In When I Was a Child I Read Books, Marilynne Robinson asks, “What are we, after all, we human beings?” According to Robinson, the answer proffered by our secular elites has been less than inspiring: “When the subject is our own nature and the nature of our kind, something we all experience continuously and immediately, it is clear that we can be persuaded of absolutely anything, at whatever cost in personal misery and general destruction.”

The culprit here is scientific naturalism, or the assumption that the physical sciences can and will provide a comprehensive account of reality. Regarding human beings, scientific naturalism recognizes no significant difference between biology and identity. In other words, you can gain as much insight into someone’s life from a CT scan as you can by reading their journals or watching their favorite movies. Though this all sounds very dramatic, it’s Robinson’s contention that one of the most deplorable consequences of scientific naturalism’s overestimation of its explanatory powers is its gross oversimplification of human nature. I think she is entirely right.

But what precisely is human nature? Robinson knows better than to approach this question directly, so she offers an ingenious ploy instead. Human nature is “the difference between a world in which there is a human presence and one in which there are no creatures more like us than the apes.” Subtract humanity from the planet. Whatever is lost — the good, the bad, and the ugly — is what Robinson has in mind when she talks about human nature.

Whatever its intellectual merits, the naturalist’s outlook is remarkably barren. If a cathedral differs only in degree rather than kind from a termite mound, the highest ambition of any living thing is survival and nothing more. In this sense, the constellation of human achievement that Robinson gestures at constitutes little more than a particularly exotic (and not always efficient) means of passing on one’s genes. The biography of any successful member of the human race might be titled Mere Survival.

A person will starve without meaning just as surely as she will starve without food.

One of the most naked expressions of mere survival in recent years belongs to the particularly vivid alien organism found in Ridley Scott’s early sci-fi masterpiece, Alien. Designed with sinister ingenuity by Swiss surrealist H. R. Giger, the film’s monster boasts a level of outlandish execution that verges on the demonic. As horrifying as all of Giger’s perverse details are, the alien’s most disconcerting feature is its lack of eyes. This subtle omission gives the creature an inherently soulless aspect, visibly driving home the point that it’s nothing more than a blind, pitiless force destroying everything in its path.

But this notorious creature needs no introduction by now. Its appalling anatomy, rabidly anti-social behavior, and revolting gestational habits are firmly enshrined in the annals of pop culture history. In fact, the infamous “chestburster” scene has become a kind of cinematic right-of-passage in the gross-out department. Not even the director of the Hostel films was immune to its visceral charms. All that is to say, Alien isn’t for everyone.

A remarkable exchange takes place about half way through the film, however. Ash — an android who has been dispatched by the crew’s employer to bring back the monster at any cost — simply cannot contain his enthusiasm for this strange creature: “You still don’t know what you’re dealing with, do you? The perfect organism. Its structural perfection is matched only by its hostility.”

Accused of admiring this monster by another crew member, Ash calmly replies, “I admire its purity. A survivor, unclouded by conscience, remorse, or delusions of morality.” The Nietzschean overtones of Ash’s statement will be readily apparent to anyone who’s ever endured a freshman philosophy class, but it’s the force of Ash’s logic that makes his statement so compelling. If survival is the sole virtue among living organisms, then this thing is the patron saint of survivors — a life form with no aspirations beyond staying alive. The perfect organism indeed.

Though there are generous hints of intelligent extraterrestrials scattered throughout the story, Alien‘s titular creature displays no apparent signs of higher intelligence. This is one of the many ways in which Alien subverts traditional sci-fi tropes. Here we also gain better insight into the “purity” Ash was talking about. It’s not just that the creature has no moral scruples — it’s also unencumbered by intellectual curiosity or aesthetic pursuits. In short, this thing isn’t going to waste any time in a church, museum, or laboratory. It is only about survival’s business. Everything else is simply a distraction.

When Ash provocatively describes the atmosphere on the creature’s planet as “almost primordial,” he’s giving an indication of its uncompromising instincts. If I were in a mischievous mood, I might suggest that Ridley Scott’s alien is the only possible hero in a universe that’s nothing more than the sum of its parts. Instead, I’ll just limit myself to saying that Ash’s estimation of the alien’s value carries some force if survival truly is the highest good.

Fittingly, Ridley Scott is once again returning to the Alien universe with a sequel to the ambitious but ultimately unsatisfactory Prometheus prequel: the highly anticipated and lushly promoted Alien: Covenant. Whether Alien: Covenant can deliver on its promises remains to be seen. For this viewer at least, the gaudy (and very gory) trailer doesn’t exactly inspire confidence. One can at least hope that Scott will recover the element that’s been so conspicuously missing from his recent efforts — namely, a little restraint.

If Alien turns scientific naturalism on its head by presenting us with a creature whose will and instinct are identical, Emily St. John Mandel challenges the notion that survival is the highest good by seeing what people do when most of civilization is wiped out. Cormac McCarthy pursued a similar line of thinking in The Road but what sets Mandel’s Station Eleven apart is its single-minded focus on what makes human behavior so peculiar.

A flu epidemic has leveled the world’s population. In the destruction’s wake, modern civilization is effaced and the technological conveniences we take for granted are comprehensively dismantled. Computers, remote controls, cellphones — all are now relics fit for a museum (which, incidentally, is just where many of them end up in the novel). In one haunting scene, a character closes her eyes and flips a light switch in an abandoned house, trying to remember what it was like when that simple action instantly undid the shroud of darkness in a room. The small segment of the population that has survived the ordeal is forced to make a career of survival in a landscape that is as ruthless as it is primitive.

Enter the Traveling Symphony, a professional symphony and troupe of Shakespearean actors who have “joined forces” to remind the harrowed world that civilization still exists. Traveling from settlement to settlement in horse-drawn pickup trucks that have been emptied of their now-useless machinery, and carting their musical instruments — along with whatever costumes and makeshift scenery can be utilized in their productions — this ragged band of artists regales humanity’s tattered remains with performances that directly challenge the assumption that staying alive is now humanity’s sole prerogative.

Though performances include everything from classical jazz to “pre-collapse pop songs,” most audiences “prefer Shakespeare” to all the Symphony’s other offerings. “People want what was best about the world,” as one of the actors succinctly puts it. Their lead caravan carries the Symphony’s motto: “Because survival is insufficient.” If this little apothegm sounds vaguely familiar, it’s not because you’ve encountered it anywhere in the Bard’s corpus. The line is lifted from episode 122 of Star Trek: Voyager. One of Mandel’s strengths as a novelist is her ability to cast a wistful eye on the seemingly trivial elements of our culture (e.g., a Star Trek episode) and re-cast them through her post-apocalyptic prism so that they achieve a dignity that approaches elegiac.

It’s no surprise that Station Eleven has met with a warm reception from critics and readers alike. The book is animated by a powerful idea: what we consider life reaches well beyond biological necessity. Indeed, the most wanton of conditions may meet the minimum requirements for sustaining biological life while failing to approach what we’d consider wholesome and humane. Siberian labor camps provided basic food and shelter for their prisoners. But only sadists and lunatics would contend that these habitable atrocities constituted an adequate living situation. Sadly, we need not press deeply into history to see examples like this abound. Neither do we need to look to the past alone. Mere survival circumscribes the meager lives of countless men and women across the globe today.

The world of Station Eleven is a place where living to see the light of another day is the highest ideal for most people. Part of the Symphony’s mission is to persuade the world’s weary refugees that they’re more than just survivors, that all those things that exist above the level of survival — music, laughter, joy, rest, a good performance of A Midsummer Night’s Dream — are not just luxuries but constitute a form of nourishment every bit as vital as food.

There’s another reason the Traveling Symphony’s motto sounds familiar. “Because survival is insufficient” is a restating of the phrase, “Man shall not live by bread alone,” which comes from Deuteronomy 8:3. The statement’s most famous exponent, however, is Jesus of Nazareth, who uttered the words in response to Satan’s temptation in the wilderness.

A fiend of impeccable timing, the Devil dangles his enticements before Christ at the tail end of a 40-day fast: “If you are the Son of God, command these stones to become loaves of bread.” Hungry and fatigued, Christ counters the notion that man is a purely material creature with purely material appetites: “Man shall not live by bread alone.” (The atheist philosopher Ludwig Feuerbach perversely altered this formula to reflect his materialist assumptions: “Du bist was du isst.” Translation: “You are what you eat.”)  Compressed into this lapidary phrase is one of the richest meditations on the nature of human life — namely, that a person will starve without meaning just as surely as she will starve without food.

To those who share Mandel’s recognition of the limits of biological survival, Christ says, “I am the bread of life; whoever comes to me shall not hunger, and whoever believes in me shall never thirst (John 6:35).”


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