Asking certain people to stay home for the sake of society is absurd, because these are people society has never cared about. ‘‘Stay home so people won’t die’’ is a hell of a thing to say to those who are dying of hunger. I keep thinking about floods, and how only after the waters recede do the bodies of the drowned become visible.
Steven Johnson on the London Cholera Epidemic, which I excerpted as a discussion starter for my students:
“This is one of the ways that disease, and particularly epidemic disease, plays havoc with traditional histories. Most world-historic events — great military battles, political revolutions — are self-consciously historic to the participants living through them. They act knowing that their decisions will be chronicled and dissected for centuries to come. But epidemics create a kind of history from below: they can be world-changing, but the participants are almost inevitably ordinary folk, following their established routines, not thinking for a second about how their actions will be recorded for posterity. And of course, if they do recognize that they are living through a historical crisis, it’s often too late — because, like it or not, the primary way that ordinary people create this distinct genre of history is by dying.”
As you create your own documentation around this crisis, what do you think of Professor Johnson’s argument? Does it still hold in the 21st century, when we are so connected and when there’s plenty of sources of information?
There is a kind of uniform monotony in the fate of man. Our lives unfold according to ancient, unchangeable laws, according to an invariable and ancient rhythm. Our dreams are never realized and as soon as we see them betrayed we realize that the intensest joys of our life have nothing to do with reality. No sooner do we see them betrayed than we are consumed with regret for the time when they glowed within us. And in this succession of hopes and regrets our life slips by.
But humanism is exactly why, in my view, a classroom with human bodies in it, struggling over the meaning of a short story, works. Because the literary arts are not the same as the study of economics or astrophysics. The literary arts are about emotions and human consciousness, and so the instruction can’t be converted into data points. The literary arts are more about a human in the room feeling something, expressing it, and the other humans listening, and, ideally, feeling similarly. Such is the invention of compassion. Our instruction is not only about dispensing information; it is also about bearing witness, grappling with the complexities of another.
If you replace “short story” with history or urban studies, this paragraph still holds.