I went to hear a man give a talk. The event was held on a college campus. The man was a professor, but he taught at a different school, in another part of the country. He was a well-known author, who, earlier that year, had won an international prize. But although the event was free and open to the public, the auditorium was only half full. I myself would not have been in the audience, I would not even have been in that town, had it not been for a coincidence. A friend of mine was being treated in a local hospital that specializes in treating her particular type of cancer. I had come to visit this friend, this very dear old friend whom I had not seen in several years, and whom, given the gravity of her illness, I might not see again.
It was the third week of September, 2017. I had booked a room through Airbnb. The host was a retired librarian, a widow. From her profile I knew that she was also the mother of four, the grandmother of six, and that her hobbies included cooking and going to the theater. She lived on the top floor of a small condo about two miles from the hospital. The apartment was clean and tidy and smelled faintly of cumin. The guest room was decorated in the way that most people appear to have agreed will make a person feel at home: plush area rugs, a bed with a hedge of pillows and a plump down duvet, a small table holding a ceramic pitcher of dried flowers, and, on the nightstand, a stack of paperback mysteries. The kind of place where I never do feel at home. What most people call cozy—gemütlich, hygge—others find stifling.
A cat had been promised, but I saw no sign of one. Only later, when it was time for me to leave, would I learn that, between my booking and my stay, the host’s cat had died. She delivered this news brusquely, immediately changing the subject so that I couldn’t ask her about it—which I was in fact going to do only because something in her manner made me think that she wanted to be asked about it. And it occurred to me that maybe it wasn’t emotion that had made her change the subject like that but rather worry that I might later complain. Depressing host talked too much about dead cat. The sort of comment you saw on the site all the time.
In the kitchen, as I drank the coffee and ate from the tray of snacks the host had prepared for me (while she, in the way recommended for Airbnb hosts, made herself scarce), I studied the corkboard where she posted publicity for guests about goings-on in town. An exhibition of Japanese prints, an arts-and-crafts fair, a visiting Canadian dance company, a jazz festival, a Caribbean culture festival, a schedule for the local sports arena, a spoken-word reading. And, that night, at seven thirty, the author’s talk.
In the photograph, he looks harsh—no, “harsh” is too harsh. Call it stern. That look that comes to many older white men at a certain age: stark-white hair, beaky nose, thin lips, piercing gaze. Like raptors. Hardly inviting. Hardly an image to say, Please, do come hear me speak. Would love to see you there! More like, Make no mistake, I know a lot more than you do. You should listen to me. Maybe then you’ll know what’s what.
A woman introduces him. The head of the department that has invited him to speak. She is a familiar type: the glam academic, the intellectual vamp. Someone at pains for it to be known that, although smart and well educated, although a feminist and a woman in a position of power, the lady is no frump, no boring nerd, no sexless harridan. And so what if she’s past a certain age. The cling of the skirt, the height of the heels, the scarlet mouth and tinted hair (I once heard a salon colorist say, I believe it’s got to hurt a woman’s ability to think if she has gray hair), everything says: I’m still fuckable. A slimness that almost certainly means going much of each day feeling hungry. It crosses such women’s minds with some sad regularity that in France intellectuals can be sex symbols. Even if the symbol can sometimes be embarrassing (Bernard-Henri Lévy and his unbuttoned shirts). These women have memories of being tormented in girlhood, not for their looks but for their brains. “Men don’t make passes at girls who wear glasses” really meant smart girls, bookish girls, mathletes, and science geeks. Times change. Now who doesn’t love eyewear. Now how common is it to hear a man boast about his attraction to smart women. Or, as one young actor recently shared: I’ve always felt that the sexiest women are the ones with the biggest brains. At which I confess I rolled my eyes so hard that I had to toss my head to get them to come down again.
It cannot possibly be true, can it, the story about Toscanini losing patience during a rehearsal with a soprano, grabbing her large breasts and crying, If only these were brains!
Later came “Men don’t make passes at girls with fat asses.”
I can see them, this man and this woman, at the department dinner that will surely follow the event, and which, because of who he is, will be a fine one, at one of the area’s most expensive restaurants, and where it’s likely they’ll be seated next to each other. And of course the woman will be hoping for some intense conversation—no small talk—maybe even a bit of flirtation, but this will turn out to be not so easy given how his attention keeps straying to the far end of the table, to the grad student who’s been assigned as his escort, responsible for shuttling him from place to place, including after tonight’s dinner back to his hotel, and who, after just one glass of wine, is responding to his frequent glances with increasingly bold ones of her own.
It looks like it might be true. I googled it. According to some reports, though, he didn’t actually grab the soprano’s breasts but only pointed at them.
During the obligatory recitation of the speaker’s accomplishments, the man lowers his gaze and assumes a grimace of discomfort in an affectation of modesty that I doubt fools anyone.
If grades had depended more on how much I absorbed from lectures than from studying texts, I’d have failed out of school. I don’t often lose concentration when I’m reading something or listening to a person converse, but talks of any kind have always given me trouble (the worst being authors reading from their own work). My mind starts wandering almost as soon as the speaker gets started. Also, this particular evening I was unusually distracted. I had spent all afternoon in the hospital with my friend. I was wrung out from watching her suffer, and from trying not to let my dismay at her condition get the better of me and become obvious to her. Dealing with illness: I’ve never been good at that, either.
So my mind wandered. It wandered right from the start. I lost the thread of the talk several times. But it hardly mattered, because the man’s talk was based on a long article he had written for a magazine, and I had read the article when it came out. I had read it, and everyone I knew had read it. My friend in the hospital had read it. My guess was, most people in the audience had too. It occurred to me that at least some of them had come because they wanted to ask questions, to hear a discussion of what the man had to say, the substance of which they were already familiar with from the article. But the man had made the unusual decision not to take any questions. There was to be no discussion tonight. This, however, we wouldn’t know until after he’d finished speaking.
It was all over, he said. He quoted another writer, translating from the French: Before man, the forest; after him, the desert. Whatever must be done to forestall catastrophe, whatever actions or sacrifices, it was now clear that humankind lacked the will, the collective will, to undertake them. To any intelligent alien, he said, we would appear to be in the grip of a death wish.It was all over, he said. Our world and our civilization would not endure. It was too late.
It was over, he said again. No more the faith and consolation that had sustained generations and generations, the knowledge that, though our own individual time on earth must end, what we loved and what had meaning for us would go on, the world of which we had been a part would endure—that time had ended, he said. Our world and our civilization would not endure, he said. We must live and die in this new knowledge.
Our world and our civilization would not endure, the man said, because they could not survive the many forces we ourselves had set against it. We, our own worst enemy, had set ourselves up like sitting ducks, allowing weapons capable of killing us all many times over not only to be created but also to land in the hands of egomaniacs, nihilists, men without empathy, without conscience. Between our failure to control the spread of WMDs and our failure to keep from power those for whom their use was not only thinkable but perhaps even an irresistible temptation, apocalyptic war was becoming increasingly likely. . . .
When we go, the man said, pretty as it might be to think so, we will not be replaced by a race of noble and intelligent apes. Comforting, perhaps, to imagine that, with humans extinct, the planet might have a chance. Alas, the animal kingdom was doomed, he said. Though none of the evil would be of their making, the apes and all the other creatures were doomed along with us—those that human activity would not have annihilated already, that is.
But say there was no nuclear threat, the man said. Say, by some miracle, the world’s entire nuclear arsenal had been pulverized overnight. Would we not still be faced with the perils that generations of human stupidity, shortsightedness, and capacity for self-delusion had produced. . . .
The fossil fuel industrialists, the man said. How many were they, how many were we? It beggared belief that we, a free people, citizens of a democracy, had failed to stop them, had failed to stand up to these men and their political enablers working so assiduously at climate change denial. And to think that these same people had already reaped profits of billions, making them some of the richest people ever to have lived. But when the most powerful nation in the world took their side, swaggered to the very forefront of denial, what hope did Planet Earth have. To think that the masses of refugees fleeing shortages of food and clean water caused by global ecological disaster would find compassion anywhere their desperation drove them was absurd, the man said. On the contrary, we would soon see man’s inhumanity to man on a scale like nothing that had ever been seen before.
The man was a good speaker. He had an iPad on the lectern in front of him, to which his gaze fell from time to time, but instead of reading straight from the text he spoke as though he’d memorized every line. In that way he was like an actor. A good actor. He was very good. Not once did he hesitate or stumble over a word, but nor did the talk come off as rehearsed. A gift. He spoke with authority and was nothing if not convincing, clearly sure of everything he said. As in the article I’d read and on which the talk was based, he supported his statements with numerous references. But there was also something about him that said that he didn’t really care about being convincing. It was not a matter of opinion, what he said, it was irrefutable fact. It made no difference whether you believed him or not. This being the case, it struck me as odd, it struck me as really truly odd, his giving that talk. I had thought, because he was addressing people in the flesh, people who’d come out to hear him, that he would take a different tone from the one I remembered from the magazine article. I had thought that this time there’d be some, if not sanguine, at least not utterly doomster takeaway; a gesture, at least, to some possible way forward; a crumb, if only a crumb it be, of hope. As in, Now that I’ve got your attention, now that I’ve scared the bejesus out of you, let’s talk about what might be done. Otherwise, why talk to us at all, sir? This, I was sure, was what other people in the audience must also have been feeling.
Cyberterrorism. Bioterrorism. The inevitable next great flu pandemic, for which we were, just as inevitably, unprepared. Incurable killer infections borne of our indiscriminate use of antibiotics. The rise of far-right regimes around the world. The normalization of propaganda and deceit as political strategy and basis for government policy. The inability to defeat global jihadism. Threats to life and liberty—to anything worthy of the name civilization—were flourishing, the man said. In short supply, on the other hand, were the means to combat them. . . .
And who could believe that the concentration of such vast power in the hands of a few tech corporations—not to mention the system for mass surveillance on which their dominance and profits depended—could be in humanity’s future best interests. Who could seriously doubt that these companies’ tools might one day become the most amazingly effective means to the most ruthless imaginable ends. Yet how helpless we were before our tech gods and masters, the man said. It was a good question, he said: Just how many more opioids could Silicon Valley come up with before it was all over. What would life be like when the system ensured that the individual no longer even had the option to say no to being followed everywhere and constantly shouted at and poked like an animal in a cage. Again, how had a supposedly freedom-loving people allowed this to happen? Why were people not outraged by the very idea of surveillance capitalism? Scared right out of their wits by Big Tech? An alien one day studying our collapse might well conclude: Freedom was too much for them. They would rather be slaves.
A person who only read the man’s words, rather than hearing and watching him speak, would probably have imagined him quite different from the way he actually was that night. Given the words, the meaning, the horrific facts, a person would probably imagine some show of emotion. Not these calm, cadenced sentences. Not this dispassionate mask. Only once did I catch a flicker of feeling: when he was talking about the animals, a slight catch in his throat. For humans, there seemed to be no pity in him. From time to time as he spoke, he looked out over the lectern and raked the audience with his raptor’s gaze. Later, I thought I understood why he hadn’t wanted to take questions. Have you ever been at a Q&A where at least one person did not make some thoughtless remark or ask the kind of irrelevant question that suggested that they hadn’t been listening to a thing the speaker just said? I could see how, for this speaker, after this talk, something like that would have been unendurable. Maybe he was afraid he’d lose his temper. Because of course it was there: Beneath the cool, the control, you could sense it. Deep and volcanic emotion. Which, were he to allow himself to express it, would spew out of the top of his head and burn us all to ash.
There was something strange, too, even bizarre, I thought, about the behavior of the audience. So meek before that grim portrait of their future, the even grimmer one said to be in store for their kids. Such calm and polite attention, as if the speaker had not been describing a time when, in a ghastly reversal of the natural order, first the young would envy the old—a stage already in progress, according to him—then the living would envy the dead.
What a thing to put your hands together for, but that is what we did, as I suppose it would have been even stranger for us not to have done—but now I’m getting ahead of myself.
Before the applause, before the end of the talk, the man brought up something that did in fact cause a ripple on that smooth surface. A murmur passed through the audience (which the man ignored), people shifted in their seats, and I noticed a few headshakes, and, from a row somewhere behind me, a woman’s nervous laugh.
It was over, he said. It was too late, we had dithered too long. Our society had already become too fragmented and dysfunctional for us to fix, in time, the calamitous mistakes we had made. And, in any case, people’s attention remained elusive. Neither season after season of extreme weather events nor the risk of extinction for a million animal species around the world could push environmental destruction to the top of our country’s list of concerns. And how sad, he said, to see so many among the most creative and best-educated classes, those from whom we might have hoped for inventive solutions, instead embracing personal therapies and pseudoreligious practices that promoted detachment, a focus on the moment, acceptance of one’s surroundings as they were, equanimity in the face of worldly cares. (This world is but a shadow, it is a carcass, it is nothing, this world is not real, do not mistake this hallucination for the real world.) Self-care, relieving one’s own everyday anxieties, avoiding stress: these had become some of our society’s highest goals, he said—higher, apparently, than the salvation of society itself. The mindfulness rage was just another distraction, he said. Of course we should be stressed, he said. We should be utterly consumed with dread. Mindful meditation might help a person face drowning with equanimity, but it would do absolutely nothing to right the Titanic, he said. It wasn’t individual efforts to achieve inner peace, it wasn’t a compassionate attitude toward others that might have led to timely preventative action, but rather a collective, fanatical, over-the-top obsession with impending doom.
It was useless, the man said, to deny that suffering of immense magnitude lay ahead, or that there’d be any escaping it.
How, then, should we live?
One thing we should start asking ourselves was whether or not we should go on having children.
(Here, the discomposure I mentioned earlier: murmurs and shifting among the audience, that woman’s nervous laugh. Also, this part was new. The subject of children had not been raised in the magazine article.)
To be clear, he was not saying that every woman expecting a child should consider having an abortion, the man said. Of course he was not saying that. What he was saying was that perhaps the idea of planning families in the way that people had been doing for generations needed to be rethought. He was saying that perhaps it was a mistake to bring human beings into a world that had such a strong possibility of becoming, in their lifetimes, a bleak and terrifying if not wholly unlivable place. He was asking whether to go ahead blindly and behave as if there was little or no such possibility might not be selfish, and perhaps even immoral, and cruel.
And, after all, he said, weren’t there already countless children in the world desperate for protection from already existing threats? Weren’t there millions upon millions of people suffering from various humanitarian crises that millions upon millions of other people simply chose to forget? Why could we not turn our attention to the teeming sufferers already in our midst?
And here, perhaps, was a last chance for us to redeem ourselves, the man raised his voice to say. The only moral, meaningful course for a civilization facing its own end: To learn how to ask forgiveness and to atone in some tiny measure for the devastating harm we had done to our human family and to our fellow creatures and to the beautiful earth. To love and forgive one another as best we could. And to learn how to say goodbye.
The man took his iPad from the lectern and walked swiftly backstage. You could hear from the rhythm of the clapping that people were confused. Was that it? Was he coming back? But it was the woman who had introduced him who now reappeared on the podium, thanked everyone for coming, and wished us all good night.
And then we were on our feet and moving herdishly out of the auditorium, spilling out of the building, into the crisp night air. Which, in spite of it being so far one of the warmest years on record, was, just now, the perfect seasonable temperature for that month in that part of the world.
I need a drink, a voice near me said. To which: Me too!
There was a subdued aura about the departing crowd. Some people looked dazed and were silent. Others remarked on the lack of a Q&A. That’s so arrogant, said one. Maybe he was miffed because it wasn’t a full house, said another.
I heard: What a bore.
And: It was your idea to come to this thing, not mine.
An elderly man at the center of a knot of other elderly people was making them all laugh. Oy! It’s over, it’s over, it’s ohhhh-ver. I thought it was Roy Orbison up there.
I heard: Melodramatic . . . Irresponsible.
And: Totally right, every word.
And (furiously): Will you please tell me, what was the fucking point?
I quickened my pace, leaving the crowd behind, but walking almost in step with me was a man I recognized from the audience. He was wearing a dark suit, running shoes, and a baseball cap. He was alone, and as he walked he was whistling, of all tunes, “My Favorite Things.”
Excerpted from What Are You Going Through by Sigrid Nunez. Copyright © 2020. Reprinted with permission of the publisher, Riverhead Books.