So there is no longer any truth. The Oxford Dictionary has declared “post-truth” its 2016 word of the year. A prominent political commentator recently declared in a serious way that “there are no such things as facts” (The Atlantic). Bob Dylan won the Nobel Prize in Literature, then proceeded to not respond to the Swedish Academy, and has now sent a speech to be read at the awards ceremony which he says he cannot attend. In the meantime, Leonard Cohen died. And, of course, in a thoroughly unexpected and seemingly epochal turn of events, Donald J. Trump was elected President of the United States of America.
Election day—despite what Uncle Gary might have told you at Thanksgiving dinner, and will probably tell you again at Christmas—was a surprise for a lot of people. For a lot of people, including me, it was also difficult. It was hard talking to my sister, and hearing how worried she was for the future of women in our society. Hearing that my good friend was spat on three times, just off of SMU’s campus. Walking by the MCG house and seeing their banner and filling with pride and love for my school and my friends—and then seeing that same banner trampled not a day later. Whatever people chalk it up to, however quick people are to dismiss such things as “only a few bad eggs” or “only affecting a few people” or “only temporary” or “not so bad,” they affected my friends and family and me, and—make no mistake—they were realer than the blood on split knuckles when you punch a brick wall, realer than the numbness in your ears when you walk in the cold without a hat. My sense of things, my sense of the truth (whatever that was ever supposed to mean), was challenged. I was not so sure of the world and of my fellow people as I once was.
What I thought about on election day was this: what can I do? What must I do? In response to a post-truth era, how can we not ask ourselves: where do we go from here, where can we go, where must we go?
I turned, on election night, to poetry, to Keats’s great poem “Ode on a Grecian Urn.” I thought about the power of the imagination to render the chaos of our world intelligible, of its power to resist and stand up and change things. I thought of the yearning Keats expresses for something more than what we already have, more than we logically know we can ever have: “Heard melodies are sweet, but those unheard / Are sweeter; therefore, ye soft pipes, play on.” I knew, that night, that Keats probably won’t ever change the world in the way we usually think of “effecting change”—creating concrete, large-scale political change. But he changed my world when I needed it, and there’s a lot of power in that.
More recently, I continue to find solace in art. SMUST’s fabled production 10 Bitches and a Stage, which took a more serious and somber tone this year (while still remaining uproariously funny and consistently well-acted) reminded me of the power of coming together in a tightly-packed room full of strangers to laugh, to be moved, to experience the ultimate vulnerability of performance and thus become more vulnerable ourselves. The recent Meadows symphony performance reminded me of the power of experiencing music—ranging from the joyous to the sobering—surrounded by other listeners who are all moved together, in the same directions.
I think of the things we make, the things we create to share with others. For me, this past year and a half, Hilltopics has been at the top of my list of “things I make.” As I look back on that time, I’m filled with a joy and pride that I know will stay with me for the rest of my life. I undertook the editorship with a mission, to make Hilltopics a real force in the campus discussion, to make it something real, something with purpose and strength and style, something to be proud of. With the help of an amazing team and the trust and support of too many to name, it’s become more than I ever dreamed it would.
I’m studying abroad at Cambridge in the spring, so I’ll be stepping away from Hilltopics for some time. As I reflect on going away, I’m reminded, particularly at this time of year, of Wallace Stevens’s great, late poem, in which he says this: “After the leaves have fallen / We return to a plain sense of things.” My hope is that I, and all of us, can return to some “plain sense of things” following the turmoil of recent events, and in spite of the turmoil that persists on a daily basis. The holiday is always a good time for this, and it’s my sincere hope that this issue of Hilltopics, too, might help us to see things in a clearer and plainer light. If nothing else, I hope the inaugural art insert changes your world today, even in the smallest of ways, and I’m sure it will.
I have to give special thanks to Dr. Doyle and Ms. Spaniolo, who’ve given me a long leash with this project from the get-go, despite my naiveté and occasional over-ambition, and to Dr. Harris, who has given crucial support to Hilltopics and gotten the word out to alumni. To Camille, you are a saint and a savior. Thanks for putting up with my shenanigans with grace and humor, and for holding me to the highest standard of excellence. I’ll miss working with you tremendously. To the staff: I love you all, for your dedication to good writing and to the causes you believe in so profoundly, and for having the courage to share that dedication. Never let anyone, including yourself, belittle the importance of what you do here, in these pages. It matters more than you know.
Finally, in the post-truth era, I would suggest that there might yet be truth to be salvaged. Truth we tend to overlook, undervalue, take for granted. Truth that, if polished up, might become a beacon for something new. Truth that isn’t authoritarian, or manipulative, or dogmatic, or traditional.
I’m thinking of the meaning and pleasure of simply being and sharing and living with other people. Of the redemptive quality of being with other human bodies, of touching them, talking to them, loving them. A year ago, I was preparing to travel to Poland on the Holocaust Pilgrimage. At Treblinka, where some 800,000 people were systematically murdered, faced with the most unfaceable darkness I have ever encountered, I began to cry. It was the most alone I have ever felt. And yet I was embraced—saved—by a friend of mine, who gave me one of the most important hugs of my life, who reminded me that despite the loneliness and emptiness of human existence, we are here, after all of it, with other people.
That’s what I feel most in the theatre and the concert hall, while reading a poem or writing an article. The feeling of whispering into the void, Is anybody there? and not expecting an answer. The truth, then, in being surprised, in our moments of greatest solitude, to find that someone, somewhere, will answer us in return, in unexpected ways and places. The truth, “after the leaves have fallen,” in being grateful that we are still in this world together.