My children were cranky when I dropped them off for school today: still sleepy, bickering in the back seat over who won a contest about who could avoid speaking longest. I was cranky too. When they got out of the car, we reminded each other that we love each other. I make sure of that every morning.
I remember Sandy Hook, and decided back then, that every day, no matter who was cranky and who was not, they would hear me tell them I love them as they got out of the car. That needed to be something they knew. If, god forbid, a man with a gun came to their school, they would know that their mother loved them.
Tonight, I dropped them off at their Star Wars school dance, and went to a nearby café to do a little work. Dances, at their age, end at 7:30. That gave me an hour. “I’ll quickly check the news,” I decided, before beginning work. Paris. Again.
I did not work tonight. Instead, I thought about my Literature Matters class this morning. This semester, we have read books in the gothic tradition, each of which features a monster of one sort or another. The argument I build during the semester is that behind each monster in a time is a set of fears, be they cultural, economic, social, religious, racial, gendered, etc. What fears lurk behind who we consider to be monstrous? Who gets to be counted as human, who as lacking humanity, and why?
I am always surprised, in rereading Frankenstein, to find that the monster is in fact incredibly eloquent. He makes compelling and moving arguments for his own humanity, his own need, even his right, to be loved. Today in class, we looked at a scene in which a character in Dracula is referred to as “The Thing,” and began to ponder the moment when someone loses their humanity. It is, of course, necessary to begin to see someone else as non-human in order to move towards ending his or her life. This is a step in path of wiping out large groups of people. They must become things.
We began the semester with an overview of the French Revolution. It was, I tell them, a moment in which the question of who is human, and why, was asked with such rigor, that our own understanding of human rights continues to be shaped by the ripples flowing forward in time from Bastille day.
Of late, more than one political candidate has smugly jabbed at the Humanities as a useless pursuit. The suggestion is that today’s problems will be figured out by those who reject art, literature, music, philosophy, languages and even history as a waste of time. These disciplines have nothing to say in the conversation about how to co-exist on this planet, the argument goes. Yet these are the records of what it means to be human—the experiences of what it is like to be someone else, in another body, another place, another time, or sometimes, right now.
My daughter sings in the Drury Girls Choir. During the fall performance, I sat with my son, who was fidgety and distracted. The older choir sang a song, written by a girl who died in a concentration camp. My son, not having paid attention to the brief details given about the girl, listened to the song for a bit, turned to me, and asked me to explain to him what was important about the girl. I simply told him, “she knew she was going to die when she wrote this song.” My son loves action figures, and Star Wars, and sometimes I worry that he might not fully understand the connections, and the gaps between the violence of movies, and the violence of real life. But he looked at me, horrified, and burst into tears. I quickly walked him out into the hall, and asked him what was wrong. “She was going to die? And she knew it?” he said, between tears. I comforted him, and apologized for upsetting him. It was the singing, the girls’ voices, the music, that brought the truth so that he was right there, with her for a moment. So was I.
Yesterday, my daughter worked on a self-portrait in school. She had to draw the portrait in the style of an artist of her choice. Salvador Dali was her favorite, and she drew herself with her hand melting in front of her face. She was happy with the final version, something that was only possible to create because she had to step into Dali’s shoes, think like Dali, imagine how he would draw her face. She had to think about her own humanity through his eyes. She had to step out of herself, and be him, to try to look back and see herself anew.
Those who believe the Humanities have no value right now are missing the fact that without the Humanities, we lose what is a profound means of seeing each other as human. The Humanities are not peripheral to understanding, and changing our world; they are one of the most significant means we have of being able to begin to make sense of it. A painting, a song, a story of someone else’s life, a history of a different time, a philosophy that helps us to think about why we are even here, and what might our purpose be, and how to make something real and good in the world. The Humanities take us there, and help us both leave ourselves to better know others, and to return to see ourselves more clearly.
Tonight ended with me back at my children’s school, watching them dance the electric slide, joyously following the moves of one child’s mother who had dressed up as Princess Leia and knew all the right moves. Paris, for a moment, felt far away. The humanity of it all, however, feels as close as ever. My heart aches for France. All I can think to do is write about it, to create a story that will help me to begin to try to make sense of it, to draw on the Humanities, to write these words, here and now.
November 15 Addition: As many have rightly noted, the suffering is not felt only by those in Paris. The parts of the globe that have been suffering are wide and deep; including, very importantly, large parts of Africa and the Middle East. A bombing in Beirut killed 43 people only one day before the attacks in Paris; 147 people were killed during the massacre at Garissa University in Kenya in April. There is no shortage of violence, no shortage of tragic opportunities to think about humanity, no shortage of people and places to whom to send peace and love.
Dr. Katie Gilbert