On Station Eleven, Civilizational Collapse, and the PSR

Error message

Deprecated function: The each() function is deprecated. This message will be suppressed on further calls in _menu_load_objects() (line 579 of /var/www/drupal-7.x/includes/menu.inc).
Published by Anonymous (not verified) on Wed, 13/05/2020 - 11:14pm in

We have been blessed...in so many ways, have we not? We are blessed most of all in being alive today. We must ask ourselves, 'Why? Why were spared?'...I submit...that everything that has ever happened on this earth has happened for a reason....For it has been revealed to me that the plague of twenty years ago was just the beginning, my angels, only an initial culling of the impure, that last year's pestilence was but further preview and there will be more cullings, far more cullings to come. Emily St. John Mandel (2014) Station Eleven, 59-61 [HT Neil Levy]

Pandemics are never welcome. But the present pandemic is badly timed because the Anglophone and cultural heartland of liberal thought, which for better and for worse is the military and financial epicenter of our civilization, has been struggling with a badly bungled aftermath of a massive financial crisis that ended up reinforcing the advantages of the rich and well-connected by impoverishing state capacity and threatening the privileges and self-confidence of those that formed the bedrock of conservative majorities. These have put state power in the hands of celebrity demagogues and political adventurers with no sense of public welfare and common good, and who strategically try to entrench the politics of zero-sum, and with noxious efficiency try to reduce mutual trust in which they thrive. And so the very powers that were left standing after the cold war, are now more fragile than they have been in two centuries. 

The conceit behind Station Eleven, which has a resolutely Canadian orientation, is that a deadly pandemic, much more deadly than Covid-19, arrives in the aftermath of an "economic collapse, or so everyone called it at the time," (218); I quote from an elegiac moment, in fictional time it is supposed to resonate where we were half a decade ago, when Miranda, a shipping executive who had once been married to a famous actor (Arthur Leander), is looking at "the largest shipping fleet ever assembled...fifty miles east of Singapore Harbor" just before she receives word of the death of Arthur and the first inkling that "the fabric" of civilization would be "unravelling" for a true collapse (239). In her marriage, Miranda had been a kept woman and she sublimated her sense of isolation and entrapment with a cartoon entitled, Station Eleven. The cartoon appears in a limited edition and is the plot device that  ends up connecting the main characters of the story and the invitation to have us reflect obliquely on the meaning of the story told.  

Arthur Leander, by then a faded star, dies while performing Lear in Act 4 of Lear. He dies just as he has been asked (by Gloucester) "Dost thou know me?" And one of the very clever conceits of the novel is that the answer to that question, and the double-life between representation or acting and reality, is unfolded as we try to put the pieces together of the intersections of many lives as if they are a scrambled jigsaw puzzle with constant oblique references to the play and the cartoon. 

And just as a version of the principle of sufficient reason (PSR) -- "Nothing will come of nothing" -- structures the action of Lear, so, too, the PSR drives the action of Station Eleven (in addition the passage quoted above, see also p. 96) as we follow along a traveling troupe of musicians and actors (who perform Shakespeare), the so-called Travelling Symphony. And just as there are many oblique angles in the jigsaw, so the PSR has a multiplicity of meanings. For example, for some characters it entails that no moment has special standing and that "everything passes" (249). For others it is the ground for a new vision of life, such as Tyler (249, spoiler alert: "the prophet" quoted above). The vision is propelled by the explanatory demand "to know that" great suffering "happened for a reason." (259)

I read Station Eleven a month ago and it was uncanny how prescient the early pages of the book were then to the unfolding news. And while aesthetically Cormac McCarthy's The Road hangs like a shadow over the book,* and at times Station Eleven insists on making things too explicit -- "Shakespeare had lived in a plague-ridden society with no electricity and so did the Travelling Symphony"  --, there is plenty to admire in St. John Mandel's narrative. And I thought one of the (Sartre inspired) lines captures nicely what makes the present lockdown so harrowing: hell is the absence of the people you long for. (144).

The book stays far from the politics of the pre-pandemic period. A key political point exhibited is that in collapse human diversity reasserts itself; in the state of nature we are shown different kinds of social experiments in human living. At one point the narrator, who turns out to be less omniscient than one realizes, says:

Civilization in Year Twenty was an archipelago of small towns. These towns had fought off ferals, buried their neighbors, lived and died and suffered together in the blood-drenched years just after the collapse, survived against unspeakable odds and then only by holding together into the calm, and these places didn't go out of their way to welcome outsiders. (48)

I don't betray much when I note that in Year Twenty in addition to these towns, there there are more sinister forms of communal life and that one of the most idyllic spots of the former American midwest is a regional airport with enough tranquility and safety to develop a Museum of Civilization.

The book suggests that pandemics unsettle previous commitments about transcendence. The most unsettling new religious vision we're presented with, a veritable "death cult," originates in the grave explanatory demands of the PSR, when a boy searches for the hidden meaning behind his lucky survival "why did they die instead of us." (259; see also 260-261.) The boy's creativity is channeled into a new theology: "A new world requires new gods." (261) And, of course, this new theology will draw on familiar elements. Because in the search for meaning, there is also a desire for the safety we associate with (romanticized) childhood ("we long only for the world we born into." 302))  And I wouldn't be surprised to learn, if I am around in twenty years, that away from the current headlines a new popular religion has originated in our midst. As viruses spread death, deadly memes spread alongside them ("insanity is contagious" (261)). 

Like much of dystopian fiction (recall), Station Eleven presents us less with an image of the future and more with an oblique mirror of our times. I would betray its message if I claimed that civilizational collapse is foreseeable. In the book and, presumably, in reality collapse happens when one is making other plans. But what the history of civilizational collapse also tells us (recall here on Sallust; and more abstractly here) is that it is thinkable in advance and often occurs when the knowledge to prevent it is available yet can't be acted on. In the narrative of Station Eleven, such knowledge is lodged in the surviving plays of Shakespeare, which return from palatial theatres to the circulating knowledge of people in deserted landscapes. But it reminds us, too, that whatever may survive from us beyond collapse, may just be be mere ephemera among the interstices of the cult and culture of celebrity. 


*Unlike The Road, Station Eleven also points (throughout the action) toward a new beginning. The earliest signs will be news-reports in which the regularized "announcements of births and deaths and weddings" (263) form the bedrock. The recording of life and death presuppose community; and weddings presuppose possible offspring and property and a planning horizon in which expectations about these need to be regularized.