Saturday, March 14, 2020

A Plague on It

Fritz Lang, Metropolis, 1927.

Compassionate community weaver David Brooks is getting unraveled over the pandemic: his usual faith in the non-political institutions seems to be getting lost ("Pandemics Kill Compassion, Too"):
In “The Decameron,” Giovanni Boccaccio writes about what happened during the plague that hit Florence in 1348: “Tedious were it to recount how citizen avoided citizen, how among neighbors was scarce found any that shewed fellow-feeling for another, how kinfolk held aloof, and never met … nay, what is more, and scarcely to be believed, fathers and mothers were found to abandon their own children, untended, unvisited, to their fate.”
Tedious were it indeed, and Boccaccio doesn't in fact recount it, but follows ten young ladies and gentlemen characters to a country place safe from the disease, where they forget all about poor Florence once the "proem" to the book is over, and tell each other stories, which are certainly some of the best stories ever told, but don't tell you anything about what happened during the plague except that, as ever, wealthy people had enjoyable ways of getting away from it.

I wonder if that's a bit of what's distressing him, not explicitly the realization that he's as much an aristocratic drone disconnected from the current emergency as Boccaccio's storytellers would have been, if they'd been able to think in those terms, as much as his being presumably cut off from all the Weavery of his Aspen Institute gig, no longer visiting three states a week to oversee the projects or whatever it is he does, socially distancing himself from all that stuff; and all the Aspen Institute's March events outside of Aspen—the 2020 Socrates Chicago Salon and "The Future of Sports... If Designed by Women" in Washington—are off, and not much to look forward to until the 2020 Socrates Washington Salon in late April, if that doesn't get canceled too.
Pandemics induce a feeling of enervating fatalism. People realize how little they control their lives. Anton Chekhov was a victim during a TB epidemic that traveled across Russia in the late 19th century. Snowden points out that the plays he wrote during his recovery are about people who feel trapped, waiting for events outside their control, unable to act, unable to decide.
Pandemics also hit the poor hardest and inflame class divisions.
Well, that would certainly be awful! But in the age of Covid-19 they seem to be hitting those of exalted station and high degree, and the Southern White House, as the landlord calls it, has become its own Petri dish for the viturs.

I've spent a couple of days trying to "work from home" myself, with mixed success—I seem to need peer pressure to make me achieve quantitatively—and I can imagine if Brooks is just hanging around the house pretending to be occupied with earnest matters he could be feeling a little hollow and even lonesome, and a bit challenged in the aim of feeling like he's a good person, Weaving along with his clients or whatever they're called. Or just suffering like an ordinary person from the fact that "social distancing" can make people sick, as Abdullah Shihipar writes at the Times:
In December, a woman in Tulsa, Okla. used a Craigslist post to plea for holiday companionship. “Anybody need a grandma for Christmas?” she wrote. “I’ll even bring food and gifts for the kids! I have nobody and it really hurts.” More than three in five working Americans report feeling lonely. Now that the country is facing a disease outbreak that demands measures like “social distancing,” working from home and quarantines, that epidemic of loneliness could get even worse.
A paradox of this moment is that while social distancing is required to contain the spread of the coronavirus, it may also contribute to poor health in the long run. So while physical isolation will be required for many Americans who have Covid-19 or have been exposed to it, it’s important that we don’t let such measures cause social and emotional isolation, too.
His column offers a kind of Brooksian message that's more or less infinitely more worth reading than Brooks's own.

Brooks just ends up being a survey of how selfishly and badly people have behaved in historical plagues (apparently all cribbed from the same book, Frank Snowden's Epidemics and Society: From the Black Death to the Present, 2019). He only takes the story up to the flu epidemic of 1919, though, which I thought was interesting: in the sense that the cultural change wrought by Alexander Fleming's discovery of penicillin in 1928, which began rewriting the calculus of how you can live with a pandemic, ultimately including the viral ones like polio and flu and HIV (the epic of which shows very precisely how those initial conditions of terror, scapegoating, and selfishness can be overcome).

It's no accident that Albert Camus wrote The Plague (mentioned yesterday by commenter worriedman) in 1947, in the wake of the first war to be run on antibiotics, and the best expression of a kind of heroic (existential) approach to plagues, in which the enervating fatalism is an avoidable pathology, as something humans can and must combat. Sean Illiing writes beautifully to that point at Vox:
The struggle against suffering is never over. The plague will return, and so will everything else that torments human beings. But the point of the book is that a shared struggle is what makes community possible in the first place.
The lesson of The Plague is that we should see ourselves as members of a community, not as atomized actors. And that means when we think of “preparedness,” we’re thinking not just of ourselves but of how our actions will affect other people. It means thinking of risk as more than an individual calculation.
The kind of sentiment to which David Brooks likes to pay homage, but has never actually understood when it's a call on a whole community rather than a subculture of the privileged, because if he did he'd have to be a socialist himself.

No comments:

Post a Comment