The planet Venus is exceptionally bright right now, but I have learned that the stars seem brighter because there is no longer so much pollution from planes, most flights having been grounded. I have never seen the stars in North Yorkshire shining so brightly. Up here I am woken early in the morning by squawking pheasants, lulled to sleep at night by the calls of owls out hunting. News of the pandemic that has spread across the world reaches me, of course, and I am observing the strictures of self-isolation, but there is a great gap between the images of death and desperation on television and the growing number of newborn lambs leaping joyfully across the fell sides above my village. There is a sense of existing in a parallel universe that feels surreal.
This period of compulsory isolation, no matter how long it lasts, is going to change things for all of us. The aftermath of any catastrophe, whether war or natural disasters such as earthquakes, tsunamis or famines, is never easily or quickly resolved; superficially the structures of everyday life may appear to be returning, but the world of people affected by all that they have experienced has shifted on its axis, only slightly for some, but terribly for others. None of us had ever experienced the shutting down of an entire country, but now we are starting to know what it feels like, and when it ends, our lives will never be quite the same again.
Whether culture can help us come to terms with this unprecedented situation is the question Ben asks us to consider. It is an important question, but it also invites us to think about what we understand by our relationship to the word ‘culture’, the term that Raymond Williams said was ‘one of the two or three most complicated words in the English language’ (Williams, 1976:76). As academics, culture is our business, talking about culture is our bread and butter; but as Williams also pointed out, the complexity of the word lies in the problems which derive from the wide variations of its use. For some, the word has elitist connotations, for others it has dark ideological connotations, for still others it is a synonym for civilization – and there is another hugely complex term!
Williams reminds us that in its early uses, the term ‘culture’ referred to the tending of crops or animals. The Old English word for ploughshare, coulter – derived from Latin culter, meaning knife (Italian coltello, French couteau) – and ploughing, as I see every year in my village, is the essential first step to what will ultimately result in the harvest. Thinking of that agricultural connection between culture and cultivation is an enabling image, just as thinking about the etymological connection between texts and textiles serves to remind us of the vital link between spinning, weaving, knitting and sewing on the one hand and the academic activities of reading and writing on the other. In the 21st century words like ‘culture’ or ‘textuality’ may seem to have intellectual connotations, but behind those words is the concreteness of the land, of planting and sowing, of husbandry and harvest, of cloth-making and stitching. As I sit knitting little garments for the grandson due to arrive later this summer, I think of the Scottish Makar Jackie Kaye’s lovely poem ‘The Knitter’: ‘Time is a loop stitch. I knit to keep death away’.
One thing that I would like to see emerge out of our current crisis is greater recognition of the rootedness of our academic language in the practicalities of the everyday. A first step would be to recognize the need to make our ideas accessible, to ditch the jargon to which we have become accustomed, and to use clearer language that does not obfuscate. This does not mean dumbing down – far from it, as many great thinkers have proven, expressing their thoughts in ways that open up their ideas to countless others.
A second step would be to listen harder, to try and understand more about what our students and the coming generations are interested in, to discover what non-professional readers are actually reading, watching and enjoying, and to ask ourselves why there should often be such a gap between the values espoused within academia and those outside it. We need only think about what has happened in Britain in the last few years, with the Brexit referendum and the general election of December 2019, to see that great gaps have been exposed between the ideas circulating in our university world and other parts of the population. During the run up to the Brexit referendum I did not encounter one single colleague who was not in favour of remaining in Europe, nor a single neighbour who was not in favour of leaving. How such cultural and ideological gaps could become so wide is an important question to ask, and as intellectuals, part of what we should be doing is not only trying to understand why such gaps have come into being, but also looking for ways to bridge them.
There are some hopeful signs of positive changes. Greater global recognition of climate change is starting to be reflected in literary studies more generally, with scholars like Michael Cronin expanding that work into translation studies and Robert Macfarlane reaching out to a wide readership with his books on the need to fight to conserve both the natural environment and the language that is used to talk about that environment. There seems to be a renewed interest in nature poetry too, and last November Simon Armitage announced the creation of the Laurel Prize for the best collection of nature poetry. Poets like Wordsworth and Leopardi are undergoing a kind of revival, and through translation we increasingly have access to the work of great ancient masters such as Du Fu and Wang Wei. Perhaps, in this period of enforced contemplation, we might be better able to acknowledge the relationship between writing and the environment and so start to move towards a new kind of planetarity. And as we start to cope with the aftermath of this crisis, to allow time for the scars left by the coronavirus to heal I wonder whether it might be possible that we could move towards a new kind of literary study, one where we rediscover the continued importance of the ploughshare and the knitting needle in this technological age.