This June, when I am overextended far beyond my usual overextension – summer term, two articles and two conference papers to write, preparing to leave the country for six weeks, and packing up my office for a departmental move – my thoughts turn to daydreams.
It’s an old daydream, with new embellishments every time: quit the academy and found a monastery devoted to preserving humane learning through the coming dark ages. And rescue cats.
By monastery, I don’t mean a religious community. I mean that monastic form can be a viable structure for once again storing knowledge and its practice in human beings. Not work and pray, but work and study.
People can pray if they want to. But the daily hours are readings, small seminars, labs, and tutorials. Dialogues. Musical recitals or plays to mark the months.
The humane learning to be practiced includes both what we now call the humanities and the sciences. I am not assuming a western-only canon; a flexible, global canon would be better. The point is to keep the light of knowledge from going out entirely, to preserve something, maybe even build a little, so that humans or a descendent species don’t have to reinvent the wheel (literally) on the other end of the darkness.
Study and work. Work includes the labor necessary to sustain the community: some basic agriculture, cooking, crafts, medicine. And we’ll need vets for the cats. Ideally, everyone will have both an area of study and practical skills – all of which are understood as practices of knowledge and paths to understanding the world and the self.
The monastery will not grant any kind of credential. It will have both a permanent community and students who live under the communal rule for a short term. Once the monastery is a going concern, students are novices of a sort – possible postulants for permanent membership, but those who do not remain are charged with returning to whatever is left of civilization and encouraging there a love for knowledge. Itinerant teachers of a sort, whatever else they might do. I, of course, plan to stay.
The monastery will be a combination of Hogwarts, the Citadel, Lorien, and Granger’s Exiles. With cats.
In floating this daydream to others, I have been advised not to require a vow of celibacy. As long as celibacy is permitted along with the variety of gender identities, sexual orientations, and relationship arrangements, there is no need for vows. But study comes before sex.
No compulsory celibacy, but poverty seems unavoidable. I hope we can live simply and well. But it won’t be easy as the climate changes and civilization crashes.
I’ve had some version of this daydream for a long time. I had it before I saw it in print in Morris Berman’s The Twilight of American Culture, which I read in 2001. Berman warned of civilizational collapse and suggested a “monastic option” as a possible response.
But one little thing about the book bugs me. In his litany of American ignorance, he refers to a telephone survey in which people were asked who “the wife of the biblical Noah was” and 12% said Joan of Arc. Arc, ark. Facepalm.
Not that I expect better of survey respondents. The question itself bothers me: in the biblical text, Noah’s wife doesn’t have a name, unless you want to say “’Eeshet Noach,” which just means “Wife of Noah” or, less strictly, “Mrs. Noah.” Later Jewish and Christian traditions give her different names, but the biblical text does not.
So why was a phone surveyor asking Americans to name Noah’s wife? To see if people would spot the trick question? To prompt the predicable Joan on purpose, the better to deplore our cultural ignorance? Or does its inclusion indicate the report is a joke? Does this unanswerable question make the whole book a joke, and is this Berman’s tiny clue?
Be that as it may. On my bad days, I want to ditch the academy, all the riptides of credentialism, managerial encroachment, and consumerism that surround (I still believe) quiet attempts to cultivate minds. And do – what? Something else.
On really bad days, it seems pointless even to try to sustain humane leaning through a Dark Age. I mean, why? So future peoples can trash different environments, until the sun goes nova and fries the inner planets? If there comes a day when I break with academe, maybe it should be a much cleaner, deeper break – a vow never to teach again. So far, I have only sworn, temporarily, not to teach specific subjects again. This break would be total. Just take care of cats. Often I’m not sure what else we can do, except care for another living being who is before us now. No abstractions, no “humanity,” no “ideals,” just a cat that wants to be fed and cuddled. Often that seems enough, and more peaceful than what I usually spend my time doing.
Last summer, I aired these daydreams in a Twitter with @jenebbler and @Exhaust_Fumes. They too had had some variations on these daydreams. Jen’s cat daydream was more embellished than mine: she wanted a tabby ranch, here in Texas, a place that would provide a home for tabby cats. Other cats would be welcome too, but tabbies featured. Might we combine the cat ranch with the monastic option? Thus was born Tabby Ranch Monastery.
Its rule has not been written yet, but its purpose is clear. Preserve cats, preserve knowledge. One could do worse.