The Intellectual Situation
From Now On, I Vow to Read Only Fiction
Notes from a pandemic, blogs from a pandemic
About a week before we all started working from home, I developed a mysterious back pain. I was in the middle of reading The Anatomy Lesson, by Philip Roth, and it felt all too perfect. I won’t bore you with a long recap — a joy for the writer to write but for no one to read — but it’s about a writer with chronic, unexplained pain who cannot write. Is the pain psychological? Is it guilt for his parents’ deaths turned inward to attack his own body? Possibly. On March 4, I even tweeted about it: “I’m reading a book about mysterious back pain (The Anatomy Lesson) and now I have acquired mysterious back pain. Better finish the book quick.” Little did I know that Nathan Zuckerman, Roth’s protagonist, would have to get a whole lot worse before he got better. Three weeks later, I’d be flat on my back, running a fever of 103.3.
On March 11, I began my quarantine like most people, stuffed to the gills with news and scrambling for insight from writers. It was hard to slow myself down. I was working a lot more than usual (I work in journalism) and, in my spare time, desperately trying to adjust my state of mind to the new conditions. I felt like one of those shrimp injected with goo to augment its size, but instead of goo I was injecting myself with words: notes from a pandemic, blogs from a pandemic, dispatches from a pandemic, and pandemic journals.
And lifestyle blogging. There was an entire industry poised to aid in our home marination, promising that we would never have to put on pants: Grubhub, Instacart, Brooklinen, athleisure. Friends were posting on Instagram the names of restaurants where one could still get flour for everyone’s sudden bread obsession. There were so many new Slack channels — one Slack I joined had twin channels, #corona-optimism and #corona-pessimism. YouTube yoga appeared, seemingly out of nowhere, as an essential service for the underused muscles of the world. And the writers I turned to began to contemplate their bodies in different ways. “This is a time to cultivate the art of Sitzfleisch,” wrote Alexandra Schwartz in the New Yorker. “Literally ‘sitting meat,’ this excellent German term indicates both the material that one sits with — the tush, the booty, the rump, whatever — and the ability to remain seated upon it for periods of great duration.” Meanwhile, I was getting targeted ads for butt cushions.
The pandemic had lifted up the rotting log of philosophy, and the philosophers were wriggling about in the sunlight.Tweet
In this time, I penned a couple of frantic entries for a blog, Indoor Voices. I wondered what would happen to us as our minds increasingly inhabited online space. While our bodies stayed stuck inside, they could move freely, visiting our friends’ homes and commuting to work. Zoom is like some kind of prosthetic limb, allowing our visages to occupy distant spaces for hours at a time. What does this enforced dualism do to our sense of self? More than loneliness, the dissonance between my mental existence and my physical existence exhausted me — as did the dissonance between the life of persistent inconvenience I was living and the horror stories being told online about hospitalization and lack of protective gear. And there was, of course, my nagging back pain. I tried to go running and to go for bike rides. I couldn’t even do YouTube yoga without aggravating it. I thought it might be due to sitting in odd wooden chairs on a laptop all day and pulled a cushion off an armchair to sit on and alleviate the pain.
Nathan Zuckerman wonders if his pain is sending him a message: “Let the others write the books. Leave the fate of literature in their good hands and relinquish life alone in your room. It isn’t life and it isn’t you. It’s ten talons clawing at twenty-six letters.” Pain always makes writing seem small and useless, and yet when we are sick we crave stories to distract us, as a palliative.
I kept reading. The pandemic had lifted up the rotting log of philosophy, and the philosophers were wriggling about in the sunlight. The rote ethics exercise of the trolley problem got turned into a meme, in which multiple people lay across both rails. Slavoj Žižek wrote a reasonable blog post, “Is Barbarism with a Human Face Our Fate?,” which begins with the relatable line: “These days I sometimes catch myself wishing to get the virus — in this way, at least the debilitating uncertainty would be over . . .” But his moment of clarity was quickly overtaken by his propensity to turn every thought into a book — Pandemic! Giorgio Agamben wrote a short essay casting doubt on the severity of the virus and blaming everyone for giving in too quickly to a perpetual state of emergency. Jean-Luc Nancy wrote a rejoinder ending with a personal memory: “Almost thirty years ago doctors decided I needed a heart transplant. Giorgio was one of the very few who advised me not to listen to them. If I had followed his advice, I would have probably died soon enough. It is possible to make a mistake.” Agamben’s impolitic reaction was irretrievably torn down by Nancy’s invocation of his own health. The dialogue is whiplash between the frustration at one’s own unfreedom and the memory of the body’s fragility.
“I think my rib might be broken,” I told my therapist. I talked myself out of going to the doctor, on the phone with her. If it was a broken rib, I reasoned, they’d just tell me to rest. And now did not seem to be the time to go in to see the doctor. “I think I have a broken rib,” I told a friend on the phone. When would I have broken it? they wanted to know. I didn’t know, but it was growing difficult even to walk without having to hold my hand to the lower part of my back, stabilizing it.
The other type of story, so easy to consume and perpetually engrossing, is the one that catalogs a jigsaw puzzle of symptoms, like a murder mystery. It’s easy to write, too — all you have to do is write it down chronologically, from day one to the end, recording your own uncertainty about how your body is acting, and the reader will guess along with you. I didn’t know what was happening to me, but I assumed I had Covid-19. If you get a fever these days, that’s just what you think. I read that one New York Times article comparing two Chinese women, both 29 (my age), one of whom died and one of whom did not. The one who died seemed to get better, and then took a nosedive. I wished I hadn’t read it. Personal stories are convincing (see Jean-Luc Nancy) but they offer little in the way of medical information.
Two days later, while I was watching the horror movie Hereditary, my body began to shake. I quickly developed a fever. Had I been cursed by the movie? I took my temperature, 99.9. I started crying, out of disappointment. My fever went up to 103 by the morning and stayed that way, save for when I took Tylenol, for the next four days. I took off work, of course, and lay daydreaming in bed.
I think we fantasize about the days of quarantine resembling the days of childhood: we are unable to leave the house without the sanction of a higher authority, so we spend long hours in aimless, unbearable boredom punctuated by pangs of creativity and embarking on new projects. But the similarity to childhood is an uncanny one. The bored hours spent in quarantine feel nothing like the bored hours I spent as a kid — I am not focused, I am constantly distracted.
As children, the home was a space to be filled with thoughts, which popped up like specters unbidden. As adults, we have few reserves for imagination, and the hours spent staring into space (or phones) tend to be obsessive rather than inventive. The days no longer seem slow, waiting for our parents to administer us food and entertainment; now, we must do everything for ourselves.
And the days I spent lying in bed, sweating, felt nothing like how I experienced being sick as a child. When I was in elementary school, I once had to write an autobiography, with assistance from several prompts. They asked us to describe the best day of our life and the worst day of our life so far. I struggled to come up with the worst day, but eventually settled on sickness as a general worst possible state. What is worse than the mind relentlessly poring over pain in the body, with no ability to solve it, except to wait? This time, I wasn’t even well enough to be bored.
I got a shot of antibiotics in my ass, and then I was convalescent.Tweet
I can’t remember very clearly what I thought about. I imagined, in a vague way, that I was connected, in my sick bed, to thousands of other people who had the same illness. I thought I was connected to my friend Amanda, who had been sick in Brooklyn for twenty days before I became ill, and who would stay sick after I got better. She went to the hospital for shortness of breath, but after being cleared for pneumonia she was sent home, told that she would have to get sicker before she could be treated. OK, I thought, this is only the beginning. I was lining my symptoms up with the ones I had heard about, and the ones I knew she had, fitting my own experience into the narrative of the coronavirus that had been growing in my mind, assembled from fragments of everything I’d read.
Anyway, I was wrong. I was not part of the grand Covid tale. I started vomiting and couldn’t even keep down water. Eventually, it dawned on me that I could not get better on my own. (“Zuckerman was feeling like a clean table, like an empty table, like a pale scrubbed wooden table, waiting to be set. No force left.”) On Saturday evening, in a surprisingly empty urgent care, I was quickly diagnosed with a severe kidney infection, by a nurse who wore a mask but rested her hand casually on my knee. I got a shot of antibiotics in my ass, and then I was convalescent.
I returned to the world of the reading and found the writing had grown world-weary. Excited bread posts had been replaced by considerations of empty New York, and a New York filled with sirens. There were reflections on being unable to think, a psychoanalyst on how talk therapy can only reveal the strangeness of life, and a nice piece by Ben Lerner on the poetry of Donald Trump’s cadence. There are also now obituaries, more and more often. My prediction: these heartfelt expressions will become rote as time goes on, pared down to the bare facts of people’s lives as we get worn down by grief.
I admire those who are stable enough to keep reading essays. From now on, I vow to read only fiction. For me, the well of individual experience has run dry, the mountain been mined, the carcass picked clean. The only one to tell me the truth — about the twin agonies of bodily sickness and mental obsession, and the need to get worse before I got better — was Nathan Zuckerman. Not only does the limitation of the physical being cause depression, but the tension within the mind can make the body sicker.
The tension, in my case, has to do with the constant repression that is necessary to get through quarantine. I ignored the pain in my back, thinking it a symptom of sitting in chairs. Staying at home requires this near-constant state of self-denial. Human impulses must be more than refused; the avoidance of other people becomes so deeply lodged in the psyche that desire to see others and to touch them never even reaches the conscious mind. When I (unendingly) watch Netflix, I am surprised to see people on-screen casually meeting on the street, going over to each other’s houses, even killing one another. Or, if not self-denial, this era requires a constant focus on the present. Isolation becomes manageable if one does not think of the past or the future, or the possibilities of what one could be doing. A dark sort of mindfulness, one born of survival rather than gratitude and focus.
But the mind needs to stretch. It was difficult to pick up another novel. I strained to concentrate well enough to dissolve myself into anything. I kept looking at my phone; I wanted so much to hear from people I knew. When I finally did manage to immerse myself, it was in The Transit of Venus, by Shirley Hazzard — a book recommended to me months ago by a close friend whose father had since fallen suddenly ill and entered hospice. I longed to be close to her, and my longing is what allowed me to leave myself behind and enter the book. The title refers to a rare astronomical event in which the planet Venus moves between the viewer and the sun. From Earth’s perspective, Venus appears as a barely discernible black dot — a small individual moving across the face of a fireball.