Nevil Shute’s _On The Beach_ And Normative Epistemology

The first reading in my Philosophical Issues in Literature class this semester–which focuses on the post-apocalyptic novel–is Nevil Shute‘s On The Beach. I expected, more often than not, moral, ethical, and political issues to be picked up on in classroom discussions; I was pleasantly surprised to find out that the very first class meeting–on Monday–honed in on an epistemic issue, more specifically, one of normative epistemology: What should we believe? Are beliefs that comfort us–but that are otherwise without adequate evidentiary foundation–good ones? Can they ever be? Under what circumstances?

Dwight Towers, the American Navy submarine captain, is one of those unfortunates who have, thanks to nuclear war, lost their all–their homes, their families–in the northern hemisphere. In Towers’ case, this means his home in Connecticut, and his wife and child. Indeed, this loss provokes his host in Australia, Peter Holmes, to take the precaution of arranging extra companionship–as distraction–for him when Holmes invites Towers to his home for dinner. But Towers does not seem to regard his family as lost. As he attends a church service, Shute grants us access to his thoughts about home:

He would be going back to them in September, home from his travels. He would see them all again in less than nine months time. They must not feel, when he rejoined them, that he was out of touch, or that he had forgotten things that were important in their lives. Junior must have grown quite a bit; kids did at that age.

Later, Shute does the same with Moira Davidson, his new-found female friend in Melbourne, who has seen the photographs of his family in his cabin:

She had known for some time that his wife and family were very real to him, more real by far than the half-life in a far corner of the world that had been forced upon him since the war.  The devastation of the northern hemisphere was not real to him, as it was not real to her. He had seen nothing of the destruction of the war, as she had not; in thinking of his wife and his home it was impossible for him to visualise them in any other circumstances than those in which he had left them. He had little imagination, and that formed a solid core for his contentment in Australia.

Towers makes this explicit:

“I suppose you think I’m nuts,” he said heavily. “But that’s the way I see it, and I can’t seem to think about it any other way.”

These reflections bring us, as should be evident, to the CliffordJames debate. I have taught that debate before–in introductory philosophy classes and in philosophy of religion. The discussions–and judgments–it provokes are often quite illuminating; Monday’s was no exception. The novelistic embedding available here, of course, also enabled a segue into the broader ethics of ‘coping strategies’ and escapism like, for instance, Moira Davidson’s palliative heavy drinking.

I  expect this issue to recur during this semester’s discussions; I look forward to seeing how my students respond to the varied treatments of it that my reading list will afford them.

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