The Novel Cure: Literary prescriptions for hubris

Ella Berthoud,Susan Elderkin,Bibliotherapists
Wednesday 09 September 2015 14:27

Ailment: Hubris

Cure Station Eleven by Emily St John Mandel

Back in the day, an individual suffering from hubris – overly confident or impressed with him or herself – would receive a severe put-down from the gods. Nowadays, we must depend on our peers to correct us when we get too cocky. But where do we go for our put-downs if, in these days of technical audacity, hubris has infected us all? To literature, of course – and post-apocalyptic novels such as Emily St John Mandel's Station Eleven.

When world-famous heartthrob, Arthur Leander, suffers a fatal heart attack while playing King Lear on stage in Toronto, everyone is in shock. But Leander's death turns out to be only the prelude to a disaster of far more epic proportions. A fatal strain of flu with a terrifyingly short incubation period is sweeping the world. Told of its spread as he tries to resuscitate Leander, trainee paramedic Jeevan stocks up on essentials, filling seven trolleys at a cornershop. Then, holed up in a penthouse flat, he watches as civilisation implodes.

Fast forward 20 years and we find a very different world. Countries, as such, do not exist and modern technology is inoperative. People scavenge and murder to survive. A prophet emerges who takes brides against their will, while claiming the "collapse" was God's way of purging humanity of its arrogance, his own hubris a twisted echo of Leander's. But there is also Kristen who, as an eight-year-old, shared the stage with Leander in Toronto. As she recalls the end of the old world in flashbacks, she and a travelling troupe perform Shakespeare in an attempt to salvage the best of humanity's legacy.

Read this novel to remind yourself of all that is worth preserving from the realms of art, and our better natures. But also to ward against the feelings of omnipotence. What is there to be proud about if all – or nearly all – is so easily lost? µ

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