“All the things that are wrong in the world seem conquered by a library’s simple unspoken promise: here I am, please tell me your story; here is my story, please listen.” – Susan Orlean, The Library Book
Is this the year we finally learn to distinguish story from myth, and lies from both of them, in order to save what’s still worth saving?
I ask this question on a late December afternoon of newsreading, as Brexit coverage — like White House staffing — churns and churns. What happens if there is no deal, if the 3,500 troops on standby need to be deployed in case of “unrest,” if there’s no more frozen food storage space in warehouses (which, at the moment, there isn’t, as businesses are laying in the Kerrygold and Movenpick), if everybody cancels their EU holidays and small businesses have to lay off workers or even move operations accordingly?
Why do I care? I’m about to spend five months in London, directing one half of a study-abroad program. The other half is based in Florence, aka The EU. At times this seems like the humanities so often seem – a vestige of a gentler, more idealistic time that is jarringly out of step with what’s going on. (Learn about the Renaissance and John Keats as the European project implodes, nudged by right-wing thuggery all over the world!) Nevertheless, we persist. Students and I will be on the ground in London as Brexit unfolds, through the vote in January and whatever the exit turns out to be on March 29. We couldn’t have predicted this when we signed our contracts and made our deposits. That’s the nature of study-abroad. Yet the cliché is true: the characters for change also signal opportunity. I know that we will be ok, that we are not in danger, that any country looks normal from inside. Plus, it is my job, and my self-appointed project in 2019, to learn how to connect my writing meaningfully with the world unfolding around me, and to teach my students to do the same.
I’ve loved Britain for years. I still do. I care about my friends there (one of whom describes “a country punching itself in the face,”) and like them I’m distressed by what I see. Polly Toynbee’s 17 Dec column in the Guardian states, “A rightwing cult is driving Brexit Britain towards the cliff-edge.” Toynbee remarks that “Professed enthusiasm to lead Britain into a no-deal Brexit ought to be a disqualification on the grounds of diminished mental capacity.” And, here, an American president, proud in his ignorance and arrogance, has shut down the government – again – over money for his beloved border wall. News of Russian election interference just keeps on coming. California burns. Fossil-fuel fantasies refuse to die. Retirees become a new precariat. And my 403(b) plan has lost a forehead-clutching amount of value since September as the stock market writhes in pain. “Here, as elsewhere,” writes James G. Chappell, “the great successes of the twentieth century are devoured by the locusts of the twenty-first.” By your works ye shall know them. So I ask: Are we great again yet?
As Jane Austen would say, I’m only a partial, prejudiced, and ignorant historian. But as usual, I put (much of) the blame for what got us here on social media and television and on the shameful credulity of the ostensible adults who have become addicted to them as any thirteen-year-old. Ignorance has become more socially acceptable than ever in my lifetime, which leaves us criminally unprepared to call bullshit on corporate greed and its pet politicians. I understand how a person’s experience of the world shapes their worldview and their vote, which can reasonably differ. The problem, though, is when your fingers-in-ears fantasy shatters another person’s life. When you elect a president who is now presiding – happily – over our rush toward climate disaster, when your social-media/talk-radio-fueled fantasies of white-dude heroism lead you to pick up a gun and “go in” to a synagogue (or AME church basement, or pizza parlor) and kill eleven (or nine) people (or just disrupt an innocent person’s small business). When you and your own little community are stranded in a bubble alone with your Russian-infiltrated “news” feed and the reality of the souring, warming world outside is making it through in only the most distorted forms. And when you continue to drive a whole country toward the edge of a cliff when so many people inside are waving their hands and yelling stop.
To be clear: I’m not a Brit and don’t claim to be an expert, only the aforementioned PPandIH with opinions. But I read. “Two and a half years on from the referendum, it feels the only significant change is the hardening of views on all sides,” writes MP Lisa Nandy in the New York Review of Books “Daily” blog. “This is the thorny truth that the People’s Vote campaign for a second referendum does nothing to resolve: Parliament is divided because the people are divided.” Many Leavers, like the Wigan auto-plant workers described in Nandy’s post, continue to insist “we knew what we were voting for.” Yet what was the vote for? And — as ever in politics — what is the conflict really about? I can’t help remembering that the top Google search question the day after the first Brexit vote was “what is the EU?” Polly Toynbee says it:
“…Hunt was duly saluted by the Sun’s Trevor Kavanagh as “the first senior minister to publicly back a Full British Brexit – precisely what 17.4m voters ordered”. Did they, precisely? How does anyone know? That’s the heart of the argument for a final-say referendum. No one could know last time with what deal, on what terms, we might leave the EU. There was no tick-box available to express an option on the ballot papers.
All those Tory MPs who engineered this political crisis, elected on a manifesto promising a nation-splitting referendum, had no idea what the deal would be. They don’t even agree now on what the referendum meant, or what the outcome should be. Obliged to face the consequences of their foolhardy action, they keep changing their minds, just as voters do. Only months ago Hunt said: “No deal would be a mistake we would regret for generations” – and he is only one of myriad swivellers, currently moving in all directions.”
Sometimes, capitalism itself can smoke out its own excesses. And it may be doing so here. Five major business organizations are “watching in horror” as Brexit approaches, warning of catastrophe. So are ordinary business owners, facing shortages of goods and labor and an increase in tariffs and competition costs. Yet these ordinary people – backbone of campaign speeches — don’t seem to be heard, any more than the American farmers suffering from trade wars and tariffs seem to be heard by certain people. Is a hard Brexit going to return major industries back to British control? Is any exit really a solution to business problems, or just business by other means?
Paul Kingsnorth, whom I respect (and have reviewed), wrote back in 2017 that he was voting Leave because it seemed like confronting an out-of-control neoliberal project bent on growth at any cost, all over the world. I see where he’s coming from, and my own books sound the same note. (So does Anand Giridharadas’s Winners Take All, my next read.) Yet I wonder how this reason to Leave works if you don’t have a healthy local economy, or local food sources, perfusing the country that’s Leaving. We ought to have learned by now that the big sheltering tent of prospering and getting-along must be pinned to actual places and to ordinary people’s lives in a thousand different ways. But I look around me now and see it loose and flapping in the winds of scarcity, austerity, potholed roads, cheap plastic imported crap, Sysco semis rather than pickups backed up to farmer’s market stalls. (I’m thankful for my own small town’s local-food network every day). And we’re back to one of the most urgent questions there is. What would an economy look like that actually prized and protected the local and the small and reined in growth for growth’s sake, while still giving people and goods the freedom to move and young people in particular a healthy landscape in which to thrive? A country declaring it can immure itself in self-sufficiency – the roots of immure, or mur, wall, are important here – needs to be sure it actually can. And in terms of its home-health-care workers (not to mention other medical personnel), its minimum-wage labor and its chicken-plant workers and its social-security-buyer-in-ers and its supply of edible food – not only soybeans and corn – it seems to me that America can’t. Neither can Britain. I wonder if, in our by-now-thoroughly-globalized and nature-divorced world, any country can.
So why do people believe the myths? Novelist Jennifer Egan analyzes our own side of the pond:
“For the unwitting consumer of fraudulent news, the avoidance of hard truths is surely part of the draw. How much better it would be if the Sandy Hook massacre really were a hoax, rather than an actual slaughter of 20 kindergartners and six school staff members. What a relief to conclude that hundreds of international climatologists are lying rather than face the perilous state of our planet—and the tiny window of time we have to preserve life as we know it. Scary visions of Hillary Clinton or George Soros at the center of a web of evil offer rewards of simplicity and a scapegoat. The opioid effect of these fabrications provides short-term solace at the cost of the sobriety we need to solve intractable problems like gun violence and climate change. It’s a vicious cycle: the more dire the reality, the more welcome the escape.”
As an English professor, I’m more comfortable in stories than economics, but I have to connect the two, because my job is also to connect my students with reality, and equip them to live in a world that’s only getting more complex. Like literature, studying abroad confronts students with both the real and the way the real is altered – for good or evil – by our stories about it, lifting the veil of familiarity over our vision of home. Students touch the names of Byron and Churchill carved as schoolboys into the walls of their Harrow School classroom and wonder how lives grow into what only in retrospect seems inevitable “greatness.” We visit the statue of John Keats at Guy’s Hospital and the Hampstead garden in which he sat, bearing the seeds of tuberculosis in his lungs and the song of the nightingale in his ears, to ask ourselves how we will choose among forms of service to the world: medicine or poetry. (Of course, Keats, rightly, didn’t see these as opposed.) Brexit will heighten our study of William Blake’s “London” and modern housing crises as we track the poet to the steps of the then-smoke-blackened “church appalls” (the Church o’ [St.] Paul’s – it’s a pointed, pun): how does a great city hearken to the cries of the poor?
It’s easy to forget that history is never not happening. It’s happening around us right now. And our work as readers and citizens is never to forget that fact, because a rich connection to the realities of times and places beyond oneself is indispensable for mental and social survival in this world. “I remember a student saying, Well, since Trump got elected I can’t write because everything is different,” novelist Sam Lipsyte says. “It’s a new world and all bets are off. But all bets have been off in the past. You know, after World War I, World War II, the crash of ’29. There are seismic shifts all the time. We are so rooted in the now that when Trump was elected it seemed like the first time anything crazy happened, and it wasn’t.” Come close to the past and you feel it slip an arm companionably around your shoulders: yeah, I was nervous too. We’ve been here before. We’re still around. You’re not alone.
It matters, too, to go there – physically, intellectually, and creatively. “[T]his is what we have in common with the Bronze Age or World War I,” novelist Pat Barker says. “We have these bodies that have actually not evolved during that time, as far as we know. The truth of the body is for me the most important route into the historical past, and into the mythic past as well. You have five senses – well, more than five, at least six because you have this sense of gravity, of where your body is in space – but that’s all you’ve got as a writer. There is literally almost nothing else. The whole thing rests on this incredibly simple foundation.” In my writing course, students will learn to braid their experiences and the testimonies of their senses – past and present – with the histories of the places we visit, in written works of art that may reach others too. And I hope we’ll all keep learning what it is to be better human beings – walking this earth behind so many others, acting and deciding and making mistakes and trying to do better but always moving forward into time, living as honestly and gracefully as we can with mortality and limitation. The great seductive lie of our own time – heightened by social media – is there is no other reality but mine, there are no other needs or desires to be considered here but mine, I am all-knowing and always will be. (Or, as Percy Shelley wrote with deliberate irony, two hundred years ago, “I am Ozymandias, King of Kings / Look on my works, ye mighty, and despair!”) It is countered by the great truth of art, which must be constantly relearned to remain alive in each generation: I, too, once believed I would never die. And even in my mortal body, I made something beautiful that can root you, too, in humility and wonder, all at once.
At my teaching desk, my eyes wander from Brexit headlines to a framed reproduction of the timeline on the wall of Shakespeare’s Globe. 1625: King James dies, Charles I succeeds. (“War against France” on one side, “War against Spain” on the other.) 1613: Globe burns down. 1606: Act of Union between England and Scotland not approved. 1599: Threat of third Armada. Nine books of satirical verse burned. A line from Polly Toynbee’s column swims back to me: yes, we’ve faced threats before, but never one so self-inflicted. Yet isn’t each historical threat also self-inflicted, or more than it might seem? And look – we’re all still here. Britain is still here. America’s still here. Europe too. And that theatre on the river’s south bank. Beyond that theatre’s walls float the alluring, frightening shapes of the past: frost-fairs on the frozen Thames, bombers in the London sky, cholera bubbling invisibly out of the pump, a king beheaded in Whitehall, wearing two shirts so no one would see him shiver in what they might mistake for fear. And – just as in my own home state – the spectres of enslavement, injustice, exclusion, and greed. It’s the rich ore of story, seen rightly, or myths and lies, seen wrongly. What matters is that we do our best to see right, and I believe in the power of history, literature, art, and the texture of culture in place to help us do that.
Prof. Gurminder K. Bhambra writes, “What we are currently witnessing with Brexit is what the end of empire looks like. When the history of empire is elided and repressed – instead of being reckoned with – there is no real way forward. If we are to have a future as a liberal democratic state it has to involve addressing the past injustices which continue to disfigure our contemporary social and political landscapes.” We can be proud of our country and cognizant of its history without succumbing to blind nationalism. Good history, good stories, are the way into that. If you have history inside you and a healthy contact with reality outside yourself, you can live with maturity and grace. You can distinguish stories from myths and lies from both of them. You can see that the “immigrant” setting up his own small business is seeking the same opportunities everyone has – including your own grandparents. You can be a good citizen, living in peace with your fellow citizens. And you can make art. In any age.
I’m going back these days to Virginia Woolf’s novel Orlando (1928; made into a beautiful Sally Potter film in 1993), – playing over history like afternoon light, with a body — its 500-year-old hero/ine’s, changing sex sometime in the early Jacobean period but remaining youthful — as the lens of history. Through Orlando we see history as a writer does, as a watcher and listener in any time does: What-used-to-be is always still here, somewhere. Look into the layers and the traces of stories and places in time and see what they have to tell you, as themselves.
Virginia Woolf, from Orlando (1928):
At length she came home one night after one of these saunterings and mounted to her bedroom. She took off her laced coat and stood there in shirt and breeches looking out of the window. There was something stirring in the air which forbade her to go to bed. A white haze lay over the town, for it was a frosty night in midwinter and a magnificent vista lay all round her. She could see St Paul’s, the Tower, Westminster Abbey, with all the spires and domes of the city churches, the smooth bulk of its banks, the opulent and ample curves of its halls and meeting-places. On the north rose the smooth, shorn heights of Hampstead, and in the west the streets and squares of Mayfair shone out in one clear radiance. Upon this serene and orderly prospect the stars looked down, glittering, positive, hard, from a cloudless sky. In the extreme clearness of the atmosphere the line of every roof, the cowl of every chimney, was perceptible; even the cobbles in the streets showed distinct one from another, and Orlando could not help comparing this orderly scene with the irregular and huddled purlieus which had been the city of London in the reign of Queen Elizabeth. Then, she remembered, the city, if such one could call it, lay crowded, a mere huddle and conglomeration of houses, under her windows at Blackfriars. The stars reflected themselves in deep pits of stagnant water which lay in the middle of the streets. A black shadow at the corner where the wine shop used to stand was, as likely as not, the corpse of a murdered man. She could remember the cries of many a one wounded in such night brawlings, when she was a little boy, held to the diamond-paned window in her nurse’s arms. Troops of ruffians, men and women, unspeakably interlaced, lurched down the streets, trolling out wild songs with jewels flashing in their ears, and knives gleaming in their fists. On such a night as this the impermeable tangle of the forests on Highgate and Hampstead would be outlined, writhing in contorted intricacy against the sky. Here and there, on one of the hills which rose above London, was a stark gallows tree, with a corpse nailed to rot or parch on its cross; for danger and insecurity, lust and violence, poetry and filth swarmed over the tortuous Elizabethan highways and buzzed and stank–Orlando could remember even now the smell of them on a hot night–in the little rooms and narrow pathways of the city. Now–she leant out of her window–all was light, order, and serenity. There was the faint rattle of a coach on the cobbles. She heard the far-away cry of the night watchman–‘Just twelve o’clock on a frosty morning’. No sooner had the words left his lips than the first stroke of midnight sounded. Orlando then for the first time noticed a small cloud gathered behind the dome of St Paul’s. As the strokes sounded, the cloud increased, and she saw it darken and spread with extraordinary speed. At the same time a light breeze rose and by the time the sixth stroke of midnight had struck the whole of the eastern sky was covered with an irregular moving darkness, though the sky to the west and north stayed clear as ever. Then the cloud spread north. Height upon height above the city was engulfed by it. Only Mayfair, with all its lights shining. Burnt more brilliantly than ever by contrast. With the eighth stroke, some hurrying tatters of cloud sprawled over Piccadilly. They seemed to mass themselves and to advance with extraordinary rapidity towards the west end. As the ninth, tenth, and eleventh strokes struck, a huge blackness sprawled over the whole of London. With the twelfth stroke of midnight, the darkness was complete. A turbulent welter of cloud covered the city. All was darkness; all was doubt; all was confusion. The Eighteenth century was over; the Nineteenth century had begun.