Notes from Inside
In the Petri Dish
April 2, 2020
MONROE, WASHINGTON—In prison, anything resembling fear must be rejected, because fear is weakness and weakness is unacceptable. So here at the Monroe Correctional Complex in Washington State, talk about coronavirus has been mostly dismissive, and the sound of coughing has become a precursor to jokes, rather than panic. The cells are spaced a foot apart, and by far the smallest in the state, with bars rather than doors and hardly enough room for one person to move around, despite the fact that two are often crammed into them. We hear every sneeze, every yawn—sometimes I even hear a neighbor a few houses down scratching a pencil over a pad of paper.
But since it was revealed three weeks ago that a guard had tested positive for COVID-19, and two living units were put on a ten-day quarantine, what’s been rarely heard is coughing. This could be because even the clearing of a throat is unfailing followed by “Coronavirus!” and then laughter. But a walk along the tiers gives you the impression that laughing is the last thing any of us want to be doing. Just about every television is tuned to one of three world news stations, and concerned eyes watch as ice-skating rinks are cleared out and tents erected in hospital parking lots to store bodies because the morgues are too full.
This building is over a hundred years old, and reminiscent of a medieval castle, with a fifty-foot chipping concrete wall surrounding the entire compound. The heating system is outdated and obsolete, causing the six-by-nine-foot living units to become unbearably hot in the summer, and cold in the winter, and their two hundred residents to breathe the same air and share every virus that finds its way in, usually via Department of Corrections staff. For the purpose of this narrative, let us call the living units at Monroe Correctional Complex the petri dish.
I worked as a personal trainer prior to my incarceration, and at 34 years old I’m still in peak physical condition. I don’t shake hands when I know people are sick, and as I’m not keen on having my fitness regimen disturbed, I take every precaution to avoid becoming ill myself. Yet in the three-plus years that I’ve spent here at MCC, I’ve managed to contract every seasonal cold that’s gone around, and only avoided flu because I get the yearly vaccine. Some of my neighbors take the opposite approach, making a point to catch whatever’s currently being passed from hand to hand, so they can get it over with, as it’s inevitable they’ll catch it eventually anyway.
In response to the pandemic, the Department of Corrections has begun enforcing social-distancing regulations, which at first sight may resemble those being implemented in society, but on closer examination will more than likely speed up the almost inevitable outbreak in this facility. One such measure has been to limit the number of individuals allowed in the yard and the gym, which happen to be the two places where social distancing is easiest. MCC houses eight hundred prisoners, and with visitation canceled and every educational, religious or self-help program put on hold due to the virus, allowing only two hundred residents in the designated recreation areas at a time means five hundred sitting in the petri dish, laughing at coughs, watching the news and waiting to be added to the number on our television screens.
In the dining halls, we’re being ordered to sit one to a table, and to all face in the same direction, which in theory might not be a bad idea if it weren’t for the fact that in order to enforce these regulations, the guards stand around in groups so close to each other that they’re almost touching. With no visitors, teachers or volunteers allowed beyond the wall, COVID-19 has one likely way inside: by hitching a ride with one of them. It seems that if the goal were truly to halt any potential spread, social distancing would start with the most probable carriers.
But if the prison’s recent reputation for its medical practices is any indication of what’s to come as this pandemic continues to crescendo, then maybe laughter is the best medicine we can hope for. In 2019, MCC’s medical director was fired for misconduct after several patients died under her supervision, one from a respiratory illness for which he was refused treatment. It was discovered during the ensuing investigation that she hadn’t completed an approved residency, nor was she board-certified. To date, it’s nearly impossible to see a doctor, and even in extreme cases, a trip to the medical wing renders little more than a checkup with a nurse practitioner.
I live in one of the two units that was let off quarantine only days ago, and even as I sit at my desk within the petri dish and write this, I’m hearing that the inevitable may have just become a reality. The other two units are being locked down because an inmate is showing “severe symptoms.” Sadly, this person has likely been moved to a solitary location where he’ll be given the same treatment as prisoners who’ve been placed in segregation for behavioral issues. For the next ten to fourteen days, those residing in his and the neighboring units will be allowed out of their cells once daily for a shower and a thirty-minute phone call. The rest of their time will be spent in their personal hot boxes, laughing when somebody coughs, watching as the death toll continues to rise around the world, and wondering how long it will be before a tent is erected in our parking lot.
April 2, 2020
NEW DELHI, INDIA—My sister came to visit me in New Delhi, where I’ve been living and working for a magazine since July, in the beginning of March, arriving just under the rapidly-lowering viral wire. By end of February there were intimations of what was to come: a few deaths from cases of COVID-19 at a nursing home in the Seattle suburbs, not far from where my parents live. As I showed my sister how things worked, and didn’t, in Delhi, we took the necessary precautions: we washed our hands regularly, tried not to touch our faces and decided not to go to Kerala, where a few cases of coronavirus had been purportedly well contained. At the last minute, we booked tickets for four days on a quiet beach in Goa.
We landed in Goa still in innocent times, though barely—our biggest concern was that it suddenly looked like Bernie Sanders was going to lose the Democratic primary. We were the last ones to arrive at the beach, but the old snowbirds from Europe still wandered around in crowds while groups of young women from the U.K. lounged after their annual yoga retreat. It was the end of tourist season anyway, but it was clear that people had started to stop traveling. Walking up and down the beach, palm trees covering rocky outcroppings and the ocean fading from bright to icy blue, we checked the news from Twitter. The numbers of cases in the U.S. and the U.K. began to explode: countries had begun to close their borders and shut down their cities. On the last night, when we called our parents, the thought that we might not see them again intruded.
But when, after a paranoid, hand-sanitized flight back to Delhi, we arrived back at my apartment, my roommate—a staff writer at the magazine I work for, who grew up in Rajasthan—seemed almost unfazed, as did his girlfriend, a criminal defense lawyer from Delhi. The numbers in India were low, and community transmission hadn’t been confirmed; the problem was still far away. My sister flew back to the U.K., and I withdrew into the apartment, a Twitter-addled émigré traveling back to the United States through my phone screen. My roommate and his girlfriend were still talking about other news—the surprise appointment of India’s disgraced ex-chief justice to the upper house of the parliament and the violent anti-Muslim pogroms that had erupted in the northeast of the city a few weeks earlier.
I’d spent the year trying to integrate into India as the country unraveled: first Kashmir locked down, then statelessness imposed on a group of Bengalis in Assam, then a discriminatory act passed that threatened to revoke citizenship from Muslims in the country, then the protests against the act and the police retaliation, then mob violence. But as my Instagram feed filled with pictures of empty cities and the inside of people’s apartments in the U.S., my attachments came flooding back. Suddenly the fractured concert of my internet was synchronizing into a fever pitch: the maps on nytimes.com bled red, predicting death.
Life in Delhi had hardly changed yet, but Americans in India had already begun a mass exodus home. Narendra Modi had banned all incoming international flights for the week, and travel out was about to get more difficult. But I wanted to stay. If I was going to withdraw, it felt right to do so here, where withdrawal felt less like a stranger to me. If the world was going to end around me, I didn’t want it to be my own world.
On Tuesday, March 24th, at 8 p.m., Modi announced that a full lockdown of the country was going to be put in place by midnight, with no flights, no trains, no buses, no taxis, sealed internal borders and 1.3 billion people asked to stay indoors. In the next days, videos showed that police were hitting those who disobeyed the quarantine orders with batons; one man in West Bengal died from the wounds. Images of “internal migrants” walking hundreds of miles by foot marked the lockdown as not only ineffective, but as a rapidly unfolding humanitarian disaster. In Goa, where I’d visited a few weeks before, the state government had taken things to an extreme, shutting down grocery stores and markets and leaving locals and stranded tourists to starve.
By contrast, my days didn’t seem so painful. I didn’t mind staying in the apartment; there was part of me that found it more relaxing than navigating Delhi. I did things: push-ups, readings, Hindi classes via Skype, long stretches of Tetris while watching lectures on Buddhism on YouTube. I worked more. I started to write short articles about coronavirus for the magazine’s website, picking up assignments from a public health journalist. Better to be locked here than in my childhood bedroom, I convinced myself. Here, at least I was a journalist: these things happened to journalists, or so I’d heard. My dad told me to keep a diary, like it was Sarajevo in ’93.
I was feeling invincible, or at least numb, on March 31st, as I walked my roommate out to the main road to pick up a few groceries from his girlfriend, who was stopping by to ferry him back to her place. But on our way out, our path was blocked by a truck carrying a large blue tanker. Men in hazmat suits surrounded the vehicle, carrying hoses. We walked around the crowd, and I walked back to the apartment, where I read online that, two weeks ago, a 4,000-person gathering at a mosque on the other side of my neighborhood had been a hub of coronavirus transmission. An international search was underway to track the attendees, and anti-Islamic sentiment was flaring. It was all the Indian half of my internet was talking about.
I closed my laptop. Outside my apartment’s window, the truck rolled by, and a man wielding a fat blue hose sprayed a mist of disinfectant onto the pavement and the sides of buildings. As I watched, I felt a familiar terror, envisioning the red circles of the New York Times map reaching out to meet me where I sat.
The Day After
April 2, 2020
STATE COLLEGE, PENNSYLVANIA—You have been living in close quarters with your family for weeks, wondering if your supplies of canned goods and fresh water will see you through. Your days are an enervating mix of boredom and intense anxiety. Your nights are sleepless, but then, it’s hard to tell day from night anyway.
It is 1962. The world has been shattered by an all-out nuclear exchange between the superpowers. You are in your backyard bunker, which you built with the help of the federal Community Fallout Shelter Program.
I grew up haunted by the prospect of nuclear apocalypse. It involved constant low-level dread and the occasional nightmare, something like the vision of Linda Hamilton clutching the chain-link fence of a playground as the blast wave of an atomic bomb sweeps over the landscape in Terminator 2: Judgment Day. Born in 1961, I have no memory of the Cuban Missile Crisis, but I nevertheless had the chance to flip the fuck out at eighteen (having just registered for the draft in order to retain my student financial aid) when newly-elected President Reagan announced, over the objections of Secretary of State Al Haig, that he would consider countering a hypothetical Soviet invasion of West Germany with a tactical nuclear strike. I spent much of the Eighties keeping track of the superpower chess match involving U.S. Pershing II missiles and Soviet SS-20s, particularly with regard to the dispute over whether the Pershing had a range that could reach Moscow. If it could, as the Soviets insisted, they would have all of six minutes to determine whether a launch had been correctly detected and to decide whether to respond—a scenario right out of Fail-Safe.
Reagan insisted that the Soviet Union was an evil empire, and that we would defend ourselves from it with a Strategic Defense Initiative nicknamed “Star Wars”; and there were those of us who thought that Reagan was not particularly knowledgeable about the nuclear arsenal at his disposal, and not sufficiently aware of what his rhetorical and tactical escalations might provoke. Our fears were not unfounded.
The Cuban Missile Crisis has since become a kind of shorthand for the era of mutually assured destruction. Whew, we think, there was that one time we came close to nuclear war, but thank goodness we dodged that bullet. By contrast, few people remember the Able Archer crisis in 1983, when an elaborate NATO simulation of World War III was interpreted by many Soviet military officials as being the real thing.
Able Archer unfolded in November 1983; as Cold War happenstance would have it, the TV movie The Day After aired later the same month, spinning out a scenario very much like that of Able Archer. Armageddon starts with Soviet maneuvers in East Germany, a blockade of West Berlin, and… tactical nuclear strikes to prevent the Soviet invasion of Western Europe from reaching France.
I refused to watch The Day After, missing out on what 100 million of my fellow Americans tuned into, because I didn’t want to know anything about the day after. I had just moved to Charlottesville, Virginia for graduate school, having spent my first 22 years in New York. In New York, I imagined, I would be vaporized by any Soviet nuclear strike aimed at population centers (as opposed to the “decapitation” strategy that would focus on military and political command centers). That was how I imagined dying, best-case scenario: quickly and (relatively) painlessly. Further from Ground Zero, people would die by having buildings fall on them, perhaps. Beyond that, there would be the hell of radiation poisoning and slow, excruciating death. That was what I thought Charlottesville would have in store for me, too far from Washington, D.C. or the naval base in Norfolk to be a strategic target. My worst nightmare in those years involved herding a bunch of children into the basement of a school as the war began, knowing that this would do precisely nothing to protect them or me from a horrible lingering death.
Since the fall of the Soviet Union, some of our nuclear apocalypses have been rebooted as viral/biological disasters, like I Am Legend and Planet of the Apes; Terry Gilliam’s 1995 film 12 Monkeys was well ahead of the curve, reimagining the experimental short French film La Jetée as a viral apocalypse launched by a single person, a scientist who believes (not without reason) that in wiping out humanity he is saving the rest of the biosphere.
But 12 Monkeys is a minority report, insofar as the plague is planned. In most versions, viral apocalypses are nothing like nuclear apocalypses: you don’t need a superpower’s weapons arsenal at your disposal. You don’t need any agents at all, any intentions, any Able Archers or Ronald Reagans or Doctor Strangeloves or General Jack D. Rippers.
I don’t have any nostalgia for the good old days of nuclear terror. But to borrow Raymond Williams’s wonderfully elastic phrase, we knew what the “structure of feeling” of nuclear terror was like: the Cold War pervaded everything from 1945 to 1990, in a closed binary system that, despite the constant low-level dread and the occasional nightmare, seemed readily comprehensible. Don DeLillo’s Underworld is the ambivalent elegy for that era. Near the end of the novel, waste management executive Nick Shay is chatting with Viktor Maltsev, his Russian counterpart, at the infamous Kazakh test site. “Viktor,” he asks, surveying the wreckage of history, “does anyone remember why we were doing all this?”
“Yes, for contest,” Maltsev deadpans. “You won, we lost. You have to tell me how it feels. Big winner.”
Twenty-three years after the publication of Underworld, we’re no longer sure who really won the Cold War. But it was a story with a powerful narrative arc, and what great characters that story gave us: Khrushchev. Kennedy. Brezhnev. Nixon. Gromyko. Kissinger. Gorbachev and Reagan in Reykjavik. Colorful bit players like Fischer and Spassky (also in Reykjavik), epic upsets in hockey and basketball, and a cloak-and-dagger literature that will live beyond the fall of the Soviet Union to die another day.
Recalling that era now, I am not so sure what I thought I comprehended. In 1982 I saw the black-humor film The Atomic Café—and had the chance to rewatch it against last year at Film Forum in New York. When I was 21 and hoping just to be vaporized, that film shook me deeply; at 57, I thought I had the luxury of being bemused by my younger self. The film is full of amazing documentary material on “Duck and Cover,” in which schoolchildren hide under desks and picnicking families cover themselves with their gingham tablecloth to shelter from the nuclear blast. And now I wonder what was more terrifying about those years: the conviction that we would all die in a nuclear war, or the delusion that we could survive it?
Working from Home
April 1, 2020
CHICAGO—Libraries are designed for academic work, and that is exactly the problem with them. When you look up from your book or computer, you are confronted with examples of studiousness that contrast unfavorably with the unearned vacation you just took by gazing around the room. In a café, when you look up you see life. This is nice because you are surrounded by life. And it is nice because you feel superior to all those people who are wasting their time with Life while you are hard at work. Actively rejecting the social—for instance, by wearing headphones to shut out the conversations of those around you—is pleasant and empowering. A certain push-pull, love-hate tension charges the air, inviting thought.
I started working in cafés as a graduate student, and ended up spending so much time at one of them—The Musical Offering, on Bancroft in Berkeley—that my then-husband celebrated my Ph.D. by having a faux historical plaque made to honor the years I had worked there. He surreptitiously glued it to the wall outside the café. A year later, it was still there. Two years later, it was still there. It is gone now.
The Musical Offering had the meanest staff of any café in the area. For one thing, they kicked me out from 12 to 2 every day to accommodate higher-paying lunch patrons. (I could not afford their lunch menu; I usually brought lunch from home and ate it in a nearby park.) For another thing, they never, ever gave me free food or drinks.
At other cafés, the employees would eventually start seeing me as a friend. Or more. To this day I still cook using a genuine Starbucks apron that dates to that period. It was a gift from a barista, an artist who lived in a tiny two-room hut, just her bed and her paintings; we weren’t together long before she dumped me for a Frenchman. I rebounded with a math professor who frequented that same Starbucks: he was very shy, our relationship never crossed the threshold of Starbucks, we just flirted and did crossword puzzles together. I thought I might be making the barista jealous. I wasn’t. Then there was another barista at another café, an impossibly handsome guy who was an actual Gap model. He had been on a billboard. We never even broke up, I just stopped going to that café.
The Musical Offering, where I was viewed as the cappuccino-ordering pest who carried a spare laptop battery, was an oasis of erotic indifference; it was a constant, other cafés came and went as I would alternate between frenetically exercising and recoiling from loss of control over my own extroverted, gregarious, self-destructive charm.
From that point of view, it is hard to imagine a safer space than the one I currently work in. My small, crowded apartment is structured long like a train car, people are always streaming in and out of rooms; not only the six of us who live here, but also the other kids in our building. Our foyer has a mattress—it blocks the front door, which can only be opened partway—where the kids do a fair amount of trampolining. The trampoline room leads directly—no door—into the living room, aka my sixteen-year-old’s bedroom. This morning he related waking up into an argument with the boy downstairs—“about whether it is healthy to sleep in, meanwhile I was trying to sleep in.”
My bedroom is the only alternative to constant, bouncing intrusions. My eleven-year-old donated his desk, it just fits in the space between the bed and the dresser. Well it doesn’t really fit, given that it blocks the dresser, but I don’t use the dresser anyways. Nor do I wear any of the dresses that hang on a series of hooks glued to the walls. I keep them there, rather than in the closet, because usually their presence cheers me, but now they are mocking me, especially the monster dress that lies directly in my line of sight. The last time I wore it, paired with harlequin leggings, my husband gifted me with the observation that the second-best dressed woman in that café was checking out my outfit. Now, I just wear the same clothes over and over, in layers: pants under my nightgown, a sweater over it, that way I can keep my nightgown on all day, like a second skin. If I am cold, I put on more layers. I am always cold.
The radiator in our bedroom has never worked, but my husband and I like to sleep in extreme cold anyways: we keep the air conditioner in the window even in the winter, in fact we run it for more of the year than it is socially acceptable to confess. I’ve moved a small space heater into the room, but it overheats itself well before heating the room. I bathe more than I would have predicted I would, given the removal of social pressure—I don’t have much of a natural instinct for cleanliness—because the bath, run always at its hottest, warms me for hours afterwards.
I check the tip of my nose regularly, so that I can know how cold I am. I touch my face much more now, and I take real pleasure in it—I touch with my whole palm. I can feel the difference in my skin from when I was younger; it is more yielding, less springy, somewhere between my children’s skin and my grandmother’s. I Skype and Zoom from this room as well, though I hate seeing myself on the screen, and I hate seeing the mess around me. Books and clothes and boxes of tissues—I am always sniffly, I need to have one within reach at all times—piled together precariously, inefficiently. My messes bear the signature of my own carelessness and indifference.
My husband and I usually work together, but he doesn’t want to work in the cold bedroom. And I can’t work in the noisy kitchen. Anyways, often only one of us can work. We are spending less time together, though more time in the same building, and both of those are changes for the worse. More and more, it is my own ideas, bearing no trace of him, that I am alone with. They are thin, weak, not worth much.
My kids have more energy than I do, which might explain why homeschooling keeps flowing in the wrong direction. Our seven-year-old teaches me random facts he learned from the downstairs boy (“did you know your eyeball is round, like a real ball?”). The eleven-year-old, an amateur historian, has lectured to the family on the fall of the Roman empire; his living room Tang Soo Do classes are the only exercise I have gotten in weeks. And my sixteen-year-old son, who has spent most of this “break” in musical pursuits—composing, listening to different versions of pieces on YouTube, playing the piano that is on the other side of my bedroom wall—teaches me music theory. The lesson on keys starts out simple, but when he can see he is getting far beyond what I can understand he does not stop himself, he is happy and excited to be explaining something. I let him continue: I may not understand what he’s saying, but I understand why he needs to say it.
I have this powerful sense of yearning to do something, to write something, to teach something, to make something of myself. What stands in the way? Me. My flat, dull self; I trip over it everywhere I look. And yet it is also myself that I miss: that gregarious energy I have when I am trying to get someone to take an interest in me, to learn something, to love me. When I look up from my work, what I see is no one: no one to reach out to, no one to dress up for, no one to shock, or surprise, or impress.
On the Road
April 1, 2020
PEORIA, ILLINOIS—Like many parents, I fear the coronavirus just a smidgeon more than I do the prospect of spending a full week (or who knows how many weeks) at home with my toddler. It’s not all bad: I do love the kid, after all, and I genuinely enjoy spending time with him, sometimes. (Often!) My partner calls him “the best show that’s not on television,” which is an apt characterization of the hilarious and unpredictable strangeness of a typical two-and-a-half-year-old’s behavior. Cheerfully vrooming his cars along the arm of the couch at one moment, he’ll suddenly take off running and start doing laps around the coffee table, or careening his Zebra Walker full-speed into the refrigerator while screaming at the tops of his lungs at the next, only to pull up short, point at his stomach and announce, “That’s my belly!” He’s a weird dude.
His language skills have exploded lately, so that now there is some semblance of back-and-forth in our interactions. Previously, things were more one-sided: he would point to and name objects, or shriek demands for apple sauce and tamales, and there wasn’t much to do but agree. Now, though, he’s more open to compromise or alternative suggestions. He can understand that we will go for a walk after lunch, and that if he uses the potty, he will get a piece of chocolate. And instead of simply naming objects, he’ll now say things like “Mama! Be CAREFUL! That rock is VERY dirty! It’s a very dirty rock!!” This shift in communication makes him more like a companion than a charge, though maybe not the kind of amenable and easy-going person that one might wish to be cooped up in a small apartment with.
How does one prepare for such an ordeal? Many parents are seeking out educational resources, or planning to suspend limits on screen time. I find myself thinking of what I’ve learned from road trips.
If you are, or were, an adventurous sort of young adult, you have not only taken road trips, but, added thrill, have done so with someone (or several someones) whom you don’t know all that well. You’ve probably come to learn that some people are better road trip companions than others. Some people are picky about music, or are messy eaters of disgusting food, others complain constantly about how long they’ve been in the car. Some people are almost too ready to talk, others are painfully reticent. Because you can’t control what the other person will be like, you need to prepare yourself, and plan for contingencies. As it turns out, many of these preparatory steps translate quite well into an action plan for quarantining with your child.
1) Have a general route in mind, but be open to delays and detours. If your passenger comes back from the gas station bathroom with flyers for Gravity Hill, Pennsylvania, you should definitely take the extra hour and a half to drive over and watch a bottle of soda roll uphill. Similarly, if your toddler becomes inexplicably absorbed by transferring all the blocks from one bag to another, go with it! Find your Zen!
2) Get ready to have long conversations about very random topics. Sure, you can tell each other your life stories (and most people do enjoy talking about themselves), but offbeat questions are more likely to produce interesting results. This turns out to be even more true of toddlers: they are very, very good at random conversations. Random anything, really.
3) Make some fun playlists, but don’t be too invested in listening to every single one. Cultivate an open mind about the merits of musical genres you might otherwise deplore. You may find that you actually enjoy “Baby Shark,” in some deeply sadistic way.
4) Audiobooks or podcast episodes can be a fun way to bond, giving you something to listen to together and discuss. Your toddler might not enjoy The Moth or Criminal, but they might be into watching astronauts read stories while in space, or learning to draw with Mo Willems (the real reason the stimulus bill includes millions for the Kennedy Center). And you might be as well.
5) Pack snacks. Lots of snacks. Things that you won’t mind someone eating in your car, that won’t make a massive mess. Cheerios are admittedly not as thrilling to an adult palate as they apparently are to a toddler’s, but Goldfish crackers are surprisingly delicious. Why not take advantage of this special time to teach your child a useful skill, like shelling pistachios?
5) Long silences are okay sometimes. (Well, maybe not so much with a toddler—it’s more likely an indicator that they’re up to no good.)
Ultimately: you’re both stuck here, so try to enjoy the ride. You’ll get somewhere eventually.
March 30, 2020
LOS ANGELES—My family had a bad February. On February 16th, our car, a used Honda Fit we’d owned for less than three months, was hit while parked on the street in Los Angeles. While my wife and I were in a children’s hair salon getting our daughter’s bangs trimmed, a middle-aged woman had gotten dizzy while driving, lost control of the wheel and hit three parked cars, including ours. We got an estimate that the damage would take three weeks to repair and amount to almost $10,000. In the meantime, we rented a car.
Two weeks later, on the evening of February 29th, we were sitting at home when we heard another crash. We joked that it was our rental car getting hit, and it was. The situation was eerily similar: three parked cars hit, our rental among them, only this time the other driver abandoned her car at the scene. We rented yet another car.
No one was hurt in any of this, and, after a period of uncertainty, insurance covered everything. It was an unsettling and unlucky and annoying experience; it wasn’t a tragedy. It all feels petty now, in the midst of global crisis, which is why I mention it: it stands, in my mind, for all normal misfortunes, the things that go badly when things are pretty much going well.
At the same time we were dealing with all this, I was teaching an undergraduate course in literary theory. The week after our rental car got hit we covered Sigmund Freud’s 1919 paper on “The Uncanny” (“Das Unheimliche” in German). There, Freud dwells for some time on the uncanniness of “involuntary repetition,” and in particular of coincidences and inexplicable recurrences: “If we come across the number 62 several times in a single day,” for example, we will “feel this to be uncanny,” and “will be tempted to ascribe a secret meaning to this obstinate recurrence of a number; [we] will take it, perhaps, as an indication of the span of life allotted to [us].”
The reason such repetitions or coincidences are perceived as uncanny, Freud says, is that they call forth primitive, irrational explanations for such phenomena that we have repressed. “Our analysis of instances of the uncanny has led us back to the old, animistic conception of the universe,” he writes. “This was characterized by the idea that the world was peopled with the spirits of human beings; by the subject’s narcissistic overvaluation of his own mental processes; by the belief in the ‘omnipotence of thoughts’ and the technique of magic based on that belief.” In other words, the uncanny effect of coincidence comes not so much from the strangeness of the occurrences themselves but from the way their repetition calls forth this old, repressed, magical way of thinking. We know that the coincidences and recurrences are meaningless; but we nonetheless feel that they must mean something, and the tension between the knowledge and the feeling produces unease.
To illustrate Freud’s idea, I told my students the story of our car troubles. The first hit was clearly just bad luck. And the second hit was too, looked at from a rational point of view. But from a psychological point of view—this is Freud’s point—it’s difficult not to reach for a more satisfying explanation of the coincidence; this is particularly true in the case of bad coincidences, or misfortunes. My wife and I were wondering: Why us? We felt tried, tested, singled out. Had we angered the gods? Had an enemy cursed us? The fact that we didn’t really believe in these things didn’t keep us from thinking about them. My wife burned sage.
By the time I taught my Freud class it was March. We had our car back, but the coronavirus was already making it unlikely we’d need to drive it much in the near future. I started the class with an acknowledgment that we might need to go online for some period of time after spring break, an announcement that seemed to blindside most of my students. That was Monday, March 9th; on Wednesday, the day the World Health Organization officially classified the virus as a pandemic, the college decided to shift all classes online for the duration of the semester, with students needing to vacate the dorms by the 18th. Everyday life was quickly coming to feel uncanny in the usual sense: strange, unfamiliar, monstrous, threatening. Unseen beings were capable of killing us. We needed to remain quarantined in our homes, which now took on sinister aspects, becoming unheimlich.
But now that we’re a few weeks in to the crisis, it feels like the uncanny—in the sense my wife and I experienced it prior to the outbreak—is one of the many things that have been stripped from us by coronavirus. I suppose I’m nostalgic for February, for its anxieties as well as its freedoms. I miss the time when I, or anybody, could feel uniquely unlucky. The idea that one has been singled out for misfortune by a malevolent universe is both alarming and comforting, after all. Freud says it corresponds to “the subject’s narcissistic overvaluation of his own mental processes”: I believe that I have said or done or thought something that has brought misfortune upon me. Which puts me at the center of things, at least.
In contrast, we have COVID-19, monocausal agent of everyone’s unhappiness. That unhappiness is far from equal, of course: it amounts to anxious inconvenience in some, unbearable pain and grief in others. The pandemic has ramified inequalities of wealth, health, resources and moral luck. But however unequal this unhappiness is, it can all be directly traced to the same catalyst. There is one explanation. This makes it the opposite of the uncanny in Freud’s sense, which always needs at least two competing ones.
Misery is general all over the world right now. None of us is special. Everyone is suffering. The positive side of this, I suppose, is a new sense of solidarity: we’re all in this together. But as I’m waiting to accept the statistical truth of this moment—that my life and my family’s lives are infinitesimal points on a curve that society is desperately trying to flatten—I’m mourning the misfortunes that were ours alone.
March 30, 2020
CHICAGO—To be undocumented means, first, to be on the run. Then, on the lookout. Always. This is why, during the COVID-19 pandemic, some of the measures being implemented nationwide, such as “shelter-in-place,” are both familiar and contradictory to their basic needs, their quotidian reality, their condition as social pariahs. Or at least that is how most undocumented Mexicans, like me, have for decades experienced life in the United States.
What makes the current crisis familiar is the sense of foreboding, of knowing oneself disposable at any moment. What makes it contradictory is the impossibility of staying put. For most of us, staying home is as unnatural as it is illogical. A violation of our faith in universal principles. If nothing else, in a capitalistic society, we the undocumented are bodies in constant motion. How else could we understand our place in a world that first uproots us and then denies us a new permanent home? It is surreal, finding oneself in this suspended state of being, not fully here but no longer there.
This limbo we inhabit, have you heard of it?
As immigrants, experience tells us that to even entertain the idea of having a home, we must leave home. In a world ruled by COVID-19, staying home means having the luxury of working remotely, of existing, in part, as a digital being. In other words, eliminating corporeal presence. For those performing menial jobs, this complicates things quite a bit, as you surely understand. In fact, a directive like “shelter-in-place” makes it impossible for us to perform our jobs at all, the jobs that Americans don’t want and won’t do. Picking fruits and vegetables, for instance. Cooking them. Delivering them safely so that others can remain well-fed and protected.
Of course, during a pandemic no one is safe, and everyone is being impacted by COVID-19 one way or another. Here I am just highlighting the work of the undocumented, the labor that’s usually unseen and unappreciated.
At this crucial moment, a good share of the responsibilities having to do with America’s elemental sustenance fall upon undocumented bodies that are as essential as they are disposable. Such a strange thing—to depend on the deliverables of a group of people who only half-exist, to rely on the labor of a lawless mass in order to sustain that most basic of laws, survival. Perhaps, when this crisis has finally passed, the undocumented will be remembered in the annals of COVID-19 as a great irony—a people stripped of humanity who helped usher humanity into the future.
If COVID-19 has shown us something new, it’s because of how brutally unbiased it is in its effects. In this respect, the equalizing nature of the virus is infinitely superior to American democracy—a perverse political system that has created the conditions for 11 million individuals to exist in a state of legal, social and economic destitution at the same time that it labels us criminals. Of course, all of this occurs as the Social Security Administration collects $13 billion from the undocumented every year.
With the U.S. having reached the biggest number of reported COVID-19 cases in the world in recent days, what will happen to its undocumented population? What will happen to those who won’t benefit from the economic relief package recently approved? What will happen to those who can’t stay home, who are constantly exposed to contagion and who lack access to even the most basic health care? What will happen to those living not paycheck by paycheck but day by day?
In moments like this, only the law of self-preservation has any weight. This means that no directive, no military-like raid terrorizing city streets can keep us home. It means that we will continue on, as bodies in constant motion.
When Spring Comes
March 30, 2020
SOFIA, BULGARIA—For several days and nights, snow has been falling all over Sofia. Here, in the middle of the Balkans, this used to be fairly normal weather in March and even April—winter’s last stand before the crocuses sprouting en masse and the storks arriving in V formations from Africa. But with the ravages of climate change, the seasons have turned arrhythmic, sick, dysfunctional. The hot, dry summers we once enjoyed in Sofia are now cool and rainy (or just impossible to predict), whereas winter has come to feel like a belated fall or premature spring.
Yet something about snow does still surprise me whenever it arrives in Sofia: Buses and trolleys are almost all empty, the statues of nineteenth-century national heroes and the soldiers on the Soviet Army monument all wear the same style of fluffy hat. A colorful and complex profusion of details suddenly disappears under a monochrome blanket of white, erased in one single swoop. “It makes an even Face / Of Mountain, and of Plain – / Unbroken Forehead from the East / Unto the East again –,” wrote Emily Dickinson, nature’s sharpest observer. I could almost forget that right now Bulgaria is in a state of emergency and under partial lockdown. For a moment, Sofia feels like the city often looked like in my childhood, when winter was reliably with us for months.
Perhaps that’s what the virus is at its core: a kind of heavy snowstorm that has enveloped the entire planet. From New York to New Delhi, from San Francisco to Sofia, there are empty streets, vacant subway stations and airports, shuttered stores and restaurants. The same quiet has settled upon every community, every megalopolis and hamlet. If I go walking on the streets on Milan, it would be like walking on the streets of Wuhan. This is the triumph, and tragedy, of globalism.
Whatever I tell you about Sofia today will feel familiar to you; you probably know it already. As a journalist, the only thing I can do is to point out the obvious: in a fundamental way, my place is the same as your place. We’re listening to the same melody, holding hands in a danse macabre.
Medieval manuscripts, especially books of hours, often feature a popular cycle of scenes known as “the labors of the months,” each month represented by a different rural activity. Wintertime, usually February, shows people staying home, eating and drinking, warming their hands by the hearth and thawing away life’s troubles. Outside, the landscape is desolate, smothered by snow, and one can almost hear the wind whistling in the bare branches of the trees. It is a time to rest, to withdraw from the world, to gather strength for the hard work of the spring.
In our own eyes, these scenes may as well portray people living under coronavirus quarantine. All of us cooped up in our flats and houses and rented rooms have unwittingly gone back to the agricultural cycles of a previous era. But perhaps something more important has happened too: we have been jolted back into a different rhythm of time. Like our ancestors, we have no choice now but to stay inside, with the slow trickle of the minutes and the hours, while we wait for the weather outside to warm up. Used to constant movement, work and entertainment, we may be assailed by terrible boredom—perhaps the most acute awareness of time. But it would be much wiser to use this unplanned seasonal pause—one that we may never get to experience again—to ask ourselves some hard questions. Wintertime, let’s remember, was always a time for reflection too.
What is it we want from life? What do we truly need? What is the world we want to live in? Do we want to service a capitalist machine that never lets us rest, never allows us to stay idle for a second and spend time with our families at home, except when it accidentally breaks down? Does that machine—a machine that feeds on the exploitation of our labor, on mindless consumerism, on the destruction of the natural environment, on the suffering of humans and fellow animals alike—deserve to be repaired? Do we want our children to keep servicing that same machine? Is our past the future we really want for them?
What do we plan to do when spring comes back around?
March 29, 2020
SOMERVILLE, MASSACHUSETTS—At first I couldn’t read. I couldn’t shake the feeling that the crisis was as immediate as an intruder in the apartment I was not supposed to leave. It felt physical, lurking. I knew I was lucky to be housed and on health insurance, to say nothing of young and healthy, but I only felt grateful in theory. In practice, I felt scared, for myself and for everybody, and the fear lingered on in my body. I opened books and closed them again.
Every time this happened, and for the first week it happened often, I thought of the scene in W. G. Sebald’s Austerlitz where the titular character becomes unable to write or read:
The panic I felt on facing the start of any sentence that must be written, not knowing how I could begin it or indeed any other sentence, soon extended to what is in itself the simpler business of reading, until if I attempted to read a whole page I inevitably fell into a state of the greatest confusion. If language may be regarded as an old city full of streets and squares, nooks and crannies, with some quarters dating from far back in time while others have been torn down, cleaned up, and rebuilt, and with suburbs reaching further and further into the surrounding country, then I was like a man who has been abroad a long time and cannot find his way through this urban sprawl anymore, no longer knows what a bus stop is for, or what a back yard is, or a street junction, an avenue or a bridge.
Our circumstances are not exactly like Austerlitz’s, but maybe this is what it will be like when we can leave our houses—I mean, really leave our houses—again. Already the things I pass on my walks (the shuttered restaurants, the empty buses) seem coated in a new layer of unrecognizability. But then, people have started leaving messages on the streets in chalk. “Stay safe ☺ Wash your hands ☺ For a good time, call your friends!” one said. I have seen several sketches of animals.
On Twitter, people said they couldn’t read either. Twitter was something I could read, if parsing Tweets counts as reading. Twitter was something I could stare at, anyway. I was still learning during this time that everything hinged on the first twenty minutes of the day. If I went for my phone it was all over. I would whirl off into the vortex of the Infinite Scroll, the forever-unspooling of bad news, people evicted, no rent moratoriums, the spread of COVID-19 among prison populations who had to barter for soap, Trump garbling speeches and disappearing doctors, someone acerbically proclaiming earnestness at times of crisis distasteful.
For the first week I went for my phone every morning. I felt like I lived in the small box of my Twitter avatar, although the picture isn’t even of me, and as I scrolled and scrolled, I thought of Kafka’s story “The Burrow,” which is about an animal (it could even be a pangolin) too afraid to leave its subterranean den. “Your house is protected and self-sufficient. You live in peace, warm, well nourished, master, sole master of all your manifold passages and rooms,” the creature relates. But even the creature does not really mean this: its burrow provides “a considerable degree of security, but by no means enough, for is one ever free from anxieties inside it?”
No. So I kept on scrolling, not daring to venture outside.
Often what people on Twitter actually said was that they didn’t want to be reading, at least about coronavirus, because they didn’t want people to be writing about it. The general consensus was that the experience was too fresh: things were still undigested, panic still stuck in the throat. And then there was the certainty that most literature about coronavirus would be bad, because it would be autofiction, and autofiction was already bad, but for some reason coronavirus autofiction promised to be worse. People on Twitter weren’t interested in how other people were living (wedding, not wedding, worrying about their parents dying, cooking beans again) against the backdrop of a pandemic. They just wanted to retweet calls for action (many of which I also retweeted).
But I also kept turning to Sebald and Kafka. Kafka wrote at the height of his choleric anxiety; Sebald wrote after World War II but in the midst of its aftermath. Waiting until a catastrophe ends is not always an option. There are crises that last indefinitely, and the crisis we are currently undergoing might kill you.
Of course, people are writing about coronavirus already, and I don’t just mean they are tweeting about it. They are writing articles and essays; they are writing emails to the people they are not allowed to touch. They are writing each other messages in chalk on the streets. And what surprises me, even when I struggle to finish a sentence, is not how trivial literature and philosophy have come to seem to me, but just how indispensable.
It doesn’t make sense to be fed up with muted autofiction if you can’t get behind caring sincerely in writing. This doesn’t mean you have to approve corniness, but it does mean you have to be willing to risk a genuine emotion every once in a while. A book is not a respirator; it is not a relief fund. It was never meant to be a replacement for political organizing or a concrete can of beans. I should hardly have to remind anyone that it is possible to care about the sensuous and the spiritual simultaneously. People make sense of the world and its crises by writing about them: that is what writing, at its best and most vital, is for. What did you think it was for?
Meet the Family
March 29, 2020
KENTUCKY/LONG ISLAND/LOS ANGELES—Uncle Wayney is three years older than me. He’s the youngest of six and his sister, my mother, is the oldest and most flamboyant. Mom had me at sixteen, so technically Uncle Wayney is more like my zany older brother. He is HIV-positive, lost an eye to shingles and has a dog named Boone. Wayney recently texted a picture of Boone chewing on a brick. He wrote, “mischievous.”
These days, our exchanges are different. When I call he picks up and says, “I’m still alive!”
He tells me his friends drive through the back alley and he waves from the back door. “I’ll see them Labor Day weekend and we’ll have a big party.”
Neither of us is sleeping very well. He in Kentucky, me in Los Angeles. “The numbers are going up every two days,” he tells me. We like the work Fauci, Cuomo and Beshear are doing but we are cussing mad at our president. When we talk on the phone, words like shit-ass and dumbass are thrown around. We feel better when we hang up. Wayney cannot get this virus. On that, we are both very clear. He is well quarantined but when he does have to go out, to the bank or market, he dresses in his homemade Hazmat suit: gloves, mask. He washes his clothes when he gets home.
He works for his best friend Ken in a landscaping business. Wayney spends days alone there while the boys go out in the field, but he likes the solitude. “Did I tell you somebody bought the eight acres across the road from Ken’s? They are going to build 24 houses on it. He’s heartsick. Everything’s changing.”
Wayney walks Boone in the park. He’s a big dog and needs exercise. It’s good for Wayney, too, but he tells me he has to be careful, there are kids everywhere and they all want to pet Boone. “The little germ carriers.”
He watches people from afar for entertainment. He saw one poor woman trying to reason with her four-year-old son.
“He kept crying, ‘I want to go to the park,’ and his mother kept saying, ‘Honey, you’re at the park.’”
He imitated the kid, wailing, “This isn’t the park. I want to go to the park.”
“Can you imagine being quarantined with that all day, every day?” I asked.
I heard him shudder through the line. “God, no.”
My mom can’t keep still. She lives alone in Louisville, Kentucky and has set up stations all over her home: the reading station, the yoga station, the painting station. She’s baked cookies for the neighborhood and a cake for a dying neighbor’s family—peanut-butter chocolate. Mom sees what’s happening in New York and wonders out loud if she ought to get a gun in case things get really bad. The stock market has her worried. Last week she announced on Facebook that she is now the unofficial, self-appointed personal greeter for the Kroger supermarket in her neighborhood. She said she didn’t realize how isolated she felt until she went walking in their parking lot. Seeing the older couples coming out with groceries made her sad even though she said they appeared comforted by one another. She stood outside the car and shouted to passersby, asking if they were doing okay and telling them how good it was to see them.
Wayney called the day after my mother posted her new self-employment status on Facebook. “Can you believe what your mother is doing? That crazy woman.”
My in-laws, Esther and Spera, live on Long Island. They are 84 and 89 years old. We talk daily. In the beginning Esther made jokes about the virus.
“I’m going to rub my coolie and it’ll go away.”
I said if her coolie has that kind of power we need to be bottling and selling it on Amazon. I heard through the Italian family grapevine, someone told someone who told me, that Esther and Spera were still going out to 7/11, so I called to yell at them. They are first-class yellers and taught me everything I know about the art. I’ve grown to enjoy it.
“What the hell are you doing going out to the stores?” I scream.
“I send him in and I wait in the car,” she screams back.
Her husband, my father-in-law, has a pacemaker, an artificial heart valve and no bladder (cancer), but he still goes out and fixes swimming pools every day during peak season. “Esther’s Pool Service” is going strong. She does the books, he does the labor. Spera likes to buy the boys who work with him a slice of pizza or a burger for lunch. She likes to talk on the phone to the customers. There’s talk this is the summer they are going to retire. But I’m not holding my breath. They say this every year.
“Go on a picnic,” I yell. “Go to the beach, or the marina, but stop going to the store.”
“I’m claustrophobic,” she shouts back. “This house is a tomb.”
Last week she and Spera went out to feed her son David’s dogs. David and his wife just adopted two rescues, their first as a couple.
“The dogs get lonely,” she told me. “David and Barbara worry about them.”
Esther was the one who called to tell us Barbara tested positive for the virus.
March 28, 2020
BROOKLYN—Try to picture the “before” and time slips away. On February 27th, when there were roughly 3,600 cases of COVID outside China, I booked a last-minute flight from New York to LA. During my six-hour layover in the Orlando airport I watched the stock market crash and Disneyworld tourists wander around in surgical masks; something was clearly wrong, but when I got to LA I continued on as normal, meeting friends, going to restaurants, touching my face. I could tell something was happening, but, when I look back now, it seems I had no idea what was coming.
At some point, it’s true, a bat flapped its wings, a pangolin sneezed and a shopper got sick at the Wuhan seafood market, but this is not the point; the point is rather that a billion decisions between then and now added up to a crisis that has exploded the capacity to manage it—and that we can never say when, precisely, that point was.
It is this scrambling of temporal sequences, this loss of linear time—even as we are confined in space—that is most disorienting about this crisis. What does a day look like in self-quarantine? You wake up and dive immediately into the flow of images, numbers, and rhetoric. “Social distancing” means being online. You snack all day, or you play at being a housewife or -husband, or you plot against your roommate; the routine feels endless and unreal. Millions have lost their jobs and millions more will soon; others are in limbo, paid leave that may turn out to have been either a vacation or a furlough. The stock market collapses and your retirement plan is laid to waste; or you never had one, and now you never will.
But for many, the crisis is not exactly a disruption: it means work as before, but worse. If you are in any of the 21st-century growth industries—delivering food, driving for Uber, packing for Amazon, attending to the sick—you are under more pressure, and in a new type of danger. Your day was already blurred into gray: always on call, with no sense of start and finish, on or off. Life as usual is a waiting zone, a single, endless, homogeneous moment.
Work like this—detached from the diurnal rhythm—used to be exceptional, reserved for those tasked with managing, and traversing, the limits of human life: doctors and soldiers; artists, mothers, priests. Now that everything is an emergency—from hedge-fund margin calls to last-mile Amazon logistics—and every little moment demands curation—as if by a priest—the exception has become the rule.
More and more often over the last few years I find myself sitting in front of my computer, having brought up a blank browser tab, trying to do something between remembering and anticipating. Was there a piece of information that some other piece of information had reminded me I wanted to check on? Or is there some new thing to find, some new chain whose links might lead to something unexpected? I sit there with my fingers hovering over the keyboard, Ouija-like, waiting to be moved by an impulse, or an algorithm. Now entire days seem to vanish into that waiting room. People compare the internet to a drug, but this is worse, or weirder: it’s like spending all day preparing your kit in case the desire for a fix were to hit you. It’s like wanting to kill time and being unable to find it.
If I look for the moment when days started to disappear like this, I cannot say it began with virus panic. Are the social effects of the pandemic a radical departure from the status quo, or a radical acceleration of it? The gig economy, like the internet, was supposed to liberate us both in work and in life by collapsing the distance between the two; when you live in the cloud, everything is “free time.” Over the last decade or so, the advance in mobile connectivity has pulled us into tighter and tighter orbit around a virtual realm promising pure freedom and pure productivity, where you can do anything from anywhere, ordering arepas while straightening your posture, trading oil futures and subletting your apartment.
This is a realm in which space doesn’t matter and time spreads out into an endless present—a video game played in a psychic basement, an endless quest for life power and gold coins. In such a world it might make sense to party on South Beach in the middle of the plague, or to demand, like Boeing, a government bailout equal to the amount of borrowed money that you paid yourself in share buybacks. Probably we will end up with a synthesis of the two: consumers will get bailed out so we can fly around forever, buying ever-newer iPhones, hoping we never crash. As Donald Trump keeps saying, “When this is all over, we’re gonna have a big party.”
This is an excerpt from the first in a series of columns by James Duesterberg about contemporary political life. Click here to read the piece in full.
The Pleasure of Disaster
March 26, 2020
CHICAGO—This is not a quarantine journal as much as it is a quarantine confession: I want to admit that I’ve had impure thoughts about the chaotic end to daily life that has been brought about by COVID-19. In fact, I have sometimes been delighted by it, and I am already dreading the idea that we will someday have to return to the habits and routines that we have been freed from. Or, worse, that we will soon form new habits and routines in a world that is, both literally and figuratively, more impoverished.
This isn’t because I don’t enjoy my habits and routines; I do. As a graduate student currently without teaching obligations, I am in the privileged position of having carte blanche on structuring my own time. It’s just that, given a choice, I prefer to inhabit the state of exception.
I should offer a disclaimer here before I come off as a complete psychopath: The thing I like about the current state of things is absolutely not the human consequences of the pandemic. I feel grief and sadness for all of the people suffering because their health and livelihoods have been impacted by this crisis, and, like most people, I am afraid of how far-reaching the ultimate toll will be. The part I like is, rather, the way the world feels—the energy of the crisis. I suspect that this might still be an unethical thing to take pleasure in, and I’m also not entirely sure why I find it pleasurable in the first place.
The pleasure of disaster is not a new vice for me. When I was little, I loved violent storms, and most of all when they caused power outages. I liked the way the familiar features of our house were completely transformed by a darkness that we couldn’t opt out of by flipping a light switch. Before phones and computers were ubiquitous, we would have to use flashlights and even candles, and these cast shadows that distorted all the ordinary household objects into new things that were both wonderful and monstrous. We might have to eat takeout on the living room floor or bundle up in sleeping bags as if we were camping.
Though I couldn’t have put it into words then, I think my excitement derived from seeing that the way we used our house was completely contingent. During a disaster, it becomes clear that the way things normally happen is fragile and subject to interruption. Quotidian places and things, it turns out, are only covered in a veneer of ordinariness that hides their vast, maybe even infinite, potential to be otherwise. Who could restrain their delight in the face of so much untapped possibility? The emotion it provokes is a close relation to the recalcitrantly untranslatable German Sehnsucht or, better, Portuguese saudade—a kind of erotic desire for the way the world is not.
The COVID-19 crisis has stripped away the veneer of ordinariness on an unprecedented scale. In the week or so since Chicago has adopted serious practices of isolation and distancing, the entire city has been transformed. The streets are empty and quiet. The people who do go out seem at loose ends and give each other a wide berth. Chicago has gone from being the banal backdrop of several million daily lives to being an enormous, nonfunctioning artifact—an entire city that isn’t currently in service.
The effect is transporting. When your surroundings stop making their usual claims on you, you also lose your everyday character. Walking through the deserted city at odd hours in this past week, I have felt featureless and powerful. Like a traveler touching down alone in a foreign country, I anticipate becoming someone new.
It’s tempting to try and domesticate this sudden awareness of worldly and personal potential into an optimistic political message, but I would be lying if I did so. For me, the pleasure of disaster has nothing to do with goodness. It is simply a craving or an appetite, a hunger for the extra versions of reality that have accidentally come into view in the course of the fight against the virus.
March 26, 2020
ORANGE COUNTY, VERMONT—On the ride up, X’s phone pinged with a news alert. “New York City schools are closed until April 20th,” he said.
“Oh, Hitler’s birthday!” trilled M, my former mother-in-law, from the back seat.
We were driving to M’s property in Vermont. “We” being M, me, my two small children, X (my ex-husband), W (the woman he left me for) and W’s tiny dog. X. bought a rooftop cargo carrier for his SUV, and we were wedged in with enough supplies to last three months.
“I’m accepting that this stand mixer won’t fit,” X had said to me as we packed. “Too bad, since it’s so much better than the stand mixer that’s already in Vermont.” He had ordered five fifty-pound bags of flour so he could learn to make bread during our forced sojourn, and kept trying to check their delivery status while driving.
M discovered that a container of artisanal pickles had leaked brine onto her coat when we made our one stop, at a park in Massachusetts. The employee manning the bathrooms told us the park would close indefinitely as of the next morning. It was already fairly deserted, except for a group of adults with balloons who seemed to be holding a birthday party for a dog.
I didn’t want the kids to touch the playground equipment, so I told them to climb on top of the picnic tables. My Order Muppet kindergartener wore a look of horror at this rule-breaking, while his Chaos Muppet little sister shrieked in glee.
Back on the road, I headed off a tantrum by offering someone a beloved snack that I had strategically previously concealed. This person was not a child. And then I performed my idiosyncratic form of bibliomancy by looking at the Oxford English Dictionary on my phone. Not to brag, but one of the sweetest perks of being a professor is my free access to the OED. I logged on to their website to see the word of the day: “House-lew, n. Obsolete. Shelter of a house.”
We are indeed seeking shelter in two small houses, fifty steps apart. X called me a week ago to propose that we do so together. The adults could work remotely and split the childcare. Since M is immunocompromised and I would commit infanticide if the City ordered me to stay inside with both kids, we lent our various apartments to people who needed them and took off.
“Good!” X said, looking at his email. “They’ve milled the wheat, although they can’t do the Japanese buckwheat until tomorrow.”
“Buckwheat?” asked M.
“For soba,” X explained. M sighed sarcastically.
I don’t have anything new to say about the world’s shared crisis, but I started taking notes on the strange edges of the situation I find myself in. It’s as if I’ve found myself in The Discreet Charm of the Bourgeoisie, Luis Buñuel’s film in which the rich characters are continually thwarted from attending a dinner party by surreal circumstances, like a raid on cocktail hour by armed gunmen, which the guests politely but unavailingly ignore. Only in my The Discreet Charm of the Bourgeoisie: Coronavirus Edition, I only want to ignore the existence of W, but am instead playing gin rummy with her in the evenings.
In my new world, there are many strange problems. For example: my hair. I got a pixie cut about a year ago, when I started dating women, after X shacked up with W. I was already overdue for a trim when I decided it was better not to risk it. By the time we arrived, my head looked like a haystack painted by an especially testy Van Gogh. I was pained at appearing so disheveled in front of W, but not yet pained enough to admit that she’s the only one up here I would trust to cut my hair for me.
I’m not the only one who cares about appearances. The morning after we arrived, M put on mascara and spent three quarters of an hour wandering around the house trying to take her first selfie. She needed a profile picture for the Google Meet conferences she would now run. I was on a work call and couldn’t help her, but kept hearing the camera shutter sound effect she’s never remembered to turn off on her phone followed by louder and louder groans of exasperation.
“These are all blurry!” I said when she scrolled through them to ask my opinion.
“That hides my wrinkles,” she replied.
Last night, we all had dinner together. This was difficult. Not because of the social dynamics but because of our dietary choices. I’m a vegetarian, W is gluten-intolerant and M has an allergy to what she calls X’s “gourmandise.”
“Maple sesame dijon?” M asked, looking at the condiments on the table. “Does no one like normal mustard anymore?”
W poked through the fridge. “Here’s something yellow,” she said, pulling out a container. “No, that’s ghee.”
After dinner, we played cards while the kids watched the trenchant criticism of the idle rich that is 101 Dalmatians. W dealt and motioned for me, sitting to her right, to go first.
“Are we going counterclockwise?” X asked. “Counter to the rules of all known card games?” The resulting argument included W repeating “You’re being compulsive!” and X telling W to go fuck herself while throwing double-fisted middle fingers. I sat silent, emotionally disconnected and enjoying the drama. It felt like an especially satisfying episode of 90 Day Fiancé.
The kids went to sleep after insisting W and I trade turns snuggling with them in their bunks. Back downstairs, I yawned. W yawned. X, a night owl, frowned. “I have to say, both of you fooled me as to how late you were willing to stay up.” W and I rolled our eyes at each other.
Perhaps I’ll ask her to trim my hair after all.
March 26, 2020
MADISON, WISCONSIN—Late last week I started calling people at random; just friends who came to mind. There were obvious reasons for this, especially with those whose age finds them in a precarious set of crosshairs. But at the same time, I don’t know why. A week later it’s hard to believe we were all so alarmed by the same thing: that major sporting events around the world had suddenly been canceled.
At the time, I was 24 hours away from attending my first NBA game in quite a while. Then the dominoes started to fall. Millions of fans were first being turned away. The events were called off. Incalculable financial losses would be assumed. Without the drastic measures taken by major sports governing bodies (not traditionally the kind to exercise moral authority) I would have carried on with my plans. It was my first chance to see the Bucks superstar, Giannis Antetokounmpo, in person. Until league officials suspended the season indefinitely. Then schools, museums, concert halls, gyms, restaurants, libraries and bookstores all closed. Suddenly, there was nothing to watch, nowhere to go and no end in sight.
On the verge of untold medical and economic devastation, the loss of sports and entertainment can feel so trivial. But as we swiftly come to terms with the confounding new normal, we’re also seeing how what can easily be dismissed as trivial is tightly woven into the fabric of what is essential.
Groping for something to say in the sports section of Sunday’s New York Times, John Branch mused how this might be an occasion for us to take a needed break from, and reassess, what he called our “unhealthy obsession” with sports. Completely deprived of the games, matches and tournaments, it makes sense to reflect on what we’re now missing. And if Branch is really unsettled by how the multibillion-dollar sports industry enfolds our games in commercialism, marketing and greed, I share his concern. But under the specter of worldwide social distancing, now might not be the best time for armchair-reassessment of something that provides peaceable moments of respite and shared recreation, signaling the changing of the seasons: three weeks of basketball drama that were supposed to happen in March and culminating in baseball’s opening day on March 26th, followed by a romantic weekend of golf in Georgia in April and the Champions League final in late May, and then the NBA playoffs and finals in early June, the European Cup in July and the Olympics in August. These are the events that animate our memories; the games we watch in the birthing center, with our kids when they are sick, the games we miss to attend weddings or funerals. Like holidays and birthdays they are the concrete shape that time takes, marking its cycles as well as its progress.
When my two eldest children came home from their last day of school, I wasn’t looking forward to breaking the news. It wasn’t just that pro sports were being suspended; the youth basketball and soccer games we look forward to every weekend were also canceled, and there was no telling when they’d reconvene. The gravity of canceling major sporting events wasn’t lost on me. But this further cancellation would make it all more real for them. It’s one thing to not be able to watch. It’s quite another to be told you can’t play.
Dreading the conversation, I waited for the sounds of their arrival. But the door didn’t swing open, and the usual voices did not climb the stairs to say hello. Instead, I heard the bouncing of a basketball on the carved-up asphalt driveway, the silence of the ball lifting in the air, clattering off the rim and through the net; then the accompanying banter and laughter. These are the hopeful and joyous sounds of sport that require no youth organizations, public arenas, cameras, TV audiences, corporate sponsors, sports bars or crowds. Because the pandemic will inadvertently disrupt almost every aspect of contemporary life, reassessing the role sports will play when this is all said and done is going to happen whether we like it or not. While we wait for the games to resume, we should look more carefully at those moments even a pandemic can’t touch.
Is Society Possible?
March 25, 2020
TORONTO—When society seems safe and secure, the question of its possibility fades into the background. It becomes a stale abstraction. Society no longer seem safe and secure. How, then, is society possible?
No matter how many times I have told students that this is one of the central questions of classical social theory, there is a sense in which this is the first time I have really taken the question seriously myself. For example, I now find myself able to ask, without blushing, what is society for? I might previously have dismissed this as a quaint and archaic bit of teleology. Society isn’t for anything! That would imply it could be better or worse at those things, making goodness a condition of the possibility of society. But now the tables are turned, and the idea that we could avoid the question of society’s goodness reeks of complacency. If society fails to perform certain functions, it seems to me, it becomes untenable.
What are those functions? Talcott Parsons was the great functionalist social theorist of the twentieth century and I keep coming back to his core ideas as I think about that question. Societies are open systems, composed of parts bound together into some more-or-less coherent whole. There is therefore an inside and an outside, and social functions arise from this fact.
One set of functions are those fulfilled by markets, technologies, armies or public-health agencies and the like: acquiring resources externally, from other societies or the physical world, responding to external threats, and allocating resources and risks internally. Without these activities society would be impossible, as it would be overwhelmed by the often-harsh environment that surrounds it. Parsons called this function adaptation. If a society can’t adapt to its surroundings it will not survive. How is society possible? It needs to be adaptable.
Adaptation is not automatic. In response to any given threat, there are innumerable possible courses of action or inaction. It is not just that the best means of achieving collective goals is unclear; it is generally not evident what the goals should even be. Right now, for example, how we prioritize public health against economic and social devastation is not obvious. This is the leadership function, filled by decision-makers in politics but also business, universities, religion and so on. Without leadership, society would be impossible—it would be rudderless. Parsons called this function goal-setting. If a society can’t set goals it cannot function. How is society possible? It needs to be able to define its direction.
Internally, a society has many parts, such as separate individuals, families, groups and organizations. Each has its own interests, goals, ambitions, agendas. They often conflict with one another and look out for themselves rather than the whole; they do not necessarily see themselves as intertwined or mutually dependent upon one another. Solidarity is not guaranteed. Achieving solidarity is the integrative function. It is filled by conflict-resolution systems such as the courts and the police as well as social infrastructure that builds connection and conviviality such as libraries, bars, restaurants, festivals and community organizations. These can all fail, and indeed society under quarantine is currently straining to meet this function as it contracts into the household. Parsons called this function integration. If a society cannot translate its many I’s into a we, it disintegrates. How is society possible? It needs to be integrated.
Integration is not automatic. To consider a distant other I have not met as “one of us” or “like me” rather than an alien does not come easily. It requires that we share some notion of our common value, under which we each have some intrinsic worth. Otherwise, the Hobbesian world of perpetual force and fraud is unavoidable. The impulse to hoard and the rush to get yours first by any means—this reaffirms that all resolutions to the Hobbesian problem of order are temporary and provisional. Settling that problem is the social function of values, and it is the business of our religious and cultural institutions to articulate them. Who are we and what matters to us? What do we owe to one another? Parsons called this the pattern maintenance function. If a society cannot articulate its basic values it loses its sense of why it is important to achieve any of its other functions. How is society possible? It needs to be valuable.
The Parsonian tradition of social theory gave us an answer to the question of what society is for, and hence what makes it good. It is good when it can adapt to circumstances, set goals, integrate its parts and elaborate its value. Dysfunction in any one respect spreads through the system, making it worse. In this vision, social theory too has its function. It is for articulating what makes societies good, examining how they fall short, and laying out a path to get better. Theory is critical theory.
Crises are crucial tests, and we are all anxiously observing how our systems perform. Since social theory is part of that system, it too is being tested. Sitting here under quarantine, as the chatter of committee meetings and the incessant demand to meet the next performance metric fades, I worry it might fail. It might not have anything to say when the everyday peels back and reveals the reality of its fundamental questions. I worry that I might not have anything to say.
With that worry in mind, my plan is to return to some of the classics of social theory and ask if they can illuminate our situation, being ready to receive a negative answer. I will start in my next entry with Georg Simmel, the great theorist of interaction. His basic answer to the question of how society is possible was that society is possible on the basis of… social distance.
Wanderer Above the Mist
March 25, 2020
JENA, GERMANY—Since February I have been living in Jena, a small city in eastern Germany that rests snugly in a river valley a few hundred kilometers southwest of Berlin. The Franks planted vineyards in the nearby hills in the late twelfth century, and the wealth created by the wine trade eventually convinced the locals to establish a university in 1558. Several centuries later, the university became a hothouse for German Romanticism and its potent mix of intellectual exaltation, political ferment and the refusal of limits. Napoleon’s troops routed the Prussians in Jena’s outlying hills and plundered their way through its streets. The Allies bombed the city at the end of World War II, and when the fighting stopped the Soviets hauled away much of the optical and machine works that had brought Jena wealth and fed its curiosity. Under communism, Napoleon’s field of glory became a training ground for tanks. Since 1989, Jena has been a crucial research and economic hub in eastern Germany. The tank grounds are now an open-air park.
A few weeks after arriving in the city I visited the Church of St. Michael, a Gothic cathedral in the old town that took two hundred years to build. Martin Luther first came to Jena in 1523 to reform the clergy. Six years later he preached from St. Michael’s stone pulpit, and a bronze memorial plate of him is mounted nearby on a wall. In the back of the church there is a different sort of memento, also mounted on a wall: a large, rectangular slab of limestone that was probably quarried in the nearby hills. The slab’s chiseled script is worn and illegible but above it is a carved figure in relief: a bulky hourglass with two feathery wings at rest on a skull. The skull’s mouth hangs open, “Death” the unspoken word. Construction of St. Michael’s began in 1380, so the cathedral had risen and its parishioners had lived in the aftermath of the Black Death.
A few weeks ago I saw another set of wings. I was in my office, in a building that sits atop a hill. The desk faces a large window, and in the near distance are the rocky, barren slopes of low-lying mountains. The town’s restaurants and bars had recently been told to close, and there was talk that Jena would soon follow the example of Berlin, Munich and other cities and order everyone to confine themselves to their homes. One afternoon I looked up from a book and a flash of color caught my eye—the red and gold canopy of a paraglider joyriding above the mountains. Internal borders have been reestablished in the European Union to slow the spread of the coronavirus, yet here was someone defying borders as well as gravity, absorbed in something other than a newsfeed. The paraglider caught an updraft, its path a graceful tracing of currents invisible and benign.
After watching the paraglider for a while, I thought of the cold stare of the winged skull in St. Michael’s, an omen of life’s end that leaves nothing else in mind. No “Death is the mother of beauty,” as Wallace Stevens wrote in “Sunday Morning” a little over a century ago, no appreciation of life’s ephemeral essentials or the elegant, necessary ways we imagine wrestling with mortality, like writing a poem with the line “Death is the mother of beauty, mystical.” I continued to watch the paraglider but could not see it land: it descended into the distance, past mountains and rooftops, and then out of view. With it went the idea of floating above it all—the tracing of an escape portal—a stark illusion of its own.
Places I Remember
March 25, 2020
BROOKLYN—My two-bedroom apartment has grown during the past week. It’s in Brooklyn, which means it’s cozy—but it’s still spacious enough so my wife, my nine-year old son and I can, if we all walk as far as possible in different directions, get away from each other. It has one long hallway separating the kitchen from the bedrooms, where my son used to spend whole afternoons snaking his wooden train tracks into an imaginary transcontinental railroad network. But I never realized before how many different places our apartment contains, how many journeys one can make through it in the course of a day. Like most people’s, ours is divided by functions; eating, sleeping, socializing, etc. Now we’ve added a couple more, so my son’s bedroom doubles as my Zoom college seminar room, and the kitchen table doubles as his third-grade classroom. But it’s not just that we have a greater number of work stations. I now find myself pausing to rest or think or look around in spots I’d never paid any attention to before, like the tiny recess caddy-corner to our bookshelf that looks out through a narrow window onto our building’s airshaft, or the shady floorspace between our houseplants next to our overactive radiator. And the less I depart from the perimeter that contains these points of interest, the farther apart they seem to get from each other, like there are suddenly long distances in our apartment that need to be traversed, like each corner is a separate location with its own climate.
In fact the number of places I visit each day is actually far greater than the number of distinct areas that make up our apartment’s floor plan. Any segment, however small, can potentially become, depending on the moment, an infinite number of different places. This is something I vaguely knew before: my Saturday morning living room, for instance, has always been totally unlike my Monday morning living room. There’s no concrete physical difference I can point to: the objects haven’t moved, and the light might be the same, but the change, though intangible, is no less substantial. It’s as if the air between things were a different color or the molecules that make it up were vibrating at a different speed.
All of which is to say that there are practically as many different places to visit in my apartment as there are moments in the day. If I were cataloguing them, the list wouldn’t just include cluttered morning office, or arithmetic workshop, or silent library reading room, but also mellow dusk contemplation corner, afternoon sunlit dust-mite lethargy square, bedroom-mirror morning dreadzone, slap-happy survivalist euphoria dance floor, mortality death-grip window seat, early-spring yearning perch, childhood-memory-activator toy closet, inescapable-tickle-couch battlefield, my son’s fury sphere, marital-strife triangle of darkness, famine-foreboding fridge nook, twenty-second thought-gatherer and disinfectant station, serendipitous family-togetherness laugh zone, pop-song enthrallment slow float, kitchen-frazzle brain scrambler, the tedium-of-life armchair, and so on.
This means my apartment hasn’t exactly become the prison I feared it would be. But its largeness is not always a virtue. Whether containing multitudes is desirable, after all, depends on what things make up those multitudes. I might think as night approaches, Wow, I can’t believe how many places we’ve been to today, how much we’ve experienced. But I might also think, as I reach one end of my apartment and turn to pace slowly back toward the other end: My god, I can’t believe we have to do this again tomorrow.
March 25, 2020
LE PRÉ-SAINT-GERVAIS, FRANCE—I have things to do besides clean; I’m working on some things, I’m working on a translation. I came up with the project because I was going to have to do a project for school (my master’s thesis), I love translating and so it would be no problem, but I knew there would have to be a “theoretical part,” which I had been dreading because I figured all the reading—“translation theory”—would be very lame and… cheesy? (I want to say bidon, which is a French word.) You know, about ties that bind, human community and so on—but it turns out actually to be super dark and thorny, even scary, about irreconcilable difference, unbridgeable distance, unknowable mystery. Lucky me.
At 8 p.m. on the second day of confinement, Wednesday the 18th, people in my building and, to judge by the sounds, a couple of buildings adjacent, came to their windows clapping, cheering, whistling, banging pots and pans and yelling “Bravo!” I joined in clapping, then texted P.—“is there a reason?”—and he got right back to me. “Yes thanking the health professionals.” (As they would do the following night, and as they keep doing.)
Walter Benjamin, for his melancholy, his exile, is a writer so well suited to the topic. In his important 1923 essay “The Task of the Translator”—a title I itch to render as “The Translator’s Task,” because that’s how I’d translate it—he posits (in Harry Zohn’s translation) that “Unlike a work of literature, translation does not find itself in the center of the language forest but on the outside facing the wooded ridge; it calls into it without entering…” With imagery like this the essay is still, in its way, loving, gentle; the impossibility of translation carries a potential for transcendence all its own, suggesting a “kinship” of intention shared by human languages. But even that suggestion is flawed, as Benjamin allows charmingly: “This, to be sure, is to admit that all translation is only a somewhat provisional way of coming to terms with the foreignness of languages.”
Antoine Berman writes that, as a sign of translation’s unworkability, it can be described only by metaphors. Benjamin’s “wooded ridge” is, I think, unusually eye-catching; many of the metaphors are common. One that appears—from what I was able to accomplish before the library closed—to have lost steam, passing into cliché, is the one about the difficulty each of us humans faces in articulating, or “translating,” our thoughts as language. A scheme of metaphors out of which these writers get, in my opinion, a little bit more juice is the economic, or mathematical. Berman himself observes, in La Traduction et la lettre, that the “value” of a poem is often thought of in terms of its “untranslatability.” Jacques Derrida, in a famous lecture on translation, remarks that for the translator, “untranslatability” is “a remainder of his operation.” That translation, mine, isn’t ideal. “Remainder” is such a specific word, specific to math, and reste under other circumstances would translate as “that which is left.” Or “leftovers.”
The place I’m staying, which is warm and dry—I’m lucky—is a single room, a studio I sublet. Before the sixth day of confinement, Sunday the 22nd, I had, using FaceTime, Skype and Facebook Messenger’s video feature, called up contacts, performing operation after operation as remainders, in their metaphysical heaps, accrued. I spoke “in person” to a supermarket clerk, and to a policeman reprimanding me for having jogged too far from where I live. (One kilometer, the state has specified, is the limit.) You’re not supposed to meet up, either, but on March 22nd, keeping careful distances, I went for a walk alongside E., who is staying in Les Lilas. Excellente nouvelle, she had written, on est à 1km7 de distance, roughly 1.06 miles, lune, moon, beautiful but meaning l’une, l’une de l’autre, one to the other: mathématiquement c’est légal.
I didn’t hear from P. for a couple of days, and then he sent selfies; he has shaved his head. H. got out as the lockdown was getting started; she has gone with her cousins to Normandy. Mondays I Skype with her and K., who recently moved from the Paris region to Bethlehem, where he grew up and where his first experience of home confinement ensued during the Second Intifada. He wrote about that on March 13th; here is the link.
Kids home from school in the residential complex where I live are playing in its courtyard, green with spring, resonant with their laughter. A bud in the window box is opening slowly and asymmetrically into a flower of traffic-cone orange with a couple dozen petals.
B. called. “I want to be in it!” he said.
“P. shaved his head,” I said. “That’s definitely going in. If you shave your head, you can be in it, too.”
These Are Not the End Times
March 23, 2020
NEW YORK, NY—Though mild, I have what I am fairly sure are the symptoms of coronavirus. Three weeks ago I was in extended and close contact with someone who has since tested positive. When I learned this, I spent some time trying to figure out how to get tested myself, but now the last thing I want to do is to go stand in a line in front of a Brooklyn hospital along with others who also have symptoms. My wife and I have not been outside our apartment since March 10th. We have opened the door just three times since then, to receive groceries that had been left for us by an unseen deliveryman, as per our instructions, on the other side. We read of others going on walks, but that seems like a selfish extravagance when you have a dry cough and a sore throat. This is the smallest apartment I’ve ever lived in. I am noticing features of it, and of the trees, the sky and the light outside our windows, that escaped my attention—shamefully, it now seems—over the first several months since we arrived here in August. I know when we finally get out I will be like the protagonist of Halldór Laxness’s stunning novel, World Light, who, after years of bedridden illness, weeps when he bids farewell to all the knots and grooves in the wood beams of his attic ceiling.
I am not at all certain that my university in Paris will be open for business when it comes time to reinstitute my salary in June, which I had voluntarily suspended in order to take a year-long fellowship in New York. I am not at all sure that a few months from now the world is going to be the sort of place where a citizen of one country can expect to resume his public function in another country’s education system. I am not at all sure universities are going to be the sort of place where one can, again, get together with others in a room and deign to speak with them of what is beautiful and true. Meanwhile, my mother is in cancer treatment in California, and I fear I may never see her again. Until a few days ago my sister, a glacial marine geoscientist, was stuck in unexpectedly thick ice, on an icebreaker too small to break it, in the ocean somewhere off the coast of Antarctica; now her international crew is floating again, uncertain how they will get back to the Northern Hemisphere in a world of quarantines, closed borders and canceled flights, but still just happy to be back on the open sea. My wife is here with me on a tourist visa that will soon expire. We do not know what things will be like in New York when that happens, or whether there might be an exemption for foreigners who overstay their visas only because they are unable to leave what might by then be a fully locked-down city. She has an elderly grandmother in Europe. Should she leave now to be with her, while she still can and while her papers are still valid? What would become of me, if she were to go?
These are some of the questions we find ourselves asking right now. They are not exceptional, among the billions of small tragedies this pandemic has churned up. But they are mine. I have often wondered what life would be like for the survivors of a nuclear war, and in these fleeting recollections of the old world—there used to be Starbucks and barber shops, there used to be a subway I’d get on to go to the library, there used to be embrassades—I feel like I am gaining a small glimpse of that.
I find that I am generally at peace, and that the balance between happiness and sadness on any given day is little different from what it always has been for me. I find that there is liberation in this suspension of more or less everything. In spite of it all, we are free now. Any fashion, sensibility, ideology, set of priorities, worldview or hobby that you acquired prior to March 2020, and that may have by then started to seem to you cumbersome, dull, inauthentic, a drag: you are no longer beholden to it. You can cast it off entirely and no one will care; likely, no one will notice. Were you doing something out of mere habit, conceiving your life in a way that seemed false to you? You can stop doing that now. We have little idea what the world is going to look like when we get through to the other side of this, but it is already perfectly clear that the “discourses” of our society, such as they had developed up to about March 8 or 9, 2020, in all their frivolity and distractiousness, have been decisively curtailed, like the CO2 emissions from the closed factories and the vacated highways.
Not to downplay the current tragedy—as I’ve already acknowledged, it is already affecting me personally in deep and real ways—but I take it that this interruption is a good thing.
The interruption is not total, of course. Normies seem particularly fond of toilet-paper joke memes for the moment, while the extremely online instinctively disdain them. Both the normies and the extremely online are, as they have been since 2016, far too reliant on the language of “apocalypse” and “end times.” These are not the end times; even a nuclear war would not be the end times for all the creatures on earth, among which there will always be at least some extremophiles to relish any new arrangement of the ecosystem. What this is, rather, is a critical shift in the way we think about the human, the natural and the overlap between these.
I have said that we can all just stop doing whatever we were doing before that may have come to ring false to us, and that that is liberating. In my own case, I was working on a book (one that developed, curiously, out of an essay of mine, entitled “It’s All Over,” posted here at The Point a little over a year ago) that was going to articulate how the internet is destroying the fabric of human community. But for the life of me I cannot, in the present circumstances, see the internet as anything other than the force that is holding that fabric together. I used to bemoan virtue signaling. I look at the newly assembled vanguard of the all-volunteer forces of “Wash Your Hands” Twitter, and though I can still discern that tone that used to get me so bent out of shape (“Listen up y’all, today I’m going to break down the virus’s lipid envelope for you”), now I just smile and think: “Good for them. Good for Dr. Brianna Ph.D., and all her loyal followers.”
So I’m going have to rethink that particular book project. But that follows from the much more general point that we are all going to have to rethink everything. One thing that is certain is that you are now free to put down whatever cool theorist your peers once convinced you you had to read. None of that discourse is any more germane to thinking about the present situation than, say, Robert Burton, or Galen, or St. Theresa of Ávila. Read whatever you want to read now, and don’t be distracted by those writers who are so set in their ways that they know no other strategy than to recover formulae devised back in the old world, and to retry them in the new one, like stubborn Norsemen struggling to graze cattle in Greenland, when the world they find themselves in demands they learn to hunt seals. Thus Slavoj Žižek is now blogging for RT, the Russian state propaganda network, about how the virus puts him in mind of Tarantino films, while Giorgio Agamben is pushing a species of Trumpian doubt-mongering by claiming that the “disproportionate reaction” to the pandemic is nothing more than an assertion of authoritarian biopolitics. Honestly, at this point whoever’s left of the vanguard of continental philosophy should probably just start hawking men’s vitamin supplements on late-nite TV.
These are not the end times, I mean, but nor are they business as usual, and we would do well to understand that not only is there room for a middle path between these, but indeed there is an absolute necessity that we begin our voyage down that path. To the squealing chiliasts and self-absorbed presentists, indulging themselves with phrases like “the end of the world,” I say: “Did it never dawn on you that all of human history has just been one partial apocalypse after another?” And to the business-as-usual mandarins I say: “Thank you for your service in the glorious battles of the past.”
This is an excerpt of a longer essay published on our website.
Click here to read the article in full.
March 23, 2020
CHICAGO—“The first thing that the wave of panic that has paralyzed the country obviously shows is that our society no longer believes in anything but bare life,” Giorgio Agamben recently observed. In our hysterical panic, exerting herculean efforts to avoid physical harm, we have made ourselves vulnerable to loss of a far higher order: sacrificing our work, friendships, extended families, religious rites (first among them funerals) and political commitments. In this way, we might preserve ourselves biologically, but we will have eliminated in the process anything that gives life meaning, that makes it worth living.
What is more, for Agamben, the exclusive focus on survival at any cost, on the preservation of “bare life” not only constitutes a spiritual defeat in its own right but turns us against one another, threatening the possibility of meaningful human relationships and thus any semblance of “society”: “Bare life—and the danger of losing it—is not something that unites people, but blinds and separates them.” Paranoia drives us to view other human beings “solely as possible spreaders of the plague,” to be avoided at all costs. Such a state, where we all dedicate ourselves to a battle against an enemy within us, lurking in every other person, is, “in reality, a civil war.” The consequences, Agamben predicts, will be grim and will outlast the epidemic. He concludes:
Just as wars have left as a legacy to peace a series of inauspicious technology, from barbed wire to nuclear power plants, so it is also very likely that one will seek to continue even after the health emergency experiments that governments did not manage to bring to reality before: closing universities and schools and doing lessons only online, putting a stop once and for all to meeting together and speaking for political or cultural reasons and exchanging only digital messages with each other, wherever possible substituting machines for every contact—every contagion—between human beings.
To be clear, Agamben is right that the costs we are paying are exceedingly high: the response to the epidemic exacts great sacrifices from us as individuals and from society as a whole. Moreover—and putting to one side the conspiratorial paranoia—there is a real risk that it will lower public resistance to political measures that threaten democratic self-governance: increased use of surveillance, the expansion of executive powers and restrictions on the freedom of movement and association.
Observing potential costs, however, is the easy part: what is much more difficult and much more perilous is getting clear on what it is exactly that we are sacrificing for. Agamben is right that a life dedicated solely to our own biological survival is a human life in name only, and that to voluntarily choose such a life is not merely a personal sacrifice but a form of society-wide moral self-harm. But is this really what we are doing?
There are of course those—the Florida spring breakers, the St. Paddy’s Day pub crawlers—who have shown the moral heroism Agamben is calling for here, refusing to bow to the recommendations of the authorities. But those of us who have, with heavy hearts, embraced the restrictions on our freedoms, are not merely aiming at our own biological survival. We have welcomed the various institutional limitations on our lives (in fact sometimes hoped our governments would introduce these sooner), and we have urged our friends and family (especially our stubborn parents!) to do the same, not to ward off “the danger of getting sick,” not for the sake of our bare life, and indeed not for the sake of the bare life of others, but out of an ethical imperative: to exercise the tremendous powers of society to protect the vulnerable, be they our loved ones or someone else’s.
We are doing all of this, in the first place, for our fellow people—our parents, our grandparents and all those who are, by dint of fate, fragile. Nothing could be further from our minds than the maintenance of their “bare life”: we care about these people because they are our kin, our friends and the members of our community.
My fiancé and I canceled our summer wedding last week. We did it so that our guests, including my partner’s high-risk father, might be able at some later date to safely attend the social celebration of our decision to tie our lives to one another’s. We are now taking precautions, cooped up in our apartment, “isolating,” so that we may be able to soon visit his father, later, without endangering his health, if we ever make it back to London. With any luck, we may all get to celebrate that wedding together one day after all. With any luck, our children will one day meet their grandfather. Agamben laments that we are sacrificing “social relationships, work, even friendships, affections, and religious and political convictions” to “the danger of getting sick.” But we are not making sacrifices for the sake of anyone’s mere survival. We sacrifice because sharing our joys and pains, efforts and leisure, with our loved ones—young and old, sick and healthy—is the very substance of these so-called “normal conditions of life.”
“What is a society,” Agamben asks, “that has no value other than survival?” Under certain circumstances, this is a good question; under these circumstances, it is a blind one. Is this the society Agamben believes he is living in? When this philosopher looks around him, does he truly see nothing but the fight for “bare life”? If so, Agamben’s “clarification” may be revealing in a way he hadn’t intended. We might think of it as a very lucid example of “bare theory”: the dressing up of outdated jargon as a form of courageous resistance to unreflecting moral dogma. Sometimes, it is advisable to hold off on deploying the heavy theoretical machinery until one has looked around. If we are after wisdom about how to live today, we should look elsewhere.
This is an excerpt of a longer essay published in the Chronicle of Higher Education. Click here to read the article in full.
The Dinner Party
March 23, 2020
BELLPORT, NY—At the tail end of February, with coronavirus still in the bleary distance of other countries—or so I thought—my boyfriend Jeff and I traveled to Los Angeles. We were there to see friends, because an airline flash sale made LA affordable, and because we were free, and semi-yearly vacations were a bourgeois obligation.
Our host was a friend we would have liked to see more often, B.
I had known B. since Jeff and I began to date three years ago. Jeff had known B. since 1980, when they were both restaurant critics as well as out gay men—a practically unheard-of combination in those post-Stonewall, pre-AIDS years. B. had had heart problems since he was a child, yet he prided himself on an indefatigable adventurousness that had led him, some decades ago, to work as a park ranger in remote Alaska, living off of food dropped by parachutes and whatever books he managed to rustle up in the tiny boreal towns.
Now 78 years old, B. was feeling unwell when we arrived—short of breath while he walked, struggling to eat. Yet he was adamant on being a charming liaison around his city. He took us to a Northern Thai restaurant in a Little Armenia strip mall; to the Pattern and Decoration show at MOCA; to see the renovation that the mega-gallery Hauser & Wirth had wreaked on a former flour mill. (Now complete with valet parking!) Unlike most men in the waning years of their eighth decade, B. never retired, and whenever Jeff and I were out exploring the city alone, he was hard at work at a career he began late in life, as the founder and director of the Museum of California Design. He had just had a show in Palm Springs, of children’s toys. The show was a great success, he informed us over the breakfast table; we talked for a long time about Barbie dolls.
B.’s favorite hobby was to throw dinner parties, and our visit was an opportunity. The last night of our stay, he gathered eight or so people to dine on his famous roast chicken. “I’m always too optimistic,” he told me while we set one side of the table, so that the chairs on the other side of the table did not impose themselves on the design of his dining room. “It gets me into trouble.” Because I volunteered, I had spent most of the afternoon trying to assemble a puzzle chair designed by David Kawecki, which B. wanted his guests to be able to sit in—having never put a piece of furniture together that was not manufactured by Ikea, I failed. The guests ambled in, LA dinner parties a pre-COVID ceremony with which they were all comfortable. There was B.’s old editor, a novelist friend, a former roommate who ran a fellowship program for artists. There was also A., a once-upon-a-time punk musician turned journalist and epidemiologist, with whom I immediately enjoyed talking. A. had written a controversial book about AIDS, and how having fewer sexual partners was the only way to #stopthespread of that epidemic.
Emboldened by the era of PrEP and by my own pre-COVID promiscuity—does it matter that I’m 28? I think so—I disputed his hypothesis when it came up at dinner. A. took the opportunity to raise a topic that has since dominated the thoughts of everyone in attendance, and increasingly everyone in the world: coronavirus will have dire effects on our society from which we will never recover.
He began to lecture about the pandemic and why the U.S. is unprepared to handle its repercussions. B.’s dinner party was not only the last A. would attend, he said that it would be the last time he left the house to socialize. The date was February 29th; for days, he had already been stockpiling disinfectants and food.
No one had the expertise or the arrogance to disagree with A. We just wanted him to shut up. After all, we had only been together for an hour or so, and by the time he was done speaking, we had been together for three hours. In California time, it was late and people had to go home. He had bombed the party, taken it over, and prevented anyone else from sharing the soapbox with him. To say the least, he had been impolite, and definitely not charming.
Jeff and I said goodbye to B. and boarded a plane the next day, wondering whether the fear we felt was merely an unreasonable reaction to a soured evening, and not a reasonable one to a world in distress. We’ve discussed since whether this experience prepared us for the austerity measures to come better than our friends back in New York, where we live. Perhaps it did.
What the discussion did not prepare us for was B.’s death. We had no idea how sick he actually was, and luckily for B.—who passed away on March 7th after his heart stopped while he slept—he did not know that his health hiccup would be terminal, either. Yet when I think of our final days together, I won’t think of my first inklings of coronavirus in America. I’ll remember us at a Lucio Fontana show downtown, in the last of the “spatial environments” the artist made before his death in the Lombardy region of Italy—where 3,095 people have died of COVID-19 as of March 21. While Jeff waited outside, B. and I donned protective slippers, joking about how we had to protect the pristine floors of the installation from our infectious humanity. We wandered around its faux mirrors and disorienting walls, exclaiming every time we expected to see a reflection of ourselves and saw another person instead. I’ll remember him, with me, this way, in public: we were like two children, happy to have found a bit of adventure, lost in the funhouse of our lives at the close of the free world.
March 22, 2020
BROOKLYN—In 2012, when I was living in New Orleans during the days before Hurricane Isaac hit the city, my landlady told me that she’d gotten her axe out when she heard about the storm. She’d inherited the weapon from her father’s Creole family in Barataria, a shrimping community in the watery reaches of south Louisiana; lore was that an elderly relative (her grandfather?) had once used it to hack through the ceiling to reach the roof as floodwaters rose in the era before storm warnings. She was ready to do the same.
In recent days, as the coronavirus has spread, with protective measures becoming more stringent in my current home of New York City, I’ve found myself thinking about Ann Plique and her axe. In a larger sense, I have been thinking about how different scales of memory inform the emotional and spiritual resilience that we bring to death and disaster. Many members of my generation who have come of age in the developed world are unique in having little memory or experience of living through an epidemic. Millennials are too young to remember AIDS and, in the United States, SARS and Ebola slid past our eyes as headlines. I and my parents were vaccinated against diseases that used to carry off generations of children. No one with a vivid memory of the 1918 flu epidemic is alive today.
Yet if you swim away from the familiar shoals of living memory, other depths of experience emerge. This, or parts of this, have happened before. In 1732, one observer wrote of a measles and smallpox outbreak that killed six-percent of the New York’s population, “Many children dye … and the Country People are afraid to come to Town which makes Markets Thin, Provisions dear, and deadens all Trade, and it goes very hard with the Poor.” In 1822, an outbreak of yellow fever was concentrated first among residents in Lower Manhattan, with a picket-fence barrier strung up on Chambers Street as city dwellers fled north, a newspaper reporting, “From daybreak till night one line of carts, containing boxes, merchandise, and effects, were seen moving toward Greenwich Village.” In 1832, New Yorkers read about the outbreak of a new disease called cholera sweeping across Asia and Europe, were slow to quarantine ships so as not to staunch the flow of trade, and ultimately had to commandeer buildings like a school and a bank to cover the shortage of hospital beds, forming benevolent committees to help those out of work while cartloads of coffins rumbled through the streets. In 1892, when another cholera outbreak swept form Persia to Russia and western Europe, steamships from Germany bobbed, quarantined, in New York’s harbor while a new health department carried disinfectant and pamphlets in six languages to overcrowded neighborhoods. (These details compiled from Gotham, Edwin Burrows and Mike Wallace’s sublime history of New York City.) For each of these local examples, we could dredge up counterparts stretching back much further into history. The global simultaneity of the coronavirus feels new, but the larger exigencies surrounding the disease are not.
Anyone in the nineteenth century and their elders would have carried a visceral memory of bereavements, deprivations and survivals during lethal epidemics, and I am interested in the role of this kind of memory not for its practical value but for its spiritual and psychological effects. One who has lived with death and disease as close companions may be less undone by their reappearance. In The Fire Next Time James Baldwin describes the way that, “for all its horror” the brutality of the African-American past “contains something very beautiful … If one is continually surviving the worst that life can bring, one eventually ceases to be controlled by a fear of what life can bring; whatever it brings must be borne.” I have been returning to that passage in recent weeks. As I’ve watched the coronavirus story unfold, I’ve had a sense that the epidemic reveals not just material shortages—of hand sanitizer and ventilators, toilet paper and test kits—but shortages of psychological and spiritual imagination, of the kind of internal hardihood that Baldwin describes.
This meagerness of spiritual resources intensifies the larger drama of modernity, where medicine and technology lengthen and protect more lives while steepening the drop between what is within our control and what is not. Anyone who imagines that their experience of the world can be controlled—and our hyper plugged-in lives, in which everything seems to lie before us, sharable, mapped, and reviewed, must worsen this—is less emotionally equipped to deal not just with pandemics and hurricanes but with the basic precariousness and uncertainty entailed in being human: the doubts and leaps, the fragilities and griefs, of love and trust, illness and mortality.
I don’t mean to romanticize the past and its privations. They interest me only because they open up possibilities for the future. Knowing what’s come before us can provide a sense of resilience, of larger arcs and survivals that extend beyond our individual lifetimes. Knowing the past also reminds us how different things have been in other eras, and not so long ago—and if the values of the past were different, those of the future can be also.
Last week, when I took a walk in Prospect Park, a young woman wearing a white face mask passed me, carrying a bouquet of yellow flowers. I wondered what the story behind the flowers was—and found out a bit later as I walked past the arch at Grand Army Plaza and saw someone else carrying an identical bouquet. As I neared the fountain, I saw the cast-iron statue of Poseidon wreathed with marigolds, a face mask of flowers knit over the god’s mouth. A dozen bouquets were also splayed along the fountain’s edge beside a sign reading CORONA COLLABORATION!, a hashtag for #flowersforthepeople, and black arrows inviting passersby to “PLEASE TAKE.”
I picked up a bouquet and moved aside to watch. Others stepped up to take pictures and, sometimes, take flowers, waiting their turn as part of the new courtesies of social distancing. Whether gestures of public art and solidarity will be snuffed out as quarantine measures tighten or whether there will be more art in the streets as the suffering worsens, I took heart in seeing resilience bubble up in my neighborhood. The ways that we find emotional and internal sustenance during this time—the ways we mourn and make meaning—will be as large a part of our bequeathal to the future as the more tangible changes that follow the pandemic. In Mexico, marigolds are the flowers placed out during Día de los Muertos, their pungent smell thought to help guide the dead back to the living. Those flowers I took from the fountain are on my desk now, their sticky-sweet smell in the air, a few tiny yellow petals falling to the floor.
March 22, 2020
ISTANBUL, TURKEY—I proposed to my partner, an artist, at a restaurant in Istanbul last December, when people were still allowed to go to restaurants. At the time, I pictured the future as a large canvas featuring celebrations with friends, a honeymoon in a distant town, forms of social interaction that I hadn’t been able to enjoy as a bachelor. I pondered the prospect of having kids and raising them in a society we recognized, where nurseries and schools functioned like they had since we were born, where the public sphere was still a battleground between competing powers and ideas, where it was possible to enjoy a cuppa together after breakfast and be alone in the subway before noon, where the mostly separate spheres of public and private, solitude and companionship, still existed.
The quarantine pulled the tablecloth from under our marriage. For the dead, death is what it is: the absence of all that is social and worldly. But marriage requires sociality, because it entails various types of social performance, and the wedding ceremony is but the first act of the play. If sociality has ceased to exist, why play social roles at all?
Apart from this philosophical conundrum, there were the logistical knots of the ceremony that my partner and I had to face. Our parents are in their sixties; they had to commute by car to Beyoğlu, the bustling heart of Istanbul, for the ceremony, on March 15th. How safe was that? Two days earlier, I had been in a pub in London raising a pint of Guinness with my editors, rode the Tube afterwards, and later savored the taste of crisps on my fingers at Tate Modern’s crowded cafeteria before flying home. How safe had that been? By asking our parents to witness our marriage vows, we could in effect be signing their death warrants.
I never thought inviting guests to my wedding would turn into an ethical dilemma. My family doctor, knowing my travel history, demanded that I check in with her every morning on WhatsApp and report any symptoms I might have picked up in England. I dared not tell her this was the week of my marriage.
Still, I considered myself lucky. Had I waited another four months, would I have proposed to my partner? How would she have reacted to my proposal if it was received it in self-isolation?
Our wedding ceremony seemed to have been scheduled for the last day of the world as we knew it—a Sunday evening, hours before we’d wake up to curfews and plundered supermarket shelves and news of best friends struggling to find ventilators. In between that future and the present was our wedding, a threshold between the still familiar and the unsettlingly unpredictable. Which is what a wedding traditionally is, but on the other side of a yesterday when corona didn’t exist, the unknown had become potentially lethal.
What is the meaning of saying “I do” to an unknowable future while fundamentals of sociality undergo such a worrying mutation? Was it just a caprice to insist on marrying in the days of COVID-19? I felt responsible for the witness who performed her task wearing a medical respirator. I thanked but also feared the audio engineer who asked me, in a tiny, stuffy room, which song I wanted played when we came on stage. A few minutes later, when the moment to commit to spending our lives together arrived, I was reminded of Molly Bloom’s resounding affirmation at the end of James Joyce’s Ulysses, her “yes I said yes I will Yes,” while I said, despite all the uncertainty and fears, “Yes, I do.”
Afterwards there were congratulations but no kisses. Families were sent to their respective quarantines. The marriage official told me we were the last couple before closing time. I watched the lights of the marriage office go out.
March 22, 2020
LONDON, U.K.—When I arrived in London for a week-long trip to visit friends on March 11th, I had left behind a United States that was slowly hunkering down: universities and museums had begun to shutter, travel was being canceled.
The British capital, I was pleased to find, was still running at full steam. “Welcome to London,” boomed a gap-toothed newspaper delivery man as I emerged from the Tube in Chinatown, pulling my suitcase. I was staying with my cousin, who lived on the top floor of an area walk-up; the gay bar on its ground floor pumped out its usual techno, albeit at a muted, breakfast-time volume.
That night, I went to a jazz concert in a converted tunnel arch in Deptford. The space was so small that the audience—young, dreadlocked, fluid-limbed—danced right next to the performers. Sweat, saliva and hot breath swirled together under the dim red light. Over the next few days, I took in a play, went to a lecture, wandered through the Enlightenment Gallery at the British Museum, met friends at pubs for dinner and drinks. Unlike the rest of Europe, the British government had taken a fairly lax stance to the pandemic. The public was likely to experience “behavioral fatigue” if severe restrictions were maintained for too long, Prime Minister Boris Johnson stated at a press conference on March 12th. The government saw promise in encouraging “herd immunity” whereby infections now would mean greater resilience later.
The example of the rest of the world was just one of many reproaches to the Johnson strategy, and the British public started to do what its government would not. Plans with friends on Saturday night retracted, from a concert to a spacious well-ventilated bar to ordering in pizza and eating it in one friend’s living room, bumping elbows instead of hugging to say hello (now, of course, even that proximity seems cavalier.)
By the time I left, on Monday, a few days earlier than I had planned, in order to avoid the chaos of the U.K. travel ban, a pervasive social chill had set in. Even during morning rush hour, few people lined the escalators in the Tube in Leicester Square, one of the city’s main arteries; as I walked from the stairwell to the platform, the area was so quiet that I heard the echo of my own footsteps.
On Tuesday, Johnson conceded that Britons should stay away from restaurants, pubs and theaters. Museums and libraries began closing. The schools stayed open until Friday, upon which they were closed indefinitely. By the weekend, Johnson had changed his stance entirely, speaking of the necessity of making a “heroic and collective national effort to slow the spread” of the virus. The pubs—the country’s lifeblood—were shuttered en masse for the first time in history, and a lockdown in London seemed imminent.
Innocence is usually lost gradually. One of the many surreal things about the COVID-19 pandemic is the swiftness with which our collective expectations for the future have been overturned. Yet London is one of the best places to meditate on such a reversal, and to start to see it as not so much an aberration but the order of things.
During one of my last mornings in the city, I headed to the long, thin whale-spine of Millennium Bridge, walked down a set of narrow, railless stairs, and stepped out onto the banks of the Thames. The weather was typical for a British March—overcast and damp, with a cutting wind. It was low tide, and the south side of the city seemed unnaturally close, the Shard glittering at a distance that I felt I could forge with my arm. The banks of the Thames contain the smashed fragments of the city’s past, a relic of a time when the river doubled as the city’s main thoroughfare and a liquid trash heap. Under my feet were broken roof tiles from Victorian factories, shards of Tudor pottery, a profusion of ceramic pipe stems, oyster shells that shimmered through the grime.
Out on the bank, I encountered two men wearing thick angular wellies and mud-splattered parkas. Between them were a pair of buckets, a shovel and a rake. They were mudlarks, in other words, possessing two of the about fifty licenses London grants to individuals to plumb as much as four feet into the banks’ depths. I smiled at them, hoping to appear friendly but not annoying, and stood by as one dug into the black sediment, heaving the watery earth into a pile while the other used a metal detector to pat the dirt down and then waved it across the level surface, checking for treasure.
As I watched them work, they recovered a Georgian coin, an intact pipe, a thin piece of brass that once covered the end of an Elizabethan shoelace. These remnants were missives from London’s past, a past that was long, difficult and full of acts of destruction large and small. But it was also a past, I observed as the cool wind gusted through my jacket, that demonstrated that pain could be fertile ground for beauty, and that life carried on.
This realization soothed me in a way that difficult adult truths do—mildly—and I felt newly resigned and determined to face the coming crisis in whatever form it would take. Eventually, I thanked the men for their time, climbed back up to street level, and went on my way.
What Can Guide Us?
March 20, 2020
PALO ALTO—Last week my chair sent an email to the department asking what reassuring words she might include in a message to our majors and minors as they fled campus. Initially I found myself focusing on “applicable skills,” the kind of justification for a humanities discipline that university administrators love. “We could say we hope the things they’ve learnt in their philosophy classes will help them in the next few weeks/months,” I wrote, “e.g. attention to what matters most, moral concern for others, a longer view of the bigger picture, etc.” But after sending my reply, part of me felt we should be giving them a bit more content than that. So I jokingly suggested a quote from Aurelius’s Meditations:
Duration: momentary. Nature: changeable. Perception: dim. Condition of Body: decaying. Soul: spinning around. Fortune: unpredictable. Lasting Fame: uncertain. Sum Up: The body and its parts are a river, the soul a dream and mist, life is warfare and a journey far from home, lasting reputation is oblivion.
Then what can guide us?
I’ve always enjoyed that passage, mainly for the laughs, but afterwards it didn’t feel like a joke, or at best a sick one. The earlier parts of it kind of hit home right now, don’t they? And the last sentence seems even more painfully inadequate than usual.
Maybe to process my discomfort, I made the quote into a meme (my first!—we academics are upskilling fast this week!): that one going around lately where the captions under the images in the CDC’s thirteen-step hand-washing instructions are replaced with song lyrics. By step six, the image that looks like a wringing of hands, I’d gotten to “Soul: spinning around.” By step thirteen, I’d arrived at the clincher—“Only philosophy.” The hands in that picture are adjacent and apart, palms raised to the sky. They’re empty.
We philosophers are known for that: while people often come to us for life advice and succor, we’re also famous for being totally depressing or useless in response. There’s something bracing about that persistent strain of darkness in the philosophical tradition, that determination to face the elementary facts, that refusal to offer easy consolation. A lot of us are energized by Camus’s claim that Sisyphus “knows the whole extent of his wretched condition: it is what he thinks of during his descent … There is no fate that cannot be surmounted by scorn.” It’s cool to be the dark one, the one who wasn’t fooled.
It’s certainly true that the others—the optimists, the fools—can be a liability in a real crisis. They can be dangerous: think of all those criminally reckless brunchers and pre-Patty’s Day partiers this past weekend, not to mention the president’s shamelessly enabling tweets about everything being fine. They can be tiring too. The only time I’ve cried in this whole disaster so far has been when someone tried to repeatedly convince me over the phone to collude in their fantasy that it’d all be over in two weeks.
And the optimists can be irritating. I’ve always hated that rose-tinted “it’s so beautiful, we’re coming together” response to a collective catastrophe. It sounds like a simultaneous orgasm and it does feel like that, sort of. You get it at the bus stop after an earthquake, when people you’ve been riding next to for years look you in the eye for the first time and everyone says, “Well, that was rattling, wasn’t it?” You get it when everyone starts donning a “Boston Strong” cap or t-shirt after passionate, determined long-distance runners have their legs arbitrarily blown off. You get it at a citizenship ceremony, even if the main reason you’re signing up is because you’re worried the asshole-in-chief will deport you. Some people love the frisson of publicly expressed mass sentiment, but when I detect that mawkish sensation rising involuntarily in my gut, the non-joiner in me, the anti-silver-lining-er, resists. No no no, don’t try and redeem this shit! I’m saying. While another rebel part of me is begging please, please redeem this shit. What’s more depressing than an orgasm you’d prefer not to be having?
But the skeptics and pessimists need the optimists, just like the sick need the well. What happens when the whole planet falls into one category? It’s a disaster either way.
So, though the professional doomsayer in me might be thinking, as the planet slips into isolation and darkness, “Now the rest of you get it! Now you know how I live!”—like all those crowing introverts on Twitter at the moment—I’m not. Instead I’m thinking “now I get it”: I get that I need you, you appallingly able-bodied and optimistic people, you people who feel at most a light twinge in the back once a season, you people who have Life is Good® stickers on your bumpers, you people who sing from the balconies of Siena. For the love of god, the whole glowing rose-colored lot of you, remain healthy, keep singing, and stay the fuck inside—for me. For each one of the me’s that are us.
This is an excerpt of a longer essay published on our website.
Click here to read the article in full.
March 19, 2020
LE PRÉ-SAINT-GERVAIS, FRANCE—The French government, of which a certain paternalism, in connection with the still-Napoleonic centralization of command, can seem even in “peacetime” exotic to an outsider, rolled out restrictions progressively. Since noon on Tuesday the 17th it has been illegal to leave one’s house without a permit. Cops are checking. You download and sign it, swearing on your honor you’re just going out to buy food, and fill in your address, which they check. On Thursday the 12th it was announced schools would close; on Saturday the 14th, it was announced a closure of “nonessential businesses” would take effect that night.
I was with friends. We had just left a bar. One of my favorite traits of the national character is the conviction French people have that there is a discoverable optimally enjoyable way of going about anything. (This is what’s meant by savoir-vivre.) H., texting family members all figuring out where they’d hunker down and if the young, more likely infected ones would do best in keeping away from the grandparents, looked up. She said I should call P.—another friend of ours—and see if I could stay with him. As H. and P. know, I live alone.
It was funny, because I had, by coincidence, made a kind of fake, simulated version of that request earlier in the day. I felt constrained to ask P. to sign a piece of paper swearing that I lived with him, which I will explain. I am American and have lived in France nearly five years, non-consecutively (or else I’d be able to apply for citizenship). You have to ask weird favors. (You are lucky, and marked out by your privilege as different from the vast majority of immigrants, if that is all you have to do.) The first I had to ask was in 2013 of a school friend’s aunt, who was generous in agreeing to co-sign my lease as a guarantor. I had a real job, teaching at a university, which meant I was a government functionary; rent was just 500€ a month, but unless you make really a lot of money, you need a guarantor, and they have to be French. More recently, I haven’t bothered trying to rent from an agency as I am, this time around, a student without income in France. I have lived, instead, in a series of arrangements made with individuals.
In the contemporary idiom, the term for one’s situation in the eyes of French bureaucracy is vie administrative, one’s “administrative life.” You take care of it, or not, the way you take care of your body, family, finances. In the first chapter of Virginie Despentes’s Vernon Subutex 1 (2015), in which the eponymous character’s slide into homelessness is achieved believably in about thirty still leisurely pages—flashbacks to old love affairs and all—Vernon, receiving an eviction notice, reflects that he “no longer takes care of any administrative paperwork” [ne s’occupe plus d’aucun document administratif]; a lapse in hygiene, this connects with having “mentally paralyzed himself” [il s’est mentalement paralysé]. There are, in France, charitable organizations that task themselves with establishing addresses for use by homeless individuals. Domiciliation administrative, such addresses are called. Apparently, a time comes when you have to touch base or you’re it.
I’d flunked a visa appointment. My landlord at the time (November) had not honored my request for a piece of paper saying I lived at his place; such paper, which can be replaced by a lease if you have one, must be accompanied by photocopies of the landlord’s ID card and a utility bill in their name, and because I was obliged to use the set of documents I had from a previous landlord, the utility bill was more than three months old. Additionally, on the piece of paper provided by my university, a venerable institution, no mention was made of the number of hours of coursework the program entailed. Despite these failures—I was given to understand this was an act of mercy—the prefecture supplied me with a piece of paper that would extend the validity of my expiring visa as I waited for a makeup appointment at which I would have to make a better showing; this, paper plus visa, would be good through May 21. But I was told to make the appointment for as soon as possible, and I went a couple of weeks ago. I learned that, because I’d moved to the Pré-Saint-Gervais, another municipality, I would have either to start over, making an appointment with the prefecture of Bobigny, or, if my wish was to continue working with the Paris prefecture, with its special office to help students, to live in Paris. An example of someone who does live in Paris is P. I was thinking of going home for a visit in April, and it crossed my mind to do that and come back as a tourist, live here with the default tourist visa, but as of recently that’s out.
I was actually going to bring the paper for P. to sign that night (which H. now refers to in English as “the last dinner, oops, the last supper”), but I forgot it at home—the de facto, where I am staying as the tenant travels in India, seeking treatment for a chronic illness. The apartment is “very personalized,” as I had cause to remark over supper, “but not to me.” This gives me something to do. I am doing something even as I am doing nothing; I am a custodian of the place where I am living, keeping mail that comes for the tenant in a tall envelope and, with all this time at home, dusting her decorative objects, being careful to restore them in their places.
Goethe or Horace?
March 19, 2020
CAMBRIDGE, U.K.—When I lived in Heidelberg in the early Seventies, the city sanitation department had large and very efficient rubbish collection vehicles that went around emptying dust bins and cleaning the streets. For a while these high-tech vans had inscribed on their sides two lines of doggerel by Goethe:
Ein jeder kehre vor seiner Tür
und rein ist jedes Stadtquartier.
[Let each man sweep before his door,
and clean is the whole neighborhood.]
This aesthetically truly execrable couplet uses an excruciating off-rhyme (Tür/Stadtquartier) but look also at the verbs. Grammatically, what one has here is a conflation of two structures, each of which is simple enough in itself. First, a third-person subjective functioning as an imperative (kehre) with an added specification of consequence, the consequent also giving a reason for the imperative: Ein jeder kehre vor seiner Tür, damit jedes Stadtquartier rein sei. Here the verb in the clause specifying the consequent (sei) would seem most naturally, I think, also to be in the subjective. Second, what classical grammarians call an “open” conditional with verbs in both protasis and apodosis in the indicative: Wenn ein jeder vor seiner Tür kehrt, ist jedes Stadtquartier rein.
These two lines are often cited as an admonition to individuals to do their individual civic duty, and, of course, there is nothing wrong with that, but this should not blind us to the fact that, as they stand, they also state a patent non-truth. It is not the case that if everyone sweeps before his or her door, my whole neighborhood will be clean—because the late nineteenth-century “terrace” in which my house is located fronts onto an open public greensward. The Cambridge City Council, in a branding exercise clearly intended to make the area seem posher than it is, has tried recently to baptize this open space “Cannon Green” because apparently after the Crimean War a couple of captured Russian cannons were displayed there for a while, but no one who now lives in the street ever saw those cannons—they disappeared ages ago—and no one who lives here actually calls the place “Cannon Green.” Still, it is a chunk of common land, and by definition that means it is not in front of “my” door, or either of my neighbors’ doors, but has a different status. Will our neighborhood be “clean” if some of the hundreds of homeless people in Cambridge begin camping out on “Cannon Green,” if the grass is completely trampled down and the rubbish bins next to each of the two benches that stand on the green begin regularly to overflow with rubbish?
Goethe does not usually come across as a self-satisfied Bürger of the freie Reichstadt Frankfurt am Main, but he does in this couplet.
It pains me exceedingly to have to admit that in the face of the coronavirus, it is that grinning advocate of aurea mediocritas, the lapsed-republican-turned-imperial-toady, Quintus Horatius Flaccus who had a better idea:
Nam tua res agitur, paries cum proximus ardet
et neglecta solent incendia sumere uires. (Ep. I.18.84-85)
[It is of your concern, when your party-wall is on fire,
and fires neglected tend to grow stronger.]
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Cover image credit: Edward Hopper, “Morning Sun,” 1952