What if I were to begin consecutive blog posts recounting 7-year old memories of my literature professors? What kind of person would this make me? I say to you yes: whatever you came up with, that’s true.
Professor David Hopes, the egg-shaped ginger sprite of UNC-Asheville’s Karpen Hall, used to (no doubt still does) amuse himself by imagining Percy Shelley striding into a classroom to field questions. He’d insist that we wouldn’t believe in Shelley, because no one’s like Shelley anymore. People back then just lived more. He’d make us imagine the poet standing at the front of the room, radiating difference, intellect, energy, power: this pale little man who dared the west wind to be like him.
The story is, Shelley drowned when his sail boat (Don Juan) was rammed by pirates who mistook it for Lord Byron’s; or when intelligence agents of a foreign crown sunk him; or by committing impassioned suicide during a dramatic storm; or owing to a sloppy boatwright; or due to landlubberly seamanship and navigational ineptitude. Take your pick. He was found fully clothed but lacking most his flesh. After they’d lit his funeral pyre, friend Edward Trelawny rescued his entire heart from the fiery chamber of his torso. Cors cordium, they named it.
Lately, I’ve been thinking about the Romantic poets, in particular the larger-than-lifeness that animated them. In a long, dreamy essay about the American novelist Marilynne Robinson in a recent New York Times Magazine, the writer, Wyatt Mason, describes an interview:
“I hate to say it, but I think a default posture of human beings is fear.” Perched on the edge of a sofa, hands loosely clasped, Robinson leaned forward as if breaking bad news to a gentle heart. “What it comes down to — and I think this has become prominent in our culture recently — is that fear is an excuse: ‘I would like to have done something, but of course I couldn’t.’ Fear is so opportunistic that people can call on it under the slightest provocations: ‘He looked at me funny.’ ”
“ ‘So I shot him,’ ” I said.
“ ‘Can you blame me?’ ”
‘‘Exactly. Fear has, in this moment, a respectability I’ve never seen in my life.”
I don’t know if Shelley was a Christian or not. I suspect he was deistic. Certainly he was keen on impermanence (“Look on my works, ye Mighty, and despair!”). But, to be sure, his universe was lit by a wilder voltage than most of us would be comfortable with today.
Today, we know we are borrowing time on a pale blue dot circling through a vast, empty sea. When we die, we do not— most of us— expect to find heavenly architecture, luminous faces, angels at the gate. We are not the same gullible folk who lined the pockets of hack priests flogging indulgences. We are meat, and we know what happens to expired meat.
When we had faith, when we believed that death was a stride into eternity, were we braver? Maybe. Anyway, we’re wiser now. And scared as hell. Even as crime plummets to historic lows and scholars assure us that we live in an era of unprecedented peace, the national anxiety mounts. A hoodie— a hoodie — becomes a menace on par with a drawn weapon. Waves of brown children lap at our southern border and mobs form, a Californian woman holds up a sign: NOT OUR KIDS, NOT OUR PROBLEM. He looked at me funny, so I shot him.
I’m pretty good, generally, about acting on my principles, I excel at letting my conscience complicate my life, and I stand up to bullies, but I’m not a very brave person. The great West Wind, were it to mimic my spirit, would rather stay home than explore. I’m more Deep Space Nine than USS Enterprise. I can be cavalier around electricity and rash with promises, but there are dark islands in me I prefer leaving off the map.
We went canvassing for a local campaign the other day, Arielle and I. We thought it was going to be in one part of town. We’d planned on making a nice few hours’ walk of it on a pretty autumn day. Turns out it was in a different part of town. We were quiet on the drive over. After parking, getting out, and puzzling over a logical entry point into the sprawling, homogenous projects, I decided to skip them. Took about five minutes. I would have been uncomfortable doing it by myself— my wife’s presence made me doubly uncomfortable. I caught myself rationalizing in the usual ways, again and again. We canvassed around the projects for an hour plus, doing good work, but finally more than half our packet went unknocked because, on a sunny Saturday afternoon, I was a coward. When we were done and I turned in my data, I confessed to a pair of overworked field organizers. Later, I confessed to some friends.
Nobody shamed me.