05. Jun 2020 - John Palattella

Death sets a Thing significant
The Eye had hurried by

                                   -- Emily Dickinson

An American living in Europe writes a letter to his father in the United States: “Everyone’s individual lives are so swallowed up in the one great tragedy, that one almost ceases to have personal experiences or emotions, and such as one has seem so unimportant!—where before it would have seemed interesting even to tell about a lunch of bread and cheese. It’s only very dull people who feel they have ‘more in their lives’ now—other people have too much.”

The city is London, the American is T.S. Eliot; the time, 1917. The unprecedented slaughter of the Great War was very much on the young poet’s mind. “Death will no longer be denied; we are forced to believe in him. People really are dying, and now not one by one, but many at a time, often ten thousand in a single day.” Although those are the words of Sigmund Freud, from “Our Attitude Towards Death,” written in 1915, they are an apt description of the fears that gripped Eliot in 1917 and made him view the pleasures and sufferings of his personal life in a new light. Shortly after the war ended, Eliot would begin to write a jagged epic poem, one acutely conscious of the unnatural death of the war and united by images of the modern world as a waste land in need of a purging fire and redemption.

Today Eliot has a lot of company. I have read countless descriptions of the covid-19 pandemic as an apocalyptic event, one that has revealed our world, if not our lives, to be petty, worthless. Recently a friend surprised me when he wrote, “Hindus believe the world will end in fire. Maybe not, but humans have gone too far.” In March, David Jeremiah, who has been one of President Trump’s informal evangelical advisers, called the pandemic “the most apocalyptic thing that has ever happened to us.”

The appeal of thinking of covid-19 as an apocalypse has become widespread. It stems from a deep conviction about the contemporary world’s decadence as well as a prophetic confidence that the world’s renovation can occur only after the old order has been swept away. The German poet Hans-Magnus Enzensberger has argued that every historical analogy is ambiguous. He is right, but it’s also the case that ambiguity is what makes an analogy useful, especially when the analogy is meant to be anything but ambiguous. This is especially true of apocalypse. For all its terrifying overtones, the apocalyptic analogy is an appealing one because it makes the narrative of a life or society clear and certain, coherent and with a clear final meaning. The word is derived from the Greek apokalypsis, an uncovering or laying bare. It is an ancient metaphor. However, its seeming immortality is weird proof that the total reckoning promised by every premonition of an apocalypse has not yet come to pass. Every evocation of an apocalypse points to the previous one’s failure.

What troubles me about the apocalyptic analogy is that it promotes a blind acceptance of historical necessity, endorsing a sense of fatalism. It transforms covid-19 from a historical event into a collective fantasy, the fulfillment of a dark, unacknowledged wish for damnation and redemption. The world must be destroyed, or we must destroy it, so that everything can be saved anew.

But there are other ways of making analogies. Since the onset of the pandemic, people have been sharing notes about what they have been reading, everything from Michael Crichton’s The Andromeda Strain and Susan Sontag’s Illness as Metaphor to Camus’s La Peste and Daniel Defoe’s Journal of a Plague Year. At first, I was perplexed by some of the suggestions: I spend many hours a day reading about covid-19 in newspapers and magazines, and I know many people who do the same. Why would I want to read about previous plagues? Over time, however, as I’ve watched the apocalyptic analogies pile up, I’ve not only come to accept the implicit analogy of these choices—our experiences today are not unlike those described by Defoe or Camus—but also to see them as very modest expressions of hope.

Doctors who have successfully treated covid-19 patients and watched others die continue to admit that they don’t yet know enough about the virus to do their jobs with a healthy degree of certainty. As one such doctor wrote in The New Yorker in early April, “Covid-19 is a new disease, and no one can say for sure what will happen when patients go home. The confidence I draw upon to reassure patients after an asthma attack or gallbladder infection has not yet developed for the coronavirus.” What’s striking to me is not only the doctor’s honesty and reluctance to predict the future, but also the implicit belief that things will change, that at some point there will be enough knowledge about the disease for diagnostic confidence to return, and with it continuity of diagnosis and treatment. And less death.

Allow me an analogy. The desire to compare our situation today with books that describe plagues of the past is like that doctor’s desire for a sense of diagnostic continuity. This sentiment was expressed recently by Laura Marris, who is working on a new translation of Camus’s The Plague: “I still hope that books from the past can be a kind of serum for the future, as Camus intended his novel to be. He knew that his book would be needed again, long after his death, in a context he couldn’t predict or imagine.” Nowhere here is the sort of apocalyptic fatalism that transfers responsibility for a disintegrating world from the self to a world that victimizes the self; that thinks a New Jerusalem will rise up on the ashes of a corrupt world; that by positing the end of the world relieves one of responsibility for it. Whether we’re doctors or readers, only we, aided in part by a sense of the past, can save ourselves. That is where the analogies end.

About the author

John Palattella is an editor at The Point.

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