Fear No More the Heat o’ the Sun

George Dawe, Imogen Discovered in the Cave of Belarius


In this season of death, death has hit close to home, although this one was not Covid-caused. William Boyd, a St. Mary’s College of Maryland student who lived with us for six years, helping us bring up our children and journeying with us to Yugoslavia/Slovenia for my two Fulbrights, unexpectedly passed away from kidney failure and diabetes. He was 55.

For Julia and me, William was our fourth son. For Justin, Darien and Toby, he was their older brother. For Yugoslavia/Slovenia, William was an electrifying gospel singer who sang in Zagreb’s and Sarajevo’s major concert halls in 1988 and in various Slovenian public venues in 1995. For New Elizabeth Baptist Church, William was the charismatic pastor who touched lives in his impoverished Baltimore community, reaching out to those in pain and helping them find a way forward.

I feel so, so tired, as I did when I lost Justin 20 years ago. That’s probably why this song from Shakespeare’s Cymbeline comes to mind. I send it out to William as a kind of lullaby:

Fear no more the heat o’ the sun,
Nor the furious winter’s rages;
Thou thy worldly task hast done,
Home art gone, and ta’en thy wages:
Golden lads and girls all must,
As chimney-sweepers, come to dust.

Fear no more the frown o’ the great;
Thou art past the tyrant’s stroke;
Care no more to clothe and eat;
To thee the reed is as the oak:
The scepter, learning, physic, must
All follow this, and come to dust.

Fear no more the lightning flash,
Nor the all-dreaded thunder stone;
Fear not slander, censure rash;
Thou hast finished joy and moan:
All lovers young, all lovers must
Consign to thee, and come to dust.

No exorciser harm thee!
Nor no witchcraft charm thee!
Ghost unlaid forbear thee!
Nothing ill come near thee!
Quiet consummation have;
And renownèd be thy grave!

Or as Horatio says so movingly to his closest friend,

And flights of angels sing thee to thy rest.
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Pratchett Responds to Racist Politics


Barack Obama’s uplifting oration at John Lewis’s funeral was still ringing in my ears when I came across a similar celebration of inclusion and diversity in a Terry Pratchett novel. I’m currently working my way through Pratchett’s 60 or so fantasy novels, which stand in stark contrast to Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings. Not only are they humorous (Tolkien, by contrast, is deadly serious), but they don’t have the same kind of species bias. Tolkien divides his world into good species (hobbits, elves, dwarves, Ents and humans) and bad species (goblins, orcs, trolls, and humans) while Pratchett embraces everyone.

Pratchett also doesn’t share Tolkien’s class bias. Whereas Tolkien associates the bad species with the industrial working class and the good species with upper-class patricians, the artisanal middle class, and self-employed agricultural workers, Pratchett finds good and bad in all species. Their challenge is getting along with each other, which isn’t easy since troll culture, dwarf culture, golem culture, werewolf culture, zombie culture, vampire culture, goblin culture, wee people culture, and human culture often vary widely. If Tolkien’s fiction is a modernist longing for a rural past, Pratchett’s is a post-modernist embrace of chaotic urban life.

Take the following scene from Feet of Clay, for instance, where Inspector Vimes, head of the Night Watch, has just encountered a racist factory owner who has been exploiting golems. Unlike  many of America’s police forces, his first response is to diversify:

“Who’s that man who owns that place?”
“That’s Mr. Catterail, sir. You know, he’s always writing you letters about there being too many what he calls ‘less races’ in the Watch. You know…trolls and dwarfs…” The sergeant had to trot to keep up with Vimes.
“Get some zombies,” he said.
“You’ve always been dead against zombies, excuse my pun,” said Sergeant Colon.
“Any want to join, are there?”
“Oh, yessir. Couple of good lads, sir, and but for the gray skin hangin’ off ‘em you’d swear they hadn’t been buried five minutes.”
“Swear them in tomorrow.”
“Right, sir. Good idea. And of course it’s a great saving not having to include them in the pension plan.”

Feet of Clay also features a scenario that gets at the heart of our current political dilemma, which is that only the Democrats seriously care about responsible governance. In the novel, the ruthless but effective patrician Vetinari appears to be dying, and the various guilds are imagining a successor. Like the GOP, however, they are flummoxed by the prospect of having to “negotiate and juggle with all the conflicting interests.” It’s much easier to complain about those who are running things.

The passage applies as well to how the GOP has come to take for granted the Pax Americana (if that’s what the past 75 years can be called) while feeling free to snipe at the various entities that comprise it. If the United States abdicates its leadership role, then China will only be too happy to take over. Think of the Patrician as a responsible American president in the following passage, which also contains a strong case against limiting immigration:

Who’d be Patrician now? Once there’d have been a huge multi-sided struggle, but now!…

You got the power, but you got the problems, too. Things had changed. These days, you had to negotiate and juggle with all the conflicting interests. No one sane had tried to kill Vetinari for years, because the world with him in it was just preferable to one without him…

[Vetinari had] taken all the gangs and squabbling groups and made them see that a small slice of the cake on a regular basis was better by far than a bigger slide with a dagger in it. He’d made them see that it was better to take a small slice but enlarge the cake.

Ankh-Morpork, alone of all the cities of the plains, had opened its gates to dwarfs and trolls (alloys are stronger, as Vetinari had said). It had worked. They made things. Often they made trouble, but mostly they made wealth. As a result, although Ankh-Morpork still had many enemies, those enemies had to finance their armies with borrowed money. Most of it was borrowed from Ankh-Morpork, at punitive interest. There hadn’t been any really big wars for years. Ankh-Morpork had made them unprofitable.

Thousands of years ago the old empire had enforced the Pax Morporkia, which had said to the world: “Do not fight, or we will kill you.” The pax had arisen again, but this time it said: “If you fight we’ll call in your mortgages. And incidentally, that’s my pike you’re pointing at me. I paid for that shield you’re holding. And take my helmet off when you speak to me, you horrible little debtor.”

And now the whole machine, which whirred away so quietly that people had forgotten it was a machine at all and thought that it was just the way the world worked, had given a lurch.

The guild leaders examined their thoughts and decided that what they did not want was power. What they wanted was that tomorrow should be pretty much like today.

A lot of Americans would like America to be like what it was four years ago.

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To Memorialize, Turn to Poetry

Activist James Lawson


Poetry steps up when other language falls short, which is why we often encounter it at funerals. Activist James Lawson, John Lewis’s mentor, particularly caught my attention when he read a Czeslaw Milosz poem last week. It helped me understand why Lawson is one of the greatest trainers of social activists in American history.

Let me first mention the other poems. I heard two passages from Shakespeare (one quoted twice); Lewis’s favorite poem “Invictus” (which I reflected upon recently); and Langston Hughes’s “I Dream a World,” which inspired Martin Luther King’s “I Have a Dream” speech.

George W. Bush was one of two borrowing from Horatio’s farewell to Hamlet:

And flights of angels sing thee to thy rest!

Unlike Hamlet, however, Lewis died in peace, believing in his fellow citizens and content to pass the torch to the next generation. He responded to the rottenness in the state with unflinching love. In any event, it’s a lovely farewell.

Ebenezer Baptist Church pastor Raphael Gamaliel Warnock turned to Juliet’s awe and wonder at her love for Romeo to capture his own reverence for Lewis:

…and, when he shall die,
Take him and cut him out in little stars,
And he will make the face of heaven so fine
That all the world will be in love with night
And pay no worship to the garish sun.

If we see the “garish sun” as established authorities, then it seems right to celebrate this advocate for “good trouble” as a figure of the night.

I can’t remember who read “I Dream a World,” but it was appropriate for a man who, as Barack Obama put it, often believed in us more than we believed in ourselves:

I dream a world where man
No other man will scorn,
Where love will bless the earth
And peace its paths adorn
I dream a world where all
Will know sweet freedom's way,
Where greed no longer saps the soul
Nor avarice blights our day.
A world I dream where black or white,
Whatever race you be,
Will share the bounties of the earth
And every man is free,
Where wretchedness will hang its head
And joy, like a pearl,
Attends the needs of all mankind-
Of such I dream, my world!

But back to Lawson, who read both “Invictus” and Milosz’s “Meaning.” As he read the first poem, Lawson may have remembered the “bludgeonings” he himself endured and witnessed, while always advocating a non-violent response (“My head is bloody and unbowed”).

“Meaning” is considerably more complex:

When I die, I will see the lining of the world.
The other side, beyond bird, mountain, sunset.
The true meaning, ready to be decoded
What never added up will add Up,
What was incomprehensible will be comprehended
--And if there is no lining to the world?
If a thrush on a branch is not a sign,
But just a thrush on the branch? If night and day
Make no sense following each other?
And on this earth there is nothing except this earth?
--Even if that is so, there will remain
A word wakened by lips that perish,
A tireless messenger who runs and runs
Through interstellar fields, through the revolving galaxies,
And calls out, protests, screams.

First, this is a great poem to read at the funeral of a lifelong warrior for justice. Through the first five lines, it’s as though Lewis finds life’s work confirmed with his death, which is how many many witnessing the funeral saw it.

Milosz, however, is famous for never allowing assertions to go unquestioned, including his own. His Nobel acceptance speech is a masterclass in simultaneously declaring truths and challenging them. In this poem, he switches from confidence the world has transcendent meaning to the possibility it does not. Lewis, like Martin Luther King, might have believed the arc of history bends towards justice—their struggle occurred within the context of that faith—but what if it doesn’t? What if “on this earth there is nothing except this earth?”

Lawson knows that, whatever confidence social activists exude in public, privately they have their moments of doubt. He undoubtedly saw such doubts up close countless times. Milosz’s lesson for social activists is that they may be able to do no more than call out, protest, scream with their perishable lips. The downward trajectory from calling out to screaming suggests that the intended audiences are not listening.

People like Lewis—and for that matter, poets—are like the “tireless messenger who runs and runs/ Through interstellar fields, through the revolving galaxies.” Maybe no “true meaning” exists, and yet the poem somehow endows such activity with cosmic significance. Through human striving, meaning is made.

Love may be an essential part of the lining of the world, as John Lewis professed, or it may not. What’s important is that, when all is said and done, Lewis tirelessly called out the word with lips that have now perished. In doing so, he awakened others and changed history.

Further thought: Milosz’s vision of a messenger who “calls out, protests, screams” brings to mind a famous passage from In Memoriam where Tennyson grapples with whether a higher meaning exists within the universe. Although he will come around to a more positive vision, at this stage Tennyson is racked with doubt:

Oh, yet we trust that somehow good
         Will be the final end of ill,
         To pangs of nature, sins of will,
Defects of doubt, and taints of blood;

That nothing walks with aimless feet;
         That not one life shall be destroy'd,
         Or cast as rubbish to the void,
When God hath made the pile complete;

That not a worm is cloven in vain;
         That not a moth with vain desire
         Is shrivell'd in a fruitless fire,
Or but subserves another's gain.

Behold, we know not anything;
         I can but trust that good shall fall
         At last—far off—at last, to all,
And every winter change to spring.

So runs my dream: but what am I?
         An infant crying in the night:
         An infant crying for the light:
And with no language but a cry.
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Hang Together or Go Under

Turner, “The Shipwreck” (1805)


A few months ago Editorial Page’s John Stoehr alerted me to a powerful James Baldwin warning from his prose poem essay Nothing Personal. As our country passes the 150,000 mark for Covid deaths and as the bottom drops out of the economy, it’s vital that we hold on to each other. Otherwise, “the sea engulfs us and the light goes out.”

Baldwin wrote these words in 1964, when we had a similar sense that “nothing is fixed” and that “the earth is always shifting.” Yet many of us believed then—at least those of us who were white—that America’s basic safeguards would hold. We had confidence that the rule of law, the electoral system, and the U.S. Constitution’s system of checks and balances were fixed and immutable.

Baldwin is not so sure. In the face of uncertainty, however, he reminds us of two important things: we are responsible to future generations (“we are the only witnesses they have”) and it is vital to keep faith with each other. Our children and our children’s children must not lose the dream of a just and egalitarian society. They must not become inured to autocracy.

When Baldwin warns against “break[ing] faith with one another,” think of him referring to the Declaration of Independence, to America’s vision of e pluribus unum, and to the Statue of Liberty’s welcoming light.

To be sure, fighting against a sea that “does not cease to grind down rock” is a daunting challenge. People of color know better than anyone how the forces of racism and oppression never let up. But even while acknowledging the harsh reality, Baldwin points to how we must respond: lovers must cling to lovers and parents and children must cling to each other. Without that, we are lost for sure.

I know we often lose, and that the death or destruction of another is infinitely more real and unbearable than one’s own. I think I know how many times one has to start again, and how often one feels that one cannot start again. And yet, on pain of death, one can never remain where one is. The light. The light. One will perish without the light.

I have slept on rooftops and in basements and subways, have been cold and hungry all my life; have felt that no fire would ever warm me, and no arms would ever hold me. I have been, as the song says, “buked and scorned” and I know that I always will be. But, my God, in that darkness, which was the lot of my ancestors and my own state, what a mighty fire burned! In that darkness of rape and degradation, that fine flying froth and mist of blood, through all that terror and in all that helplessness, a living soul moved and refused to die. We really emptied oceans with a home-made spoon and tore down mountains with our hands….

It is a mighty heritage, it is the human heritage, and it is all there is to trust. And I learned this through descending, as it were, into the eyes of my father and my mother. I wondered, when I was little, how they bore it–for I knew that they had much to bear. It had not yet occurred to me that I also would have much to bear; but they knew it, and the unimaginable rigors of their journey helped them to prepare me for mine. This is why one must say Yes to life and embrace it wherever it is found–and it is found in terrible places; nevertheless, there it is; and if the father can say, Yes. Lord. the child can learn that most difficult of words, Amen.

For nothing is fixed, forever and forever and forever, it is not fixed; the earth is always shifting, the light is always changing, the sea does not cease to grind down rock. Generations do not cease to be born, and we are responsible to them because we are the only witnesses they have.

The sea rises, the light fails, lovers cling to each other, and children cling to us. The moment we cease to hold each other, the moment we break faith with one another, the sea engulfs us and the light goes out.

Further thought: Baldwin may well be alluding to Matthew Arnold’s “Dover Beach,” even though Arnold’s ocean is moving in the other direction. Arnold laments that the tide (of faith) is receding, not coming in, thereby leaving us “on a darkling plain/ Swept with confused alarms of struggle and flight, /Where ignorant armies clash by night.” Nevertheless, the prescription is the same: “Ah, love, let us be true to one another!”

With that in mind, the wide support for Black Lives Matter—much broader, more multicultural, and more egalitarian than that enjoyed by Black activism in the 1960s—is reason to hope. To be sure, Trump is more reckless than Richard Nixon while today’s GOP is more supine than it was then, but this means that holding each other is essential.

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In the Desert Darkness One Has Found Me

Leon Bonnat, Jacob Wrestling with the Angel

Spiritual Sunday

Poets have been drawn to today’s Old Testament reading where Jacob wrestles with the angel, in large part because they can read it as a complex inner struggle. Malcolm Guite imagines Jacob as a troubled soul in one of his sublime sonnets.

First, here’s the story:

The same night Jacob got up and took his two wives, his two maids, and his eleven children, and crossed the ford of the Jabbok. He took them and sent them across the stream, and likewise everything that he had. Jacob was left alone; and a man wrestled with him until daybreak. When the man saw that he did not prevail against Jacob, he struck him on the hip socket; and Jacob’s hip was put out of joint as he wrestled with him. Then he said, “Let me go, for the day is breaking.” But Jacob said, “I will not let you go, unless you bless me.” So he said to him, “What is your name?” And he said, “Jacob.” Then the man said, “You shall no longer be called Jacob, but Israel, for you have striven with God and with humans, and have prevailed.” Then Jacob asked him, “Please tell me your name.” But he said, “Why is it that you ask my name?” And there he blessed him. So Jacob called the place Peniel, saying, “For I have seen God face to face, and yet my life is preserved.” The sun rose upon him as he passed Penuel, limping because of his hip. (Genesis 32:22-31)

Guite mentions Jacob sending his family on ahead, which means he is alone and stripped of his daily identity markers. Driven inward, he feels guilty about having betrayed his brother, whom he is scheduled to meet the following day. In this desert darkness, God finds him.

God’s love simultaneously wounds and heals. When we wrestle forthrightly and passionately with our darkness, we lose a part of ourselves but are compensated beyond all imagining. Daybreak stakes its claim as God provides a new name for us.

That God’s love wounds as well as heals reminds me of the paradox that John Donne famously describes in his sonnet “Batter My Heart, Three-Personed God”:

Divorce me, untie or break that knot again,
Take me to you, imprison me, for I,
Except you enthrall me, never shall be free,
Nor ever chaste, except you ravish me.

Spiritual struggle is not for wimps. Everything is at stake but, in the end, the angel blesses us.

Previous posts on Jacob and the Angel
Rainer Maria Rilke: The Eternal Doesn’t Want to Be Bent by Us
Gerard Manley Hopkins: Wrestling with (My God!) My God

Parable and Paradox

I dare not face my brother in the morning,
I dare not look upon the things I’ve done,
Dare not ignore a nightmare’s dreadful warning,
Dare not endure the rising of the sun.
My family, my goods, are sent before me,
I cannot sleep on this strange river shore,
I have betrayed the son of one who bore me,
And my own soul rejects me to the core.
But in the desert darkness one has found me,
Embracing me, He will not let me go,
Nor will I let Him go, whose arms surround me,
Until he tells me all I need to know,
And blesses me where daybreak stakes its claim,
With love that wounds and heals; and with His name.
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Vote for the Best Lizard


My brother David just reminded me of the following Douglas Adams passage (from So Long, and Thanks for All the Fish), which is always relevant but never more so than now as U.S. Covid deaths pass the 150,000 mark, the result of wretched governance. For those who think of politicians as lizards, then it’s important to also acknowledge that not all lizards are the same:

[Ford said], “On its world, the people are people. The leaders are lizards. The people hate the lizards and the lizards rule the people.”

“Odd,” said Arthur. “I thought you said it was a democracy.”

“I did,” said Ford. “It is.”

“So,” said Arthur, hoping he wasn’t sounding ridiculously obtuse, “why don’t the people get rid of the lizards?”

“It honestly doesn’t occur to them,” said Ford. “They’ve all got the vote, so they all pretty much assume that the government they voted in more or less approximates to the government they want.”

“You mean they actually vote for the lizards?”

“Oh yes,” said Ford with a shrug, “of course.”

“But,” said Arthur, going in for the big one again, “why?”

“Because if they didn’t vote for a lizard,” said Ford, “the wrong lizard might get in.”

If, in 2016, more people had worried about the wrong lizard getting in, then Hillary Clinton would currently be orchestrating America’s response to the pandemic, tens of thousands Covid victims would still be alive, and schools would probably be opening on time. The wrong lizard could get in again if people don’t turn out and vote for Joe Biden.

This is no time for purity tests. The lizard we vote in will make all the difference.

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Trump-Graham as Dracula-Renfield

Lugosi, Frye in Dracula (1931)


Joy Reid, MSNBC’s newest primetime host, recently made a literary reference that has changed the way I see a certain Republican senator. South Carolina’s Lindsey Graham, she observed, has been playing Renfield to Donald Trump’s Dracula.

Graham is noteworthy for his dramatic change from tough Trump critic to leading Trump sycophant, leading some to wonder whether Trump or Putin is blackmailing him. Or perhaps (this would be a more plausible interpretation), he has sold his soul to ward off a rightwing primary challenge. Whatever the case, the senator who once charted an independent course now delivers up daily versions of Renfield’s call-out to the Count:

I am here to do Your bidding, Master. I am Your slave, and You will reward me, for I shall be faithful. I have worshipped You long and afar off. Now that You are near, I await Your commands, and You will not pass me by, will You, dear Master, in Your distribution of good things?

When he says this, Renfield has momentarily escaped from his insane asylum. In order to become closer to his master, he has become a bloodsucker, starting with flies before moving up to spiders, birds and rats.

Come to think of it, Vice President Mike Pence might be a better candidate for Trump’s Renfield given that he even mimics Trump’s tiny movements. Graham is not far behind, however. While the president is America’s premier bloodsucker, making free use of “other people’s money” and accomplishments, Pence and Graham now leach off of Trump. They are learning their craft from a master.

In Stoker’s novel, Renfield has a moment where he comes to his senses and tries to escape the vampire. Unfortunately, he suffers a version of the fate that is metaphorically visited upon former Trump associates who try to break free:

When I came to Renfield’s room I found him lying on the floor on his left side in a glittering pool of blood. When I went to move him, it became at once apparent that he had received some terrible injuries; there seemed none of that unity of purpose between the parts of the body which marks even lethargic sanity. As the face was exposed I could see that it was horribly bruised, as though it had been beaten against the floor—indeed it was from the face wounds that the pool of blood originated. The attendant who was kneeling beside the body said to me as we turned him over:—

“I think, sir, his back is broken. See, both his right arm and leg and the whole side of his face are paralyzed.”

In other words, everything Dracula touches dies. 

Trump has maintained control over the GOP as Dracula does over his victims. While he may not be able to glide between the bars of a maniac’s cell, his tweets have had their own brutal efficacy.

Many of us are praying that Joe Biden proves to be our Van Helsing, putting a stake in the monster who has been draining America of its lifeblood. Dracula’s enablers must be dealt with as well.

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Learning to Feel the Sea

Edward Henry Potthast, Children at Play on the Beach


Our family had to cancel a planned visit to Myrtle Beach this year, which means that Julia and I didn’t get to spend a week with our eight-year-old grandson. To vicariously experience the sea, I turn to a luminescent poem by Sewanee English chair Jennifer Davis Michael. It appears in her recently published chapbook Let Me Let Go.

Opening the Hand

I don’t recall my first view of the beach:
my terror at the blank expanse of sand
and that tremendous, always-moving water.
No silent-movie footage of me bolting
for the motel’s sliding door or burying
my face in my father’s scratchy neck.
But there’s a photo of my hooded self,
snug, smiling in the nest he dug for me:
a tiny sea enclosed by shoveled walls
--infinity made comprehensible.

I do remember two or three years later,
he took me in the surf up to his waist
and taught me how to float there, on my back.
The water chilled my ears and muted sounds,
so that I felt the waves but didn’t hear them.
His hand stayed on my shoulder
until a gust of wind blew off his cap
and he lunged, letting go of me. Just then
an upstart wave, whipped up by that same wind,
broke over me. I choked and came up crying,
cursing him in the wordless way of children,
but he was there. He’d never been away.
And yet, in that split-second of emptiness,
by opening his hand, he’d let me feel the sea.

The poem takes me back to an unforgettable moment at Edisto Beach when I was six or so. The tide was out and I was trailing my father by some distance through the shallow surf when I hit a dip. Suddenly I found myself totally submerged and thrashing around. Somehow I made it to the surface and regained my footing, but I carry that moment of panic with me to this day.

As Jennifer would observe, in that “split-second of emptiness” I experienced the sea. To be sure, we have drawn different lessons. In her case, she thinks of her father as always being there for her, even when he seems to have let her go. My father, by contrast, seemed impossibly far away. He never saw my sudden immersion, and I lacked the language to convey the trauma. I was like the “country husband” in the John Cheever story of that name, unable to convey to those close to me my near-death experience.

But in another way, the experiences were the same. Both of us were raised in protective environments—lovingly constructed nests “enclosed by shoveled walls”—only to experience a reality shock. I love the movement in the poem from not hearing the waves (when her father is holding her) to suddenly experiencing them in a new and visceral way. One of life’s gusts hits her father unexpectedly and he lets his daughter go, thereby allowing her a momentary glimpse of life on her own. The world never feels quite the same again.

That’s why, though we may forget all the surrounding circumstances, that moment endures.

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Read to Grapple with Climate Change

Henri Matisse, The Reader, Marguerite Matisse (1906)


Guardian book editor Sian Cain has a fascinating article in which she turns to literature to bolster her climate change decision not to have children. Given the predicted horrors of global warming, she regards bringing more people into the world as irresponsible, but this viewpoint is so fraught that she needs literature to help her sort it out.

Cain gives a stark view of the world the next generation can expect:

If my baby were to be born today, they would be 10 years old when a quarter of the world’s insects could be gone, when 100 million children are expected to be suffering extreme food scarcity. My child would be 23 when 99% of coral reefs are set to experience severe bleaching. They would be 30 – my age now – when 200 million climate refugees will be roaming the world, when half of all species on Earth are predicted to be extinct in the wild. They would be 80 in 2100, when parts of Australia, Africa and the United States could be uninhabitable.

We are in the middle of a mass extinction, the first caused by a single species. There are 7.8 billion of us, on a planet that scientists estimate can support 15 billion humans living as the average US citizen does today. And we know that the biggest contribution any individual living in affluent nations can make is to not have children. According to one study, having one fewer child prevents 58.6 tons of carbon emissions every year; compare that with living car-free (2.4 tons), avoiding a transatlantic return flight (1.6), or eating a plant-based diet (0.82). Another study said it was almost 20 times more important than any other choice an environmentally minded individual could make. 

Cain admits this is not the whole story, which is why she turns to literature. At first glance, however, literature seems to come up short:

Few novels have attempted to tell us what to do in the face of climate catastrophe. Amitav Ghosh has called this “a crisis of imagination.” As Richard Powers writes in his 2018 novel The Overstory, “The world is failing precisely because no novel can make the contest for the world seem as compelling as the struggles between a few lost people.”

Nevertheless, Cain mentions some novels that are attempting to grapple with the question. In Lydia Millet’s Children’s Bible (2020), for instance,

kids are contemptuous of adults for their lack of action before the collapse of society. “It was so sudden, they said. They’d all been told there was more time. Way more. It was someone else’s fault for sure.” One of the children, Jack, finds a decaying Bible, and in it, a way of making sense of his disintegrating world. When an apocalyptic storm hits the US, the book tells him what to do: build an ark.

Children play an important emotional role in apocalyptic climate fiction by raising the stakes of survival. Cain says that sometimes they lend significance to the narrative by their presence, sometimes by their absence. A number of her books approach the issue from an adult perspective:

But even when the future seems like no place for a child, there is always room for them in fiction set at the end of the world: they are emotional ammunition, a reminder of bigger stakes to come. In Lauren Beukes’s upcoming Afterland, a global pandemic that kills only men has led to a “global reprohibition”; Cole, a mother on the run with her mysteriously still-living teenage son, thinks: “When there aren’t going to be any more kids, you want to hold on to their childhood for as long as you can. There must be a German word for that. Nostalgenfreude. Kindersucht.”

Perhaps it is kindersucht we feel when we read novels like The Children of Men by PD James, Future Home of the Living God by Louise Erdrich, or JG Ballard’s The Drowned World, in which children are conspicuous by their presence or absence. In Ballard’s 1962 novel, set in a submerged London, “the birth of a child had become a comparative rarity, and only one marriage in 10 yielded any offspring … the genealogical tree of mankind was systematically pruning itself.” In Margaret Atwood’s 1977 short story “When It Happens”, a middle-aged woman makes preparations to flee her family home due to an unnamed threat, and her gaze falls on a family photo: “The children when they were babies. She thinks of her girls now and hopes they will not have babies; it is no longer the right time for it.” In Jenny Offill’s Weather, the narrator watches her son play and recalls a past conversation with an environmentalist friend: “I asked her once what I could do, how I could get him ready. It would be good if he had some skills, she said. And of course, no children.”

Other authors take up the next generation’s point of view:

Children become resigned to not having the future they should have had; in Cormac McCarthy’s The Road, when the father says: “You are not the one who has to worry about everything,” his son counters, “I am the one.” And in Season Butler’s Cygnet, a teenager mopes around an island populated only by pensioners waiting out the end as their homes slowly crumble into the sea: “I think about the kids that people my age are having, or will start having soon. Life is going to be so boring for them. Not just because the world will have gone completely to shit by then and there won’t be much of anything left, but because their parents are going to talk constantly about how the world used to be.”

Cain looks at non-fiction as well as fiction, observing as she does so that many of these works are written by parents. She acknowledges that having children gives their climate activism a particular urgency:

[I]t is remarkable how many of these authors suggest that having a child is a hopeful gesture, a sign of one’s investment in the future. [Uninhabitable Earth author David] Wallace-Wells has said having children “is a reason to fight now”. [Notes from an Apocalypse author Mark] O’Connell writes that his son’s birth is a dilemma because “the last thing the world needed, after all, was more people in it, and the last thing my hitherto nonexistent person needed was to be in the world”; by the end, he has a second child, and a “radically increased stake in the future.”

Cain doesn’t so much disagree with these authors as note that it’s a vexed question whether or not go childless. As she herself faces intense pressure for her views, she looks to literature for support:

Ever since my partner and I concluded that we wanted to be child-free, I have looked to books for positive examples of fulfilling and rewarding lives lived without children. The closest I have found have been eccentric spinsters and ambivalent parents, in a long line from Doris Lessing and DH Lawrence, Barbara Pym and Rachel Cusk. There are countless mothers who find their intellectual pursuits strangled by their children and absent husbands (most recently, Fleishmann Is in Trouble by Taffy Brodesser-Akner and Elena Ferrante’s Neapolitan quartet).

She is reassured, however, that recent works are more likely to feature characters who shrug off the traditional childbearing expectations:

But recently, as millennials are coming of age as both prospective parents and as authors, characters are questioning the status quo. “Fuck all those childbearers and their ‘fulfilling’ lives, never getting to have adventures like mine,” thinks the 38-year-old narrator of Melissa Broder’s The Pisces, for whom the prospect of children is “like something mildly distasteful: a piece of onion I would prefer not to put on my plate.” “Why bother having a kid when the world’s going to hell anyway?” wonders one character in Ottessa Moshfegh’s A Year of Rest and Relaxation. “Why do you want children?” the narrator of Avni Doshi’s Burnt Sugar asks her boyfriend. “He shrugs. ‘So we can be like everybody else.’” In Amina Cain’s Indelicacy, a woman objects to her husband’s expectation that they will someday have children. “Why is it necessary for everyone to think of it, as if there were no other choice?” she rages at a friend.

Cain ultimately finds a silver lining—a very thin one, to be sure—in climate change: it can get us to rethink how to live a meaningful life. Maybe childbearing, important as it is for many, isn’t our only option. In the end, Cain wants us to tolerate those who live another way:

The climate crisis has presented an opportunity to rebrand being child-free, once the greatest taboo, into the ultimate altruistic act. At the same time, parenthood is framed as the ultimate investment in a better future. But choosing to have children is neither inherently good nor selfish, and the same goes for being child-free. We must challenge the orthodoxy that says choosing to live one way is a criticism of another. Just this week comes a new novel by Emma Gannon, Olive, which centers on a woman in her 30s who has chosen to be child-free; Gannon herself has spoken about being made to feel guilty for her choice. What we need instead is a quiet revolution, a complete reappraisal of what we deem to be a meaningful life.

As a Guardian book editor, it makes sense that Cain would replace children with books:

I, for one, will continue to turn to books, where I find reassurance in the strangest of places. In one tiny strand of The Overstory, Ray and Dorothy, a couple who have spent thousands on fertility treatments, finally decided to move on. “In place of children, then, books,” Powers writes. “Ray likes to glimpse the grand project of civilization ascending to its still-obscure destiny. He wants only to read on, late into the night, about the rising quality of life, the steady freeing of humanity by invention, the breakout of know-how that will finally save the race.”

I fully support Cain’s decision not to have children, even though I can’t imagine my own life without my two sons and their five children. But I worry about their future in just the ways the Cain worries. A leap of faith is required but, as we are seeing from far too many of our leaders these days, such leaps can far too easily become magical thinking.

Literature is a great forum for grappling with these issues, however.

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  • Literature is as vital to our lives as food and shelter. Stories and poems help us work through the challenges we face, from everyday irritations to loneliness, heartache, and death. Literature is meant to mix it up with life. This website explores how it does so.

    Please feel free to e-mail me [rrbates (at) smcm (dot) edu]. I would be honored to hear your thoughts and questions about literature.

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