Attleboro’s Big Read* novel this fall, Station Eleven, by Emily St. John Mandel, describes a world where 99% of the population has been killed by a virulent flu virus. The story certainly speaks to our time of hurricanes, famines, droughts and floods, threats of nuclear war, mass shootings (which should be called terrorism), and a general fear and foreboding. Station Eleven begins with a performance of King Lear, which sets the theme of devastation. Emily St. John Mandel, the author, came to our community and spoke to an enthusiastic audience of teens and adults. During the question time I asked Emily about the choice of Lear, the most nihilistic of plays, and she admitted it was her favorite play. Her admission led me to re-read King Lear and Harold Bloom’s commentary on the play in Shakespeare and the Invention of the Human. There is next to no hope in King Lear, but it is certainly emotionally cathartic for anyone going through a valley of despair. Lear eloquently expresses desolation. I remember my training in pastoral counseling, not to rush to advice, but to listen patiently to the emotions underlying a person’s suffering. Lear is brilliant in his freedom to express devastation in the most exacting poetry.
Harold Bloom compared Lear to the ending of Mark’s Gospel. I think he is right – the puzzling original ending of Mark’s Gospel, where there is only a hint of resurrection, leaves the disciples afraid and cowering. Mark does not pass quickly over Good Friday and its suffering. The followers of Jesus are to be a people of the Cross. Compassion means “to suffer with”. Only those who have suffered deeply can empathize with those who are deeply suffering, which is one of the messages of Station Eleven also.
Mark chapter 13 has been called “a little apocalypse,” because of its concern with the coming of the end. Early New Testament writers believed that the end of human history was near and expected the return of Jesus to usher in God’s kingdom. The word “apocalypse” itself means a secret that is revealed, and is usually teamed with warnings from God about the coming end. Hence apocalyptic is a literary genre, rather like science fiction in our own day. The novel, Station Eleven, is part of a genre called post-apocalyptic, a subset of science fiction. There is no doubt that the Biblical writers believed the end was nigh, whether the end of Israel as a nation, or the end of human history and the return of Jesus to usher in God’s kingdom. Yet, 2000 years later we are still here. The challenges facing humankind seem so much bigger today, but I’m sure the plague (or black death) that killed half the population in Europe in the 1300s seemed like the end of the world, and a similar pall hung over Europe after 50 million people were killed in World War II. The end seems a dire prospect for anyone facing it, whether it is national destruction or a cancer that is killing an individual. Apocalyptic raises the question as to how we face the suffering. The prospect of the world’s end sets the scene for this challenge, as King Lear sets the scene in Station Eleven.
Biblical writers saw the message of apocalyptic as a hopeful message despite the message of doom. There is always a new beginning after the ending (Station Eleven has this hopeful note also). Childbirth was Jesus’ own image for his suffering and resurrection (John 16:20: “You will have pain but your pain will turn into joy. When a woman is in labor…”). The Gospel accounts of Jesus’ suffering are not despairing narratives. Even Mark, the bleakest of the narratives, portrays Jesus as the one who remains constant to his mission. His courage and heroism is recognized by one of those who crucified him when the Roman soldier confesses, “Truly this man was God’s Son” (Mark 15:39).
Patience, taking the long view, hope that is deeply rooted, compassion born of suffering, faith in one another and God, the creative instinct plus a sense of humor – these are the forms of love that sustain human beings in the face of tragedy and enable them to rise above it.
(The Big Read is a program of the National Endowment for the Arts to revitalize the role of reading in American culture)