Commonplace Book in a Time of Plague

Some august world body said not to say “plague,” but surely literary people have a dispensation? How far this dispensation extends we will discuss below. Right now, I reintroduce a poem I wrote and posted to this website in the fall of 2014. I was writing a lot of poetry then: I had been hired at the last minute to teach a poetry-writing class and was trying to prove myself to myself. The context was the height of 2014’s ebola scare:

Love and Death; or, Plague Sonnet

He holds the umbrella over both of their heads
As she stumbles in roseate rainlight,
Kicking her Mary Janes among the dead.
The umbrella is school-colored: red and white.
Their world history teacher had wept red tears,
So they walked home before the end of the day.
A girl resembling his sister appears,
A rictus of crimson from her ear to her ear;
The rain mottles gray flesh like carmine-stained clay.
He clasps his companion by the heft of her hips:
“Our streets will be empty by this time next year.”
The rain beats the umbrella’s skin like a snare.
He tastes blood as she presses her lips to his lips.

I was thinking of ebola; I stared out a cafe window and saw two young lovers on an autumn afternoon half-sunny, half-rainy; and I wrote the poem. My original title, though, was “I Love You, Ebola-Chan.” I concluded this was too flippant and betrayed moreover an untoward familiarity with right-wing chan culture—which I didn’t, and don’t, have; I was only seeing its reflection among neoreactionary intellectuals like Nick Land and on other sites like Tumblr and would have meant the title ironically. I did have the vain hope that “plague sonnet” might catch on as the generic label for a sonnet of 13 lines, like the unlucky one above.

I mention the left/right media issue only for the following reason, which will disquiet you as it disquiets me: I am not surprised by the present pandemic and quarantine, and I began preparing for it “out of an abundance of caution” over a month ago, because I do not restrict my news media consumption to the liberal mainstream. I take everything I hear from everyone with a grain of salt, but certain voices derided by the mainstream (sometimes justly) were unusually insistent that disaster approached, and I thought, “Better safe than sorry.” By now, though, the sides in America have flipped, and it is the liberal mainstream—who mocked pandemic fears as xenophobic paranoia just weeks ago—urging desperate public action, while the right warns of hysteria. (This quick switch makes me totally skeptical of any conspiracy theories on this matter since no side can get its story straight long enough to be suspected of running a propaganda operation.)

But how far outside the mainstream can we go? Left and right famously couple in the wilderness. During the Bush years, all leftists read Giorgio Agamben’s poetic alarms about the regimes of biopolitical control—which in general, he claimed, had the Nazi concentration camp as their paradigm—installed by the Global War on Terror. (I studied him with Marxist tutors, who accused him of irresponsible anarchism; they said that the rogue imperial state needed to be brought under law—i.e., under the control of the just democratic state—not challenged with wholly antinomian theory. Maybe so.)

Agamben now sounds the alarm again, while, as far as I can tell, not taking epidemiological reality seriously enough (he surely goes too far when he refers to “the invention of an epidemic”). This is the kind of thing that has always earned Continental theory its reputation for feckless irrelevance and worse. Yet we don’t need to run from one extreme to the other. We can refuse to be as cavalier in the face of infectious illness as Agamben’s precursor Michael Foucault allegedly was in the last years of his life, for example, while continuing to worry in Foucauldian fashion about unchecked expansions, beyond strict public health necessity and especially after the immediate threat, of surveillance regimes and their punitive, paranoid consequences (see here and here among many other places). I find welcome circumspection in this brief essay—bonus points for mentioning the great, neglected Christian anarchist Ivan Illich, who prophesied “medical nemesis”—though it’s far too early to know if the practical advice offered at the article’s end is sound (and I am skeptical of it). What I can say but that we’ll see what happens?

The theorists derive their theories from literature, but they traduce it by abstraction. Literature remains in contact with reality. A few reading recommendations for the lockdown from this site’s archive of reviews, then.

  • First and most obviously, there is no greater book of illness-mandated indolence and the thoughts of civilizational ruin it breeds than Mann’s vast Magic Mountain. Plus, it will take a long time to read; Mann threatens in the preface that you will need seven years, but in my experience it’s good for five weeks.
  • A shorter, sharper shock is Woolf’s Mrs. Dalloway, its heroine weakened at heart by a bout with flu during the 1918 pandemic; its ferocious polemic against medical imperialism may not sit well in the heart of the crisis, when we must trust the public health authorities, but Woolf’s lyric praise of life and death may console.
  • Despite the obvious differences—female/male, English/Italian-American, upper-class/working-class, Protestant/Catholic—Don DeLillo has always reminded me of Virginia Woolf; both, anyway, are mystics of the city. Does any novel ever written better portray the need and the simultaneous inability to trust anyone in a crisis during the postmodern collapse of meaning and authority than White Noise with its Airborne Toxic Event? This novel’s absurdist comedy of apocalypse and bureaucracy (“Am I going to die?” “Not in so many words”) might be just the bitter pill to swallow right now, and stay for the concluding affirmations. More medical skepticism—the narrator, exposed to fatal amounts of toxic waste, simply begins to ignore his doctor’s calls and take his potential dying into his own hands—but images of equanimity at last. This is a virtue we all could use, for the crisis and beyond.
  • Images of equanimity: my final recommendation—not for the faint of heart—is Grant Morrison’s (very) graphic novel The Filth, a grotesque bio-epic that metaphorically advises befriending invasive agents lest all be lost in a battle of black-and-white. Pragmatic advice right now? Certainly not. But insofar as we will have to change the way we think for the future, Morrison’s science-poetry points in a hopeful direction.

These are the voices of artists, and artists aren’t good for everything or expert in much of anything but their and our moods. Nevertheless I hear them saying, humanely and realistically: don’t let the cure be worse than the disease.

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Grant Morrison and Chris Weston, The Filth

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