Seven years ago, Sept. 11, 2001, we all remember where we were and with whom and what we were doing. I was rushing off for my 9:25 AM class; it was my first semester as a tenure-track professor. Teaching John Donne in a class (17th Century British lit) otherwise full of obscurities has this bonus: so many of his phrases—how, should I put this—ring a bell. We all know “for whom the bell tolls; it tolls for thee,” as well as “no man is an island.” And though we might owe their familiarity to titles of best-sellers, or movies, or song lyrics, both phrases actually come from the same paragraph of an eloquent meditation on death and the meaning of suffering.
Mind you, none of us knew the second Tower was hit or even that the first was a fireball. So, while horror visited the most populated island of our country, we puzzled out what Donne meant: “No man is an island, entire of itself; every man is a piece of the continent, a part of the main.” That line is so contrary to our American heritage as hearty individualists, so contrary to the self-sufficient Appalachian spirit with which many of my students were born and bred. But Donne explains why another’s suffering is always shared: “any man’s death diminishes me, because I am involved in mankind, and therefore never send to know for whom the bell tolls; it tolls for thee.” His logic seems a bit far-fetched—after all another’s death does not mean one is about to die—until we remember that Donne writes from a sick-bed, one from which he never thought he’d recover. When he heard that bell tolling, he was not sure it wasn’t for his own funeral.
But even if the bell was not intended to signal his own death, Donne insists that any man’s death diminishes him. We are diminished by another’s death to the extent that we are “involved in mankind.” It is not family or philosophy or faith that binds us. We do not even choose this fellowship, for we are born into it. It is a community of suffering—an honest recognition of our human condition. We are all each a “man of constant sorrow,” as the old bluegrass standard puts it. And my students readily recognized this other strand of the American spirit—solidarity in suffering.
Donne takes his meditation a step further: “affliction is a treasure,” which no one has “enough that is not matured and ripened by it.” From what he thought was his death-bed, Donne is not sure what form this maturity and ripening will take but he makes his recourse to Providence. He would have no part of that useless suffering that only leads to self-pity and despair. With this choice of two paths to take when meeting affliction, my class and I stepped out into a terrorized world of tolling bells.