The Institute


IT IS MAY OF 2020, and I do not have a brain well suited to this.

I find more and more that I refer to it as “it” and “this” without naming or needing to name, because we are sharing the rare human experience so ubiquitous that the pronouns require no antecedent. Horror and suffering abound in every direction, and I want writing to be a break from it. Still, it makes its way in—like light through window blinds, like floodwater through shut doors.

I suppose you are reading this in my future. Maybe you are reading in a future so distant from my present that “this” is over. I know it will never fully end—the next normal will be different from the last one. But there will be a next normal, and I hope you are living in it, and I hope I am living in it with you.

In the meantime, I have to live in this, and find comfort where I can. For me, lately, comfort has meant a show tune.

In 1909, the Hungarian writer Ferenc Molnár debuted his new play, Liliom, in Budapest. In the play, Liliom, a troubled and periodically violent young carousel barker, falls in love with a woman named Julie. When Julie becomes pregnant, Liliom attempts a robbery to support his burgeoning family, but the robbery is a disaster, and Liliom dies. He ends up in purgatory for sixteen years, after which he is allowed a single day to visit his now-teenaged daughter, Louise.

Liliom flopped in Budapest, but Molnár was not a playwright who suffered from a shortage of self-belief. He continued mounting productions around Europe and then eventually in the U.S., where a 1921 translation of the play attracted good reviews and moderate box office success.

The composer Giacomo Puccini tried to adapt Liliom into an opera, but Molnár refused to sell him the rights, because he wanted “Liliom to be remembered as a play by Molnár, not as an opera by Puccini.” Instead, Molnár sold the rights to Richard Rodgers and Oscar Hammerstein, the musical theater duo who were fresh off the success of Oklahoma! In doing so, Molnár ensured that Liliom would be remembered almost entirely as a musical by Rodgers and Hammerstein, retitled Carousel, which premiered in 1945.

In the musical, Rodgers and Hammerstein’s song “You’ll Never Walk Alone” is sung twice—first to encourage the newly widowed Julie after her husband’s death, and then by Louise’s classmates years later, at a graduation ceremony. Louise doesn’t want to join in the song—she’s too upset—but even though her father is now invisible to her, Louise can feel his presence and encouragement, and so eventually she starts to sing.

The lyrics of “You’ll Never Walk Alone” contain only the most obvious imagery: The song tells us to “walk on through the wind and through the rain,” which is not a particularly clever evocation of a storm. We are also told to “walk on with hope in your heart,” which feels aggressively trite. And it reports that “at the end of the storm, there’s a golden sky and the sweet silver song of a lark.” But in reality, at the end of the storm, there are tree branches strewn everywhere, and downed power lines, and flooded rivers.

And yet, the song works for me. Maybe it’s the repetition of the words “walk on.” I think two of the fundamental facts of being a person are 1. We must go on, and 2. None of us ever walks alone. We may feel alone (in fact, we will feel alone), but even in the crushing grind of isolation, we aren’t alone. Like Louise at her graduation, those who are distant or even gone are still with us, still encouraging us to walk on.

The song has been covered by everyone from Frank Sinatra to Johnny Cash to Aretha Franklin. But the most famous cover came in 1963 from Gerry and the Pacemakers, a band that, like the Beatles, was from Liverpool, managed by Brian Epstein, and recorded by George Martin. In keeping with their band name, the Pacemakers changed the meter of the song, increasing the tempo, giving the dirge a bit of pep, and their version became a #1 hit in the UK.

Fans of Liverpool Football Club almost immediately began to sing the song together during games. That summer, Liverpool’s legendary manager Bill Shankly told the Pacemakers’ lead singer, Gerry Marsden, “Gerry, my son, I have given you a football team, and you have given us a song.”

Today, “You’ll Never Walk Alone” is etched in wrought iron above the gates of Anfield, Liverpool’s stadium. Liverpool’s famous Danish defender Daniel Agger has YNWA tattooed on the knuckles of his right hand. I’ve been a Liverpool fan for decades,* and for me the song is so linked to the club that when I hear the opening notes, I think of all the times I’ve sung it with other fans—sometimes in exaltation, often in lamentation.

When Bill Shankly died in 1981, Gerry Marsden sang “You’ll Never Walk Alone” at the memorial service—as it has been sung at many funerals for many Liverpool supporters. The miracle of “You’ll Never Walk Alone” for me is how well it works as a funeral song, and as a high school graduation song, and as a we-just-beat-Barcelona-in-the-Champions-League song. As former Liverpool player and manager Kenny Dalglish said, “It covers adversity and sadness and it covers the success.” It’s a song about sticking together even when your dreams are tossed and blown. It’s a song about both the storm and the golden sky.

At first blush, it may seem odd that the world’s most popular football song comes from musical theater. But football is theater, and fans make it musical theater. The anthem of West Ham United is called “I’m Forever Blowing Bubbles,” and at the start of each game, you’ll see thousands of grown adults blowing bubbles from the stands as they sing, “I’m forever blowing bubbles, pretty bubbles in the air / They fly so high, nearly reach the sky / Then like my dreams, they fade and die.” Manchester United fans refashioned Julia Ward Howe’s U.S. Civil War anthem “Battle Hymn of the Republic” into the song “Glory, Glory Man United.” Manchester City fans sing “Blue Moon,” a 1934 Rodgers and Hart number.

All these songs are made great by the communities singing them. They are assertions of unity in sorrow and unity in triumph: Whether the bubble is flying or bursting, we sing together.

“You’ll Never Walk Alone” is cheesy, but it’s not wrong. The song doesn’t claim the world is a just or happy place. It just asks us to walk on with hope in our hearts. And like Louise at the end of Carousel, even if you don’t really believe in the golden sky or the sweet silver song of the lark when you start singing, you believe it a little more when you finish.

In March 2020, a video made the rounds online in which a group of British paramedics sang “You’ll Never Walk Alone” through a glass wall to coworkers on the other side, who were in an intensive care unit. The paramedics were trying to encourage their colleagues. What a word that is, en-courage. Though our dreams be tossed and blown, still we sing ourselves and one another into courage.

I give “You’ll Never Walk Alone” four and a half stars.

This book is a compilation of essays

written for my favorite podcast, which bears the same name. While I had expected that there would be a third of the book that was new essays, or at least a fourth, in the end, it was mostly the same ones I’d heard before with one or two new ones and slight adjustments. For me, an avid fan of John Green’s earnest and heartfelt approach to finding hope amidst sorrow and existentialism, it was a bit of a letdown not to have more new hope to hold onto to and illumine the way. But I must now decide how I rate a book, and why? Is it a review of my engagement of the material, in which I’d give it a four because it was still fun to revisit all those essays and ideas again if a little disappointing? Or is it the review I’d give to someone who has not engaged with The Anthropocene Reviewed at all, in which case I’d eagerly take my copy off my shelf and thrust it into their hands and demand they take it home and read it nearly immediately?

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