The following is excerpted from President Brodhead's John Tyler Caldwell Lecture in the Humanities, delivered at an event sponsored by the North Carolina Humanities Council.
Eudora Welty's 1944 essay "Some Notes on River Country" begins with this memorable line: "A place that ever was lived in is like a fire that never goes out." Some years back, I went to see the country she describes. This is the stretch of land west of Jackson, Mississippi, and north of Natchez whose settlements are at once weirdly abandoned yet also weirdly preserved. Its chief sites are Windsor, a mansion near Port Gibson, whose pomp survives only in an intact set of Corinthian columns; Grand Gulf, a thriving international cotton port until the Mississippi washed the town away; and Rodney's Landing, a river town successful enough to have built a series of exquisitely ornamented churches in the 1840s, until the river changed course and left it high and dry.
These are enchanting places, but the average visitor would draw their lesson very differently from Welty. For these are icons of desolation, images of the utter transience of this world's glory. Windsor, once a great house, survives exclusively as a ruin. Grand Gulf, once a boom town, was wiped from the face of the Earth, leaving only the overgrown graves of forgotten entrepreneurs. Rodney's churches still stand, but wholly disconnected from the people who built and used them. Those people have vanished—and lest anyone miss the lesson of the extinction of the human, this town is approached through mile after mile covered exclusively with vines.
So how could she say, "A place that ever was lived in is like a fire that never goes out"? If one thing is true of these places, it's that their life did go out. And yet, and yet: Welty felt their distant force when she visited, and I experienced the connection when I went decades later. So how was this? Welty's reply is that the spark of "original ignition," having been once struck, lives on: "Sometimes it gives out glory, sometimes its little light must be sought out to be seen, small and tender as a candle flame, but as certain." But in truth, these places did not simply stay in life: They were brought back to life by the mind of a latter- day observer, re-animated by her powers of perception, sympathy, and imagination, and transformed into an essay and a remarkable series of photographs.
I am here to speak in praise of the humanities, and I begin with my Welty tale to remind us what the humanities are. The humanities aren't just the subjects listed in college course catalogues—literature, philosophy, history, music, and the other arts—though those are certainly included. The humanities are a name for the process by which all the things humans have made, said, thought, and done come back to spark the understandings of other humans across time.
Two facts make this transaction possible. The first is that humans make things, express themselves through the materials that surround them, and that these wrought things—a tool, a house, a picture or song, an expressed idea—live on when their fashioners have departed. Faulkner said that the work of art is "the artist's way of scribbling 'Kilroy was here' on the walls of the final and irrevocable oblivion through which he must someday pass." But it isn't only art objects that have this trick of persistence. In Faulkner's Requiem for a Nun, the most everyday mark made by the homeliest figures—the name a country wife carved in a window pane— announces the fact of her human being: "Listen, stranger; this was myself; this was I."
Second, as we make things that outlive their makers, another of our innate capacities is that we go out in spirit toward the works of others. Humans have the peculiar ability—and, judging by the amount of time we spend reading, watching videos, and listening to music, arguably even a fundamental need—to exit the confines of our own experience and to take up mental residence in spaces created by others. Put these two together and you get the difference the humanities make. This gift for going out of ourselves and entering into things is what gives fresh being to creations whose origins are distant in space and time. As we "get into" it, the book or song composed by another comes to life again as our experience. As Welty trains her gaze on Windsor or Rodney, she feels the obscure life of which these are the remains.
When we live outside ourselves with sufficient intensity of feeling, we in turn have a chance to be changed. This is the way we annex understandings that have been struggled toward by others that we would never have reached on our own. This is how we get to see the world differently from the way our own minds or culture habitually present it, and recognize that our customary outlook is not the only point of view. This is how we learn that there is more to human history than the present, and that our present is itself a moment in time. This is how we begin to understand the other customs, beliefs, and values men and women live by in other countries (or indeed within our own country), and to imagine how differences can be accommodated for a common good.
Understood this way, the humanities are not a specialized taste but the root of the most basic human and civic competencies. If we lacked these gifts, we would be condemned to the harshest of poverties, dependence on our own unaided selves. Collectively, we would have little idea where we came from or where we could be going. So it matters how this impulse is fed.
The Fire That Never Goes Out
A trip to Eudora Welty's River Country reveals the enduring power of human invention—and the importance of the humanities in rekindling the flame.
January 31, 2012