I don’t know about you, but when I read the newspaper these days, I end up wanting to crawl under the bed and hide. The world seems to be heading to hell in a handbag, and there doesn’t seem to be a damn thing any of us can do about it.
Devastation in Japan, which followed the devastation in Christchurch New Zealand, which followed in the wake of the still-devastated Haiti; the very real possibility of radiation clouds from Japan blowing around, sprinkling invisible deadly raindrops across the world (isn’t this how Godzilla was born?); the very real possibility that Quaddafi will decide to drop ever bigger bombs on “his” own citizens; the violence and unrest in a string of countries across North Africa and into the Arab world…and that’s just the international news.
In my own little world: a friend is having a mastectomy tomorrow to remove the cancerous tumors in her breast. She’s a year younger than I am and has two kids, the youngest of whom is in fifth grade. Another friend’s mother just died after a bout with lung cancer; the daughter-in-law of another friend died last month of brain cancer, leaving behind two kids in high school. Another friend’s little girl just had a liver biopsy to see if she’s got some kind of auto-immune disorder; my aunt just had major back surgery, and yet another friend is confronting radiation treatments following three unsuccessful brain surgeries. Maybe it’s me: maybe I am my own little cancer cluster, walking around contaminating people. A person could get superstitious about all this illness, and that starts another downward spiral: the water is dirty, the air is dirty, politicians are dirty, corporations are dirty. Bob Herbert is leaving the Times (with a scathing last column in which he pretty much confirms that yes: U.S., hell, handbag). That means that pretty much we’re only left with Gail Collins and Jon Stewart speaking the truth to power these days.
To complete this list of woe, let’s add last week’s New York weather: after a perfect warm sunshiney St. Patrick’s day, we’ve had snow, sleet, rain, bitter winds, and a little snow-thunder-lightning thrown in for good measure.
See? Now you want to get under the covers with a pillow over your head too. It’s the only possible coping mechanism in the face of all this woe.
The other day my students were talking about feeling helpless in the face of what is happening in Japan and North Africa, and while they were too polite to say so out loud, the thought bubbles were clear above their heads “why the hell am I reading Frankenstein?” “why should I care about poetry?” “what is the point of these literature courses anyway?”
Frankly, I’d been thinking sort of the same thing as I’d made my way to class in the freezing monsoon: I’d been not only wishing I were still home in fuzzy slippers but I’d also been wondering how (and why) I could expect college sophomores to pay any attention to Serious Literature (insert clenched-jaw William F. Buckley voice here).
I found the answer—or an answer—in calamity. In “Calamity Song,” to be more precise. It’s a song on the Decemberists new album, and the lyrics sketch out a picture of a world in a state of collapse: “you and me and the war of the end-times” they sing; the chorus reminds us that “all that remains are the arms of the angels.” Not the peppiest of thoughts—but the music makes me want to sing out loud, tap my feet, maybe jump and down a little bit. It’s impossible to sit still.
Out of calamity, then, music. In a dark moment, creation.
That’s what I told my students when I got to class that morning. Not that they should get the Decemberists album (although they should, and so should you), but that the reason we pay attention to art is because in the last resort all we have to defend ourselves against despair is our imagination. Imagination allows us empathize, sympathize, ask questions, explore solutions, reflect instead of react, create. In the face of chaos, what else do we have?
I don’t mean necessarily that we should all stop giving donations to the Red Cross and send them pretty pictures instead, but that in the products of the human imagination we see what it means—what it has meant—to be human. We see the diversity of human experience, and the universality of human experience: we see that it is possible to bridge differences rather than erase (or kill) difference.
Robert Frost once said that poetry is a momentary stay against confusion. Maybe that’s all we can hope for, interspersed between moments of personal and global devastation. It’s not much, I suppose, although out of such momentary stays we get—well, Frost; and Shakespeare, and REM, and the Decemberists, and Bob Dylan, Michael Franti, and Billie Holiday; Verdi, Puccini, Brahms; Calatrava’s bridges, Wright’s Fallingwaters, and the Brooklyn Bridge. Maybe these “stays against confusion” are what the Decemberists mean by the arms of the angels?
It may not be much; it may not solve the world’s problems, but at least now I can get the pillow off my head.