Public Catastrophes, Private Retreats

Anthony Curtis Adler connects with Jack Miles and Mark C. Taylor’s “A Friendship in Twilight: Lockdown Conversations on Death and Life.”

Public Catastrophes, Private Retreats

A Friendship in Twilight: Lockdown Conversations on Death and Life by Jack Miles and Mark C. Taylor. 456 pages.

IN THE WAKE of the Black Plague, Boccaccio wrote The Decameron, a human comedy answering Dante’s comedy divine. Socially distancing themselves in a secluded villa outside Florence, young men and women tell stories to pass the time. And to ward off death — the end of time. The exchange of words becomes a talisman against the very death that writing (or so we’re told) presupposes.

A Friendship in Twilight: Lockdown Conversations on Life and Death seems an unlikely successor to The Decameron. The 10 days of plague become 10 months, stretching from the Ides of March (when the partial shutdown began) to January 7, 2021, the day after a failed coup d’état nearly derailed the United States’ democratic experiment. The protagonists are different, too: 10 nobles (seven young men and three young women), on the one hand, and two old friends, septuagenarian representatives of the “coastal elite” (one from each coast), on the other. Slightly older than “boomers,” the two interlocutors of A Friendship in Twilight are at least nominally Christian — a Catholic Jesuit turned Episcopalian (Jack Miles) and a Protestant become atheist (Mark C. Taylor). And perhaps most importantly, the immediacy of conversation gives way to an exchange of emails between two correspondents, each sequestered in his own bubble of isolation.

A MacArthur Fellow and the Pulitzer Prize–winning author of the widely translated God: A Biography, as well as the editor of the Norton Anthology of World Religions, Jack Miles has dedicated much of his professional life to wresting religious thought from both theological abstraction and fundamentalist myopia, presenting God as a literary figure of beguiling complexity, and endowed with a rich inner life. Mark C. Taylor, professor of religion at Columbia (previously at Williams College), is the author of dozens of books on an extraordinary range of subjects, having played an important role in bringing postmodernist and deconstructive thought to the United States. Both belong to the smallest sliver of American intellectuals who are capable of writing about difficult theological and philosophical topics without impenetrable jargon or scholastic pedantry.

Whereas Boccaccio’s nobles — themselves masks of Boccaccio — wore the lives of others as masks, Miles and Taylor write (to each other) as themselves, and of themselves … but also of the world as they find it and of those that they know. This is what’s most disarming, and most compelling, about A Friendship in Twilight. No attempt is made to seduce their readers, who could almost feel as if they were eavesdropping on a coffee-shop conversation. And, even more remarkably, no attempt is made to seduce each other. Rather than seduce, they teach and relate, remember and narrate, drawing on their respective expertise, life experiences, and the contrasting tendencies of their thought. 

This lack of seduction grants A Friendship in Twilight a unique charm and depth, giving its protagonists access to the space and time of a friendship that is patient, generous, and substantive. It allows something to appear that social media, with its endless blitzkrieg of vapid memes and narcissistic tweets, has reduced to desolate fragments: the common natural world that human beings share with other beings, the politics that organizes this sharing, and above all the ordinary lives of these particular individuals, Jack and Mark, in the intricacy of their cares. A Friendship in Twilight is, indeed, most revelatory in the subtle intervolution (Taylor’s own terminus technicus) of themes ranging from the ordinary to the sublime: Mark’s grandchildren playing with frogs resonate with reflections on the Anthropocene; Jack’s daughter’s house-hunting in Southern California’s overheated real-estate market segues into the apocalyptic threat of forest fires. At an age of life when one’s legacy becomes an overriding concern, the political is acutely personal: will there be a world left to inherit one’s will?

While at first the COVID-19 pandemic — styled a “plague” — frames A Friendship in Twilight, it assumes an increasingly spectral presence. One is reminded of the hum in Kafka’s “Burrow” — or the “damned groundhog” that, drawn to the silence of Mark’s Berkshire retreat, gnaws away noisily beneath the foundationless barn that — half work-shed, half study — symbolizes his lifework. The growing death toll is milestoned with a montage of statistics, but, apart from the isolation and solitude it imposes, the virus rarely touches Jack and Mark’s world. Thus, it comes to stand for the anxiety that, far more contagious than the virus itself, accompanies climate catastrophe, racial conflict, social media’s psychological toll, the increasing fragmentation of modern life, the loss of a sense of place.

Perhaps the central, abiding anxiety concerns democracy in the United States. Jack’s ecumenical, humane religiosity is rejected both by evangelicals and by the scientism of the increasingly hegemonic techno-elite. Mark’s own intellectual project — massive, synthetic, unrepentantly theoretical in its orientation — is an offshoot of a Continentally inflected intellectual tradition, which, always regarded as an invasive species, is now scapegoated — by evangelicalism and scientism alike — for the post-truth disorder supposedly afflicting the present. Yet he stridently rejects the very “identity politics” that Jordan Peterson and his ilk blame on “postmodern neo-Marxists.”

The work-in-progress of both speculative philosophy and ecumenical theology, however, is foundational to democracy. Hegel’s Absolute emerges with the banishment of the thing-in-itself, the last residue of heteronomy and dogmatism. As we already learn from Rousseau, popular sovereignty means nothing else than ultimate, absolute identity of subject, state, and sovereign. Working out this identity concretely rather than abstractly, and without the totalitarian effacement of the individual, is the task of both politics and philosophy.

This suggests the deeper importance of a dialogue between an academic philosopher and a theological journalist. Journalism and academia are two of the three principal organs of “free expression,” broadly conceived. The third, the arts, and especially popular culture, also plays prominently in this book, as we will see later on. Unlike the members of the three traditional “professions” — jurists, doctors, and theologians — journalists and academics are, at least de jure, free agents. As such, they provide the living mediation of the People with itself. Not surprising that Trumpism has gone to such lengths to undermine both.

This lends a certain urgency to these twilight reflections: like the forest fires lapping the edges of Jack’s Santa Ana home, the new social media threatens to annihilate the practices to which both Jack and Mark have devoted their life. Perhaps one of the most important messages of their book is that, for each practice — and thus, for democracy — to survive, each needs the other.

Indeed, the most striking flashes of insight occur where Jack’s empiricism pushes back against Mark’s speculations. Discussing the tech community’s debate about using “master” and “slave” in a technical context, Mark, drawing on Hegel, remarks that “though initially unaware of his or her power, the slave is really the master of the master.” Left-wing activists end up “trashing the very philosophy that grounds their call for social change.” Jack’s reply does not directly challenge Mark’s invocation of Hegel, which, by identifying the Hegel’s bondsman with the slave, minimizes the threat that racialized chattel slavery poses to the dialectics of recognition. Rather, Jack points to Thoreau: not as the author of Walden but as the tax dodger whose futile gestures of resistance inspired his “Civil Disobedience.” An extraordinary segue to political theology follows:

Sacralized nationalism, even when democratic, believes that “vox populi vox Dei.” Prophetic protest denies that equation: no, it says, the voice of the people is not the voice of God. The people are not divine but human, all too human, and not just fallible but also peccable.

The people’s peccability counters all national chauvinism; the God that the people always have on their own side in every war is their own self-divination, their own transformation into a People. Hegel, identifying the rational and the real, regarding the world-historical individual as a conduit of the passions of the age, comes perilously close to divinizing the People as the ultimate subject of history. Mediation alone can’t save democracy from itself; something else is necessary — concrete acts of law-breaking resistance.

This exchange appears in a cluster of letters titled “Independence Day.” A Friendship in Twilight begins with “The Ides of March.” “Easter,” “Memorial Day,” “Independence Day,” “Labor Day,” and “Epiphany” follow — a liturgy, secular yet also sacred, tracing out the seasons’ passage from rebirth to death. Democracy, like friendship, is a kind of “public work” — “working out” the people as a People, not after the plan of sacred writ, but through an agile, thoughtful response to challenges of the moment.

But beyond journalism and academia, this “public work” demands the third branch of “free expression”: the mass culture of cinema, television, and music most of all. Mark, a country-music aficionado, writes of its potential to bridge the “red/blue ‘partisan pandemic,’” evident in the widespread protests against mask mandates. “What if,” he asks, “through their music, Garth, Trisha, Tim, Faith, and Dolly can marshal a protest to this protest?” Jack responds: “Well, maybe. Merle Haggard was an ‘Okie from Muskogee,’ but you know who else was from Oklahoma? Woodie Guthrie!” Music might sometimes heal divisions, but it also solidifies them.

As the book progresses, Bruce Springsteen will offer another hope of synthesis. Despite rebuffing an honorary degree at Williams, he appears to Mark in the black-and-white intimacy of his pandemic film Letter to You (the source of the book’s epigraph). The very spirit of intimacy, Springsteen enters “into the lives of people,” giving “voice to their worlds.”  Mark’s respect for the accomplished vernacular storyteller is of a piece with his own profound insights into the nature of truth, which bring Hegel and Kierkegaard, via Derrida, into a precarious union. Truth is relational and perspectival, without being fragmented and atomized. The truth of a being is its entanglements with other beings, as they are, have been, and will be. But, he adds, “we can never know the whole because the whole, which is temporal as well as spatial, thus, is always incomplete.” Truth is the whole, but the whole is made of subjects. The truth of the whole, therefore, is not the whole, but subjectivity in its radical singularity. Yet, as Jack, ever the empiricist, reminds us, the individual is in truth a “dividual”: individuality is an illusion.

As the book’s subtle plot thickens, this reminder grows prophetic. Starting as a medical drama, A Friendship in Twilight morphs into a mystery — the hunt for Trumpism: for its roots in the lived experience of the largely white, older, male electorate that put him into office. This assumes a tragic, Oedipal intrigue, as does every great mystery: Oedipus was the first to experience himself as divided from himself by the paradox of his origins. And most of all for Mark. Writing from his barn-office desk with his father’s and grandfather’s guns hanging over his head, he takes pride in his physical labor and spurns the rituals of white guilt.

An episode from Mark’s letter in “Epiphany” brings home this point beautifully and hauntingly: the lockdown over, the election behind them, the door rings — it is a neighbor, and indeed the most neighborly of neighbors. Knowing of Mark’s fascination with bones, he brings the skeleton of a deer. Referring to the election results, Mark says: “We dodged a bullet.” “You’re talking to the wrong guy.”


Anthony Curtis Adler is the author of Celebricities: Media Culture and the Phenomenology of Gadget Commodity Life (Fordham, 2016) and Politics and Truth in Hölderlin: Hyperion and the Choreographic Project of Modernity (Camden House, 2021).

LARB Contributor

Anthony Curtis Adler is a professor of comparative literature at the Underwood International College of Yonsei University in Seoul, South Korea. He is the author of Celebricities: Media Culture and the Phenomenology of Gadget Commodity Life (Fordham, 2016) and Politics and Truth in Hölderlin: Hyperion and the Choreographic Project of Modernity (Camden House, 2021), as well as a critical edition and translation of J. G. Fichte’s The Closed Commercial State (SUNY, 2013).


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