By Tyrus Miller
Dante Alighieri closed Inferno, his poetic vision of hell and the first canticle of his 14th-century epic The Divine Comedy, with a luminous line: “And then we came out again to see the stars.” For Dante, the exit path is poetry itself – he seeks consolation in his own poetry and in the classical poetry of his Roman master, Virgil, who guides Dante the pilgrim among the dead souls of hell and directs his journey toward the lights above.
Dante tells us plainly that without reading and writing to lift our spirits and enlighten us, we are doomed to perdition. And let’s be honest: Who of us hasn’t, during the long months of the COVID-19 pandemic, felt that we’d been trapped in an infernal circle without exit? How many people are now asking themselves the same fundamental questions that Dante posed to himself: Is my life meaningful? Is my work well-directed? Must I continue doing the same things, or should I make a change? Current employment statistics suggest that many have already chosen not to go on as before.
As the dean of UCI’s School of Humanities, I’ve often thought during this time how humanities disciplines – history, literature, philosophy, art history, film and media, and cultural studies – shed light on our present situation and help us find our way through these dark days. I have thought, thus, of Dante.
Alongside extraordinary contributions from science, technology and medicine, humanistic knowledge and modes of thinking help us make sense of the uncertainty, fear and suffering we’ve experienced and direct us toward paths of promise for the future. For the pandemic is not just a natural or medical phenomenon. It is also a powerful social and cultural event, shaped by divergent histories, geographies and ways of life.
The humanities are multifaceted, but their different branches have one thing in common: All focus on the meaning-making capacities of human beings, who across millennia have striven to understand our world and transform it with fresh creations of the mind. From the humblest manifestations of everyday culture to the grand edifices of art, literature and conceptual thought, the humanities investigate how humans make meaning as individuals and as communities. And today we share an urgent need to understand the meaning of what we’ve experienced during the COVID-19 pandemic.
“The humanities are a centuries-rich archive of ways to interpret human
experience in all its maddening perversity and stunning ingenuity. We ought
to engage humanists before crises become tragic, rather than keep them in
reserve as the unhappy chroniclers of the resulting mess.”
Amid the lockdown, I launched an interview series with School of Humanities faculty called “COVID-19: The Humanities Respond.” We spoke about literary and artistic responses to historic plagues, from classical Greece to medieval Italy to New York and San Francisco during the AIDS crisis; how industrial food production has been disrupted by the pandemic; how people have formed new media-viewing communities to overcome pandemic loneliness; how misinformation has been propagated about the pandemic and the vaccines; and how racial, ethnic and class inequities have taken new shape during our modern plague. These discussions contribute crucially to UCI’s many-sided engagement with the evolving pandemic.
The humanities, I submit, are not for the faint of heart.They start from an unflinching, critical posture of mind that from the outset acknowledges that error, delusion, cruelty, failure and folly are as characteristic of the human animal as creativity, discovery, goodness and justice. Dante, after all, didn’t just launch himself straight to paradise and start conversing with the saints and angels! He took his time wending his way through hell, in the process bearing witness to the myriad falsehoods, betrayals and evils of which the human heart is capable. And if Dante sought his examples in medieval Christian and classical pagan cultures, we should not believe his world was so distant from ours as not to share many of the same devilish traits.
During the pandemic, we were compelled to confront uncomfortable questions: Why are there such disparate impacts of COVID-19 in the U.S. North and South? Why have Black, Hispanic and Native American communities been so disproportionately affected? If we have vaccines that could ensure the safety of individuals, families and whole communities, why are huge numbers of Americans now refusing to take them?
Seeking explanations – and searching for effective ways of addressing such disparities – we have encountered long histories of racism and discrimination in housing, work and education, along with more recent forces influencing Americans’ attitudes about government, medicine and media information. We see how conflicting notions of “personal liberty” and “obligation to others” powerfully affect the progress of the pandemic. Freedom and care are not natural or biomedical facts – they are complex dispositions tied to individual and community histories, religious beliefs, ethnic and economic ways of life, family roles and ethical questions that have occupied humans since ancient times. Yet today they have also become literal matters of life and death for hundreds of thousands of people in the U.S. alone.
If we could learn one lesson from this terrible crisis, I hope it would be this: Let’s not leave humanistic perspectives to an afterthought, as if they were just unfortunate friction in the otherwise efficient machinery of technical, scientific solutions to our collective problems. The humanities are a centuries-rich archive of ways to interpret human experience in all its maddening perversity and stunning ingenuity. We ought to engage humanists before crises become tragic, rather than keep them in reserve as the unhappy chroniclers of the resulting mess.
The humanities, I believe, remain perennial resources of insight and hope in dark times. Even in their most biting criticism, they do not fail to remind us that imagining a better future is a constant human need. In different voices, at different times, they tell us: Step out, look up; the stars are coming out.
Miller is the dean of the UCI School of Humanities
Originally published in the fall 2021 issue of UCI Magazine.