More Monday Meanderings
[Sir Lawrence Alma-Tadema, A Favourite Custom, an idealized rendition of the baths at Pompeii]
This, which began as something I wrote here, up recently at James G. Martin Center for Academic Renewal.
The annual NASA remembrance of fallen astronauts came and went the week before last.
I was but a babe when the Apollo I launch pad fire happened, and twenty years ago when Columbia disintegrated on reentry I was a young assistant professor absorbed with myriad professional duties and fairly distracted from news of all kinds.
But I was in college when the Challenger catastrophe happened, and I vividly recall coming back to my room between classes and watching the explosion take place barely a minute into the mission, initial confusion followed by swift realization that, in the words of the control room, there had been a “major malfunction,” and then instantly understanding that what I and the rest of the country had just witnessed were the deaths of those seven courageous people on board, in breathless disbelief following the cameras as they tracked pieces of the shuttle falling back to earth, praying desperately that somehow they were alive in one of those descending fragments and would miraculously survive, from exultation to despair in the time it takes to blink your eyes and swallow a few times.
Talking with my daughter about it a few days ago, I told her that Christa McAuliffe, a school teacher, was on the shuttle, and that it was thrilling for the country, or for me at least, to have a non-astronaut—a normal civilian, just like the rest of us—on board, and I told her how unbearable it was to accept that she and the others were gone, and of my utter conviction and certainty that I will remember Christa McAuliffe’s name for the rest of my life.
President Reagan’s address to the nation later that day, written by Peggy Noonan, helped begin and orient our national mourning, and its haunting conclusion, which borrows from the imagery of a poem written by a WWII English-American fighter pilot who died during the war, is one of the most memorable bits of public rhetoric produced by anyone in the American political classes during my lifetime:
Pat Buchanan has at last reached the end of his long career as a commentator on the American political and cultural scene.
Here is something I wrote about him last summer. I will greatly miss his presence in the public sphere. May God bless Patrick Buchanan.
It became something of a trope for Woke Twitter, in the wake of the Tyre Nichols video being made available to the public, to try to shift the ground of the discussion of the case in order to save their “it’s always racism” narrative. The cops who beat Nichols so severely were all black, so how to avoid conceding any ideological ground to their critics? Just claim that only black suspects are ever dealt with in such a brutal manner by a team of police officers, and then even if the officers involved are the same race as the suspect, it’s still some ghostly racism against black suspects—so insidious that even black officers succumb to it—that is the cause of the event.
“Show me a non-black suspect getting treated like this by a gang of cops of any color,” the Woke Twitter brigades demanded, confident in their ignorance that no such cases exist.
The New York Times, usually their reliable ideological ally, messed up their effort at narrative shift by running the same week a story on a white suspect being tazed seven times in 15 minutes while restrained and subsequently dying.
Someone at the Times fell down on the job to let this story through at just this moment. One can imagine the behind-the-scenes communications there: “Let’s get it together, people! Stay on message! Everyone’s effort is required to ascertain total ideological victory!”
Rick Beato just turned me on to the pianist Yuja Wang, and I’m currently binging:
Here she is with Prokofiev’s lovely Piano Concerto No. 3:
Found this just a day or so ago. What remarkable brevity in the obituary. Dates, preceded by parents and wife, the end. No memories left at the site by those who knew him. Perhaps they are all gone as well? What a lonely end, if that is true.
I almost left a note of my own, to say farewell to a man I never knew and whose existence I learned about only at his death because of the name he bore and my own compulsiveness about Googling myself.
I should like to know more about him, this man to whom I am not related beyond our mutual belonging to the same species but whose death draws my attention solely because we share a name. How many Alexander Rileys have died in the past six months around the globe? Could my inquiry into their lives possibly teach me anything about how better to approach my own inevitable demise?
In the death course, I showed them a tiny piece of a documentary film on home burial in class. In it, a woman in perhaps her mid 50s is dying of breast cancer, and she chooses to avoid the funeral homes and to have her husband and friends organize a home wake and burial. She is apparently following no familial cultural patterns in doing this. It was simply her own desire. She seems a remarkably self-confident and assertive woman.
The film is not online, but you can see her friends picking her up from her bed to place her in her homemade casket and sprinkle her lovingly with flowers in the trailer below, starting about ten seconds in.
As we were watching it, I had the collection of thoughts I often have in this class, in which I give them many texts and bits of video depicting the deaths of people none of us in the class knows: What is the moral valence of looking on in this way as other people approach their deaths and then die? Does it help anyone in any way to do this? It is, after all, as Heidegger noted so shatteringly, always their deaths, always them, always other people. It’s not us dying. It’s us watching others die. Is this even acceptable? Should I be doing this? Should I be having students do it? Should I?
I have told them of my conflict about this numerous times over the years, and I feel no clearer on it now.
Perhaps we are learning something of great value, perhaps it is an opportunity to become more compassionate, more human, and for this reason it is justified.
And yet, I always tell them that were it me, there would be no book and no film about my death written and made by others. No. I am sure of this.
The example I have foremost in mind as I think and say this thing I consider so certain is not the woman in the home burial documentary, who dies with such grace and seeming peace, but a man in another documentary we see in the class. His attitude is different from hers. He is first outraged that there are no medical answers to his brain cancer, then he is terrified, and finally he is inconsolable, as he comes to accept that it is over and he will be forced against his will to leave his wife and his children.
I know, as I watch him deal with his dreadful fate, that, were I in his situation, and even if I do not know with any assurance that my reaction would be like his, I would never have allowed the filmmakers to set foot in my home to capture my private journey through this uncharted land and broadcast it to unknown others.
I think I am being honest when I say this doesn’t appear to me as a ‘better’ response than his—again, perhaps something meaningful is learned from his choice, and perhaps part of that learning is what I’m writing about here—but I feel certain that I would not be capable of allowing that gaze from outside my circle into my last days.
To imagine both dying and being filmed dying, so that my way of dying becomes a reified object for others to potentially interact with for as long as the film survives, long after my departure. I admit it is too much for me.
Nathan Cofnas has a nice little piece in the most recent Academic Questions “Four Reasons Why Heterodox Academy Failed.” The new issue is not yet up at the webpage but should be there at some point in the near future.
I joined HA back in 2017, I think, and left around 2020, convinced that the thing had no chance of positively affecting ideological bias in the higher education faculty.
As Cofnas argues, too much watering down of the severity of the problem and unrealistic presumptions about the reasonableness of most of the left faculty. In the years after my joining, I gathered voluminous evidence of just how unwilling those people are to acknowledge the problem and their participation in it.
I also was greatly discouraged, frankly, by hearing Jonathan Haidt, one of the central figures at HA and someone I have admired, go off on Trump Derangement Syndrome displays on several podcasts—here’s one example, in which he and Sam Harris, another insightful public intellectual who has said some truly remarkably foolish things about Trumpism, talk in advance of the 2020 election about how the American project is definitively over if Trump wins. In some of his earlier writing, he expressed real trepidation at the consequences of the consolidation of progressive left power, but increasingly he seems to have become blind to this. Perhaps TDS has as one of its more or less inevitable symptoms this blindness.
I think highly of some of Haidt’s writing and have used it in class, but when I heard evidence of how partisan he’d become (or perhaps always was) on the cultural political divide in the US, I felt great disappointment. Certainly not because I believe there is no stupidity on the populist right—I have seen that up close and personal—but because Haidt had evidently so patently convinced himself that this was all that was to be found there, and that more terrifying things are not to be found among populism’s powerful enemies.
A glorious passage in Chateaubriand’s Mémoires d'Outre-Tombe (Memories from Beyond the Grave), in which he is describing his voyage to North America in 1822 (my hasty translation): “On the ocean…the most beautiful of adventures, when one is not in search of unknown lands and seas, is the meeting of two ships. We mutually discover one another on the horizon…the two captains hail one another…”The name of your vessel? What port are you coming from?…How long will your passage take?”…The mates and the passengers of the two vessels watch one another sail off without a word: one of them seeking the Asian sun, the other the European, and both suns will see the deaths of both groups equally. Time carries away and separates voyagers on the earth still more swiftly than the wind does on the ocean. We make a sign from afar: Farewell, go! Our common destination is Eternity.”