The Intellectual Situation
Epilogue for a Way of Life
We were a sick society and getting sicker
What does it feel like to know you’ve come to an end? In the early days of the epidemic in New York — that is, with the benefit of hindsight, mid-February — the subways smelled pleasantly of various hand sanitizers. You could map the city pheremonally; Aesop’s lavender notes floated in the air in posher neighborhoods, Purell dominated the rest. The metropolis glowed with the aura of a San Francisco bathhouse in the early ’80s, as Foucault reported, shortly before his death, to Hervé Guibert: “This danger lurking everywhere has created new complicities, new tenderness, new solidarities. Before, no one ever said a word; now we talk to one another. We all know exactly why we’re there.”
Then, we were locked down. Our friends were banished behind screens, reduced to little faces on our phones; our inconstant lovers no longer even inconstant. Our parents were old and we couldn’t put them at risk. In truth, some of this wasn’t so different from how it was before, when our excuses were about “obligations,” busy schedules, domesticity and parenting, keeping open options. As the years had gone by, we’d seen fewer and less of the people who truly mattered to us outside our shrinking immediate circles. For some, the virus brought an intensification of these existing conditions to an absurd point. Parents were now parenting literally all the time; bachelors were just alone; partners became “quartners,” locked in an everlasting daily embrace beyond the imagination even of Dante or Sartre. By one familiar definition of human flourishing — the ability to play several different human roles over the course of a day — we weren’t flourishing. Our horizons had once been limited only by money and time. Now, with seemingly unlimited time, it turned out our horizons were still limited by money. Even if we were the lucky ones who still had jobs, we’d lacked the capital and the strategic planning to afford safe houses in New Zealand, or just the Hudson Valley. It turned out we’d believed, perhaps too much, in the benefits of civilization.
After social death came the death of the wider social: no more simple pleasures of nodding acquaintance, of subway solidarity, of breezy street eroticism. The last form, that of solidarity eye contact with fellow human beings, across a distance of six feet or the width of a sidewalk, nearly vanished once everyone put on masks — the reading of cheekbones and eyebrows will be one of the newer social skills in the years to come. It was like a more imaginative Michel Houellebecq novel in which Islamists had imposed veils on men and women alike. We kept waiting for the fascist protesters in Michigan and elsewhere to point this out: How could they not connect their reluctance to don masks and social distance with their earlier Islamophobia? Wasn’t Ilhan Omar in cahoots with that Jewish department of health director in Ohio? Why wasn’t ISIS taking credit for Covid and why wasn’t the US bombing some spot of Syrian desert as part of its war on the virus? For once, however briefly, our wild imaginations ran ahead of the American berserk.