In recent years, I have become more acquainted with cancer than one might find comfortable. Cancer was responsible for the most formative event in my life, the death of my sister when she was twenty-five, just as my childhood was ending. The rest of my life has taken place in the context of this event, in ways almost none of my family nor my closest friends had or have any real appreciation. Six years ago my wife was diagnosed with cancer. Although she survived, in mutilated fashion, one has had to live through treatment and through almost annual scares in the years since. This year, my mother died as a result of a cancer. As I get older, and the probability of me developing cancer increases, I feel like a member of a herd of animals, a herd attacked by predators who pick off individuals. The survivors are relieved, but fearful. I do not claim any special status in writing this. I expect that at least a million individuals in the world can share a story similar to mine, if not millions.
That's why I recommend this podcast, in which a literary critic, D G Myers, mortally ill with cancer, talks about how he copes with a death sentence, and what it tells him about life. His advice is sound, speaking as a witness to cancer, and I recommend those who have need of such advice to pay heed. However, I'm more interested here in discussing other things that the podcast raises.
Myers and his interlocutor, a Stanford University economics professor named Russ Roberts, both raise a point about what one might call a history of perception. Roberts mentions how in the nineteenth century children might be taken on visits to cemeteries as a kind of exercise in memento mori, a concept I haven't observed used by a living person in a non-monumental environment since 1983 and even then in a proto-hipsterish ironic way. Death, of course, was a much more familiar rite of passage to people a hundred and fifty years ago because of infant mortality, shorter lifespans and a poorer understanding of the causes of disease, as well as a general lack of safety measures on trains, ferries or even the street. Mourning was expected in a more religious society, as was a cult of the dead, who were seen to have a role still in life. We were expected to pray for them both on their behalf, and to intercede on ours. Nowadays, however, we tend to obey the Gospel injunction of the Lord of Life in Matthew VIII:22. Except on officially sanctioned occasions that serve to commemorate service to the state, such as Armistice Day, we are encouraged to put mourning behind us quickly. This was most significantly observed by Geoffrey Gorer, a friend to George Orwell, an anthropologist, and a decidedly Anglo-American figure. Gorer held that mourning, by the 1960s, had become like sexual urges during the Victorian era. To be too open about it was something shameful, a burden to those around one. This attitude still persists today. Yet, as Myers points out, death and the accompanying grief are important reminders to us that our time has value, We are only allowed so much of it, and we should consider carefully what matters, before the doctor's diagnosis forces us to consider what matters.
As Roberts negotiates his way past the mortality of Myers, asking about lists of good novels or forgotten writers (which, to digress, tragically includes Graham Greene, according to them) he comes to discuss the environment that both work in, the Groves of Academe. Myers throughout makes some telling points about the difference between 'creative writing' and 'literature', and the problem of having practitioners of the one teach the other. They conclude with a discussion of the transformation of the Groves, into corporate bureaucracies that have reached the conclusion that an English Literature degree does not require the study of Shakespeare, let alone Milton or Chaucer. As a Classicist, I could have told Myers that this was inevitable once the study of Latin and Classical Greek had been marginalised, instead of being the bedrock of a humanistic tradition in education that reached back to the fifteenth century in Europe. 'First they came for the Classicists, &c'. What students get, more or less, is an offering of lecturers' hobbies, and the student can pick and choose amongst them, and thereby reach a personal connection to English Literature that in its essence divides him or her from fellow students. Whereas in the past the completion of the degree was to share in a tradition, now the object is to satisfy appetites of both teacher and taught.
I don't think I'm wrong to connect the reduction of a societal emphasis on marginalising a continuing connection to the dead with the reduction of personal emphasis in education from shared experience to individual development. Both are a consequence of Modernity, that condition that marks our own time from that of the now-dead. The themes of Modernity are The New, The Young, Fashion, Consumption (or as I prefer to designate it, Appetite), Celebration and The Individual. Before was about The Tradition, The Mature, Ritual, Preservation, Duty and The Group. To connect to the past is dangerous, because it delays The New, reminds The Young that they will be old, shows us that Fashion will fade, that Appetite will impoverish, that Celebration must end and that The Individual to dust shalt return. Paradoxically, the more that the centres of power shift from the individual to the corporate, the more that this individualist collection of themes comes to dominate cultural discourse. The family-owned shop or diner is replaced by the chain or franchise. The Anglosphere led the way in supplanting individual investors with shareholding capital organised through 'unit trusts' or 'mutual funds'. Even in sports, the local team becomes secondary to the Major-League one.
The corporate entities that dominate Modernity are themselves in principle eternal. They have the potential to outlast their personnel, to stand as paper assemblages of capital as long as the Sphinx or the Pyramids. The monarch may die, but the Crown endures. In this way, and in this only, Modernity has a capacity to resist change. Modernity's desire for change is only motivated by its need to control, and by continuous rupturing of the social environment its to disorienting changes transform us from people with a past and with traditions into goldfish living in a perpetual now. Looking out of our bowls we are frightened into a false obliviousness of our inescapable end. Traditions and rituals connect us to a death that renders all that Fashion, all that Appetite, meaningless. Modernity ignores the final change of all, Death.
Yet when confronted with death-change we identify what is important and we focus on that. These important things, if Myers is to be believed, are tied to friends and family (a group), habitual pleasures (rituals) and a request to be treated with honesty as the same person as one was before the diagnosis (preservation). Tradition connects us not only to the past, but also to the future. Those cultural traditions that we share with those who came before are ones we can also share with those who shall come after. I don't think it is any accident that that Dante Alighieri was led from the Inferno to Paradise by a poet who had been dead for 1300 years at the time he found himself in a dark wood wandering.