The Consolation of Art and Literature

 

The night of the 2016 election, my pain was visceral. I felt sick to my stomach. How long will progressive social policies stand up to the next Supreme Court? Never mind that: how long will the world survive climate change deniers? There was no end to my anxieties. “At least the republic will survive, right?” I asked my good friend, an unflappable optimist and a retired professor of political philosophy. “I’m not so sure,” he said. “We’ve never elected a fascist before.”

Three weeks later, I still can’t bring myself to turn on the radio or read much of the paper. The familiar escapes of TV dramas and the sports page offer me no joy. Instead, I look for consolation in the people who have shown resilience in the face of unimaginable loss. There is no shortage of them in human history. Their voices remind us we are not the first to suffer, and the strongest among them give us the strength to pick ourselves up and carry on.milton

In 1660, John Milton lived to see King Charles II restored to the throne. Milton had given the best years of his life to fight tyranny and to champion liberty. He provided the argument in defense of tyrannicide in 1649, the year of the beheading of Charles I. The victory was short-lived. Restored to power, Charles II turned on his enemies—Milton and the “regicides.” Old and blind, a widowed father of three daughters deprived of the income he earned as a servant of the republic he helped birth, Milton was secreted away as his allies were summarily executed.

As he lay in wait, uncertain if or when Charles would come for him, Milton had to come to terms with the idea that all he had fought for – above all, liberty and the right to follow one’s conscience in matters of faith – were now in jeopardy, and that he may never see them restored in his own lifetime. Eventually, he finished Paradise Lost, an epic astonishing on many levels, including its audacity to proclaim, out of the moment of insufferable despair, that good will triumph in the end.

Milton arrived here only after experiencing hell himself. Through Satan, he confronts his own utter despair and misery, his own hubris and desire for power, and the limits of his own knowledge. Without warning, Milton then flies from the depths of hell to the heights of heaven and invites us to believe that seemingly immeasurable darkness is dwarfed by the limitless light of the grace and goodness that ultimately govern the world.

I don’t share Milton’s eschatological belief, yet I share his conclusion that the arc of history bends toward justice. Milton’s strength turns me from my own darkness. If he can find hope in despair, so might we. It begins in simple steps—moments of gratitude and peace, a return to the pleasures of the world, and a belief in the hope of the unseen.

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Hueping and I go to Kansas City on our anniversary. The sun is out; it is unseasonably warm. We eat lunch and take a long walk along the Brookside trail. People are out. Life seems to be returning to normal. We go to the Nelson-Atkins, where my breath is taken away by two exhibits. Dave Heath’s Multitude Solitude includes touching photographs of people experiencing fear or loneliness: American soldiers in Korea, down and out families on the streets of Philadelphia, and solitary figures on park benches in Washington Square. I feel what Heath hopes to convey: “an acceptance of life’s tragic aspects…. Out of acceptance of this truth—that the pleasures of life are fleeting and rare—must come love and concern for the human condition.”

We wander into Janet Cardiff’s audio installation—a room of benches surrounded by 40 speakers, each the source of a recorded voice singing Thomas Tallis’s sixteenth-century Spem Alium Nunquam Habui (In No Other is My Hope). We sit in a room full of strangers and feel oddly at peace staring into one another’s eyes as the music washes over us. It is humans singing the age-old chant: all shall be well.

“All is not lost,” Milton reminds us (through Satan, but still!). Thanks to literature, art, and music, I am ready to commit myself anew. I am reminded that wherever there are three of us, or even two, we can sing together in joy and in sorrow and give comfort, solace, joy, and, some day, laughter, till we regain our strength again to fight fiercely for justice on this earth.

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