I need a little literary throat clearing in order to put this idea into play, because as is often the case, something I’ve read set off a confusing chain of associations that called for further reflection, and, if I’m lucky, a slight shift in my habitual thoughts about the world, life, the future, mankind, existence, etc. I don’t like to think of my mental life as habitual, but whatever mentation is, it appears to dive fairly easily into some fairly rigidly engineered constructions. So, when something jars me a bit, I try to summon some gratitude, as I did in reading Station Eleven by Emily St. John Mandel.
Station Eleven presents a not-very-far-in-the-future apocalyptic narrative, neatly alternating relatively ordinary events in the lives of the contemporary characters before the plague that obliterates most of the world’s population with the foreshortened and dangerous lives they lead post-disaster as a small band of survivors about twenty years after the end of life as they knew it. There is no rhyme or reason to survival of the plague. Passengers on one flight miss infection and live to form a new community huddling in the remnants of the airport; another plane filled with passengers already infected sits on the same tarmac, diseased bodies decomposing in the locked cabins. In the course of a week, the age of technology ends; electricity, for example, becomes a thing of the past. The small bands of survivors scavenge as they can, looting stores and homes until, by the sixth or seventh year, they live in quasi-tribal settlements amid the ruins, hunting, gathering, and stockpiling weapons to protect themselves in a world that is without the rule of law.
All pretty much the apocalyptic fare exceedingly well written, but there are two additional elements that make the novel uncommonly arresting.
The first is that twenty years on, those who were children have but dim memory of the world as it was; they cling to tales told by older survivors, barely recalling what it was to have enjoyed television and comic books. Older survivors essentially live in the ruins of the world they knew, simultaneously wistful in remembering simple pleasures – bagels, coffee, bananas – and saddened in recognizing that they had taken so much for granted.
The second is that a multi-generation band of actors, musicians, and artists travel from settlement to settlement performing Shakespeare’s plays. Like the performers and lecturers who travelled the Chautauqua Circuit, these survivors believe that art, beauty, and Shakespeare are necessary to life, even in perilous circumstance, and travel through this world is one perilous circumstance after another. Some members of the company have fought for their lives; they commemorate the necessary death of their assailant by placing a tattoo of a knife after each kill. This is a landscape red in tooth and claw, and yet, one of the actors also has a tattoo that reads, “Survival is insufficient”.
That character believes he has recalled a line from Star Trek, and he has come close. In the third season, “The Hunted”, an exchange between Prime Minister Nayrock and Roga Danar might have become heated, were Roga Danar, the mutated super warrior, actually capable of heat. Relentless slaughter, that he can pull off; conversation, not his strong suit. In any case, not unreasonably, Nayrock has plans to send Danar to the settlement known as Lunar V. Danar thinks this a poor idea.
Nayrock: You were programmed to survive. You can survive at the Lunar V Settlement.
Roga Danar: To survive is not enough. To simply exist … is not enough
OK, first time I’ve quoted Star Trek. May be the last. With regard to Station Eleven, however, it is quasi-poignant that this particular nugget survives as one of the few cultural landmarks placed next to King Lear, and it is difficult to think of another piece of apocalyptica that presents a credo as a legacy of an earlier age.
The statement has weight in the context of a world in which the amenities we take for granted have been lost, and it pulled me way back to one of the hundreds of unassigned books I read when I might have been actually participating in what my college believed to be formal education. The book was Homo Ludens, by Dutch cultural historian, Johan Huizinga, an author I knew well as two of his earlier books, The Waning of the Middle Ages and Erasmus, were among the assigned books I actually read. Huizinga’s thesis in Homo Ludens has some punch. “Play is older than culture, for culture, however inadequately defined, always presupposes human society, and animals have not waited for man to teach them their playing.”
Got it. Even animals (other animals) play. it seems that simple survival is not sufficient.
Huizinga took me down an altogether different and rocky path as he went along, noting that while many significant terms passed into the Romance languages, ludens and ludere were not among them. He had much to say about play and contest as what he called civilizing functions, but I was back in my language hut again, trying to figure out why words leave a culture and what meaning language has in the essential characteristics of a culture.
So, commonly used phrases, “getting by”, “hanging in there”, “killing time” seem dangerously close to statements of simple existence, which is, as we now know, insufficient in a culture.
We don’t have to be a noted Dutch historian to figure out that play, and friendship, and beauty, and humor allow us at least as much sustenance as dolphins and Roga Danar seek. I understand that tough times do demand that we hunker down to some extent, but whether we quote Hamlet or watch Survivor (and I do both), we need to live broadly, way beyond survival.