For the next few weeks, I will be teaching a course on death from a remote location in the Missouri Ozarks. My campus cancelled classes for the two weeks following our spring break and I have retreated to my family’s farm, a few hundred acres of rocky hills, where the nearest town, with a population below 200, is 10 miles off. Our nearest neighbors at the farm are my parents, a few hundred yards to the south. About the same distance to the north live my uncle and aunt. We are well arranged for social distancing.
My first “online teaching” will be to prepare a recorded lecture on To the Lighthouse, a book more fitted to the moment than I can like. It is an elegy, written after World War I and in melancholy remark on the world that was and would no longer be. It begins before the war, on an ordinary day in which a boy, James, hopes his family can make an excursion across the water to visit the lighthouse. Told through the internal sporadic thoughts and reflections of multiple characters, the first movement of the story, if such it is, records the prosaic anxieties, worries, hopes, and moods that people will have when they do not know what ambitiously dark fate has in store for them. Ignorance of what is coming next and fast allows the mind to wander over small discontents, modest delights, or even, as Mr. Ramsey does, whether one will ever be as successful as one aspires to be. It is an ordinary world with ordinary cares, a world that ends. It reminds me of last month.
The second part of the novel is of a house gone empty, the lively souls that populated it dispersed, scattered, and too many of them dead – in war, in childbirth, or abruptly in the night. I worry it describes what awaits all sorts of material structures. My university is depopulated now, the broad greens mown but empty. The kids who hang hammocks between the trees by the library have all gone home. I am nostalgic even for the irritations and would welcome a chance to tell that guy in the back to stop texting during class. He is not there, nor am I. The chalkboard is washed clean of any idea, for whatever we did have in mind has changed and, at any rate, we have taken all ideas elsewhere. Mine will have to come in recordings I make alone. I will speak of death – for this is, alas, a class on death – and do it all alone. I will talk of To the Lighthouse while living in its second movement. The final section of the elegy is the part that draws me up short. I know just how the book goes, but not how our collective share in something like it will.
I have already selected a spot in a grove of stout, tall walnut trees where I will record a lecture on these things. It is too early yet for the trees to provide the covering shade that spring will soon bring, but still, they do seem steady and reliable, a satisfying audience for mortal thoughts. I will tell them of Virginia Woolf, of Mrs. Ramsey, and how getting to the lighthouse at long last is not really the measure of things. What one believes one wants can instead bow and bend, and even steady things, lighthouses and walnut trees, achieve their aspect under roiling fate and what it does to us.