Station Eleven is about a traveling troupe of Shakespearean actors and classical musicians. They call themselves the Traveling Symphony. Their world has been devastated by a flu-like pandemic, and civilization has all but collapsed. Navigating a post-apocalyptic world with small settlements of people scattered across the barren landscape, they find instruments and supplies in abandoned houses.
Most people today would wonder why, of all the things, these survivors try to keep alive the traditions of Shakespeare and Beethoven. Isn’t there something more important to do? Shouldn’t they be trying to rebuild the internet? The electrical grid? Something practical? Maybe so, infrastructure is certainly important. But the idea driving these fictional characters is that there is more to life than just surviving.
Life is more than a full belly and a warm bed. The author sums it up nicely in the troupe’s motto, “Survival is Insufficient.” It is not enough for them to merely remain alive. They keep music alive, not because it makes life easier, but because it makes life worth living. The pursuit of beauty, of expression, in spite of hardship, is what makes them human. Their struggle recalls the music makers who went through the Holocaust, through the Rwandan genocide, and who are refugees in Syria even now. Even in our darkest times, it seems we cannot be silenced. We make music.
The earliest musical instrument is 40,000 years old. Some scientists think that music is even older than language. It would be enthralling to hear those ancient songs; music older than the Pyramids, older than writing, the wheel! It would probably sound strange to our modern ears, but it would be an expression of those people, what they felt, and how they lived.
We all have within us the need to express something that words cannot. This is where all art erupts from, including music. It makes us feel alive. Music has a wealth of effects that improves brain function and makes us more intelligent. However, if we study music only because it may raise your IQ three points or give a 26 point increase in SAT math scores, we have missed the point entirely.
Music isn’t intended to create marginally better people who have no appreciation for the art of it. True involvement in music will deepen our sense of humanity and create a wholly better society. It connects us across time and space to our ancestors, our peers, and to ourselves. Survival is insufficient because art creates a life worth living.