This is the YOLO-ization of cultural experience, whereby the pursuit of fleeting novelty is granted greater value than a patient dedication to an enduring attention—an attention which might ultimately enlarge the self, and not just pad one’s experiential résumé. The notion of the bucket list legitimizes this diminished conception of the value of repeated exposure to art and culture. Rather, it privileges a restless consumption, a hungry appetite for the new. I’ve seen Stonehenge. Next?
As popularly conceived, however, the bucket list is far from being a reckoning with the weight of love in extremis, or an ethical or moral accounting. More often, it partakes of a commodification of cultural experience, in which every expedition made, and every artwork encountered, is reduced to an item on a checklist to be got through, rather than being worthy of repeated or extended engagement. Dropping by Stonehenge for ten minutes and then announcing you’ve crossed it off your bucket list suggests that seeing Stonehenge—or beholding the Taj Mahal, or visiting the Louvre, or observing a pride of lions slumbering under a tree in the Maasai Mara—is something that, having been done, can be considered done with.
Essay research is difficult enough for the most student, and that’s only after a topic has been generated. It would be so much easier to get through the writing process if the school came up with a list of topics to choose from, but that isn’t always the case. Now, composing that all important e...
What if, instead, we compiled a different kind of list, not of goals to be crossed out but of touchstones to be sought out over and over, with our understanding deepening as we draw nearer to death? These places, experiences, or cultural objects might be those we can only revisit in remembrance—we may never get back to the Louvre—but that doesn’t mean we’re done with them. The greatest artistic and cultural works, like an unaccountable sun rising between ancient stones, are indelible, with the power to induce enduring wonder if we stand still long enough to see.
Whence the appeal of the bucket list? To stop and think about the things one hopes to do, the person one hopes to be, is a useful and worthwhile exercise; to do so with a consciousness of one’s own unpredictable mortality can be a sobering reckoning, as theologians and philosophers recognized long before Workman Publishing got in on the act. That life is nothing more than a preparation for death is a commonplace in religious systems of all stripes. In premodern times, when death was a far more proximate inevitability than it can seem to be today, cherishing the prospect of celestial transcendence might well provide relief from quotidian suffering—even more so than harboring the hope of learning to skydive buoys the bored individual of today. But the consolations of the contemporary bucket list, too, can be far from trivial, even if some of the items to be found therein might seem so. Millions have watched a short video of Robin Williams sending greetings to a twenty-one-year-old New Zealand woman with terminal cancer, whose bucket list reportedly included not just the wish to meet the actor but the aspiration of living long enough to see her infant daughter’s first birthday.
Given the daunting agenda of international crises—in Ukraine, Syria, Iraq—with which world leaders contended at the NATO summit in Newport, Wales, last week, it is forgivable that President Obama chose to indulge in a little cultural tourism before departing from the U.K. At the summit’s close, the President had his helicopter stop by Boscombe Down Air Force Base in Wiltshire, so that he and his motorcade could make the twenty-minute drive to Stonehenge. He strode jacketless around the monument’s weathered, lichen-covered stones, and listened earnestly to the site’s English Heritage curator. “Knocked it off the bucket list right now,” he told watching reporters before returning to his car and to Washington, an hour behind his official schedule.