The Homebound Symphony

Much of Emily St. John Mandel’s novel Station Eleven, set largely in Michigan some twenty years after a global pandemic kills 99% of humanity —  focuses on the experiences of the Traveling 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 [the leader of the Orchestra] said. 

Later we learn that “All three caravans of the Traveling Symphony are labeled as such, THE TRAVELING SYMPHONY lettered in white on both sides, but the lead caravan carries an additional line of text: Because survival is insufficient.” Dieter says, “That quote on the lead caravan would be way more profound if we hadn’t lifted it from Star Trek,” but not everyone agrees that the quote’s origin is a problem. Take wisdom where you find it, is their view. 

In his dyspeptic screed of fifty years ago, In Bluebeard’s Castle, George Steiner talks about living in a “post-culture” — a society whose culture has died even if its monuments may remain: 

At great pains and cost, Altstädtte, whole cities, have been rebuilt, stone by num bered stone, geranium pot by geranium pot. Photographic ally there is no way of telling; the patina on the gables is even richer than before. But there is something unmistakably amiss. Go to Dresden or Warsaw, stand in one of the exquisitely recomposed squares in Verona, and you will feel it. The perfection of renewal has a lacquered depth. As if the light at the cornices had not been restored, as if the air were inappropriate and carried still an edge of fire. There is nothing mystical to this impression; it is almost painfully literal. It may be that the coherence of an ancient thing is harmonic with time, that the perspective of a street, of a roof line, that have lived their natural being can be replicated but not re-created (even where it is, ideally, in distinguishable from the original, reproduction is not the vital form ). Handsome as it is, the Old City of Warsaw is a stage set; walking through it, the living create no active resonance. It is the image of those precisely restored house fronts, of those managed lights and shadows which I keep in mind when trying to discriminate between what is ir retrievable — though it may still be about — and what has in it the pressure of life.

A powerful passage; but, while I agree with Steiner that we are living in a kind of post-culture, I reject his language of the “irretrievable,” or as he says elsewhere in that essay, “irreparable.” I’ll explain why. 

First the bad news. I don’t know a statement more indicative of the character of our moment than this by J. D. Vance: “I think our people hate the right people.” It’s what almost everyone believes these days, isn’t it? That they and their people hate the right people. And it seems to me that that is a pretty good definition of a post-culture: a society in which people have no higher ambition than to bring down those they perceive to be their enemies. I couldn’t agree more with my friend Yuval Levin that our moment is A Time to Build, but when you’re only concerned with hating the right people, who has time to build anything? 

There are a lot of people out there doing good work to expose the absurdities, the hypocrisies, and the sheer destructiveness of both the Left and the Right. I myself did some of that work for several years, but I’m not inclined to keep doing it, largely because that work of critique, however necessary, lacks a constructive dimension. There has to be something better we can do than curse our enemies — or the darkness of the present moment. If I agree with Yuval that this is indeed a time to build, then what can I build?

And as regular readers of this blog know, my particular emphasis is not on building from scratch but on restoring, renewing, and repairing. As Steiner notes, the remnants of Culture Lost surround us — still more so than when he wrote those words: the great benefit of the Internet is its ability to preserve cultural artifacts that very few people have any use for today. But such preservation is not automatic and inevitable. On the Internet, things get lost, links stop working, even the Wayback Machine is not able to rescue everything, though it rescues a hell of a lot. My task, as I now conceive it, is not to engage in critique but rather to bear a small light and keep it burning for the next generation and maybe the generation after that. I want to find what is wise and good and beautiful and true and pass along to my readers as much of it as I can, in a form that will be accessible and comprehensible to them.

That last point is worth emphasizing. Great works of art and of wisdom cannot always speak clearly for themselves: they often need an interpreter. And sometimes they need to be revised to some degree to make them useful to us. This is why I have talked about vendoring culture: the creative activity of making accessible and vivid what otherwise could be inscrutable and might therefore seem pointless. It is a teacherly thing to do, I suppose, and that makes sense for me, because I have never been able to think of myself primarily as a scholar or a writer but rather as a teacher who writes. Wordsworth famously wrote “what we have loved, others will love, and we will teach them how” – but if we don’t teach them how, then there is very little chance that they will indeed love what we have loved.

Station Eleven had the Traveling Symphony: I’m trying to be the Homebound Symphony. Just one person sitting in my study with a computer on my lap, reading and listening and viewing, and recording and sifting and transmitting – sharing the good, the true, and the beautiful, with added commentary. The initial purpose of this work is to repair, not the whole culture, but just my own attention. On a daily basis I retrain my mind to attend to what is worthy. It is the task of a lifetime, especially in an environment which strives constantly to commandeer my attention, to remove it from my control, to make me a passive consumer of what others wish me to look at or listen to. 

So first of all I’m doing this work — this blog; my essays; my books; my newsletter, which is all about praise and delight — for myself, but one of the reasons that I can be disciplined in redirecting my attention is that I’ve learned that if I do so it can be helpful to others. That’s really been the great lesson for me of the last few weeks — since I started my Buy Me a Coffee page: I’ve learned that a few people appreciate the ways in which I can help them redirect their own attention. 

As David Samuels has said in a memorable essay, “My problem is how to escape from it all in order to continue being me. The aim of any sane person in an age like this one is to be free to love the people you love and secure the freedom of one’s own thoughts, the same way you step out of the way of an oncoming truck.” But it’s not only about continuing being myself, or even about loving my family and friends (though that love should always be my first priority). Survival is insufficient. I also feel an obligation to cup my hand around a candle to shield its flame in the strong winds. As the book of Proverbs teaches us, “The spirit of man” — including the manifestations of that spirit in art and music and story — “is the candle of the Lord.” My job is to keep that candle burning and pass it along to those who come after me. I don’t think anything that we’ve lost or neglected is irretrievable or irreparable, not even if I fail in my duty. I think often about what Tom Stoppard’s Alexander Herzen says near the end of The Coast of Utopia: “The idea will not perish. What we let fall will be picked up by those behind. I can hear their childish voices on the hill.”