Eighteenth in a series, Notes from a Plague-Time
In his canonic novel The Plague, as the plague began to ebb away, Albert Camus tells of the “sporadic talk” of the townspeople to create, post-plague, “a new order of things.” Having “gone to school with suffering,” they wanted to “put to account” that suffering, to create a New Day.
In the old order of things, the townspeople devoted themselves to “doing business” and “getting rich” — materialism Camus calls “completely modern.” Also “modern”: the “relaxed morals,” love as a thing “consumed,” inattention to God. (American readers will note the resemblance.) With the invading plague — this one caused by rats, bringing death in 48 hours — people isolated in their “prison-houses.” Plague being “everybody’s business,” everybody’s business became internal: Some bore with their suffering; others gave in to alcoholism, madness, suicide; still others found salvation in the “drug” of work or in elevating action (like the volunteer squads aiding exhausted medical workers). Thus, as the plague ebbed, the talk of a new order of things.
Yet: As soon as the “All clear” was sounded, all talk of a new order ended, drowned out by people celebrating surviving a vicious plague. Continuing to celebrate, they returned to their old (modern) ways, seemingly unaltered by their suffering; they forgot about putting it to account.
Certainly, Americans have “gone to school with suffering” in this last year-and-a-half, struggling with the novel coronavirus pandemic, losing over 600,000 lives — souls — to date, many dying alone without loved ones. We absorbed stunning banner headlines of 30 million, then 40 million workers losing their jobs; we gaped at graphs showing economic activity dropping like a rock. The “All clear” may never sound definitively, experts say, with viral variants continuing to mutate and strike among us. Yet people and the powers-that-be are eager to reopen more and more of the economy and society, and are doing so, vaccinated or not. People want to celebrate.
Compounding our suffering with a biological plague was existential peril on another front: The assault on the very vessel in which we all sail — American Democracy. Astonishingly, this assault was led by our putative head of state: He, and his party united with him in Faustian bargain, slashed at our democratic guardrails from Day One. And when he lost re-election, he — astonishingly — incited an insurrection at the U.S. Capitol! To stop certification of his successor! Which insurrection his party declines to investigate! Which party now enacts laws in the states to disenfranchise voters of color! So many democratic guardrails now gone constitutes foundational damage. As to people of color, the cruel killing last summer of a Black man (George Floyd) by a white police officer has galvanized demand for, at long last, racial reckoning.
Camus meant his novel as parable, not only of biological plague but, deeper, of political plague. Writing his parable during World War II, while he served in the French Resistance and worked as a journalist at the newspaper he founded (Combat), Camus cast the plague as symbolic of the susceptibility of a democratic people to embrace undemocratic fascism, as manifested in France’s collaborationist Vichy government. He saw to publication of The Plague just after the war, in 1947, when French forgetting was already underway. His novel’s setting is the war years, but war figures not at all; malignancy does.
It’s this malignancy that should be our takeaway. Four years of the proto-autocratic Donald Trump has exposed us to a contagion that still could sunder American Democracy: the contempt for rule of law, the appeal to the tribal and the “othering” of those not-white, the constant attack on the media so as to sanction his lying, the expression of hate and advocacy of violence — and, never forget, the actual violence Trump incited Jan. 6 with the insurrection on our seat of government! How deep is the contagion? Nearly half the electorate voted to re-elect the proto-autocrat. At this moment domestic terrorism, manifested in “Stop the Steal” armed zealots, is the lead threat to national security. All of which makes America, properly speaking, a “late-stage” democracy. For the coup de grace, all it would take is a more competent autocrat-in-the-making.
To combat this malignancy, to mount the repair of American Democracy and (if I may) the American Soul, a “new order of things” is called for, urgently. A new modus vivendi, a new credo. In brief, a new kind of American, one — finally — that redeems what we’ve long professed to embody and incorporates the hard knowledge conferred by our recent suffering of not one but two deadly plagues, biological and political. That is, a kind of American who is both a proud individualist and does for the commonweal; who is both fiercely competitive and cooperative; who is done with “wild and crazy” and gets real and smart; who is done with “breaking bad” and aspires to “the upper air”; who as small-d democrat bends the moral arc of the universe to deliver — finally — true equality for all Americans. Including, at long last, for women: Misogyny is a moral injury going in all directions.
It’s a monumental task, and then some. And the “old order of things” cannot possibly achieve it.
To speak of “the order of things” is to speak of culture: the cultural O.K.s and not-O.K.s that are “in the air” and shape our lives, consciously or unconsciously, even in morally weakened times. Culture perhaps more than politics = fate. Put most succinctly: In America’s old order, a “breaking bad” culture gave us a “breaking bad” President. During his chaotic tenure, we found, in our suffering, that we need the exact opposite qualities he represented: character, honesty, decency, responsibility, empathy, moral purpose. It is those qualities, recommitted to, that will save us. In our suffering, brassy things could not sustain us. We dreamed of higher things.
But early signs of the reopening culture are not encouraging: A “breaking bad” culture looks to break even wilder, brassier — more “pushing the envelope,” our mode for decades now, when we desperately need core. In American culture, quality tends to get overwhelmed by its shocking antithesis.
Some late-breaking samples: Noted film director Spike Lee reportedly is preparing a Broadway musical about….Viagra? (Features about the on-set “intimacy coach” are sure to follow.) “The History of Swear Words,” a Netflix comedy starring Nicolas Cage, has debuted to great reviews (also here). (What if film’s “bad boy” were to play a hero, a character calling for character, honesty, decency, etc.?) In another TV series “Little Birds,” Anais Nin’s erotica, incest included, is “recontextualized” to prefigure Morocco’s overthrow of colonial rule. (Anything goes in historical revisionism.) The second trilogy of the best-selling novel and film about play-torture, Fifty Shades of Grey, is out soon. Meanwhile memoirs of addiction, neurosis, excess continue to tumble forth. “In Treatment,” an HBO series I enjoyed in its earlier incarnation, just returned — with repeated use of the vile c-word for women. (I bailed.) While the show acknowledges the pandemic — hand sanitizer is shown used — it, like all the other exhibits above, reflects zero insight into the deeper truths discovered in our suffering, or the peril to the very vessel in which we all sail, or for that matter the demands for respect by #MeToo and #BlackLivesMatter.
No need to itemize further the downward drift — except to note that drift becomes wave becomes ocean becomes Culture: the array of precepts, character, language, other traits of a people that, in an existential crisis, flows to their defense and ensures their survival — or not.
Projecting the “or not”: While conscientious America convenes in the public square (as it were) to work through the agenda of a (Re)Constitutional Convention — how to convert our “late-stage” democracy back to operational functioning — it would be a tragedy if the entertainment, “edgy” and profane and raucous, were to take over the microphone and drown out the nation-saving proceedings. American culture has long thrilled the world with its energy: George Gershwin, juicing classical music with jazz, spoke of “our unduplicated national pep.” But more than pep is needed to save us. Depth is called for. So is Truth, with half the electorate ensnared in untruth.
The hour is late for our late-stage democracy. We failed earlier tests — 9/11, the descent to torture in 2004, the financial crash in 2008 — when, in the aftermath of each, a New Day was yearned for. But each test we whiffed, falling back to the old order of things, the ever-wilder-and-crazier. The first of these shocks, the attack on the American homeland on 9/11, may have been the profoundest: In reaction we became philosophers and our best selves; Hollywood held off its racy or violent releases as “too soon”; yet soon enough that plastic moment passed. Now we are faced with a mega-test (mega is so American): to pull American democracy back from violent strongman rule, to repair the self and the national spirit. Fortunately, we now have a President who understands that our ultimate battle is Democracy versus Autocracy (also here), who understands how plague can alter a nation’s course.
Great nations, according to historical pattern, rise and rise, then decline and fall. We are in the decline stage, a long falling-off. The question is, Can we reverse? Can we avert Tragedy, which every civilization in History tells us is our end? I believe we can. Despite all the battering, despite the encroachment of the cynical and dystopian, Americans are not fatalists, not yet. All the constituent elements of the American experience are still present, but they are flying about us in the air. It is our mission, and historic opportunity, to guide these constituent elements safely to ground again — and reconfigure them in a better way. Having dreamed of higher things while enduring a double-barreled plague, biological and political, we could now reposition America and redefine humanity upward, away from pathology, dysfunction, self-destruction, the coarse and cheesy and mean. And with America remaining a superpower in the world, thanks to a soon-to-boom-again economy and ever-booming military, we Americans must tutor ourselves on the responsible handling of that power, something in our anything-goes ethos we tend not to do, either at the personal or national level; in other words, mature.
In this endeavor, we need artists — not “content creators,” but artists — who understand the peril of the hour and the opportunity for Renaissance, who portray humanity working its way upward. Likewise we need critics who understand our peril and, understanding it, up their game as gate-keepers and quit their fetish with the transgressive, who protect and defend a lane in cultural life for the serious and the deep, the true and the good. Critics claim that quality will always out, but fleets of underemployed moral artists can attest that is not so. On that point: Key to our rebirth is an instrument Americans forgot long ago — our moral compass. Again, Camus’ old order of things was characterized by “relaxed morals,” the implication being they needed strengthening. Poet W.S. Merwin reassures us: “We are asleep with compasses in our hands.”
So, as life reopens post-pandemic, enjoy your cruise, reunite with family and friends, have that blowout party. Celebration is most definitely in order. But come back with your sleeves rolled up, ready for work — repair work that will be, I promise, exciting, elevating. As Camus understood, endless celebrating blurs into missed cues, disorganization, regression.
Historically the Dark Ages gave way to the Renaissance, with enlightenment achieved in culture, science, politics, religion; with Anonymous transmuted into the Individual; in other words, with “a new order of things.” What will it be, my fellow Americans: More Dark Ages — or the Renaissance?
For other posts in this series, see here.