The devastation that pandemics have wrought throughout the ages is encoded in our historical consciousness as in our history books — from the Black Death in the 14th century to the deadly influenza outbreak in 1918.
And every time, after a virus had had its way with us, from the Middle Ages to the modern era, the untold ruin inflicted collectively on our social structures and individually on our internal psychic economy was incalculable.
These days we are living in the time of Covid-19, a virus that has, as it were, unhinged us off our own time. You talk to friends — you are enjoined, of course, against meeting, touching, hugging or kissing them, Arab-fashion, on both cheeks — and discover that they, like you, have concluded that the pieces of their lives no longer fit.
Isolation from others is rendering us strangers even to our selves; nostalgia for the comfortable absolutes of a world we know will never again be habitable in quite the same way as it was before; and fear of death by contagion at a time before we had found something to die for
We all wish, unquestionably, that all this had not happened in our time, but at the end of the day, as we “stick together, apart”, we have to decide on how to cope.
The new normal
So three weeks ago I sent a questionnaire to a dozen or so friends asking them to respond to one forlorn query of mine, namely, how they were coping and what thoughts animated their minds during the “new normal” that the coronavirus has imposed on our lives.
The answers, I hoped, would yield insight into the triple theme that defines our condition today — isolation from others, which is rendering us strangers even to our selves; nostalgia for the comfortable absolutes of a world we know will never again be habitable in quite the same way as it was before; and fear of death by contagion at a time before we had found something to die for.
Clifford Joyce, a retired professor of English literature (whom we often called “the Shakespeare freak”, on account of his obsession with the bard), who at 69 remains both intellectually inquisitive and socially engaged, sent me a rambling, seven-page email that barely addressed itself to what he missed or how he coped.
Rather he confined himself to explaining how there were at least five major outbreaks of bubonic plague in England during Shakespeare’s time, and how, while these outbreaks did not reach the devastation of the Black Death, they nevertheless left an impact on the population.
Wealthy Englishmen, he wrote, often took Chaucer’s advice — written during the Black Death — to “run fast and run far”. Eccentrics abound in my circle of friends.
Kim Hartley, 33, the pastry chef at Angles, our favourite Runyonesque hangout in the Adams Morgan neighbourhood in Washington, was brief and to the point.
“Gosh, I miss my aimless walks in Rock Creek Park”, she wrote. “So much so it hurts”. Equally brief and to the point was Ibrahim Abu Salma, a Jordanian now in his mid-eighties, who in his younger days served as a member of the late King Hussein’s security detail but retired soon after the royal passed away in 1999.
Ibrahim, still true to his tribal roots, wrote: “I submit to what He wills. There’s reason in His design. It’s all written”.
We all knew Conrad Boorstein as an unrepentant hippie, though at 72 he should have known better than to be that. “I don’t miss nothing, buddy”, he wrote — deliberately subverting grammar — from his retreat outside Portland, Oregon.
“I have my music. What more could I want? There’s always Charlie Parker on alto sax. John Lee Hooker on guitar, the dude who invented his own version of the 12-bar blues. And, sure, there’s also Edith Piaf’s “Je ne regrette rien” testing every nerve in you. Yes, also the ethereal music of Ravi Shankar”.
Then, harking back to the radical chic lingo he had used as a regular contributor to Ramparts magazine in the early 1970s, Conrad wrote: “ Music, man, that’s all there is. The grammar of the unfathomable is all centred there. It is in music, I tell you, where our human souls are so markedly and enduringly translated. As for the virus, it can go [expletive] itself”.
Sam Pappas, a professor of philosophy, now teleteaches a course — at college in the boondocks of Kansas — dealing with the work of Martin Heidegger and Gottfried Leibniz and these two philosophers’ preoccupation with being and nothingness.
“I don’t have the time to miss anything”, he wrote. “My concern is to put before my students the proposition that we “are” instead of “not being” — and make them evince genuine astonishment at the fact.” After delving into more arcane trivia, he continued, “I know, I know, people like you think people like me rob the world of the mythopoeic, of its sense of enchantment …..” And on and on. The virus? Seemingly not his concern.
Other friends, of course, wrote. And if there’s a theme there linking their responses to my query it is that they all, each in his or her own way, bemoaned the fact that they miss the company of others, that as human beings we are wired to connect, and our need to do so is as basic to our human being as food, water and air.
Meanwhile, until the beast is tamed, we keep our fists clenched.
— Fawaz Turki is a journalist, lecturer and author based in Washington. He is the author of The Disinherited: Journal of a Palestinian Exile.