Reflections on the Coronavirus
“All of humanity’s problems stem from man’s inability to sit quietly in a room all alone.’
Blaise Pascal from Pensées 139
THE FASCINATION OF HORROR…
From the beginning I couldn’t help feeling a whisper of excitement, a frisson of awe. I was reading Wolf Hall at the time. I am a latecomer to the Mantel scene – I wanted a bedtime read that would take me completely away from my daily pressures and worries into another world. For about a week it worked. Then all of a sudden, the pestilential uncertainty of life in Tudor England started to blend uncannily with the everyday of 21st Century world events. Had I conjured it, I wondered at 4.00 in the morning as I lay awake fretting – knowing at the same time that the rhetorical question was absurd. Ah the narcissism of those pre-dawn, tormented drivellings. At all events the membranes between fantasy, history and reality have become thinly porous.
Current events are unrolling with a seeming intention that has gripped us all. I listen to talk of ‘The Virus’ and conjure the image of a many-tentacled, fiendishly tactical monster. Our tribal fear of invasion is triggered. For here is an invasion that respects no borders, no class, no money and no power – The Virus spreads exponentially and pops up all over the place, sometimes with no discernible trail. Trump has called it a Chinese virus, maliciously bolstering his rhetoric of separatism and American righteousness. But even Trump can’t build a wall to stop this one.
Others are beginning to formulate the narrative that this pestilence is the timely revenge of Gaia against her most virulent scourge, the human. This has the appeal of a felt truth, following as it does on a quasi-biblical series of epic storms, hurricanes, floods and the hell-fires that burned up Australia in recent months. An ingredient in our sense of dread is a gnawing sense that we have sinned mightily, on a mythical scale, against our Earth. The howls being posted on every platform shout loudly of this Wake Up Call…
Our dread, mixed with a prurient fascination, is intoxicating and even news-averse people like me tune in daily, or even more frequently, to find out the latest details, mesmerised by the unstoppable spread and latest drastic moves to contain, delay, isolate. The mood generated is like the best of disaster movies combined with a horror film. The film industry knows that our appetite for apocalypse is insatiable. There is a whiff of war-time spirit: we are all living with the waiting and the unknowing, exchanging chat, anecdotes and tips. I do not mean to deny the fear of what is to come when I acknowledge that while worry is as yet untested by reality it comes tinged with the pleasure of a challenge collectively faced. Could this be our moment of truth as a species?
MELODRAMA AND ANCIENT TRUTHS…
The melodrama is the modern remake of the medieval mystery play. On Wednesday we went to see a remastered print of The Magnificent Obsession by Douglas Sirk – Rock Hudson and Jane Wyman in glorious technicolour. The film is powerful and affecting both despite and because of its splashy colour and orchestrated mood sets, big gestures, in-your-face metaphors, goodies and baddies and highly dramatic plot moments of accidents, fires, reversals and salvation. Where even last decade post-modernists and sophisticates sneered at the melodrama, we have come full circle. Chastened now by realisation of how destructive a presence we are on this planet, by the high drama of current events and the grand guignol figures of our political landscape we seem to be freshly available to this form. There was a palpable crowd-feel that evening as together we gasped, shrank in horror, laughed and teared up. Understood as a way of conveying enduring truths in a bold way, the melodrama as self-conscious storytelling is no less valid or directly powerful than the ancient mystery play in cutting straight through our circumlocutions to the heart.
The biblical nature of recent events – the Australian inferno, the waves of refugees shot at by Greek coastguards, the mass dying of the songbirds and the insects, and now the plague, with the primal terror the term evokes, have turned life itself into a melodrama – for there is nothing subtle or sophisticated about the current narrative. The pandemic joins these apocalyptic events in activating our primitive instincts of fear and repulsion, which kindles our fundamental valency for meaning-making, to make sense of what is happening – to tell the story. But what stories should we tell? Our personal, daily ‘cut finger’ concerns seem petty in the face of our dread of the impending apocalypse…
My husband and I lie in bed mornings this week, reviewing our travel plans for the year ahead. What to cancel and when, how long to wait, to act or watch and see? Pressing on me is whether to go on an imminent work trip to Casablanca. I flip flop wildly between an urge to continue as normal – to not be melodramatic, and to respond to calls to be prudent, sensible, cautious. Inside I review myself. Daily events are ramping up, cultural landscapes are shifting at the speed of a gear change. My sense of who I am – of my several selves – cannot keep pace. All the props of my busy-busy life are falling away. Faster than I can make sense of it all. I am blinking in the headlights….
TO STOP TO SLEEP…
Part of me is hypnotised by the shrieking of the brakes, the car crash racing towards us. What the pandemic also activates is our deep-seated death wish: the Ancient Greek figure of Thanatos, who according to Freud, exerts within us all a counter pull to Libido, the life force. Son of Nyx (Night) and Erebos (Darkness), and twin of Hypnos (Sleep), Thanatos is a close cousin of our need for endings, the lack of which makes Beckett plays so compellingly uncomfortable.
Humans need closure; better the worst than the breath-holding tension of not knowing, of uncertainty, of being caught between Scylla and Charybdis – a rock and a hard place. We are not well-wired to deal with volatility or the complex. So it is hard to decide whether to go or stay, to travel or cancel, to bulk buy or trust the shops will remain stocked…I am not the only one who, otherwise competent, decisive and action oriented, finds themselves caught in a kind of paralysis of indecision. We are deskilled by these events, our sense of identity shaken.
The Anglo-American, or Westernised sense of identity rests on agency and individuality. We are schooled and encouraged to cultivate individual ambition, to compete with others for prizes, recognition and success. We are so used to putting our own pleasures and needs first – and maybe those of our immediate loved ones – that we don’t even question our ‘right’ to shape our lives as we wish.
Two realisations made me cancel my trip to Casablanca. Firstly, the dawning understanding that while travel may pose little risk to me personally (since I am otherwise healthy and strong) I might nonetheless be a carrier for the virus and present a risk to others. To put the health of unknown others before my own wishes was, if not novel, a vivid, lived experience of interdependence. Secondly, on delving deeper into the now massive coronavirus literature I discovered what is finally emerging in mainstream news: that Covid-19 is not at all a ‘flu-like’ disease, but closer to pneumonia, and it behaves in unpredictable ways; yes, it affects the lungs, but now also, perhaps the heart; and it may return with renewed force just when the patient appears to have recovered. Altogether a more serious illness than influenza. Maybe my grown children, who were accusing me of ‘not taking this seriously’ were right. And as the threatened misery to come reaches closer to home we will all need to be watchful against a self-defensive callousness, a tendency to pull up the drawbridge…
THE LURE OF SLOW
So I cancelled the trip and gained 4 empty days. I would be lying if I didn’t own up to a certain relief at being forced to stop, slow down, as I regained the delicious anticipation of open-time, open-space. Am I imagining it or do I hear on the ether a collective sigh of voluptuous delight from those now mandated to work from home, to cancel all work travel, all events and gatherings? My daughter let out a cheer of glee after moving all her tutoring to Skype. While the disease has not yet crept too close we can indulge these moments. How long has it been since we tasted slow? What a finger The Virus is giving to the dictats we have so long been ruled by: fast is better, winners take all, more and bigger are obligatory – for in a market economy standing still is not an option. Now we are forced to stand still. Even as we now do so, watching the horizon with furrowed brows for the economic and social crashes to hit us, a tiny bit of us secretly can’t believe how beautiful it is, this slowing down…
Colleagues and clients start to express their fears of business collapse. The government pledges billions to help home owners, then renters, small businesses, corporates… My own trepidation brews and my planning mind stirs uneasily… What if…? How should I…?
I breathe, I get out in the fresh air, I meditate. I buy two loaves of bread instead of one. There is an air of normality on the high street…
But everybody knows that Leonard Cohen was right:
‘And everybody knows that the Plague is coming
Everybody knows that it’s moving fast
Everybody knows that the naked man and woman
Are just a shining artefact of the past’
Rumours are that London will soon be in lockdown. Overnight cases of Covid-19 double.
Today I do not leave the house. Back to back calls keep me at my desk. We experiment – on the whole successfully – with a virtual workshop. I hear overwhelm in the many people I speak to and gratitude for connection.
WHAT IS THE STORY THAT IS WAITING FOR US?…
I cannot but hope that some good might emerge from the fear and the damage. It will be some time before we can digest the experience of these extraordinary times, articulate the lessons we could learn from the pandemic and make necessary changes to the manifest dysfunctions of 21st century living. But as a metaphor The Virus is as blatant in its melodramatic import as the morality plays of medieval Europe. Could this be the shove we need to re-imagine our economic system based on the real needs of planet and people? Could this be the catastrophe to make us realise that interconnection and interdependence are not just long words, but a reality of all life. Could this be the reminder we could at last heed that care, courage and collaboration are a better basis for collective living than competing, individual isolation and shopping?
In the meantime, we watch and wait and wash our hands…