Lost Causes

I find it remarkable that a few hours of driving took me from this:




Back to this:



It felt like a journey not so much across a landscape as through time. Into the past. And it’s got me thinking about lost causes. 


Two vignettes, before I explain myself:



Arrived in Fredericksburg, Virginia, on this past Friday for a small conference of classicists, that is, of people who study and teach the ancient Greeks and Romans. Because I was too late to attend the Friday afternoon sessions, which were taking place nearby on the campus of Mary Washington University, the sadsack hotel and conference center seemed even more desolate and seedy than they actually were. (Which is saying something.)


I sat in a dingy white plastic chair on the otherwise bare balcony of Room 347 and gazed out in the direction of Target, Barnes & Noble, Old Navy, Party City, Hobby Lobby, etc. I listened to the ceaseless drone from I-95. I anticipated the next day’s presentations — typical: “The Solace of Evil: Punctuation and Paradox in Lucan, Bellum Civile 7.180-84” —  at any of which an audience of 30 people would be considered a minor triumph. I thought about novelist and essayist Walker Percy, writing about place in “Novel Writing in an Apocalyptic Time” from Signposts in a Strange Land:


It is no accident, I think, that Quentin [Compson of Faulkner’s The Sound and the Fury] arrived at his final solution not in Yoknatpatawpha County [in Mississippi], … in a Southern locale drenched in history and tragedy, in placidness, but rather in a nonplace, wandering around the back streets of a bland Boston suburb, almost as faceless and featureless a place as a set of map coordinates.


Here I was in just such a faceless, featureless nonplace. Mood darkening, forlorn — do you blame me? — I thought: What am I doing here? What are any of us humanities devotees doing here? Why don’t we just wave the white flag of surrender, build our little moated castles, and retreat into the libraries of a few secular monasteries, where we can bide our time through century after century until the next Renaissance, the next Enlightenment?


Sunken Road

The next morning, after delivering my paper on the future of teaching in higher education — the tone of which fit my mood perfectly, so much so that it prompted the young Latin teacher presiding over the session to ask the next speaker, her voice quavery with mock trepidation, “Er, is your presentation going to be positive or negative?” —  I drove over to the Fredericksburg Battlefield, where my great-great-grandfather F. A. Sinquefield fought.


Civil War historian Shelby Foote has this to say about the Battle that took place there in December 1862:


Of all these various battles and engagements, fought in all these various places, Fredericksburg, the nearest to the national capital, was the largest — in number engaged, if not in bloodshed — as well as the grandest as a spectacle, in which respect it equalled, if indeed it did not outdo, any other major conflict of the war.


Sinquefield, a soldier in Robert E. Lee’s Army of Northern Virginia, was crouched with the rest of Cobb’s Legion behind this wall:


FullSizeRender (1)


The Union troops were down the slope of this hill, to the left of where I stood to take this picture. Foote describes what happened next:


[T]he Federals leaped to their feet in the swale and made a sudden rush, as if they intended to scale the heights whose base was only 400 yards away. High up the slope the guns crashed, darting tongues of flame, and the Georgians along the sunken road pulled trigger. It was as if the charging bluecoats had struck a trip wire. When the smoke of that single rifle volley rolled away, all that were left in front of the wall were writhing on the ground or scampering back to safety in the swale. After a wait, they rose and came forward again, deploying as they advanced. This time the reaction was less immediate, since they knew what to expect; but it was no different in the end. The guns on the slope and the rifles down along the wall broke into a clattering frenzy of smoke and flame, and more men were left writhing as others fell back off the blasted plain and into the swale. Again they rose. Again, incredibly, they charged. They came forward, one of them afterwards recalled, “as though they were breasting a storm of rain and sleet, their faces and bodies being only half turned to the storm, with their shoulders shrugged.” Another observed that “everybody, from the smallest drummer boy on up, seemed to be shouting to the full extent of his capacity.” Like the first and second, except that more men fell because it lasted longer, this third charge broke in blood and pain before a single man got within fifty yards of the wall. The survivors flowed back over the roll of earth and into the “dip,” where reinforcements were nerving themselves for still a fourth attempt.


They charged again and again. Finally this:


They went forward in the twilight, stumbling over the human wreckage left by five previous charges. Prone men, wounded and unwounded, called out to them not to try it; some even caught at their legs as they passed, attempting to hold them back; but they ignored them and went on, beckoned by voices that mocked them from ahead, calling them blue-bellies and urging them to bring their boots and blankets within reach … As [one Union brigadier general] watched he saw the stone wall become “a sheet of flame that enveloped the head and flanks of the column.” Its formations unraveled by sudden attrition, the charge was brought to a stumbling halt about forty yards from the wall.

Burial detail after Battle of Fredericksburg


And for what? 18,000 soldiers wounded or killed. “No one assigned to one of the burial details ever forgot the horror of what he saw; for here, close-up and life-size, was an effective antidote to the long-range, miniature pageantry of Saturday’s battle as it had been viewed from the opposing heights. Up close, you heard the groans and smelled the blood. You saw the dead. According to one who moved among them, they were ‘swollen to twice their natural size …’ They sprawled ‘in every conceivable position, some on their backs with gaping jaws, some with eyes as large as walnuts, protruding with glassy stare, some doubled up like a contortionist.'”


And for what? Today my great-great-grandfather’s surname graces this street in my hometown. A street which in my childhood was unpaved and had no city sewer services, because (as I recall it now) the city limits had been carefully drawn to exclude the entire subdivision. So the houses depended on well-water and outhouses. It has not come very far since then:



Lost Causes

In my short talk on Saturday, I talked about passion. The antidote to the corporatizing of higher education, I suggested, lies in the passion that the individual scholar-teacher feels for her field of study, for his body of knowledge. Regrettably, the bottom-line thinking that increasingly dominates the administration of our colleges and universities breeds cynicism among the only people who can rescue them, who can prevent University, Inc. from joining the ranks of the Target, Barnes & Noble, Old Navy, Party City, and Hobby Lobby that stood across the road from my hotel. Such cynicism enables a vicious cycle, as disaffected professors clear the field and permit the bean-counters to do as they wish, which leads to some new outrage, resulting in still lower morale …


Naturally, as my vignettes are meant to demonstrate, it matters very much what we feel passion for. To what we give a full measure of devotion. It matters for us, because no one wants to fritter away his or her life. It matters for everyone else, because right and wrong are not mere words: there are things that should endure and others that should be allowed to pass away. The challenge that we each face, of course, is to figure out which is which. To have enough critical distance from our own lives and times to be able to tell the difference.


Me? Oh, I don’t know if I have that or not. But I’m pretty sure that one effort I can make to achieve it is to be open to genuine encounter with the world. So, yes, I did have a heartfelt conversation with the young graduate student seated next to me at our conference banquet, in which he freely admitted to doubts about the present-day validity of an academic discipline of “classics.”


And yes, I made sure to be in the audience for papers delivered by several earnest (and talented!) undergraduate students, some of them contemplating graduate study (yikes! and how wonderful!) in the humanities.


And yes, I did listen to The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn on my drive, thinking that when a work like this is no longer read, it’ll truly be time to give up on the the humanities as a lost cause, and taking note especially of a scene in which the white Huck and the black Jim are tied up to the bank of the Big Muddy, which I decided in the moment to adopt as an apt metaphor for what can and should endure, and to what causes we can all, with glad hearts, devote ourselves:


It was a monstrous big river down there—sometimes a mile and a half wide; we run nights, and laid up and hid daytimes; soon as night was most gone we stopped navigating and tied up—nearly always in the dead water under a towhead; and then cut young cottonwoods and willows, and hid the raft with them. Then we set out the lines. Next we slid into the river and had a swim, so as to freshen up and cool off; then we set down on the sandy bottom where the water was about knee deep, and watched the daylight come. Not a sound anywheres—perfectly still—just like the whole world was asleep, only sometimes the bullfrogs a-cluttering, maybe. The first thing to see, looking away over the water, was a kind of dull line—that was the woods on t’other side; you couldn’t make nothing else out; then a pale place in the sky; then more paleness spreading around; then the river softened up away off, and warn’t black any more, but gray; you could see little dark spots drifting along ever so far away—trading scows, and such things; and long black streaks—rafts; sometimes you could hear a sweep screaking; or jumbled up voices, it was so still, and sounds come so far; and by and by you could see a streak on the water which you know by the look of the streak that there’s a snag there in a swift current which breaks on it and makes that streak look that way; and you see the mist curl up off of the water, and the east reddens up, and the river, and you make out a log-cabin in the edge of the woods, away on the bank on t’other side of the river, being a woodyard, likely, and piled by them cheats so you can throw a dog through it anywheres; then the nice breeze springs up, and comes fanning you from over there, so cool and fresh and sweet to smell on account of the woods and the flowers; but sometimes not that way, because they’ve left dead fish laying around, gars and such, and they do get pretty rank; and next you’ve got the full day, and everything smiling in the sun, and the song-birds just going it!





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