The following was published in the Richmond Times-Dispatch opinion section on April 13, 2020.
By Matthew Gibson
Several winters ago, my wife and I formed a book club we dubbed “The Winter of Our Discontent.” The name was not reflective of our feelings towards one another, or an allusion to our specific seasonal disorders. It was about the books we chose, all themed around human life after the apocalypse. (Calling it a “club” is probably too generous; it was just the two of us.)
We picked eight novels to read and occasionally discuss together. We agreed these works had to be post-apocalyptic, not dystopian. Dystopian stories are those where systems of government and law enforcement exist to further totalitarian injustice. Tales of the post-apocalypse explore human life after a cataclysmic event. Here systems of government, commerce, and law aren’t unjust, they’re just gone.
We read two zombie novels and another story in which the cause of devastation might be nuclear or meteoric holocaust, but is not discussed or totally known. But, with these few exceptions, most of the eight books were some variation of apocalypse-by-pandemic.[*]
I find myself thinking about these stories a lot now.
Each day, we read about COVID-19 cases growing exponentially. We see and feel our economy quaking as businesses shutter and people lose their jobs. Between things that aren’t that important (wondering where all of the toilet paper went) and things that really matter (seeing death rates climb), our anxiety grows. Watching countries that are several weeks ahead of us, we know things are going to get worse before they get better. In the weeks and months ahead, I wonder if my loved ones will get sick. I wonder if I will.
I wonder also what this means for my work. Not about whether I’ll have a job—right now, I’m fortunate in this regard—but how what I do matters to the world we live in right now.
For much of my career, I’ve worked in the public humanities. As director of Virginia Humanities, the state’s humanities council, I’m sometimes asked how we measure the impact of things like literature, history, and philosophy in society. Sometimes I hear this question another way. What do the humanities do for career readiness and income potential?
Here’s how I would frame an answer, made more visible by this global crisis. The humanities—reflecting and acting on what it means to be human—provide skills for life readiness. As we wait for a vaccine to catch up with the coronavirus, it is our humanity that will carry us through today and tomorrow. This time of crisis challenges us to consider who we are, and what our values are. It forces us to think how we show compassion and charity for our communities and neighbors; how we express love for one another when we cannot always be together; and how we can still discover joy and build bridges of connection, amidst anxiety, uncertainty, and distance.
Of the novels my wife and I read together that winter, Cormac McCarthy’s The Road has stayed with me. It is the only book I opened on a gray afternoon and did not put down until I had finished it, weeping, in the dark early morning of the next day. It is a brutally beautiful story of a father and son who struggle to survive in a burned-out landscape. During a critical point in the story, the father pleads with his son, “You have to carry the fire.” The son does not understand and says he does not know how. “Yes you do,” his father says. His son is confused, “Is it real? The fire? … Where is it? I don’t know where it is.” His father patiently explains, “Yes you do. It’s inside you. It was always there. I can see it.”
I often think of this moment, a poignant illustration of compassion and tenderness in a charred, merciless world, of a father’s faith in his child that he will live and carry the knowledge and experiences that came before him. In the pages of apocalyptic fiction, and in the times we are in and in all times, we do not endure alone. We seek out and depend upon one another for community, for love, and for meaning. Ultimately, like the intangible fire, it’s this human connection that gives us hope.
About the Author
Matthew Gibson is the executive director of Virginia Humanities. He holds a Ph.D. in English from the University of Virginia. He lives in Charlottesville Virginia with his wife and two children.
[*] In case you are curious, we read: Colson Whitehead’s Zone One; Max Brooks’s World War Z; Cormac McCarthy’s The Road; Stephen King’s The Stand (unabridged); Peter Heller’s The Dog Stars; Paul Auster’s In The Country of Last Things; Margaret Atwood’s Oryx and Crake; and Emily St. John Mandel’s Station Eleven.