In the past few weeks, Covid numbers have skyrocketed. I am staying home, giving up the yoga classes, the eating out (primarily in outdoor settings) that had gradually seeped back into life during the warm fall, the bits of non-essential shopping, the small physical gatherings.
World War II has become a touchstone as I hunker down for another few months of isolation. If there was novelty in the first round of social isolation, now comes a grimmer feeling of holding on, especially as the enemy feels closer to the gate: the numbers are skyrocketing not just in some distance place, but where I live.
Virgina Woolf observed the changes that descended on London during World War II, remembering when:
houses were open and crowded with friends ... everyone brimming with radical ideas and possibilities.
Now, however, London had become:
merely a congerie of houses lived in by people who work. There is no society, no luxury, no splendor, no gadding and flitting. All is serious and concentrated. It is as if the song had stopped ...
|Tavistock Square: One of the Woolf's London homes|
Woolf's description does not describe exactly how my life has changed, as I never was flitting from party to party, but it is close enough to catch the gist. Physical social interactions have all but ceased: what little "gadding" I'd resumed has once again stopped.
Yet, I tell myself, there is no threat of bombs dropping, no blackouts, no rationing. We have the comfort of space, rural emptiness, a view of a lake, books, music, film, Zooms, the life of the mind. I have found a literature discussion group, and a Zoom community.
There has, too, been the heartening election that means the reign of terror brought on by an unhinged leader will soon be over. I read--fittingly enough-- that last time people danced and celebrated in the streets the way they did over Biden's election was at the end of World War II. We did not dance in the streets, but we popped open a bottle of champagne--the first time I can remember doing that for a presidential election. I have been sleeping peacefully through the night since that time.
Then the virus hit again. We had planned to rent an airBnB so we could meet Will and Olivia halfway between our homes for Thanksgiving. Instead, we zoomed on Thanksgiving with them and Sophie and Ben. Roger and Nick and I made our own meal.
For about a decade, I had abhorred cooking. But since the pandemic--actually this started slightly ahead of that-- I have been enjoying it again. I liked making the Thanksgiving dinner with Roger, each of us working on our own dishes.
We hope Will can join us for Christmas, but even so, it will be another quiet celebration. Last Christmas when he visited, we had a fine time doing last minute shopping and going out to dinner--a time that seems a hundred years ago now. It is one of the last moments I can remember that I didn't have a nagging worry about Covid--by late January, when I flew to visit Jane in Maine, I had bought a mask, which I didn't use, but later was very glad to have.
Time in the age of Covid is a subject of an article in Venkatesh Rao in a publication called Noema, put out by the Berggruen Institute, which describes itself as hoping to transform capitalism and free markets so that they can better respond to climate change and other challenges. While I am highly dubious of any project trying to save so called "free markets," the article is nevertheless interesting, if only for providing one of the more creative metaphors for Covid I have ever read:
In lieu of being beamed back up by Scotty, we put ourselves through elaborate decontamination rituals upon our return to base, to rid ourselves of invisible tribbles.
|Tribbles from the original Star Trek. Maybe a little too cute for Covid?|
Rao also evokes The Terminator, a movie that couldn't be more relevant as frame for both Trump and a deadly virus, writing:
The virus could not be bullied, argued with, negotiated with or stopped. (The Terminator quote: "That Terminator is out there! It can't be bargained with. It can't be reasoned with. It doesn't feel pity, or remorse, or fear! And it absolutely will not stop, ever, until you are dead!")
|He has to strike before his threat can be felt|
Rao's point is that Covid has us suspended in a liminal time or time out of time. We are a water drop, waiting to fall. Or as Rao puts it:
Aion rules ... outside of time .... The weeks and months spent in pandemic time will be weeks and months spent outside of time itself, in Aion’s doorway.
Rao evokes Virginia Woolf to talk about time. He gets her wrong: Mrs. Dalloway was hardly her first novel, and Chronos or the factory time of the clock hardly began with the modernist era, but his evocations at least point to the increasing importance of Woolf as a cultural icon.
He might have better pointed to the sense of stasis she experienced during World War II, which was a similar period of waiting. For example, characters in Olivia Manning's Balkan Trilogy, set in the early 1940s, wonder when the war will ever end. Will it go on for a decade? Will they ever have the chance for a normal life?
After the war, life went back to "normal" surprisingly quickly, and for a few years, looked much like life before the war, although, at least in Europe and Japan, with many ruined buildings. But life did change fundamentally because people irrevocably began to understand the world differently. It will be interesting to see if the same holds true now.
The most hopeful note of change I see, and one that started before the pandemic, pushes back against the socially destructive "me me" individualism that has been rampant since the late 1970s. I came across this in the New York Times, in which a student writes to Jil, an advice columnist, about his wish Biden would forgive student loans. For me, the piece's relevance is in its inconsequence. This is no grand philosophical statement but someone trying to advise the other on the mundane nitty gritty of life in a practical:
My uncle [when the writer wished his loans forgiven] ...got angry and took it very personally: “No one forgave my student loans!” I didn’t know how to respond or if I should have. But it’s awkward now. Any advice?
Your uncle’s apparent grievance at the prospect of social progress seems odd. When the Supreme Court legalized gay marriage, for instance, I don’t recall older members of the L.G.B.T.Q. community expressing bitterness that they hadn’t enjoyed the right to marry in their youth. No, we all celebrated the decision as a big step on the road to greater equality.
Same with student debt. The ever-rising cost of higher education has long worked as barrier to students of lesser means and saddled others with crippling debt loads. Black and Latino students have been disproportionately affected. And I would expect people who had experienced this hardship personally to applaud student debt reform.
Jil's support of social unity that applauds the good of others as a good for all and exposes the attitude of the uncle as mean-spirited, selfish, and petty, is a welcome change. If the virus and the recent appalling spectacle in government and the looming climate change disaster bring us to realize once again what other generations have known--that we are in this together--that would be fairly remarkable.
Getting back to time, I wonder--will the time before the pandemic seem utterly different? Will this be the great dividing line or simply a blip before we slip back into our old lives?