An Awful Rainbow: possible introduction, part 2.

Students stand near the statue of John Keats at Guy’s Hospital, reading his poetry aloud, in spring 2019. There’s a backstory to the little white daisies.

Part 2 of possible introduction to An Awful Rainbow: Reading the Romantics in a World on Fire. Read Part One here.

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We Frankenstein pilgrims came home to a year that only got scarier. First, there was barely-averted war with Iran. The presidential caucus – Iowa’s pride and joy – came apart in our hands.  Then the COVID-19 pandemic hit, with climate change towering behind it as droughts and hurricanes and heatwaves frog-marched us toward a world in which, as climate warrior Bill McKibben writes, “the living will envy the dead.”[1] (Thirty more years, maybe?) Albert Camus’ novel The Plague sold out as the country entered quarantine lockdown. Refrigerated trucks pulled up outside hospitals in Milan and Manhattan to hold bodies. Cellphone videos recorded the ongoing police killings of black people, and the protests touched off by the May 25 murder of George Floyd in Minneapolis, three hours north of our campus. Unembarrassed, a House-impeached President continued to loot what was once the dignity of his office for red-meat Twitter soundbites, Bible-clutching photo ops, and gifts for his children and his friends, while mocking dead soldiers as “losers” and “suckers.” (He “does not understand non-transactional life choices,” writes Atlantic editor Jeffrey Goldberg, in a masterpiece of understatement.) As the COVID-19 pandemic deepened toward 200,000 American deaths, so did paranoia and spite: one man pulled a gun on a Costco employee who asked him to please put on a simple face mask at the door. A fresh wave of West Coast wildfires is raging from fireworks sparked at baby-gender-reveal parties. After the death on September 18 of Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg (aka “Notorious RBG”), a further emboldened, House-impeached President not only declared his intention to replace her with a walking church-and-state-conflict of a judge but coyly suggested that he, and his armed supporters, would not respect the results of the Nov. 3 election if he loses. Praying that 2020 has exhausted its store of wretchedness and hoping a vaccine will redeem 2021, I can’t help asking: what’s happened to us?

All this chaos and its aftereffects land most unfairly on people under 30; nevertheless, they’re powering on as best they can. Zadie Smith writes in her essay collection Intimations: “The infinite promise of American youth — a promise elaborately articulated by movies and advertisements and university prospectuses — has been an empty lie for so long that I notice my students joking about it with a black humor more appropriate to old men, to the veterans of wars.” R., a 2018 graduate, tells me she and her friends feel “exhausted” by what seems the defining note of their lives: precarity in every direction. Everyone she knows has a side hustle, she says, “and that’s just the norm.” B., a 2016 grad on the eve of quitting a tech job he hates to fight voter suppression in Wisconsin, offers a striking metaphor for his generation’s plight: “corporations have stripped all the copper wire out of the house, and we’re just trying to turn on the lights.” N., who thought of starting a club for low-income students at my school and who dreams of becoming a writer, described a sense of being nickel-and-dimed to death – a constant precarity that, to echo R.’s words, is exhausting. “Our students know they’re heading into a diminished world,” says my colleague. And as fall semester 2020 dawns, Year One of the Pandemic Era, I’ve just taught my first class in a mask to students wearing masks, sitting six feet apart at desks I will sanitize with bleach and paper towels for the next group once they leave. Yet my school has welcomed them back to campus, because they are desperate to be out of their childhood bedrooms and back in something like the forward-moving life we’ve promised them. As a college freshman in 1992, I doubt I’d have dealt as well as they have with the disappointments of this year of quarantine and Zoom: no prom, no graduation, no “normal” first semester of college. Resilient? They’re working on it.

Newsflash: it hasn’t always been this way. I taught my first composition class to first-year students at the University of North Carolina as a graduate student in 1998, and I’ve taught a version of it to the same population almost every semester of my life since then. So, although nineteen-year-olds by nature aren’t that different – evolution just doesn’t move that fast – I can see how they are deeply and ever-more-rapidly affected by two big changes in the world beyond college in the last 25 years. One is the Internet. The second is the economic world it’s helped to build.

By now, it’s time to admit that the Internet, once so utopian, has been terrible for humans, nonhumans, and our shared world in more ways than we can know. Sure, it’s kept us going and able to work and “go to school” remotely, then to numb ourselves with Netflix (hey, me too) during the pandemic. But as it and its weltanschaaung have become ubiquitous, so have previously-only-suspected varieties of human meanness, stupidity, and greed. They’ve spilled out into our culture like hog waste into groundwater – no idle metaphor here in Iowa. The Internet concentrates wealth for the robot-owners (like Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos, who’s now worth $183 billion) and dilutes it for everyone else, just as it dilutes our shared sense of intellectual curiosity, general knowledge, and plain old decency. Artists, once assured that the Internet would make us rich, can now only bitterly laugh.[3]  Social media, in the words of the Center for Humane Technology, makes everyone wear “outrage-and-division glasses” through which we see (and stoke) an increasingly angry, divided world without being able to see the glasses themselves. And as economic and climate precarity grow, so does anxiety – the fuel, and the product, of our online world, which is different in degree and kind than what came before. First, students had never not known “the internet” in general. Now (born around 2001), they have never not known social media and all the quasi-social worlds like gaming, YouTube, and 4chan that shift our “real lives” online, out of sight, and addict the pleasure-centers in our brains like opioids or booze. We’re activated instantly by a desire to respond to, then stage that response for, social media – regardless of whether that leads us to do or say things that are actually good and true. [4]

Perhaps no college graduates have ever felt completely assured of the future, but my students are more deeply uncertain than I’ve ever seen students before.  Yet even as wealth is concentrated into fewer hands, [5] college still appears as a wedge to jam in the door to middle-class prosperity, holding it open for you and your family to slip through. The high-stakes investment affects students’ choices of majors and courses, which trickles back into colleges’ staffing and their bottom line and the general higher-ed landscape all the way back to K-12, even as K-12, defunded and DeVos’d, is also crumbling despite the increasingly desperate heroics of the increasingly smaller number of teachers who are left to give a damn.[6] Left with apparently no choice, students take on massive debt which many colleges – like mine – take out in fees even as we are also struggling to keep costs down and even as our own budgets shrink.[7] All these things erode an education – that once-stable foundation for opportunity and society – out from under students’ feet, even the students who are working hard and doing everything right.

Educational psychology says, correctly, that anxious people have trouble learning. This goes all the way back to Maslow’s hierarchy of needs: if you can’t eat or sleep soundly in a safe place, you can’t make your paintings on the wall of your cave. Intellectual curiosity goes down when your energy is spent in figuring out your next meal. And our Internet-centric economy has heightened economic precarity even within the walls of colleges, the places most designed to alleviate it.[8]  Many campuses (like ours) have food pantries now. Many campuses (like ours) give out more in aid than we take in in tuition. I know of students who balk at turning on Zoom cameras because their boyfriends have given them black eyes, or they don’t want to show classmates where they live. Yet college is still the wedge in that narrow gate, an honorable place in an economic landscape pretending to honor the little person while actually shutting them out. As tech helps concentrate more wealth in fewer hands, evil ExxonMobil is losing ground to “Don’t be evil” Google. But let’s not look to tech titans for real solutions: Zuckerberg, Dorsey, and their ilk are genuinely at a loss when asked who they might have consulted, back in their heady days of Harvard-dropout engineering nirvana, to help anticipate and ward off these ills. Um, philosophers?

To really see, and move forward through, anxiety, it helps to have a sense of what resources you have to work with. My favorite philosopher, Hannah Arendt, says that the self that others see every day, our public self, rises into view from some private hidden ground which has to remain private if it is to remain a real self at all. Privacy is thus foundational to who you are. But life lived online steals this from you in advance, then feeds off the husk that remains for monetizable data. To address this, we’ve got to go back to a proven space for the self to grow in private: books, which feed particular kinds of inward reflection, beauty, challenge, and relationships of yourself to others. This is the sort of spiritual richness that builds a life of happiness, regardless of what career you find. But that’s hard if you’ve never not known what has been called – in a metaphor that only gets more chilling the longer you look at it – “placental media.” As with Aldous Huxley’s blissed-out Soma-takers, the goal of things with screens is to float what used to be your own, active self –shaped and reshaped by the physical world – in an all-encompassing bath of infoadvertainment that guides your thoughts and choices, steers you to the like-minded, and deepens your screen-addiction in an infinitely recursive loop, while siphoning a steady stream of money (from the sale of your data) into its own separate tanks. Placental media smooths away all friction for the happy little fetus in its bath, which needn’t think, only dream. This is a problem if your goal is to become an adult in this world of ours, where you also have to act.

Biologists will tell you that at least some struggle (inevitable friction against an environment and other organisms not-itself) is necessary for any organism to grow. College is meant to be a relatively safe place to build your ability to cope with this reality, and to dream, to create, and to aspire. But problems show up when a placental-media society meets the old-school medium of human friction and engagement on which college is still theoretically based : books, which are becoming a casualty of the reduced capacities of our Internet-centered world. “Dr Weldon,” said G., a student in my Fall 2019 first-year course, “my generation just doesn’t read books anymore.” (He was one of three out of 19 classmates who recognized the name of Greta Thunberg, even as her emissions-free yacht sailed into New York Harbor that very day.) Students from every socioeconomic class can make it to age 19 right now without ever reading a book all the way through. And over twenty years of college teaching, I’ve seen the results: reading comprehension’s gone down, students stumble when reading aloud, and text in any form but that little green block on your phone becomes a roadblock rather than an invitation. And no, before you ask, Twitter isn’t meaningfully friction-ful in the way I use that word, since it casts us into modes of one-upmanship and posing – not understanding – and its real goal is self-promotion, not conversation.

Unfamiliarity with books isn’t only students’ fault, as, for several reasons, teachers may shy away from assigning complex sequences of words on a printed page.  “What about equity?” some ask. I’m concerned about equity too. But let me suggest that we in higher education don’t always know what we really mean when we use this word, especially as a placeholder for other things we don’t articulate. Too often, it means well-meaning assumptions about What Students Can’t Do, backed by unspoken, market-driven fears of Scaring Them (and their tuition dollars) Away. Which means treating them like consumers, not learners. Which means asking students for less, in advance. Which means atrophying their capacities – and deepening all kinds of skill and opportunity gaps – even further. To paraphrase the old bumper sticker, if books are elite, then only elites will have books. And that would be a crime against humanity, in every way.  Sometimes this takes the form of concern for what students will find “relevant” (or, god forbid, that non-word “relatable”)[9], which usually means choosing in advance against material perceived too “difficult” or too “different” in culture, place, and time.  (Funny: tuition costs never get discounted accordingly, do they?) This is exactly the opposite of what we as teachers should be doing, because our work is to expand each human self’s capacities to see and understand itself and that which is not itself as prelude to the overall project of adulthood: understanding the world as a network of relationships, which can be either nourished or destroyed by our actions. I find that when treated like adults and offered savory texts, high standards, and the resources (material and psychological) to engage them, the range of students I have the pleasure to teach respond with delight. “You can explain anything to the people,” wrote anticolonial theorist Frantz Fanon, “provided you really want them to understand.”[10] And I do – because having been a college teacher for more than twenty years, I believe it’s vital not to confuse a diminution in apparent present capacities caused by accelerating social-media and neoliberal-society cognitive and economic deprivations with a decrease in students’ essential abilities to engage texts. Despite well-founded worries that, as Slack CEO Stewart Butterfield said in 2015, “I feel like we’re in the early stages of a species-level change with devices,” I doubt that human brains evolve so fundamentally, or so fast.

Why do I keep using this word capacity? It’s as useful as resilience or integrity in describing what we’ll need in the world to come, but it goes farther than both to name the thing we’ll bear inside to help us thrive. Like resilience and integrity, capacity describes traits that can help people, landscapes, and buildings stand up to storms. But to me, capacity suggests a kind of stored-up, well-stewarded strength, an ability to build, rebuild, and draw on reserves in order to discern a mature response to what’s facing you.  Capacity fuels the kind of recovery from crisis suggested by resilience and the kind of physical, moral, and/or mental strength suggested by integrity.  It’s something like what the Greeks meant by aretē, the kind of goodness and inner virtue, honed by striving for excellence in one’s pursuits or roles, that “enables a person to live well or successfully,” focused not only on oneself but on one’s responsibilities to and effects on others.[11] But – and this is a very cruel irony – capacity is also what a world centered on screens is taking away from us by eroding our intellectual and psychological abilities (attention spans, information-sorting, critical thinking, reasoned judgment), eroding our physical health (soaring rates of obesity, anxiety, and depression), and eroding the economic security that, at least in theory, ought to be within reach of anyone with a good work ethic. Therefore, what’s left is a population perpetually distracted, uninformed, and broke – all of which make it even harder to marshal the kind of aretē you need to rebuild the capacities that will help you dig yourself and your society out of a hole.

Books build our capacities in a way nothing else can, because books invite you into a complex, human-scaled conversation between the present, the past, and the future and ask you to take yourself seriously as its participant. The past is the only natural resource that’s getting larger instead of smaller, and so we need a relationship with it based on a mature, curious, textured, thoughtful way of reading it – which books deliver about a million times better than anything on the net. They help us get comfortable with difficulty and ambiguity, and they help us celebrate beauty.  So in this book, I lift what I love above the flood of oblivion and fake distraction and offer it to you, the generation coming after me, because I really want you to understand why it matters.

The world that’s coming up is going to be challenging. No doubt. But we can meet it the way humans always have: with art, with words, in which we work through our lives at human scale.  Reading and talking build the mental muscles that hold us upright in life. Jobs, and job losses. Marriage. Divorce. Illness. Death. Birth, adoption, friendship, family. Fear. Faith. Loneliness, which is now a public-health crisis.  Books are there through all of it.  Just as they were for Frederick Douglass, Harriet Jacobs, Harry Crews, Richard Wright, or any one of the hundreds of writers who’ve seized on words as ladders up into the world. Just as they were for John Keats, a working-class kid who was supposed to become a doctor to support his family but instead chose poetry, and changed everything. And Mary Wollstonecraft, daughter of an abusive alcoholic who dared to say that a woman’s mind and soul are worth just as much as a man’s. Everybody’s looking for stories to explain their lives to themselves. Books give us the best ones.

I’m a teacher and a writer because I’ll defend, to my last breath, the capacity of art to help human beings survive and thrive anywhere, and, ultimately, for us to take the reins of power and build the world we need. So I want to lift up art to you in both my hands, for the purposes of endurance and joy. As James Baldwin wrote in another difficult time, hope is invented every day. But every generation invents their own tools for hope. And books can help you, my students, invent your own.

As I write these words in September 2020, I’ve just turned forty-six. We live a long time in my family, and I’ve got plans to farm my own land in retirement as the tough old tractor-driving bird Weldons have always been (assuming Alabama’s not a desert by then; I’m looking at farming with mules, for fossil-fuel and complex-Southern-history reasons.) But even so, people under 35 are going to be alive for a lot longer than I will. And every generation must build the systems it needs for the world it’s living in. I don’t know exactly what y’all will need to build, or exactly how you’ll do it. But I can respectfully argue that art will help you, because art keeps alive the inner springs of wonder and mystery and joy that make human existence a real life.  Look at all the people throughout time who, in the face of (literally) breath-taking oppressions, reached for pleasure and art – music, spirituality, paintings, fashion, dancing, stories, food, theatre, sport – as a big, smiling, radiant fuck-you to everything that would stamp them out. But refusal is just part of the impulse. Even more is connection, assent: I too am human. So I too am sustained by beauty. I too reach out with open hands and hope.[12]

Zora Neale Hurston, who was born in Notasulga, Alabama, not far from my future farm, knew this impulse well.  In her 1928 essay “How It Feels to Be Colored Me,” she writes, “No, I do not weep at the world. I am too busy sharpening my oyster knife.”[13]  Hurston, typically, is drawing a rich metaphor from the natural world: an oyster knife slips sideways to crack a rough unpromising thing open on savory sweetness, and, maybe, a pearl, right in her hands. And she’s making a pun. Colored was the word then used to classify her skin, but it also sings of how life itself paints us with experiences, ideas, dreams, sensations, a million shades visible inside and out.  To be alive in the world is to be “colored” by that world, and colored as ourselves. Art helps us preserve and celebrate all these precise shades – whatever they are.[14]

Look, I’m trying not to kid myself, or you.  Big problems are here, and they aren’t going away. So what can we do? Put good companions in our brains to walk with us through the world they’ve made – the world in which y’all  will live for a lot longer than I will.  It is a world in which beauty, purpose, the common good, and generous-souled counter-shittiness are still possible. But CEOs, the politicians they’ve bought, and the Internet (at least in its present form) aren’t going to give us that. Books always have. So has the natural world. So has the seething, active present moment, where our flesh and spirit meet the air of every day. So has the past: “It’s easier not to lose when you know the game,” historian Timothy Snyder says, “and history can help with that.” Our guides will be the Romantic writers in whose work all these things meet, who worked this same space two hundred years ago, and made art that will be enjoyed as long as there are human beings to enjoy it. They asked for something better from a world that was as chaotic and confusing as our own. Sometimes, they found it. And so can we.

 

[1] https://www.nybooks.com/articles/2020/08/20/climate-emergency-130-degrees/

[3] See William Deresiewicz, The Death of the Artist: How Creators Are Struggling to Survive in the Age of Billionaires and Big Tech (New York: Henry Holt, 2020).

[4] See the film “The Social Dilemma” (2020; yes, it’s on Netflix.) Read more about the Center for Humane Technology and its re-/design work at https://www.humanetech.com/.  I write, in mid-September 2020, among multiple fresh instances of this. Columnist Jamelle Bouie is the latest to assert, in the New York Times, that “Facebook Has Been A Disaster for the World” (https://www.nytimes.com/2020/09/18/opinion/facebook-democracy.html?action=click&module=Opinion&pgtype=Homepage). “The first known death from a cyberattack was reported Thursday [Sept. 17, 2020] after cybercriminals hit a hospital in Düsseldorf, Germany, with so-called ransomware, in which hackers encrypt data and hold it hostage until the victim pays a ransom. The ransomware invaded 30 servers at University Hospital Düsseldorf last week, crashing systems and forcing the hospital to turn away emergency patients. As a result, German authorities said, a woman in a life-threatening condition was sent to a hospital 20 miles away in Wuppertal and died from treatment delays.” (NYT 9/18/20). On the wildfire-affected West Coast, social media is spreading rumors that “antifa” protestors are coming out from Portland to rob evacuated homes and set more fires.  The Douglas County (OR) Sheriff’s Office pleads on Facebook (Sept. 10, 2020), “Remember when we said to follow official sources only. Remember when we said rumors make this already difficult incident even harder? Rumors spread just like wildfire and now our 9-1-1 dispatchers and professional staff are being overrun with requests for information and inquiries on an UNTRUE rumor that 6 Antifa members have been arrested for setting fires in DOUGLAS COUNTY, OREGON. THIS IS NOT TRUE! Unfortunately, people are spreading this rumor and it is causing problems.” Some people are refusing orders to evacuate so they can remain on their front porches, guns in hand, creating multiple risks for rescue workers and journalists (two of whom were nearly shot.) See https://www.nytimes.com/2020/09/11/us/fires-oregon-antifa-rumors.html.

[5] See Thomas Piketty, Capital in the Twenty-First Century (Cambridge: Belknap Press/Harvard University Press, 2014).

[6] See Samantha Shapiro, “The Children In the Shadows: New York City’s Homeless Students,” New York Times Magazine, September 8, 2020 (https://www.nytimes.com/interactive/2020/09/09/magazine/homeless-students.html).

[7] See Caitlin Zaloom, Indebted: How Families Make College Work at Any Cost (Princeton University Press, 2019).

[8] See Anthony Abraham Jack, The Privileged Poor: How Elite Colleges are Failing Disadvantaged Students (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2019), Michael J. Sandel, The Tyranny of Merit: What’s Become of the Common Good? (New York: Farrar Straus Giroux, 2020), and Elizabeth Armstrong and Laura Hamilton, Paying For The Party: How College Maintains Inequality (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2013). These books and many others showcase the centrality of socioeconomic class to students’ college experiences – it’s often more determinative even than gender or race.

[9] See Rebecca Mead, “The Scourge of ‘Relatability.’” The New Yorker August 1, 2014 (https://www.newyorker.com/culture/cultural-comment/scourge-relatability).

[10] Accordingly, I respectfully challenge dissertation committees to add this series of questions to each new Ph.D’s defense: Can you explain to a prospective first-generation college student and her parents what your research is about, why they should care, and why it should motivate her to seek a major in your field?

[11] https://www.oxfordreference.com/view/10.1093/oi/authority.20110803095423468. Interestingly, the word w/ different diacriticals, etc also means something sharp or cutting – a mountain ridge, a fish’s bony spine – which suggests arete as the inner facility of discernment which enables its own further pursuit.

[12] Keats, “This living hand,” in chapter.

[13] See also a loving riff on this phrase in Eve L. Ewing’s poem https://poetrysociety.org/features/in-their-own-words/eve-l-ewing-on-what-i-mean-when-i-say-im-sharpening-my-oyster-knife.

[14] Discussion of this in Ch. 4 of forthcoming textbook Advanced Fiction Writing: A Writer’s Guide and Anthology, too.