It’s natural to find the thought that what we build in our life will die with us disturbing. (Though forms of its lasting can also be distressing; in his poem “Posterity,” Philip Larkin imagines being summed up by an irritated, unenthusiastic future biographer with “Oh, you know the thing / That crummy textbook stuff from Freshman Psych.”) No one wants to die. To ourselves, we matter, and we want what we do to matter to somebody else. We want our sacrifices to be worth it in a transcendent sense, our pain to have a purpose, our achievements to be permanent. A handful of life paths — intellectual and artistic work in particular — are about trying to create, as Horace wrote, “a monument more lasting than bronze.” They are a calculated gamble that a life dedicated to the difficult and narrow path will continue after our death, however unrewarding it might have been to experience. […]
Most scholarship is also not going to live forever. Is it therefore not worth doing? I wouldn’t say so. It’s worth it to maintain gardens and repair buildings and restore artworks. No one’s work lives forever on its own. It stays alive because someone keeps it so. Here again, greatness requires humility: other people’s. The task of thinking is worthwhile even if your thoughts prove to be of limited usefulness. The tasks of reading, of appreciation, of interpretation, are worthwhile, even if next year there is a new essay that supersedes yours, or a new book. If we have chosen to live our lives this way, it is because something about it strikes us as the best way we can spend our time.
When I was in graduate school I read a book by a scholar named Michael O’Loughlin with the unwieldy title The Garlands of Repose: The Literary Celebration of Civic and Retired Leisure: The Traditions of Homer and Vergil, Horace and Montaigne. I was greatly taken with it. Before I read that book, it had never occurred to me that there could be different kinds of leisure, with different purposes, different characters; nor had I thought about just how essential leisure is to human culture. (Maybe O’Loughlin hadn’t thought about that either, before reading Josef Pieper.) I also loved the way O’Loughlin identified thematic harmonies that linked works written over a period of 2000 years. It seemed to me a model of what my own literary criticism could be.
When I read the book, I was expecting to become a specialist in seventeenth-century literature, but my path veered in a different direction, so I have rarely had the opportunity, over the years, to cite it. But it has had a lasting effect on my thinking. For instance, it has deeply informed the way I read W. H. Auden, that most Horatian of modern poets. My critiques of technocracy and my interest in “repairing the world” stem from a belief that one of the best things we can do for our culture, and for those who join it after us, is to create a space for healthy leisure. Even my recent thinking about Taoism is influenced by what I read in The Garlands of Repose all those years ago.
Another way to put that is to say that O’Loughlin’s book — I believe the only one he ever published — became a part of my intellectual DNA. And maybe something I write will spark something for a reader — a scholar or a writer or a pastor or teacher or who knows what — and become part of her DNA. Maybe she’ll never quote me — maybe she’ll never even realize that she wouldn’t have had that idea if she hadn’t read my essay — but in that way my thought will become part of someone else’s intellectual genome, and through her will make some difference in the world. If so, then her thought will be indebted to a scholar she probably has never have heard of: Michael O’Loughlin.
As with my writing, so with my teaching. Maybe some word of mine will become a part of a student’s intellectual or moral or spiritual inheritance, and in that way play a role in his life, and then, through his influence, in the lives of others. Just as my own voice is shaped and formed by the voices of others — Bakhtin taught me this — so others will appropriate for themselves and their purposes ideas they first heard in my voice.
I don’t expect that anyone will be reading my stuff after I die — I expect that I’ll be wholly forgotten before I die, if I live to a good age — but I almost never think about that. At the end of Middlemarch George Eliot says of Dorothea that “the effect of her being on those around her was incalculably diffusive: for the growing good of the world is partly dependent on unhistoric acts,” and that captures better than I can my convictions on this point. Diffusive is the key word: an influence that subtly spreads, perhaps without anyone noticing. I find that model of influence more encouraging and comforting than any hopes for fame could ever be.