Two Professors Embarked on an Extended Conversation During the Pandemic
Over the past two years, questions about life and death have become immediate and personal. At the onset of the pandemic, Religion Professor Mark C. Taylor and Jack Miles, professor emeritus of English and religious studies at the University of California, Irvine, embarked on an extended conversation about living and dying in an imperiled world.
The result is A Friendship In Twilight, their pandemic journal. In daily letters, Taylor and Miles reflect on life during overlapping crises, and debate the lessons that can be learned. Their discussions are imbued with a sense of urgency about the worth of a life, the fragility of existence, and the uncertainty of endings. Moving from emotion to philosophical speculation, current events to great art and literature, the book is a testament to an enduring friendship.
Taylor discusses A Friendship in Twilight with Columbia News, along with the reading he’s currently immersed in, and the dinner party he would throw in Germany at the start of the 19th century if he could time travel.
Q. What inspired you to write this book?
A. Jack Miles and I have been close friends ever since we met in 1968, when we were both starting graduate school at Harvard. Over the years, we’ve kept in touch, first by letter and phone, more recently by email. We often talked about writing a book together, and when COVID hit, we decided to write a letter and response to each other every day from March 15, 2020 (the Ides of March) through the November 2020 election. Neither of us missed a day, and we ended up with 1,700 pages, which we have edited down to 500 pages for this book.
Q. Can you give some examples from the book of the lessons that a catastrophe can teach about the future, and about how to live and face death?
A. Jack and I have spent our lives reading, teaching, and writing about religion, philosophy, and art. In our conversation in the book, we explore the lessons of two major themes—death and friendship—that great writers and artists of the past can offer us today.
Suffering life-threatening disease is a humbling experience that reminds you how fragile life is. Acknowledging this vulnerability and accepting death’s inevitability can be liberating, and it opens you to empathetic relationships with other people.
Genuine friendship is a rare gift. Isolation and solitude are not the same—isolation separates, solitude connects. Though often alone and separated by a continent during those long months, our epistolary conversation deepened our friendship.
Q. Do things seem less bleak now than they did while you were working on the book?
A. Though we knew the pandemic would be devastating, we never anticipated that many millions of people globally would contract the disease, and over one million would die in the U.S. This virus is smart and adapts to human intervention faster than humans adapt to it. We started writing about a biological virus, but quickly realized that the body politic and global media are also infected with deadly viruses. The different strains of these viruses are co-evolving at an accelerating rate. Given the political paralysis in this country, and the growing instability of the global financial and political situation, things are so much worse now that it is hard to be hopeful. Hopelessness, however, is a luxury we cannot afford.
Q. What have you read lately that you would recommend, and why?
A. Suzanne Simard’s Finding the Mother Tree: Discovering the Wisdom of the Forest is a well-researched book about plant intelligence that makes you rethink the relationship between human beings and the natural world.
Lee Smolin, Time Reborn: From the Crisis in Physics to the Future of the Universe. A provocative reinterpretation of the most fundamental dimension of life.
Matt Haig, The Midnight Library. An inventive novel of regrets framed in terms of quantum physics and multiple worlds theory.
Q. What's on your night stand now?
A. Since I tend to read all day every day, I don’t keep books on my night stand, but the books beside my desk are: Carlo Rovelli, Reality Is Not What It Seems: The Journey to Quantum Gravity; David Kaiser, How the Hippies Saved Physics; and a novel, Olga Ravn’s The Employees.
Q. What do you read when you're working on a book, and what kind of reading do you avoid while writing?
A. After months, sometimes years, of reading, I will suddenly see the book; it’s a strange experience. At that point, a book more or less writes itself. When in this zone, I read nothing else because reading more can break my rhythm and make me lose the thread.
Q. Any interesting summer plans?
A. I live in the Berkshire Mountains of Massachusetts. This summer I am looking forward to a welcome relief from COVID summers—my children and grandchildren will be returning home. In addition, I have created a philosophical sculpture garden, which requires lots of work. I am beginning the design of a new sculpture.
Q. You're hosting a dinner party. Which three academics or scholars, dead or alive, would you invite, and why?
A. If I could time travel, I would return to Jena in Germany on New Year’s Eve 1803, and throw a dinner party for Immanuel Kant, Johann Wolfgang von Goethe, Friedrich Schiller, Friedrich Schelling, Caroline Schelling, Friedrich Schleiermacher, Friedrich Holderlin, Alexander von Humboldt, the Schlegel brothers, Dorothea von Schlegel, and, above all, G.W.F. Hegel.