First in an ongoing series, Notes from a Plague-Time
How is it possible that our life — not only in America but in all the world — can change in the course of just weeks? How is it possible that mere life can suddenly become a truly existential and inextricable matter of Life-and-Death? And how, as a nation, do we shake our normal dysfunction and get to the upside and save ourselves? Can we?
So many questions — and driving them all is a microscopic leviathan, the novel coronavirus, exploding into a worldwide pandemic, with the deadly respiratory illness COVID-19 as its prize. It dawns on us, on me, that we are, in the clichéd blink of an eye, thrust into an entirely new era. Not for nothing is this virus called “novel.”
Like everybody else who is not an epidemiologist, I start in this new era with a blank page and a sense of dread — though epidemiologists going on TV to explain this crisis to a panicked public also, under their clinical demeanor, seem to exude dread: They know, they can see, the awfulness coming at us. Solidarity in dread.
And yet: Soon enough, it comes to me the need to grapple, to manufacture hope and courage, to achieve balance and exercise uncommon common sense, to acquit myself with dignity, honor, smarts, and, if I can manage it, wit — and not, please God, to react like Dostoevsky’s Underground Man, like a “harassed mouse.” In short, to get to the other side — not to Heaven, as eulogists put it, but get to the other side of this deadly scourge. To cheat Death and emerge into more Life.
I mean to fill these blank pages with notes, impressions, things learned and things discarded — in general, things useful and constructive to this new era. I come as a commentator and an artist, but principally as a human being, in solidarity with my fellow human beings. Since it is not useful, I will not indulge in polemic — except when President Donald Trump commits yet another life-threatening act — nor will I spin a literary performance. I will also — attenzione — quote from the commonplace books I have filled over a lifetime, wherein I enter wisdom and guidance from past masters. For example, when epidemic became pandemic, Dostoevsky’s “harassed mouse” came instantly to mind. So did Ralph Waldo Emerson’s “Nothing so astonishes as common sense and plain dealing.” I mean to put Art to work, while charting Life in this new era.