declare them shameful, do not simply go away, for they are an ineradicable part of culture. Either they survive, temporarily silent, in the underground of civilization, or they find an outlet in distorted forms of expression.… Excommunications do not necessarily kill. Our sensibility to the traditional worries of philosophy has not weathered away; it survives subcutaneously, as it were, ready to reveal its presence at the slightest accidental provocation.

I believe this to be true, and therefore, while I am concerned by the likely fate of our universities and by the ways that so many professors in the humanities have been stupidly complicit in their own demise, I don’t worry about the death of the humanities. Though I don’t agree with Philip Larkin’s view that people will eventually stop worshipping in churches, I think he’s right when he says, near the end of “Church Going,” that ”someone will forever be surprising / A hunger in himself to be more serious,” and when that happens such a person will gravitate towards all the great works of the past — and of the present too, though that will feel less necessary — even though the whole of society heaps scorn on all that our ancestors have done.

Here’s how we’ll know that things have gotten really bad in our society: People will start turning to Homer and Dante and Bach and Mozart. Czeslaw Milosz — like Kołakowski, a Pole, perhaps not a trivial correspondence — wrote that “when an entire community is struck by misfortune, for instance, the Nazi occupation of Poland, the ‘schism between the poet and the great human family’ disappears and poetry becomes as essential as bread.”

I think often, those days, of Emily St. John Mandel’s haunting novel Station Eleven, in which the great majority of human beings have been killed by a deadly plague, and those who remain live at a near-subsistence level. Even so, some musicians and actors have banded together to form an itinerant troupe, the Travelling Symphony.

The Symphony performed music — classical, jazz, orchestral arrangements of pre-collapse pop songs — and Shakespeare. They’d performed more modern plays sometimes in the first few years, but what was startling, what no one would have anticipated, was that audiences seemed to prefer Shakespeare to their other theatrical offerings.

“People want what was best about the world,” Dieter said.