I have been away from this blog for a while now due to personal reasons that I’ll not discuss. It seems like it is time to pick it up again, as much for still other personal reasons that I’ll not discuss, as well as external realities that I will discuss. You can probably guess what my topic here will be, just from the title. From the number, you can safely infer that I anticipate more such posts in the coming weeks and months.
As I write, Governor Pritzker’s “Shelter In Place” (SIP) order is scheduled to go into effect at 5:00 PM. (I live in Illinois.) As I already live an exceptionally quiet, sheltered-in-place life, Pritzker’s order has very little effect on me. I can still shop much as I always did, for all the things I would otherwise have purchased. The only difference for me is that now I will forward my shopping lists in advance for curbside pickup, rather than in-store browsing and purchasing. And this isn’t even part of the SIP, simply my choice to add an extra layer of caution. (A comprehensive discussion of Illinois’ SIP may be found HERE. The Chicago Tribune has waived its paywall for this story.) The biggest impact on my life will be the canceling of the in-person meetings of the Dungeons and Dragons game I was involved with.
As noted, I expect there to be a series of posts related to the novel corona virus and COVID-19 in the coming months. But this first shot out of the gate, I don’t plan to dwell on the metaphysics of pandemics, nor do I intend to rail against those steaming piles of maggot excrement who continue to spew indefensible twaddle about how “it’s only the flu!” I’m sure the times (plural) will come for that. No, this time I want to focus on my own, immediate intellectual and emotional reactions to the early stages of “all this.” This is for my own clarity of mind; writing it down helps me. Perhaps sharing it will help others, but I don’t know. Right now I’m just struggling to understand what I feel, what it means to me, to find myself living in this Year of the Plague.
As I noted, the immediate disruption to my own life is almost non-existent, which is no small part of what lends the whole thing an air of the surreal. Yet the reality could scarcely be more stark. Under worst-case scenario (WCS) projections, the United States is looking at over one million – 1,000,000+ – dead by the end of this summer of 2020. For context, that is well over twice as many Americans as died in combat in WWI, WWII, Korea, and Vietnam combined.
But those deaths will all take place in the span of ONE YEAR, and all on our own soil!
As I already live a very sequestered life – and have now changed my shopping habits, and am even taking my temperature twice a day – despite my age being toward the higher risk category, I am and have been at relatively low risk for contracting COVID-19. The issue for me is something more about, how do I live in a world in which a million of my neighbors are just gone? With the global economy in ruins (for that is coming)? When the hollow, empty shell I live in is no longer a shell, but the world itself?
“We will get through this!” people tell us. And, indeed, we will, for even the WCS has only about 0.3% of us dying, suffocating to death on our own bodily fluids. But the scale of 1,000,000+ people dead in one year is something we humans are ill-equipped to visualize. So, think of it this way: If those million people died one per minute, continuously until they were all gone, it would still take almost two years (just short of 694 ½ days, actually) to chew through them all.
Where were you 694 ½ days ago? Because that is what 1,000,000 million minutes looks like.
The economic issues, still to hit us in force, are as far beyond me control and imagination as they are for any retiree collecting social security. But thank whatever gods you do or do not believe in that the Republicans were never allowed to stove-pipe the fund into the stock market!
In any case, the effect is very much the sort of thing one would describe as Twilight Zone, the old-school, black&white television show that has since been variously rebooted and modernized. In particular, the first season episode “Time Enough At Last,” starring the great Burgess Meredith as an intensely introverted bank worker, whose only real love is reading. He sneaks downstairs to catch a few moments of reading while hiding in the bank vault, when a nuclear holocaust essentially kills everyone in the world except for himself. But the New York City Library is left more or less intact, and finally, it seems, he has time enough at last to read all and as much as he desires. More than a few folks have shared images and memes created from this episode, conscious all the while that the show does not have a happy ending. And so it seems, we all have time enough at last, because it is as if the external world is no longer permitted to be there.
How empty the world sounds right now, with so many sheltering, so few moving.
Even with the music stopped, I can hear nothing – no traffic, nothing – from the state highway not fifty meters from my door.
The phenomenology of sound is far more layered, far more multi-dimensional, than most of us consciously realize. No matter how loud the music from your home speakers, there is still an ambient background of sounds from the world beyond your little enclave. The very act of trying to drown those sounds out only emphasizes their original presence. But when it is no longer even there, no amount of drowning it out can ever serve to erase the simple and absolute absence. Create all the noise you want, and the world still sounds empty.
Whitehead understood this, though not in these terms.
Rather, he understood that we are relational realities, relationally incorporating the world into ourselves, and then projecting ourselves relationally back out into the world. Truncate that first step, and you’ve truncated the second. But, in any absolute terms, “truncate” is the wrong term. The world is just as relationally full now as it always was, just full in a different way. Male cardinals getting their “yo’ baby” freak on are certainly more pleasant on the ear than a semi gearing down as it comes into town on the highway. But “pleasant” isn’t necessarily the same, or even better, than “full.” We are social, communal creatures, down to the very marrow of our bones, down to the last particle of our genetics. And no matter our love of reading and solitude, to have the world suddenly empty itself of that relational human ambiance is a shock.
Unlike Burgess Meredith’s character, when I most want to read in complete focus, I will seek out a busy bar, preferably one where I am recognized (by the wait staff, primarily) but no one wants to talk to me. The shuffle and hum of people around me is something I can easily tune out, but only when it is there.i When absent, my mind becomes as distracted as the automatic tuner on a radio that can’t find a channel to lock onto.
And so, right now, there is a profound emptiness in the world.
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iI understand this is not a common experience, but when I was writing my dissertation I most frequently had bands like Metallica playing in the background.