- What You Live For
One would like to think the pandemic has inspired us to be more productively introverted, weighing what we are doing and why. But of course, the truth is that the pandemic has given us little choice but to be more introverted and self-evaluative. Regardless of the terrible way it has come about, it may be useful to look under the camouflaging dust of "normal" life and ask a few existential questions. What have we genuinely missed about normal life, what do we really care about, and how should we admit to changes?
Among friends and acquaintances, I have heard the expected answers to such questions and others less expected. Parents of school-aged children complain about the schools having been closed and about being shut in with the whole family 24/7, never mind that the kids are probably complaining more colorfully among each other, and never mind that the teachers' lives are at stake. Some of us miss physically going to work or the gym or seeing friends across a table. Touching each other, if only in handshakes or comradely hugs. The other morning, I asked my wife what she missed the most, and she said glumly and without hesitation, as if she had written it out beforehand, "Travel, New York, prepandemic New York, dirty, noisy, wonderful, walking-in-the-city, eating-at-the-Met, stinking, beautiful New York. I miss that." Talking more about it, we discovered that there were in fact even a couple of activities we missed that we assumed we had done only to accompany the other, not because we liked doing them ourselves. [End Page 6]
This issue's writers remind me of the question of what one really lives for, and—as we go through not just worldwide trauma but more normal changes and phases of life—how such things evolve. These are subjects deeply organic to literature because they are overarching realities of human life—transience, change, often wildly unexpected change in what matters to us.
There are plenty of classic literary examples of characters who try to deny change. In Fitzgerald's The Great Gatsby, the narrator, Nick, tells Gatsby that he can't repeat the past, and Gatsby responds, "Why of course you can." Gatsby's tragically failing effort to return to the past includes his trying to rewrite it, when he pleads with Daisy to say that she never loved her husband and the father of her child. Oscar Wilde's The Picture of Dorian Gray dramatizes Gray's outwardly successful Faustian bargain to retain his youth, becoming a social Dracula, unaged in appearance, with an ending that is ruinous for him if not his portrait.
There are models of change, as well, in characters who may fight it at first but then embrace it. In Jack London's The Call of the Wild, a spoiled domestic dog living in California, Old Buck, is kidnapped and sold as a sled dog in Alaska. He becomes an alpha working dog, then eventually answers the call of the wild and returns to the forest, becoming a great "Ghost Dog" in Indian myth. In his autobiographically based Seven Pillars of Wisdom, T. E. Lawrence writes about his life as a Middle East scholar and archaeologist whose knowledge of Arab culture allows him to become a successful military leader. From introverted scholar writing about ancient cities, he turns out to be a daring field general who helps bring together feuding Arab tribes into a unified force that severs the hold of the Ottoman Turk and Central Powers over the Arab lands.
Literature is the art most capable of showing the paradoxes and illogic of change in human life, revealing how the discovery of what you live for is not always simple success or failure but something in between. In Zora Neale Hurston's 1937 novel Their Eyes Were Watching God, the protagonist, Janie, goes through three husbands before she finds one who treats her as an equal—and even that relationship ends up with difficulties and a tragic ending.
Our nonfiction in this issue testifies to the vast range of experience and emotion that drives human...