This past week, we learned that Michael Sorkin, the architect, critic, and urban theorist, died of complications from COVID-19.
One of Sorkin’s best-known collections of essays is Exquisite Corpse, in which he described the city as “our greatest, most out-of-control collective artifact,” but I think one of Sorkin’s best contributions is an edited volume that gets less attention than it deserves. Variations on a Theme Park: The New American City and the End of Public Space includes seven essays by other contributors tucked in between an introduction and a conclusion that make them more than the sum of their parts. (Neil Smith’s essay, “New City, New Frontier: The Lower East Side as Wild, Wild West,” and Langdon Winner’s essay, “Silicon Valley Mystery House” are both outstanding in their own right. If I ever write even a single essay demonstrating the imagination, insight, and wit of Winner’s, my career will be a success.) I guess in some ways, I’m sneaking a couple of recommendations, in honor of Sorkin, into this first section of the newsletter.
Over the past two years, I’ve had the privilege of reading C.S. Lewis’ essay, “Learning in War-Time” together with first-year students in the Aequitas Program in Urban Leadership at Wheaton College. Every year, my students write a paper in which they have to adapt Lewis’ logic to their own situations, their own decisions to engage in four years of liberal arts education while the challenges, issues, or problems they feel called to address are already “out there,” so to speak, are both important and urgent, and seem to demand our students’ attention. The lesson they’re meant to learn, of course, is that their liberal arts education is worth their investment, even as issues that attracted them to the program – issues like environmental justice and sustainability, affordable housing, economic vitality, education, and public health – remain pressing.
I’ve been thinking a lot about Lewis’ essay during this pandemic, especially about the lessons it may have about the worthiness, even during these strange and uncertain times, of the things that usually get our attention and investment.
For those who haven’t read Lewis’ essay (you can find it in the collection of essays sold under the title, The Weight of Glory): It’s a 1939 address delivered to students who were asking, as Europe descended further into what would become World War II,
What is the use of beginning a task which we have so little chance of finishing? Or, even if we ourselves should happen not to be interrupted by death or military service, why should we – indeed, how can we – continue to take an interest in these placid [scholarly] occupations when the lives of our friends and the liberties of Europe are in the balance? Is it not like fiddling while Rome burns?
I’ve always been impressed by the way in which Lewis begins his response to these questions. He starts by saying that the questions aren’t quite right, that they’re not quite big enough, not quite perennial enough, not eternally consequential enough. He starts by framing their novel crisis and particular questions in the context of enduring crises and general questions:
Now it seems to me that we shall not be able to answer these questions until we have put them by the side of certain other questions which every Christian ought to have asked himself in peacetime.... The moment we do so we can see that every Christian who comes to a university must at all times face a question compared with which the questions raised by the war are relatively unimportant.
Lewis basically says that if we’re going to ask the question, “why is teaching and learning important now?” we need to ask the question, “why is teaching and learning important ever?” (This reframing strikes me as just about as close as any of us gets to Jesus’ constant reframing of his interlocutors’ questions [e.g., the question isn’t “should we pay taxes?” but “whose image and inscription?”].) He explains:
The war creates no absolutely new situation; it simply aggravates the permanent human situation so that we can no longer ignore it. Human life has always been lived on the edge of a precipice. Human culture has always had to exist under the shadow of something infinitely more important than itself. If men had postponed the search for knowledge and beauty until they were secure, the search would never have begun. We are mistaken when we compare war with “normal life.” Life has never been normal. Even those periods which we think most tranquil… turn out, on closer inspection, to be full of crises, alarms, difficulties, emergencies. Plausible reasons have never been lacking for putting off all merely cultural activities until some imminent danger has been averted or some crying injustice put right. But humanity long ago chose to neglect those plausible reasons. They wanted knowledge and beauty now, and would not wait for the suitable moment that never comes.... This is not panache, it is our nature.
Lewis goes on to explain that if learning is a worthy endeavor during less novel crises, alarms, difficulties, and emergencies, then it is a worthy endeavor during the war, their novel crisis. But we struggle with three challenges during novel crises, three challenges to which Lewis has responses: (1) “Excitement,” or the tendency to think and feel about the novel crisis rather than about our usual work, may allow the novel crisis to overtake our usual work. But we should remember that while some moments are so pressure-filled that “only superhuman self-control” is up to the task, there are always distractions and “favourable conditions never come,” so we should do our best. (2) “Frustration,” or the feeling that we will not have time to finish, may overcome us. But we should remember that at no point are we trying to finish all of our work – “it is only our daily bread that we are encouraged to ask for.” (3) “Fear,” or the dread of death and pain, may overwhelm us, but the reminder of our mortality is good for us, reminding us of “the sort of universe in which we have all along been living” and of a permanent city better than the one in which we live.
Lewis’ logic applies to the novel coronavirus pandemic, too. We may be overtaken by the excitement of thinking and feeling about the pandemic, rather than our usual work, but we should do our best. We may be frustrated at the interruption of our usual work or worried that we will not have time to finish it, but we should ask only for our daily bread. We may be overcome by fear of the virus itself, whether it threatens our wellbeing, the wellbeing of friends and family, or our communities and their social fabric, but we should be reminded of the sort of universe in which we live and prompted to long for a better city.
None of this is to say that all worthy endeavors are just as easy in wartime, or in the pandemic, as they usually are. None of it is to say that we should focus on productivity. None of it is to say that everything is normal and we should try to make things “business as usual.” (I’ve been clear before, I think, that we should not, and that the mentality of taking everything with us on a trip – a sort of “glamping” mentality” – does not serve us well.) And none of it is to say that only learning – the pursuit of knowledge and beauty, as Lewis puts it – is what matters. (Actually, it’s quite obvious that Lewis means that anything that is worth our time and attention during less novel crises, alarms, difficulties, emergencies is worth our time and attention during the war.) But it is to say that even if our work is harder in lots of ways, even if the pandemic has changed our rhythms, diminished our effectiveness, or disrupted our lives, worthy things that got our attention and time before are not suddenly unworthy because of the pandemic. If we think that something is worthy “for some souls, and at some times,” as Lewis puts it, “we can think so still.”
Especially, “All of You,” “Some Other Time,” “Milestones,” and “Porgy (I Loves You Porgy)”
While The New York Times‘ claim that this dish can be prepared in fifteen minutes might be a stretch, it was definitely simple and definitely went over well with the family this past week.
Terrence Malick, A Hidden Life
I waited and waited for this film to come to a theater nearby this past winter, and it never did. I think the closest it got was about twenty miles away, and it played at that theater for a few days while I was out of town. It’s streaming now, and I finally got around to watching it this week. As Alan Jacobs notes, the film succeeds in portraying what lies beyond explanation. Paradoxically, it’s devastating and uplifting at the same time – one of the best films I’ve ever seen – and I’m fairly certain I’ll assign it to my First-Year Seminar students alongside Silence (we already read Shusaku Endo’s novel and watch Martin Scorcese’s adaption). One of the first things I’ll do post-pandemic will be to gather some folks who want to watch the movie together.
Aaron Griffith is Assistant Professor of History at Sattler College. He’s a Wheaton College alum and was a student in our Urban Studies and Wheaton in Chicago programs. His book doesn’t come out until November, but you can… and should… pre-order it now.