Where can we find shelter in a time of risk and uncertainty?
Until just a few months ago, the mention of “fallout” might have evoked black-and-white images of a past safely behind us: the Cuban missile crisis, the Cold War, the threat of nuclear annihilation, families in lockdown hoarding food and toilet paper (well, that part is still familiar). But we have all learned some fresh lessons, still painfully fresh, over the last few months about unpredictable threats, about living with immeasurable risks.
We are living in a time of fallout. Fallout from the 2008 recession billowing into the ludicrous 2016 election, the cloud blown further by income inequality and environmental destruction, and now the silent explosion of our present Covid-19 nightmare. But fallout does not just mean large-scale, negative events. Fallout names a certain mood, a predicament. It denotes uncertainty, indeterminacy, fragility: a cloud of invisible threats, whose effects (radiological or virological) only fully appear after a fearful delay. You never know when you are done with fallout. The social paralysis is open-ended. The trauma is unexpected and ongoing, but also impossible to measure. The particles of crisis keep raining down.
While it is still raining, we might as well use the time indoors to think in the most careful way we can. To use this time of relative quiet to create and to build, to plan and to protect. In the 1950s, many Americans built not only bomb shelters to guard themselves from the initial nuclear blast but also another kind of shelter to shield themselves from the second wave of danger, the invisible, ongoing threat of radiation. They built fallout shelters.
We might as well use the time indoors to think in the most careful way we can. To use this time of relative quiet to create and to build, to plan and to protect.
What Shelters Us?
In a time of fallout, the wise person builds shelters. What gives us shelter? Architects build physical shelters, physical dwellings. But what bends the dangerous wilderness of life into a human dwelling in the first place? What shields human beings such that we can become, or remain, human? What allows us in our own technological wilds to settle down, to feel at home, to open an interior space for a deeper self? What makes for a sense of belonging and being at home in the world?
The word shelter emerges curiously late in English, with no known instance before 1585. “Of obscure origin,” notes the Oxford English Dictionary. It seems to have first meant “shield-ture,” like junc-ture, cul-ture, or litera-ture—the state of being shielded. But it has no Greek or Latin roots, nothing in Old English or Middle German. It only emerges in the likes of Milton referencing Noah’s Ark in Paradise Lost, or in Shakespeare’s line: “Let there come a tempest of provocation, I will shelter me here.” It is therefore a decidedly, awkwardly modern word, addressed to modern necessities. It is not the cave dweller who needs shelter, but we modern humans.
What does it mean to dwell in the modern world, to be at home, to find meaning in the fragments laying around us? What gives us the shelter to endure in the world, despite our unavoidable exposure to the hazards of existence? What shelters our fragility and transforms it into care?
What gives us the shelter to endure in the world, despite our unavoidable exposure to the hazards of existence? What shelters our fragility and transforms it into care?
Poets and philosophers
We all have felt these questions more sharply and urgently over the last several months. Perhaps we can find solace in the knowledge that the same question bedeviled European poets and philosophers throughout the 20th century. In 1922, T. S. Eliot wrote words in The Wasteland that could describe our hopeless doomscrolling through social media:
…you cannot say, or guess, for you know only
A heap of broken images, where the sun beats,
And the dead tree gives no shelter, the cricket no relief,
And the dry stone no sound of water.
In a series of challenging essays published in 1951, the German philosopher Martin Heidegger investigated the deeper meaning of shelter and dwelling. The key essays are “Building Dwelling Thinking” and “Poetically One Dwells.” Heidegger himself frequently retreated to his cabin in the Black Forest to think in solitude.
Heidegger says that we only construct shelters in the first place because we abide through time as human beings. To be human is to weave together a conscious moment of space and time, to hold it in care, and abide through it. This opening in the world that the human being is, is what drives us to build open structures in which to reside, our homes.
But this means that the essence of being human cannot be grasped or measured through technology. We are only at home when we take refuge in the more primordial dwelling built by poetry. Human beings dwell in the poetic play of language. Language, according to Heidegger, is the house of our being. He writes: “Poetry is what really lets us dwell. But through what do we attain to a dwelling place? Through building. Poetic creation, which lets us dwell, is a kind of building.”
Now we might want to reply to Heidegger: What about real homes, the concrete built environments we actually reside in? The ones, alas, we are confined within, Zooming amidst siblings and pets. Surely these homes are more real than any abstract sense of poetic dwelling.
To be human is to weave together a conscious moment of space and time, to hold it in care, and abide through it.
Yet as Gaston Bachelard, the French literary theorist, writes in his remarkable book, The Poetics of Space (1958), the spaces we dwell in have everything to do with the humanities, and poetry in particular. The imagination and the home, even the quarantined home, have a necessary interdependence. To read literature is to enter a waking daydream. But dreaming can only take place in the security of a home and the freedom to sleep undisturbed. The enclosed space of the home, its restrictive, concave, interiors, paradoxically allow the soul to expand. Dwellings enable silence, sleep, solitude, dreams: a house or a hut, nests or shells; corners and curves and caves.
“The house shelters daydreaming, the house protects the dreamer, the house allows one to dream in peace.... Our house is our corner of the world,...our first universe, a real cosmos,” Bachelard writes. “When we examine a nest, we place ourselves at the origin of confidence in the world, we receive a beginning of confidence.... If we heed this call and make an absolute refuge of such a precarious shelter as a nest...we return to the sources of the oneiric house.”
Grounded in the safety of home, we can not only confront the wide, wild world with more security, but also dream beyond its confines.
The masters of the hermeneutics of suspicion are no longer Marx and Nietzsche, but those who call vaccines and climate change alternative facts.
In 2004, the French theorist Bruno Latour penned an essay on the future of the humanities that referenced both Heidegger and Bachelard. Latour suddenly sounded the alarm about the rise of climate change skepticism and populist conspiracy theories. The critical theories engineered by academics have escaped the laboratory, he writes, and are infecting the general population with hyper-suspicion.
Clearly our situation is even more dire in 2020. The masters of the hermeneutics of suspicion are no longer Marx and Nietzsche, but those who call vaccines and climate change alternative facts.
Latour’s answer is to call for a shift in what it means to think critically in the humanities. Rather than subtracting illusions to reveal truths, as in the 19th and 20th centuries, Latour urges a new thinking for the 21st century. Less subtractive, more additive; less deconstruction, more construction. He writes: “The critic [should become] not the one who debunks, but the one who assembles...the one for whom, if something is constructed, then it means it is fragile and thus in great need of care and caution.” Latour imagines a future where the humanities gather, assemble and construct. The future mission of the humanities will be to provide shelter for the human.
What protects human beings in modernity? At their best, poetry, literature and the arts.
Dimensions of the Humanities
What shelters us in a time of fallout? What protects human beings in modernity? At their best, poetry, literature and the arts. Amidst the fallout, they offer safe harbor and a place to dwell. The humanities offer a refuge, an indoors of the spirit to rest and think, a nest in which to create and build. Their architecture is not physical but psychical. They build in five dimensions, so to speak, that I would propose here by way of conclusion.
Solitude: The humanities thrive on solitude. Solitude is not loneliness, but an interior silence that allows works of literature and philosophy to be heard in the innermost part of the private self.
Focus: The humanities reward focus. The mental attention required to solve (or invent) problems of interpretation is immense, and often surprising to beginners. But once cultivated, it can be transferred to other disciplines, or other areas of life. Prayer, says Simone Weil, is only another form of focused attention.'
Self-knowledge: The humanities yield self-knowledge. Concentrated solitude deepens familiarity with oneself. It excavates all the anonymous voices populating our thoughts. As one encounters more and more voices past and present, a strange thing happens. You would think they would crowd out the self, but the opposite occurs. The cacophony reveals the distinct sound of your own voice.
Joy: The humanities bring joy. Joy is not happiness, not contentment, but wisdom in handling time and the hazards of the present moment. Joy is pleasure that has escaped the trap of the temporary.
Play: The humanities teach us to play. Play is focus with no purpose other than joy. Play is the joyful labor of a free mind, shaped and emboldened by the artes liberales. Creativity is nothing other than deep play. In the shelter of play, there is space to build something new.
We are still in a time of fallout. It is still raining, and none of us knows when it will stop. But we can take heart that we have learned to build, inhabit and dream in the most fundamental of human shelters, the humanities. Take shelter. Take the shelter that is yours. You have everything you need.