R. R. Reno
When I was a teacher I would advise students to read dead writers. “Let time be your editor.” In that spirit I have been reading Josef Pieper's classic Happiness and Contemplation. This short book is subtle and simple—the perfect combination. I've also been re-reading Richard Weaver's last book, Visions of Order. Weaver blends Aristotle with modern sociology to argue that a healthy society requires form, and form is manifest in authority and hierarchy. One problem with modern culture is that it encourages us to think that what we prize most—freedom—requires formlessness.
While reading Wolf Hall, Hilary Mantel's hefty 2009 historical novel, you can't help finding some sympathy for Socrates when he banishes the poets from the ideal republic. As Humphrey Bogart would say, “She's good, she's very good!”—and that's the problem. The protagonist is Thomas Cromwell. I am 150 pages in, and have followed Cromwell as he assists and advises Cardinal Wolsey, endures Henry VIII's mood swings, takes the measure of Thomas More, and sees the plague carry off his wife and daughters. The narration is brisk, the characterizations sharp, the dialogue well-attuned to plots and schemes and rivalries and politics at the highest level. There are very few false notes struck so far.
But here is what my Catholic tutor, an expert on St. Thomas More, says of Mantel: “She's dangerous! She just makes things up!” He can't believe that this fabricator of anti-More calumnies should enjoy so much success. Or rather, he believes it and understands it. As he confessed to me, Mantel is a brilliant re-creator of time and place and personages, and that counts for more than historical accuracy. After all, it's only a novel.
More has appeared in the text only a few times, but one of them is a memorable moment that tars him as vicious and perverse. The cardinal has lost the favor of the king, who has confiscated his possessions and allowed dozens of charges to be prepared against him. The king wants to be rid of his first wife and father a son with Anne Boleyn. Wolsey isn't helping as much as he should, Henry thinks. Cromwell is a brilliant defender of Wolsey and reviews the case.
Here is where More comes in:
Thomas More, the Lord Chancellor, has put his signature first on all the articles against Wolsey. They say one strange allegation has been added at his behest. The cardinal is accused of whispering in the king's ear and breathing into his face; since the cardinal has the French pox, he intended to infect our monarch.
When [Cromwell] hears this, he thinks, imagine living inside the Lord Chancellor's head. Imagine writing down such a charge and taking it to the printer, and circulating it through the court and through the realm, putting it out there to where people will believe anything; putting it out there, to the shepherds on the hills, to Tyndale's plowboy, to the beggar on the roads and the patient beast in its byre or stall; out there to the bitter winter winds, and to the weak early sun, and the snowdrops in the London gardens.
I plan to read that to my tutor when we continue our discussion of Romans and hear what he has to say. Perhaps he might savor the irony of Mantel's Cromwell complaining about a prominent figure spreading lies across the land. And then read commentaries in our own First Things pages: Patricia Snow's “The Devil and Hilary Mantel,” George Weigel's “‘Wolf Hall' and Up-Market anti-Catholicism,” and Mark Movsesian's “Thomas More, Villain.”
Given the state of things, and my own persistent low-grade morbidity, I recently turned to plague literature. Not Boccaccio or Camus (yet), but Emily St. John Mandel’s Station Eleven, which is set in the immediate aftermath of the “Georgia Flu,” a pandemic that obliterated 99 percent of the Earth’s population. Those who remain hole up together in unusual places: abandoned Shell stations, rural airports, motels, and former resort towns. But the centerpiece is a rag-tag group of actors and musicians who roam the North American wasteland performing selected plays of Shakespeare, and who style themselves “The Traveling Symphony.”
There are twenty or so members of the Symphony, many of whom are named only by their instruments—the clarinet, the tuba, the sixth guitar. They travel in caravans all around what used to be the Midwest and the Great Lakes region. We learn the most about one member, Kirsten, who was eight years old the night the Flu took hold in North America.
On the evening everything changed, that moment that split the world into “before” and “after,” she was in a production of King Lear, acting as an apparition of one of Lear’s daughters. She watches Lear die of a heart attack on stage, horrified at the loss of a friend and confidante. Just hours before, the actor—Arthur—had gifted Kirsten with two comic books in an unknown series: Station Eleven. The comic’s sci-fi wasteland is a harbinger of things to come, and throughout the novel we learn about the mysterious history of the Station Eleven comics, as well as the way they have profoundly shaped several others who were close to Arthur.
Most post-apocalyptic tales are told in the immediate aftermath of disaster, but much of the action in Station Eleven takes place twenty years after society’s collapse. Twenty years is an ample amount of time, perhaps time enough to at least think about rebuilding society. But Mandel’s vision doesn’t leave room for reconstruction other than her Symphony, and their spare and squalid life leads me to wonder if their motto—“Because survival is insufficient”—is enough in the face of mass tragedy. Their motivation to live isn’t fueled by their art, and their conversations don’t reveal a triumphant and undaunted human spirit. Instead, they wonder about the Internet. They consider the functioning refrigerator—what it would be like to open one and feel a flood of cool air and soft light on one’s face. They fantasize about leaving garbage in bags at the curb.
The book’s epigraph, taken from Czesław Miłosz’s The Separate Notebooks, is equally bleak:
The bright side of the planet moves toward darkness
And the cities are falling asleep, each in its hour,
And for me, now as then, it is too much.
There is too much world.
Even when there’s barely a world left for the Traveling Symphony, the players fill their free time and spend their energies on those things that were perhaps, on the balance, “too much.” In the midst of civilization’s collapse, the world is still too much with them, to use Wordsworth’s formulation.
The book ends in the Museum of Civilization, a dusty collection of credit cards, cell phones, driver’s licenses, and souvenir snow globes—hardly a panoply of world civilization’s greatest cultural achievements. The art of our necessities is strange that can make vile things precious, says Lear. Upon finishing and closing this text, I did what felt only appropriate in response: I went back to where Mandel’s story begins, back to basics, and opened King Lear.
Photo from Folger Shakespeare Library Digital Image Collection via Creative Commons. Image cropped.