A Writer’s Notes
Dispatch from Sickland
Dissolution and Truth in the Year of the Coronavirus
North of Fairplay, Colorado, January 7th, 2021. This piece was written, and the photo taken, in 24 feverish hours on January 6th and 7th, in the wake of the riot in the US Capitol.
Some time ago, colleagues asked for a few words on how the pandemic has affected my research, on access to distant archives, collaboration with interlocutors in other countries, maybe new conversations, things like that, I guess. They wanted text for some webpage. Also “my story,” if I felt so inclined. It is nice to be asked, but just today I couldn’t help confronting darker questions, once again could not stop writing. A familiar symptom. Alright, run it.
The “novel” coronavirus was identified in a very different United States on January 20, 2020; we are nearing our first anniversary with the disease. During that transformative year, Covid itself has been talked to death, to make an offensive pun, and therefore has become painfully boring, tiresome for those of us fortunate enough to be well, have healthy friends and loved ones, paying jobs, comfortable houses, and so forth. For such lucky people, complaint is embarrassing, unworthy. So many have died, so many mistakes have been made, so many have lost so much. Such sadnesses are clear, at least at first pass. Yet the limbo into which we as a nation have been cast is also very difficult, for reasons that are not clear at all. Why is it so hard to keep the spirits up, fighting spirits if nothing else? Something has been done to our subjectivity, harder to talk about than more tangible losses.
I have been trying to think of another time and place that might have engendered feelings like these. What is now, with the prissiness of bureaucracy, called the H1N1 pandemic of 1918 does not seem to be a very strong analogy. A similar disease and plenty of death, but too little sense of the weight of history revising itself and transforming even the survivors against their will, and too much under the shadow of the Great War, almost a coda to it? Perhaps the relatively early days of WWII, when the outcome was uncertain, might have felt similar, at least to some people in some places, although my German mother tells me life was what in hindsight seems bizarrely “normal” amidst the upper classes in the early years. The war was elsewhere. Covid is different, here, as close as a facemask, with its suggestion of the pillow pressed down. The disease affects our daily life in so many ways, even if one is relatively “protected” — and the nation appears to have gone mad under the strain, hence Sickland. The early appearance of, yet widespread failure to deliver, vaccines, raising hopes and dashing them on the rocks of incompetence, has further darkened the mood, and the death toll continues to spiral upward. Surely the vaccines will work, have to work, they simply must. Until then, however, who wants to be a late casualty, and how much longer? And what will the world look like?
Pandemics, perhaps like long home wars (not one of our perennial exercises in “defense” from abroad) seem to be experienced in waves. At least, as a writer, that has been my experience. For me, the first wave was not so bad, had its charms, as soldiers often sheepishly admit. Early on, in the spring of 2020, when we all thought it would be over soon, and before the election grew truly insane and the nation was wracked anew by its ancient curse, race, I did some work that is in my estimation good. I was on sabbatical and in the mountains. Quarantine is not unlike finishing a manuscript, I joked, and completed two books and a few smaller texts.
Summer rolled ‘round. I rested, worked on houses with neighbor friends and family, photographed flowers and moose, tried to train dogs, enjoyed now grown children . . . there were things to do, consolations that now seem short steps from dressing up like shepherdesses and shepherds, but what the hell, one must live as well as one can, under the circumstances. Of course, I missed international travel, restaurants, bourgeois social life generally. Who wouldn’t? And perhaps we will come to remember the era we seem to have left as prior generations recalled the Jazz Age. Even now, my family remains comfortably situated, still employed, the children successful, all healthy even if some of us are very vulnerable. I do count blessings.
The news got no better, and sometime during the summer, maybe not until August, something in my head began to slip. Perhaps I just reached my limits. In September I missed my parents’ birthdays, my father’s 80th (they are still fine, on their own mountain). Anxiety over the vulnerable members of my family began to wear, but there was nothing to be done but wait some more, and compulsively read the increasingly bitter news. Bad arguments threw me into a fury. Almost all writers, regardless of position, were idiots, thoughtless, which was the root of evil, Arendt argued — so they were bastards. Mendacious bureaucrats, seizures of authority, proletarianization, and violent images. And racists, some murderous, unfeeling citizenry, and people dying alone while we couldn’t be bothered to lower a flag. The entire country seemed beset by what my wife calls “Covid Rage,” and our circles were not immune. It became hard to stay cheerful, much less generous. Still is. It became hard to do much of anything. I should go to the gym, not that either. Exercise more. Eat less. Drink less. Tiresome. In Miasma, I wrote about being trapped by the cloud, by the poisonous social atmosphere, pathetically embodied by the forest fire smoke here in the West. I wanted to swim in the ocean.
Shortly before the election, I wrote Ten Reasons Trump Resists Satire, which announced itself as an effort to clear my head, and which concluded, in part: “The coronavirus has, of course, simply increased our screen time, the minutes adding to hours to days spent contemplating whatever “Trump” means to us. Believers in progress, of whatever partisan affiliation, might want to consider that for a moment: our devices may be expensive, but our consciousness has been colonized and impoverished.” Maybe we have created an unbearable culture? And maybe the brave new human is formed largely by moralistic affiliation with, lack of forgiveness for, distress at, not people in the flesh, but at images playing across the screen, rants, tweets, statements of virtue made by neopeasants in the digital economy, overfed, volatile, and monitored? Perhaps the new human is a willing, enthusiastic, pathetic participant (“citizen” is too bitter) in what used to be called the society of spectacle? I vent therefore I am (no, you’re not, says Zuckerberg). Maybe late capitalism has finally choked on its own narratives, of all things? I flirted with writing a collection of works on the awfulness of the contemporary — indeed this text is derived from a fragment — called Please Babysit My Guns. Said to be helpful, babysitting guns, that is, for preventing suicides among those with dark thoughts and weapons, euphemistically called “lethal means,” notably veterans, who don’t survive what is often an impulse rather than a settled determination.
And then, heading into winter, things began to feel downright Dostoevskian. Nauseous ennui has given way to a sort of frenzy. I can hardly stop working, dawn till dusk. I started reading books again, many books, and paid less attention to journalism. [No social media.] Feverish writing. Fragmentary, multiple topics, essays like this one, written through most of the night and attacked again in the morning, other work and food ignored, massive emails imposed on people I hope will remain friends. Giving stuff away, not caring about publication. I’ve always written, but usually as a way to say something as true and well as I could, and not untainted by ambition. It takes years, and it is hard, requires discipline, sometimes a lot. Or it did.
I have learned much, decided more, and even have some notes, the stuff of future books, maybe. More fundamentally, the fever has changed the way I stand in the world. Maybe this — the world I have — is pretty much it, at least for me. I don’t want to offend anybody’s progressive pieties, and I’m sure IBM will build us a smarter planet, just machines to make big decisions. While we will cope with developments as best we can, no doubt, and maybe will improve this or that, in some ways it just doesn’t matter. I will still need to do what I need to do. It’s not fatalism, not exactly a lack of ambition, and I’ll admit that maybe I’m not quite there yet. Yet I note that some friends and more acquaintances have, or are stepping into, positions of real power, vast wealth or at least institutional prestige. To my surprise, though, I’m now old enough (56 in a few days) for the success of others to be simply good: I’m happy for them, and no longer reproach myself, which is a relief. Real and easy generosity is a pleasure I did not know age offered. Nor does my newfound stance feel particularly free, if one understands “freedom” as lack of obligation — quite the opposite. Better than ever, I know who I am, flaws and all, and pretty much what I should do and must endure, lest . . . This life. There is a kind of peace in that, a solidity. In short, I think the pandemic has aged me, and that is a good thing, liberating.
Today’s synchronicity might help me explain. I skied this afternoon, wearing a smelly sweaty mask, with our youngest, about to turn 18. He has been teaching me a little about hip-hop, which I’ve heard since the late ’70s but rarely “get.” On the drive back over the Continental Divide, he played Kid Cudi’s esteemed “Man on the Moon,” from an album about mental health. White law professors are denied such language, denied even quoting such language, but I damn well get it.
It’s always been a struggle to be real, as the kids truly if vaguely say, to indicate the desire for meaning rather than mere appearance, the desire to make human connections (you gon’ love me) that makes us need to sing songs, paint pictures, write, or even do scholarly research, even if our shit sounds different, even if our world seems like shit, even if we can’t shake it off long enough to count blessings, see beauty. Even if love itself is threatened. Maybe the pandemic, in robbing of us of so much contact, and replacing so much of it with thin media, should recall each of us to our real struggles? From this vantage, the pandemic doesn’t essentially affect research, understood as the search for truth rather than professional position. Surely circumstances, what the Marxists used to call the material conditions, change, but the spiritual needs remain the same. We have this world, and so this is where we work to find meaning.
I know politics is horrible, not for the first time but painfully so tonight, with rioting in the US capitol building itself, a President deranged and four dead, and more talk of racial injustice, the nation locked in its poisonous narratives, most shallowly understood. Lethal means, though. But that’s no excuse. For the past year, the news (stories sold as such, anyway) has been a tempting vampire, naked and openly bent on sucking out our souls, but who can look away? Surely this is fascinating, often morbidly so. And citizens have duties, and therefore require knowledge, apple news as it were, said our serpent. At the same time, we must resist the urge to live through better television, validated by our followers. Each of us has our own work to do, while we still can stand, anyway, and if we are to acquit ourselves well, a certain toughness and a proper sense of self, both hard-won, are required. The Carthusians maintain that “the cross is steady while the world is turning.” That’s about where I am now. It will be modestly interesting to see how long I can take it, as Weber said of scholarship shortly before dying, probably of influenza, in another pandemic.
Ok, that’s too dark. Steady as she goes. Get some rest.