Friday, February 12, 2016

In Defense of Bubbles

The bubble of college: it’s denounced everywhere, or at least lovingly mocked. Bowdoin isn’t real life, I’m told. It’s just a small town in the middle of Maine, where you go to be comfortably insulated from the difficulties of the wider world in order to focus on academics, hobbies, and lovemaking.

I don’t want to dispute this picture of a small liberal arts college. By and large their inhabitants are free from the ordinary worries of people who work for a living. These students are surrounded by hundreds of like-minded people, and they run across their dozens of friends daily without having to make plans. They are surrounded by mossy woods and hills. They get up late, and drink with company on a Wednesday. There are neither taxes nor death.

Is this a bubble? Of course! I only propose that there is really nothing wrong with living in it if you can. And I don’t just mean college. “Bubble” usually gets used to describe a university, a summer camp, or some similar institution, but what I’m describing can exist outside of those places. Anywhere, that is, where you’re ensconced in a comfortable circle of people whom you know intimately and love. Geography is important too: a bubbled-in life is usually lived in woods, streets, or fields that you love as an extension of your own self.

One of the best examples of a bubble is a family. Not a modern family, whose scattered members live in Cincinnati, Seattle, and Toronto, but the sort of family you’d have lived in before the industrial revolution: you lived next door to your grandparents, all your cousins and second cousins, and your nieces and nephews. Your ancestors lived in your house, and your neighbors’ ancestors in theirs. If you ever had to leave, you’d think bitterly about what you’d lost for the rest of your life. These are the conditions for meaning in life: not finding the solution to some abstract philosophical riddle, but finding yourself among human beings to whom you’re bound by love and nature.

I don’t just want to say that bubbles are better than no bubbles. That’s obvious. I also want to rebut the bizarre idea that what’s inside a bubble is somehow fake, and that what’s outside is the ‘real world,’ whatever that is.

E. M. Forster, who’s just about taught me how to live, is the one to listen to on this point:
“Where is the great world?”... exclaimed Ansell, rising from his couch in violent excitement. “Where is it? How do you set about finding it? How long does it take to get there? What does it think? What does it do? What does it want? Oblige me with specimens of its art and literature.” Silence. “Till you do, my opinions will be as follows: There is no great world at all, only a little earth, for ever isolated from the rest of the little solar system. The earth is full of tiny societies, and Cambridge is one of them. All the societies are narrow, but some are good and some are bad—just as one house is beautiful inside and another ugly. Observe the metaphor of the houses: I am coming back to it. The good societies say, `I tell you to do this because I am Cambridge.’ The bad ones say, ‘I tell you to do that because I am the great world, not because I am ‘Peckham,’ or ‘Billingsgate,’ or ‘Park Lane,’ but ‘because I am the great world.’ They lie. And fools like you listen to them, and believe that they are a thing which does not exist and never has existed, and confuse ‘great,’ which has no meaning whatever, with ‘good,’ which means salvation. Look at this great wreath: it’ll be dead tomorrow. Look at that good flower: it’ll come up again next year. Now for the other metaphor. To compare the world to Cambridge is like comparing the outsides of houses with the inside of a house. No intellectual effort is needed, no moral result is attained. You only have to say, ‘Oh, what a difference!’ and then come indoors again and exhibit your broadened mind.” 
 —The Longest Journey, one page or another
There is real wisdom here. One speaks of ‘the real world’ as if it were a place you could enter immediately upon leaving the fantasy of the bubble you happen to be in at the moment. But it’s a mirage. You won’t go to the real world when you leave Bowdoin: you might go down to Boston to work for a consulting firm there, but Boston has no deeper claim on reality than Bowdoin. It’s gray, it suffers, and it’s filled with hundreds of thousands of strangers, but those things don’t amount to reality. That is a tempting lie. They do mean that Boston is not a bubble; if you do live in Boston, happiness requires making a bubble of your own. Otherwise you can’t breathe.

After all, what is real human life? It is spent in the company of a few people you understand, and who understand you. It is spent in a world that cares about you, and which you care about. It cannot be lived adrift in an ocean of people and places that you don’t know.

There’s one obvious objection: am I not excluding the possibility of adventure? Doesn’t a bubble quickly become stale and confined? Exactly the opposite! There is nothing wrong with leaving a bubble to go on an adventure. An adventure, after all, is only an adventure if it’s an expedition from some known land into the unknown waste. The adventurer sees strange-eyed constellations and wild rivers. He roves all over the earth, and then he returns home. But here’s the key: adventures are only possible if there is a home to return to. Otherwise you’re not adventuring: you’re wandering. If you have no green England to return to, then all constellations are strange, and every country is equally alien, equally unreal. Bubbles give adventures their point, just like adventures give bubbles theirs.

But the basic point is this: the wide world is the unreal world, because there is no love there. Only bubbles are real. Life, when it comes down to it, can really only be lived in them; outside we die for lack of love and warmth.

We will all have to leave a bubble for the wide world eventually: the bubble is life, and the wide world is darkness in the grave. Until that happens, it’s better to live and breathe while we can on the warm earth, bound up in little brotherhoods, which some slanderers have called a fiction.

The best example.

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