After everything changed, suddenly and unexpectedly, in New York on September 11, 2001, evidence of catastrophe was there for everyone—for all the world—to see. The damage was both a horrible reminder of what had happened and a portent of what might be still to come. Today, even in some of the cities most afflicted by the coronavirus pandemic, there is no physical devastation, while death and illness, though widespread, occur invisibly, behind closed doors. Photographs in newspapers show workers in hazmat suits disinfecting the streets, but few of us have witnessed such scenes for ourselves. The evidence of the calamity is overwhelmingly of absence, of empty streets and tourist spots. As previously glimpsed in filmic depictions of a post-apocalyptic world, aspects of this scenario have an idyllic quality: streets devoid of traffic and crowds.
In Southern California, with its gorgeous sky and sea, the beaches have been quieter than usual since the beachside parking lots were closed, but people have been allowed to jog or do yoga as long as they maintain a suitable distance from one another. And yet. Having topped up their already top-of-the-range immune systems with cold-pressed juices and boosts, the same people who were energetically maintaining the perfection of their perfect bodies—bodies capable of bench-pressing enormous weights and running from Malibu to Santa Monica—might suddenly, for no visible reason, find themselves incapable even of breathing. (I spoke too soon; on March 27th, it was announced that all beaches would be closed through April 19th. So now the beaches, too, are full only of absence.)
Shaped by a threat that is at once invisible and implacable, the necessary unity and solidarity must lack all the excitement traditionally associated with people coming together in common cause for events such as the March on Washington, in 1963, or Woodstock—or, going farther back, the outbreak of the American Civil War, when one excited bystander observed, “The whole population, men, women, and children, seem to be in the streets.” This fusion of the festive and the martial was beautifully expressed by the poet Philip Larkin in his famous description of the crowds of men who, in 1914, lined up to enlist, “as if it were all / An August Bank Holiday lark.” Despite invocations of the Blitz spirit and the mobilization of wartime rhetoric, there is not even an enemy now—because the person most likely to harm you will be your friend, neighbor, lover, parent, or child. So there is none of the collective fever of purpose and determination—or, at least, that fever must be experienced in isolation. Lovely things like the applause for health-care workers are attempts not only to make visible and audible our appreciation but also to share our isolation. The times they are a-changing, with stunning rapidity, but Dylan’s rousing exhortation has now to be completely reversed: Don’t gather ’round people . . .
The required form of isolated solidarity is, weirdly, both in synch and at odds with what, for the past decade or so, has seemed an increasingly solipsistic withdrawal, whereby, even as people appear physically to be on the streets, they’re psychically disappearing into their phones. Now we’re on our phones at home as a way of being on the street, kicking ourselves for all those hours wasted outside, looking at screens when we could have been looking at one another. As a collective act, we are encouraged to retreat deeper into the burrow of phone-life to allow maximum freedom and minimum risk for those who have actual physical and essential tasks to perform. The best we can do is disappear into the great indoors: an unprecedented inversion of everything that has constituted solidarity, and one requiring a more widespread commitment—to support more extensive international coöperation—than has ever been seen.
Our solidarity also requires that we get away from passively wishing “they” would do something. Of course, there are many things that only the government can provide and do, but we have a part to play, mainly by not doing things—at the very least, not going out, not buying stuff we don’t need, not going to the hospital unless we have to. In Britain, the response to the National Health Service’s request for volunteers shows how desperate and ready people are to convert energetic passivity into agency. I propose—subject to scientific and governmental approval—that, for those who get the virus, recover, and are given the all-clear, T-shirts be made available, saying something like “I’ve had it, I’m over it—and I’m ready to help.” The appetite to help is matched by a longing for a renewed and properly inclusive sense of community to move beyond the variously circled wagons of identity politics. Many times in the past week, I’ve thought of something said by Larry Harvey, the co-founder of Burning Man, about the experience of building a temporary city in the inhospitable desert: “Communities are not produced by sentiment or mere good will. They grow out of a shared struggle.”
Part of this struggle, for us now, is to carry on with a reduced version of normal life at a time when everything non-COVID-related seems so pointless. Last week, I wrote to a student about an overdue essay, conscious, even as I did so, that, in the larger scheme of things—at a time when, for example, Liverpool seemed destined to be denied an English Premier League title it had all but won—this counted almost for nothing. As, in a still larger context, does the idea of Liverpool winning the Premiership, or even the existence of the Premiership, or of sports generally. But in some contexts everything counts almost for nothing. We routinely say of a setback, “It’s not the end of the world.” Well, of course it’s not. Even the end of the world as we know it turns out not to be the end of the world. So, to downgrade Fitzgerald’s rhapsodic claim at the end of “The Great Gatsby,” we plod on—or don’t stop plodding on—for the simple reason that, with few exceptions, we are programmed to keep putting one foot in front of the other. That’s what feet are for.
On the home front, a ploddable rhythm had been established whereby my wife panicked and I calmed her down and then we switched roles at various times throughout the day, until, just before sleeping, as a kind of surrogate for sex, we got in a panic together. In the bathroom one night, she unleashed a brief scare-surge by wondering whether flossing our teeth, with all the hand-in-mouth action it involves, was just about the most stupid thing to be doing right now. But if we stop flossing doesn’t that mean the virus has won? The lesson of the Alamo, surely, was that they flossed to the last man. I’m going out on my mint-waxed shield, I decided, and went right back at it. Each of us felt constantly on the verge of coming down with something that could only be one thing: bow waves of impending malaise, pre-headaches within the larger angst-induced perma-headache, dry throats tingling on the brink of becoming sore. Then, a couple of weeks ago, my wife started feeling strange, or “quivery,” as she put it. Quivery turned briefly into feverish before subsiding into complete exhaustion and an increasing tightness in the chest. Over the next several days, the feeling of being completely exhausted changed, though this hardly seemed possible, into even more complete—even deeper—exhaustion. There was hardly any coughing and no shortness of breath: both good signs, according to the doctor she spoke with, but her symptoms certainly fell within the broad spectrum of COVID-19. Here in Los Angeles, there was only a dim hope of getting that suspicion verified by a test. The criteria to be met were so stringent that a test seemed all but indistinguishable from a postmortem. Since we’ve been keeping entirely to ourselves, the most reliable way of finding out if she has it is to see if I get it. So I am the test. I am the canary and our home is the coal mine.
The “alienation” that residents of L.A. naturally suffer from—as a result of the immense sprawl—means that social distancing is built into the fabric of the city. But that’s of little help once the idea of distancing gets internalized, moves in and takes up residence like an uninvited house guest whose stay is of unspecified duration—and, in a worst-case scenario, could be for the rest of our lives. Replicating the global strategy, we are trying to flatten the curve in our apartment, hopefully extending the interval between infections so that my wife recovers from hers before I show symptoms of mine. In the meantime, it’s important for me to be tender and cool in equal measure. Musically, the master of this combination was Miles Davis, and so, on the rare occasions that she ventures from her bed, I express my affection in suitably Davisian style: “Keep your distance, motherfucker.”
I’ve always done the cleaning in our place, and the new need for enhanced hygiene means that I am now cleaning all the time that I’m not cooking and caring: a limited life that is also quite fulfilling. There are other ambiguous positives, too. I liked the way the virus put an end to the hug as greeting, something that I started doing after moving to California even though I always felt that everyone could tell I was just going through the motions. But now there’s no one to greet. Still, it’s good that the recent meaning of “cancelled” has sort of cancelled itself out. For a while, it was an opinion or a demand elevated to the level of fiat about someone who had given offense of some kind: part of a cultural movement, a cumulative total of grievance. Now it once again refers to something that has had to be called off, to unanimous disappointment and the satisfaction of no one. The cancellation of the Big Ears music festival and, recently, of Wimbledon hit me hard. These are events I was looking forward to. Now there is nothing to look forward to except being able to leave the house and not fretting constantly if my wife is getting sicker or I am starting to get sick. Normally, a cancellation is a source of personal affront, but now that everything has been cancelled everywhere it has become part of the general condition of existence. That’s what happened during the First World War, when, after worrying that they might miss out on the fighting—because it would all be over by Christmas—people settled into the feeling that it might never end. The proposed end dates of the current lockdowns and closures are pretty arbitrary in practical terms, but they serve the useful function of making life seem manageable. The alternative—everything shut everywhere for the foreseeable future—would make us feel like we had fallen out of time (at a time when it’s already difficult to remember which day of the week it is, when the main way of distinguishing one day from the next is the mounting toll of deaths in whichever city has assumed the unwelcome distinction of becoming the latest viral hot spot).