Shakespeare in the Anthropocene, SAA, 7 April 2017 in Atlanta

For a moment, I thought I’d be the only one who made it to Atlanta.

Last Wednesday, I was plopped into a chair in the empty twenty-two story atrium of the Hyatt Regency as rain blew horizontally past the windows, watching Facebook string together reports of tornados, cancelled flights and interminable layovers. Passing back and forth via leaky skyway between the Hyatt and the mall food court at Peachtree Center, I began to imagine myself as the last Shakespearean on Earth, carrying out a Home Alone/Omega Man version of the conference by my lonesome. As Shakespeare Association of America President-by-default, I had a lot of bold initiatives to push through.

The #Shakenado ultimately marooned or forced back about 20 percent of SAA’s attendees. Several seminars were reduced to rumps or cancelled outright. People arrived late and left late, as Hartsfield-Jackson airport staggered under a massive backlog of flights. Shakespeare went back to the moment of shipwreck again and again in his plays, and the Hyatt, so big it seemed to make its own weather, began to seem like an island where I’d been castaway. This sensation was magnified by my seminar, “Shakespeare in the Anthropocene,” organized by Craig Dionne and Lowell Duckert, where we discussed the end of the world.

The seminar was held in cavernous, windowless basement hall, divided by temporary walls that channeled the air conditioning into weird gusts of wind that snaked around corners. We started a bit slow, but soon got into a good groove. I think Shannon Garner-Balandrin gave us the way in: if we know that climate catastrophe is coming, what do we do with that knowledge? What can we do? The question was intensified by Sharon O’Dair’s paper, which called the concept of sustainable growth into question, suggesting that global population and rates of consumption might have already made reversing course impossible, even if the world did somehow shift from defining growth as increase to defining it as refinement. Charles Whitney read climate policy literature and noted just how much rests on hoping the next generation will find some miraculous technological fix and save us. John Mitchell’s paper, “Quintessence of Dust,” dove deep into climate science and raised the idea of dust as archive, an information-rich strata that may ultimately be our civilization’s legacy. (And became an interesting echo of the presentation on the Folger Shakespeare Library’s “Project Dustbunny” at the 2016 SAA).

My own paper looked at the early modern debate over the decay of nature, the eco-theological question of whether humanity’s original sin had doomed only humans, or all of nature, sending the whole created world into a falling state that can only be relieved by apocalyptic fire at the end of time. As succinctly put by George Herbert’s poem “Decay”:

I see the world grows old, when as the heat

Of thy great love, once spread, as in an urn

Doth closet up it self, and still retreat,

Cold Sinne still forcing it, till it return,

And calling Justice, all things burn.

I tried to find a middle ground between the poles of this old debate, between apocalypticism and bluff optimism that nature will abide as it always has. How do we acknowledge that the world will change irrevocably, but it will not end? How we avoid the consolations of apocalypse, the nihilism and passivity and abdication of responsibility that modern popular culture seems so hungry for? Squinting hard, I tried to glimpse that moment in the last act of Richard II, when Richard, trying to imagine himself as something other than a king, greats his groom as a peer and offers/asks forgiveness to/of his traitorous horse Barbary, now carrying King Henry. Belatedly, with his murderers already on the way, he begins to imagine a world where the human relationship to nature is not an extractive empire, but a level commonwealth, united by interdependence and shared fragility and finitude. Stripped of his power over other human beings, Richard begins to see his relationship to nature anew and takes his seat as one member among many in a teeming society. As our own world sits at five minutes to midnight, we might learn from this vision.

Craig Dionne raised the notion of a “stratigraphic Shakespeare,” a literature that can make sense of the line humanity’s drawn in the sediment. For me, stratigraphic literature evoked the Egyptian soil, which regularly yields statues, mummies, tablets, scraps of papyrus, whole languages lying dormant in the sand. Will the texts we love end up like scrolls of Sappho in the Ptolemaic era, used to wrap the dead, only to reveal lost verse millennia later? As Jeffrey J. Cohen asked in his response, what signs will we leave behind? How will they be read?

Archeology is a guide here. Civilization has ended before. We know what lasts and what does not. Ink on paper, buried in the desert, endures for millennia. Digital files get lost in the relentless updating of media, and are no good without proper hardware, software, electricity, and the vast infrastructures they require. Perhaps the digital turn has come too late. Join me in my campaign to print out the internet and bury it in a salt mine in Utah.

It didn’t come up in any of the papers, but one figure came up repeatedly in our discussions: Hermione, the lost mother of The Winter’s Tale, who dies, reappears as a ghost, and finally returns to life via a work of art, her miraculous statue, revived after a gap of eighteen years. That gap is marked by death, dissension, storm, shipwreck, exile, a bear attack, and her daughter Perdita’s unlikely new life in the pastures of Bohemia. The statue speaks to us. It asks what we can preserve that will endure beyond the hole in time. What can travel across the stormy era to come, and be read and revived by whatever waits on the other side? What can we leave of us for our Perditas, the children we’ve abandoned on a strange and stormy shore, in hopes that they’ll show us mercy, and let us live again?