Vital Signs

Posted by Cameron McAllister on April 21, 2015

Emily St. John Mandel’s Station Eleven is an unusually tender take on the post-apocalyptic genre. A flu epidemic has leveled the world’s population. In the wake of the destruction, modern civilization is effaced, the technological conveniences we take for granted comprehensively dismantled. Computers, remote controls, cellphones—all are now relics fit for a museum, which, incidentally, is just where many of them end up in the novel. In one haunting scene, one of the characters closes her eyes and flips a light switch in an abandoned house, trying to remember what it was like when this simple action instantly undid the shroud of darkness in a room. The small segment of the population that has withstood the ordeal is forced to make a career of survival in a landscape that is as ruthless as it is primitive.

Enter the Traveling Symphony, a professional Symphony and a troupe of Shakespearean actors who have “joined forces” to remind the harrowed world that civilization still exists. Traveling from settlement to settlement in horse-drawn pickup trucks that have been emptied of their now-useless machinery, and carting their musical instruments—along with whatever costumes and makeshift scenery can be utilized in their productions— this ragged band of artists regales the tattered remains of humanity with performances that directly challenge the assumption that staying alive is now humanity’s sole prerogative.

Though performances include everything from classical jazz to “pre-collapse pop songs,” most audiences “prefer Shakespeare” to all the Symphony’s other offerings. “People want what was best about the world,” as one of the actors succinctly puts it. Their lead caravan carries the Traveling Symphony’s motto: “Because survival is insufficient.” If this little apothegm sounds vaguely familiar, it’s not because you’ve encountered it anywhere in the Bard’s corpus. The line is in fact lifted from episode 122 of Star Trek: Voyager. One of Mandel’s strengths as a novelist lies in her ability to cast a wistful eye on the seemingly trivial elements of our culture, say, an episode of Star Trek, and re-cast them through her post-apocalyptic prism so that they achieve a dignity that is close to elegiac.

It’s no surprise that Station Eleven has met with a warm reception from critics and readers alike. The book is animated by a powerful idea: What we consider life reaches well beyond biological necessity. Indeed, the most wanton of conditions may meet the minimum requirements for sustaining biological life while failing to even approach what we would regard as wholesome and humane. Siberian labor camps provided basic food and shelter for their prisoners. But only a sadist or a lunatic would contend that these habitable atrocities constituted an adequate living situation. Sadly, we need not press deeply into history to see examples like this abound. Neither do we need to look to the past alone. Mere survival circumscribes the meager lives of countless men and women across the globe. The world of Station Eleven is a place where living to see the light of another day is the highest ideal for most people. Part of the Traveling Symphony’s mission is to persuade the world’s weary refugees that they are more than just survivors, that all those things that exist above the level of survival—things like music, laughter, joy, rest, a good performance of A Midsummer Night’s Dream—that these things are not just luxuries, but that they constitute a form of nourishment every bit as vital as food.

There is another reason the Traveling Symphony’s motto sounds familiar. “Because survival is insufficient” is a restating of the phrase, “Man shall not live by bread alone,” which comes from Deuteronomy 8:3. The statement’s most famous exponent, however, is Jesus of Nazareth, who uttered these words in response to Satan’s temptation in the wilderness. A fiend of impeccable timing, the Devil dangles his enticements before Christ at the tail end of a 40-day fast. “If You are the Son of God, tell this stone to become bread.” Hungry and fatigued, Christ counters the notion that man is a purely material creature with purely material appetites: “Man shall not live by bread alone.” (The atheist philosopher Ludwig Feuerbach perversely altered this formula to reflect his materialist assumptions: “Du bist was du isst.” Translation: You are what you eat.)  Compressed into this lapidary phrase is one of the richest meditations on the nature of human life, namely, that a person will starve without meaning just as surely as he will starve without food.

Despite its post-apocalyptic trappings, Station Eleven is not lacking in plausibility. This accounts in part for the story’s unnerving resonance. True, we aren’t trekking through the wreckage of a decimated world, but it takes concerted effort to overlook the fact that we find ourselves at a historical juncture that is highly precarious. Given the destructive capacities at our fingertips, a large-scale global disaster is not outside the realm of possibility. If we should find ourselves within that possible realm, will those few who emerge from the rubble wipe the ashes from their bloodshot eyes, survey the feeble embers of the disintegrating world, cry their tears of loss, and conclude, as Christ did in the implacable emptiness of his own wilderness that man shall not live by bread alone, that survival is insufficient? Would a violinist play his instrument again if he should find one preserved beneath the smoldering debris? Would a person read from Whitman’s Leaves of Grass if it lay strewn across the street, its pages trembling like leaves in the wind? Would an actor ever dream of reprising his role if he should come across a tattered copy of Love’s Labor Lost? Station Eleven gives a resounding yes to these questions. I think that “yes” is right.

Many of our leading cultural critics are similarly somber, charting within the West that seemingly inevitable slide from prosperity to decadence and eventual destruction that we see slinking down the corridors of history everywhere from Carthage to Rome. As our sensibilities grow more jaded and coarse, our entertainment lowers itself accordingly. To see this requires no expertise. Survey the landscape of our popular culture, and look, learn, and listen: The things we love say more about us than the most adroit of anthropologists ever could. But don’t we still see signs of life even as our culture dims to a more decadent shade? Is cynicism our only recourse? Is it still possible to unblushingly invoke those three quaint transcendentals—the true, the good, the beautiful—without sounding sentimental or naïve? With Station Eleven, Emily St. John Mandel seems to be saying that it is not only possible, but also necessary. Somewhere in the ruins someone is still lifting a bow to a violin, someone is still dancing to its plaintive strains, someone is still reciting with full force, “But, soft! What light through yonder window breaks?”    

History has many dark chapters, and our own flimsy little perch is certainly not unique in this regard. History is also punctuated by a constant series of glimmering lights that stubbornly burns on through the greatest of tragedies. Why is this so? Because Deuteronomy 8:3 is more than a philosophical meditation; it is a practical statement that describes reality. Destroy the world as we know it, and those who survive will continue to paint, make music, tell stories, sing songs. Why? Because bread alone won’t keep them alive.

The approach that this long, meandering essay wants to recommend is not unlike the mission of Station Eleven’s Traveling Symphony. In dark times, the great works of art that we keep going back to—survivors in their own right—offer us not just respite from our current trials but a timely reminder of who we are, what we’re capable of when we’re at our best. But also, and quite urgently, that we don’t need to look to the past alone. The glimmering series of lights burns on today. And so the hope of this essay is also to recommend an approach that consistently draws attention to those signs of life wherever they shine. As important as critique is, there is also a very real need for championing, praising, and celebrating, and this need extends not just to those great practitioners of the past but also to men and women like Emily St. John Mandel who are about this vital business right now. This is, I think, a worthwhile endeavor. I hope you agree.

(1) Catherine St. John Mandel, Station Eleven (New York, NY: Alfred A. Knopf, 2014), 37-38.
(2) Ibid., 58.
(3) There is a similar scene in Cormac McCarthy’s The Road, another unique entry in the post-apocalyptic genre to which Mandel has acknowledged a debt. A father and son, survivors of an unexplained cataclysmic event that has decimated the world and most of its inhabitants, happen upon an intact can of Coca-Cola as they scavenge for food. As with the Star Trek episode, the can of coke becomes imbued with a disproportionate significance because it offers a taste of a world now gone. Mandel was shrewd to recognize the dramatic possibilities in this scene.

no mp3