In late April I called my son Zach who said to me candidly within a minute of answering the phone that he was prey to feelings of emptiness—that he still felt waves of stress and depression, “a weird, hard feeling that comes and goes.” He had taken off work for the past few days, but it didn’t matter because in fact the station was very quiet now that the first wave of the illness had passed and people were still in lockdown so they weren’t shooting and stabbing each other, and there was less traffic so they weren’t running each other down; while other people suffering the regular afflictions of their chronic conditions or bloody accidents were avoiding the emergency medical services—the hospitals altogether—since everyone knew by this point that the city’s places of healing were hives of disease.
When I asked him if he could say more about the nature of his sadness, he told me that the epidemic had made him see something about his life that now he found he could not get away from. That basically the way his life had been working was on the premise of there being two ecosystems. His friends and his family were in one, and his job as a paramedic with the fire department was in the other, and there was some kind of balance between the two that allowed him to function. But this event had somehow disordered that. Now they were both messed up. “Now I see that the world I was raised up in, where you can have certain kinds of conversations about art and ideas and politics, say, exists at such a level of removal,” he said. “Not that I didn’t know it before. But just that there could be such blindness about what’s happening in the same city they live in.”
When he said “they” I knew he meant “us.” His family and the people who’d formed his circle of intimates and acquaintances growing up. A number of the guys he’d gone to public school with in Tribeca, Chinatown, and Chelsea still made up the core of his friend group. Good kids, loyal pals with bright smiles, senses of humor and decent, liberal social consciences. Young men with ideas and ambitions who of course wanted a better world for everyone, not just their own kind, even if they did not circulate outside the realm of their own kind in the vast stone canyons of the city where they now worked in marketing, PR, tech, and finance because that’s where the jobs were—the jobs that paid anything anyway—and in the airier, greener, or aquamarine refuges up the Hudson or in the Berkshires; in the Hamptons, or down the Jersey shore where their families had second homes. How many people really move outside their own received social strata anywhere, let alone in New York? My son was an anomaly in having ended up with a public sector job in the city, where most workers are Black or brown-skinned, after having being brought up in much the same milieu as these friends, even if his own parents were mutinous dreamers. The colossal sense of alienation that had descended over him in high school had been part of the reason for his divergence. A sense of being incapable of finding sufficient relevance in anything he was being taught to muster the will to keep learning, or of discovering enough interest in the jokey enthusiasms of his peers to keep engaging with them. The shallow repetition of everything oppressed him. He began to experience a bottomless craving for what one might, for lack of a better word, call “authenticity,” which had led him by a circuitous path to begin working in emergency medical services.
“Then that the job is so ineffective in the face of real crisis,” he continued. “The policies and resources are so obsolete. You see the way you’re just constantly going up against the inequalities of the city—terrible healthcare, terrible education, terrible living conditions. And if something like this happens, you can’t even begin to help. It’s just like, Move the body over here.” He gave a dry chuckle. “I feel like some compass of humanity inside me got damaged and neither of the worlds of my existence are positive for me right now. I’m hoping it’s just normal depression. I mean I’m hoping the disillusionment is just an effect of what’s happening.”
It was the fourth time I’d spoken with my son since the pandemic really struck New York at the end of March. The first conversation tore my heart out. He could hardly speak. The disease had registered in his work like the detonation of a bomb, or the rush of a tidal wave. I would never have imagined collective sickness could come on so suddenly had I not observed how in London, where I was then living, it seemed to happen from one day to the next that the sirens became continual. They assumed a life of their own, like a species of wrathful bird taking over the city—flapping, diving and flocking with their crazy squawking all over town out of nowhere. I remembered how, during the first Gulf War, three years before Zach’s birth, when I was living in Jerusalem, my first child, Yona, had thought that the air-raid sirens which sounded when missiles were detected firing toward Israel were themselves the monsters that his mother, Anne, and I were trying to protect him from when we scooped him up from his bed in the middle of the night and carried him to the zip-up plastic cot that she would close him inside of with a bag of fried peanut butter–flavored snack food next to a second container for his infant brother Tzvi while I began duct-taping the door frame—all together now inside our ineffectively “sealed room,” which every home was supposed to have created as a shelter against the chemical weapon attacks being threatened from Baghdad. The two children staring up wide-eyed from their transparent cages, clutching their junk food and bottles, following the motions of me, Anne, and my sister Elizabeth, who happened to be staying with us then, in our guerilla theatre outfits: nightmare-insect gas masks, random hats, voluminous scarves, rain coats, gloves, and boots. For we’d tried at first to scrupulously observe the governmental directive to cover every inch of flesh against the poison clouds that the official charts had shown would blister and melt us. Although almost immediately our protective swaddling became unbearably hot and we started negotiating with ourselves which parts of our bodies we’d be willing to sacrifice—tearing off this or that article in order to feel a little air even if that meant the disintegration of a limb or an organ.
In the early days of that war, as with this pandemic, ordinary life had been suspended. Schools closed. Many workplaces shuttered. A sense of vague, uncontrollable menace, which just might prove personally lethal, pervaded the atmosphere. But the little frissons of fear that came with the sirens were counterweighted by the intense sociability of life in the verdant courtyard our apartment opened onto. After the all-clear sounded we would come down the cement steps to join our neighbors, who’d left their own flats in the compound of low, stucco-faced buildings that framed the multi-level collage of gardens. We gathered on the benches and in the grass beneath the flickering palm tree to chat and sit close to one another while children raced along the little paths. Voices were sleepy and intimate, as though we’d all woken up in each other’s arms.
How demoralizing were the behaviors legislated to combat this disease! The way people veered away from one other, angrily, fearfully, or as though trying to physically repudiate the other person’s existence in the public space we were condemned to share. Sometimes, when people felt someone coming too near, but had no room to maneuver their whole body away, they would sharply twist their heads to the side; slightly lowering or shutting their eyes, as though they’d been slapped hard in the cheek and were bitterly submitting. That gesture of passive resignation to cruel usage seemed to place the passerby who’d occasioned it in a long lineage of hidden abuse. Once, early on in the surge of the virus, I’d been walking up one edge of a wide path in a large park and a tall, skeletal older man planted the other side of the path from me with a long pole clenched in his fist had begun shaking his weapon at me, his face contorted in rage, screaming, “Stay Away! Stay Away!” My mere corporal presence within eyeshot had turned me into a murderous hoodlum in his terror-frenzied eyes.
I caught the tone of silence from the start of my first conversation with Zach after the disease hit. I’d asked him how he was holding up and when he answered, “I’m alright,” the words were inert, with barren space all around them.
I stumbled this way and that, trying to find some way of reanimating his language.
“It’s been—pretty much what you expected?” I finally said.
“Pretty much. Yeah.”
“A lot of fatalities.”
“Yup. Pretty brutal,” he inhaled. “Not much to say.”
I’d spoken to him perhaps ten days earlier. At that point, he’d said that while he and his partners knew what was coming was serious, the prevailing sentiment at his station in Bed-Stuy remained unfazed dubiousness. The clamor in the media about the disease was likely to prove exaggerated, most of them felt. It was only after they went out into a night of incessant calls, which led to their finding themselves in residence after residence where the person they’d been called on to rescue was already dead—it was only when they saw colleague after colleague from their own ranks falling ill right before their eyes—that the magnitude of the event struck home. And then the speed of the switch from skepticism to panic had been dizzying.
It became clear that the note of shock in Zach’s voice had two main sources. First, the recognition that in the view of the authorities he and his fellow medics were utterly expendable. Not only were they were not given adequate protective gear, my son watched as time after time over the course of his shift an ambulance would pull into the station and one of the two paramedics would come out of the cab manifestly ill, coughing and feverish. He or she would be sent home, while that individual’s partner—who’d been overwhelmingly exposed to the virus for who knew how many hours—was simply moved over to another ambulance. “It’s like when they were just ordering unit after unit of firefighters into the Trade Towers,” Zach said. “If this were another kind of disease, we’d already be finished. It would already be over.” I think he repeated that sentence several times. I know it repeated in my own mind over and over.
Beyond confronting the disregard for their lives was the trauma of realizing that he and his fellow medics—the men and women called on to provide treatment to people in pain—were now entering the scene as agents of infection. “Most New Yorkers don’t realize,” he said, “that there’s this huge, very vulnerable population who use 911 for their regular health care. They don’t have insurance. They’re disadvantaged people, a lot of times with chronic conditions, hypertension, diabetes. So say some guy in his fifties calls us because he’s having heart palpitations—now he’s going to be exposed to the virus by the people who are supposed to be rescuing him . . .”
I think this was the point in that first conversation when my son’s voice began to sound like it was traveling down a long, long dim corridor to reach me. When it ceased to be clear that the next syllable would make it all the way out of him. I knew that the people he helped came largely from lower income, minority populations. It was when he began talking about the city dwellers in the metropolis he’d mostly grown up in, whom city dwellers like myself might never interact with, outside of glancing contact on sidewalks or public transportation, that his breath became weaker. “There are so many people who are so poor, so defenseless in New York, he said. Those are the people I see every day. This is going to wipe them out.” His voice broke. “The city must have known that, and they let the virus spread . . . They let it spread. They gave up on trying to contain the disease before they even tried.” The flow of his speech became more and more punctured. “I’m sorry. I’m just very sad,” he said, sniffing. “It’s just very dark,” he said. “It’s very dark.”
That night I couldn’t sleep. I couldn’t stop thinking about Zach moving through the dark apartments of the dead. The luridly lit rooms of those who were dying. I couldn’t stop seeing the last second of life on imaginary faces of those whom society had abandoned to the illness, sometimes entirely alone, other times surrounded by broken relatives. Faces upon faces, softening and stiffening. The same scene over and over; a physio-social repetition compulsion: The scarred doorway. The blind stairs. The grey elevator. The fluorescent hallway. The body on the bed, on the floor, beneath the bubbling aquarium, below the chattering television, under the curtained window, beneath the rosary-laced image of Jesus, the dresser, the table, the assembly of beaming photographs. The ambulance hurtling through the darkness of the underworld, hour after night after night, sirens wailing, blood light flashing.
My son and his partners could not think as they passed through the rooms of how each corpse had been a life full of moments no one else lived. Here was the family weeping. Here were the protocols. Here was the super, the administrator, the shadow, the moon. Here was the goldfish moving around and around in its little glass bowl. And here was the next call.
Here were the young and here were the old. Here were the leaves falling from trees that were already bare, and here lay the memories of snow.
Some people say the saddest lines in all poetry are those from the Georgics in which Virgil casually interrupts a sequence of recommendations on animal husbandry to observe, “Of the measure of days allowed to piteous mortals, the best days / Are first to leave: illness and sorry old age loom up, / Suffering and death’s untender mercies take all away.”
Now as the other Brooklyn, which had been my Brooklyn, sealed itself away in quarantine it was as if the under- and over-worlds were switching places. The underworld filled the streets and the news now, while the affluent, the healthy, and the otherwise privileged closed themselves away behind the dark walls of their residences. Even the quarantine of the most vulnerable was always more porous.
I hated the language of lockdown. Supercilious, self-fascinated blabber about finding the “new normal.” Governmental self-justifying talk about following “The Science”—as though that were one monolithic, infallible idol squatting omnisciently above the event. The call for “practicing social-distancing measures,” which sounded on certain lips like a new class at an elite yoga studio, while to the ears of those in difficult, unsettled living situations the demand might underscore helplessness—prove worse than meaningless. I despised the pseudo-universalizing aspect of the call to duty—the way the command for people to stay inside their homes was couched within the moralistic injunction that “we must all do our part”—as if there were any meaningful correlation between lockdown for someone like myself inhabiting a comfortable private house where I had a room of my own and a nearby green park, and the experience of someone in cramped public housing in some bleak urban vista. The hypocrisy of pretending we were all in this together when our society had long been accommodating and materially inscribing ever more extreme socioeconomic divisions—which the plague only violently exposed and exacerbated—was insufferable.
The day after that first conversation I learned that my son had fallen ill with fever and pain throughout his body.
The day after he broke down on the phone, my son was sick with symptoms of the virus and I was 3500 miles away because two years earlier I’d left America. Why had I left America again? Why had I moved to England? What had I been thinking? What made me eject myself from my homeland? A flamboyant gesture of protest and wanderlust had now become a sentence of banishment.
Zach’s roommate, Theo, whom he’d known since the two of them were children at P.S. 234 on Greenwich Street in the shadow of the World Trade Center, had gone back to his parents in Manhattan. I could not get to Zach, or even get through to him. I flashed back to the moment when I had finally gotten through to a teacher at his elementary school, on the morning of September 11, 2001 to try and find out what was happening, and she had managed to say only, “The situation is very bad—” before the phone cut off and I watched the north tower fall on a television screen in the conference room of my workplace in midtown, forty stories up in the sky, unable to know what had happened to the children inside that massive smoke cloud billowing out from the collapse—unaware of whether they’d been able to get out of the building, or where they’d gone if they had escaped.
My friend Adam, an artist whom I’ve known since I was two and who’d been underground in a train when the attack happened, rose up out of the subway onto Church Street to find a chunk of plane engine smoking in the gutter at the head of the stairs. That was his first sign of the event. Then he raised his eyes and saw a hole punched in a twenty-story building between that uncanny object and the burning tower. Only later did he realize that the engine must have kept flying on its own for a moment after the plane immolated inside the Trade Center, crashing through that second building before plummeting. He’d been working nearby painting murals for rich people and now ran to their offices to call me. I told him I was trying to locate Zach, but couldn’t reach anyone. He took off for P.S. 234 and there an EMT said the children had been evacuated to a school in the Village up the West Side Drive. Adam rushed there, barak allah fih dayimaan, and brought Zach to my friend Eva’s building off University Place on East 12th Street, behind the Spanish-style arabesques of a black iron grill portico. She was in Paris. I had the key to her place and finally met them there with Anne and the other boys . . . All the poisons I’d ingested in that apartment, trying to ignite or extinguish our attachment, flaming into the darkness, gazing out the window over the wall of an airshaft, and at fragments of her life working to save people from landmines. Shells and shrapnel. Islamic miniatures. Silver vessels and sallow beads. The proof sheets she’d somehow acquired of Christopher Isherwood camping it up in Los Angeles. The crystal sound of Eva’s laughter between shot glasses and war stories. Every time I left her, night or morning, felt like a bad translation of a deep Russian poem . . .
Now our little family, which had already fallen apart—Anne and I were separated earlier that year—sat together, reunited in the little apartment that I found so haunted, trying to determine what happened next. Yona and Tzvi were shifting restlessly on the couch. Zach sat silent, alone on a chair, refusing to wash the film from the cloud off his body because, as someone in Israel later told me, He knew the smoke was people.
And I remembered holding Zach in Independence Park in the middle of west Jerusalem on a spring day in 1995 when he was just over a year old. He was an easy child, eager to see everything the world had to show him, as I was eager to help guide his gaze. The air was fresh and the clouds were high. Tall trees wove back and forth overhead with lazy majesty. I remember the light in my son’s eye; the warmth of his cheek; the glowing white limestone fragments in the brilliant green grass. Early that morning I’d written a poem that still sang in me. Anne had left to teach at the art school, smiling in expectation of introducing her students to a technique in etching she’d just taught herself. I remember feeling, as I’ve felt only a handful of times in my adult life, absolutely inside my existence.
Ten days after he fell ill, when he’d gone three days without a temperature, my son was called back to resume sixteen-hour shifts with the department. In my next conversation with him, his voice sounded tougher and more hollow. He did not break down, but it was as if the timbre of his speech had aged half a century.
Cardiac arrest, cardiac arrest, cardiac arrest. That’s what came over the ambulance radio all night long he told me. He said he’d heard at least sixty on his shift. I mumbled something about my admiration for him, the heroism of their service and—
It doesn’t feel heroic, he broke in. Most of what they were doing at this point was just tagging bodies, he said. “Cardiac arrest. Cardiac arrest. Cardiac arrest. Back to back. It feels like clearing up the aftermath. If you were looking at it cynically, you might think the authorities let it spread, then they shut down the city so they could clean it up when no one was looking. That was the extent of policy. I mean, I don’t know how much the lockdown even does at this point. The spread has already happened. They made a decision. It’s naive to think that no decisions were made. You don’t have to believe in conspiracies, but a decision was made to let it happen. The politicians—they knew.”
“And so you . . .”
“I’m just trying to get through it. No processing.”
“If you had cared about this population, you would have shut things down sooner. You wouldn’t have been desperately trying to buy ventilators so long after it was clear it was going to happen. If you’re over 70 and you’re chronically ill, and you’re poor—that population is just going to be gone when the people in quarantine come back out of doors. Who knows, maybe no one will notice.”
When the call ended I thought about the idea of trying politically, or artistically, or in some civic context that marries both forms of expression, like the ideal construct of ancient Greek theatre, to render the loss of a person or group of people whose presence has long gone unrecognized—been lost to the majority population before they literally ceased to exist.
Every conceivable social media platform was stuffed then with photos people had taken of central locations in major cities, from New York to Hong Kong, to Delhi, London, Paris, Rio de Janeiro, Buenos Aires, Los Angeles, Rome, Sidney—I could go on and on—all absolutely deserted. I find the images aesthetically perplexing. There’s something desperate about the whole enterprise; it often seems that what people are trying to capture is not the public spaces and stones of the cities actually visible, but the everyday crowds that are not there. In this sense they call to mind unsuccessful attempts at spirit photography—the vogue which began in the late nineteenth century to catch on film the phantom traces of distinct, departed souls. These present-day images are filled only with identical, gaping instances of blankness, and perhaps this is why, despite the architectural particularities of the different places depicted, there is a strange homogeneity, even repetitiveness to these portraits of emptied-out cities. The visible silence, starkness and stillness are ubiquitous—interchangeable; but people keep taking the pictures and doggedly posting them nonetheless, until the mass of images of people not there itself comes to seem a proxy for the missing throngs of humanity.
There is a perennial tradition of trying to represent absence in art. (Some would say the endeavor is art’s raison d’etre.) As a reminder, an accusation, an invocation—a means of dissolving, or reconstituting the beholder’s own sense of presence. Holocaust memorials frequently engage this intention. Foucault’s famous disquisition on Velazquez’s Las Meninas argues that the painting is structured around what is manifestly not present. “The lines that run through the depth of the picture,” Foucault writes, “are not complete; they all lack a segment of their trajectories. This gap is caused by the absence of the king—an absence that is an artifice on the part of the painter. But this artifice both conceals and indicates another vacancy which is, on the contrary, immediate; that of the painter and the spectator when they are looking at or composing the picture.”
After returning to Tahiti in his late forties, depressed, lonely and ill, Gauguin was haunted by thoughts of old companions and rival painters. He began working on a series of still lifes that are understood to be surrogate portraits of lost friends. Whereas much of Gauguin’s oeuvre today appears coarse and exploitative, the grace of these remarkable works overwhelmed me when I saw them in an exhibition of the painter’s work at the National Gallery on a cold, rain-swept afternoon in late January, when we now know the virus was already circulating among us. For his evocation of Van Gogh, who’d shot himself a decade earlier, Gauguin sent all the way to Paris for sunflower seeds, which he then planted and nurtured to blossom. After the flowers opened he arranged them in suggestive tableaux. In “Still Life with Hope,” the dramatic blooms, divine, desperate, wildly innocent, erupt from a Meso-American pot next to an iridescent Japanese bowl; one flower stalk from the bouquet lies solitary on its side beneath the cluster of reaching gold petals. On the wall behind hangs a painting of a nude female ephebe on a pool of white fabric in a brown-yellow field: Gauguin’s reproduction of “Hope,” a painting by Pierre Puvis de Chavannes, whom Van Gogh had called, “The master of us all.”
In literature the phenomenon is equally significant.
A year after his grandmother’s burial, the narrator in Proust’s novel abruptly recaptures her living reality in a spontaneous memory of her stooping over him in her dressing gown to unfasten his boots—and it is only inside this moment that he becomes conscious of her being dead. “I could not understand this contradiction,” Proust writes. On the one hand the tenderness of his grandmother’s love, persisting in him as he had known it—created for him; “and on the other hand, as soon as I had relived that bliss, as though it were present, feeling it shot through by the certainty, throbbing like a recurrent pain, of an annihilation that effaced my image of that tenderness, had destroyed that existence.” He longed to continue feeling this paradox of intertwined survival and annihilation. Were he ever able to extract a truth from life he resolved that it could only arrive from the impression of this contradiction, “which death itself, the sudden revelation of death, striking like a thunderbolt, had carved within me, along a supernatural and inhuman graph, in a double and mysterious furrow.” This was, at last, his book’s subject.
In “Eurydice” the poet Arseniy Tarkovsky writes: “And I dream of a different soul / Dressed in other clothes: / Burning as it runs / From timidity to hope, / Spirituous and shadowless / Like fire it travels the earth, / Leaves lilac behind on the table / To be remembered by.”
Eurydice means “wide social justice” according to some classical scholars, while the name Orpheus may derive from a term for “the darkness of night.” In the etymological depths of his passion, we discern the yearning for an ideal that transcends any single object of desire, a notion which has also been put forward as a definition of art.
Orpheus with his lyre figured as the archetypal artist for millennia—the sweetness of his music so divine that it charmed the guardians of Hades and enabled him to retrieve his ideal from the obscure realm of the dead. Yet perhaps Orpheus’s reputation is merited less for his success at beguiling the Stygian sentries than for the sheer extravagance of his fantasy that such a thing might be possible, a dream no less radical than that of believing one might create a living being from the imagination alone. Indeed, along with the bravado of attempting to restore Eurydice to this world, what makes Orpheus paradigmatic may be the moment of shattering doubt in his achievement, which leads him to turn his head back over his shoulder and so doom her again. However, this moment is also constitutional, since the instant in which, scrutinizing the fantasy materialized, the artist realizes that he or she has not made the vision become real, an umbilical cord is cut, and the work itself is finished.
Noting that a moment of total happiness never occurs in the making an art work, Lucian Freud commented that its promise was experienced “in the act of creation but disappears toward the completion of the work. For it is then that the painter realizes that it is only a picture he is painting. Until then he had almost dared to hope that the picture might spring to life.” Yet this recognition is also what keeps the creative urge itself alive for, having created a perfect work, he might simply retire—falling dead as an artist. “It is this great insufficiency that drives him on,” Freud concluded.
Though I’d seen individual canvases of his before, my encounter with Freud’s work really began with his 1994 retrospective at the Metropolitan Museum, which I visited on a trip back to America just before Zach was born. I remember being mesmerized by the show—all those sprawled bodies, glazed expressions, shut lids, figures curled in on themselves, gazing up at the artist as though he were to be their last sight on this earth. I felt in some way that I was inside the mortuary of an entire culture: The society was spent, but fantastically so; monumental, attenuated, beautifully, harrowingly, knowingly posthumous. The experience resonated with my feelings about the London I saw in the ’80s when I’d gone there repeatedly with Anne to visit her father who lived then in tattered, insinuating debauchery in Holland Park; a human avatar of the frayed, plush brown couch in Freud’s Painter and Model. Wandering down Portobello Road with his then girlfriend, Libby, a statuesque woman with great plumes of red hair, who’d last played some bit part in a Fellini film, I remember being struck by the heaps and spreads of old cutlery everywhere, as though this were the glimmering, sedimentary deposit at the end of the silver river of Empire.
Only much later did I think how the exhibition might also be viewed as intimating that Freud killed his subjects. The artist Celia Paul described the acute discomfort she experienced posing for Freud as a young woman, during which her nakedness made her feel she was “at the doctor’s, or in the hospital, or in the morgue.” So hateful was the feeling of exposure that she wept throughout these sessions. A literary friend in London who would run into Freud from time to time at parties, told me of her intense aversion to his presence—the blinking, predatory, bird-like stare he would cast about a room upon entering; she shivered when recalling the memory.
In our third conversation, my son said that the volume of calls for the victims of the plague were diminishing. An appeal had been issued to ambulance units around the country for volunteers to help out in New York and their fellow first responders had come through—enough at least to take the pressure off as the peak subsided, which was a fortunate thing because he had no doubt that they’d come to the edge of being overwhelmed.
I asked him what that would have meant in practice and he said that would have been a situation where someone calls 911 and says they’ve got a family member who’s dying and the dispatcher says sorry there are no ambulances to send you. That’s the point when the social order really starts to come apart, he remarked. There was no question that he was traumatized, he added matter-of-factly. He was sure all of them were. I tried gently pressing him to say more and he told me that he had thought that he’d become inured to anything he might see on the job. He’d seen such terrible things—dead kids. People set on fire. But there was something about seeing mass death that was just categorically different. “We have all these rituals surrounding death,” he continued. “CPR, advanced interventions, funerals—these processes that make us feel we’re different from some dead deer on the side of the road. But when you witness mass death, you realize there’s no difference. No difference between a human life and any other life. Illusions break down very quickly, and—we’re just road kill.”
It was at this point that I asked him cautiously whether he ever thought in light of this experience that perhaps when the crisis abated he might consider exploring some other line of work. I wanted, as it’s said, to give him the space to express that desire if he had it. My admiration for him was threaded with angst. I did not trust the city to protect him any better the next time disaster struck.
“Not really,” he said, with a little laugh that was gone before it fully emerged. “You just start realizing, there are just a lot of impossibilities in life. It’s not like I think to myself, Oh I wish I’d stayed inside during this and read the news all day. It’s not like I see that as a better alternative. It took a personal toll for sure, but I still feel better just being out there.”
That might have been the point at which our conversation zagged by a path I cannot recall to a juncture where I felt prompted to say something about art, which brought him to remark, “Yeah that’s the other thing about something like this. It can just make art seem—stupid.” He laughed. “Oh, the beautiful poem!” He laughed again. “The beautiful, beautiful poem! It’s very easy to appreciate the beauty of art and ‘the profound note’ when things are good. When people are dying around you it’s a lot harder to do. Maybe some people can find solace that way—through other people’s interpretation of things, but . . . You know what this made me appreciate more? Technology. All these little things people have created. Just sitting in the ambulance, staring at the dashboard panel with all these buttons that do all these different things, all these tiny blinking lights.” He laughed. “It’s amazing!”
Yet this was also the conversation in which at some point it came up that his roommate Theo, had returned from his parents’ apartment in Manhattan and had given Zach a copy of Camus’ The Plague from which he’d taken some kind of comfort. “The sense for me of the situation being unprecedented, and totally new, and going through uncharted waters—that was hard,” he said. “But then you read The Plague, which I guess was based on a real epidemic and—clearly that was worse. You see how it’s the same thing all over again. Some people behave well. Some behave badly—it exposes things. You get a taste for history’s horrors. Something like this disease makes them more real and it allows you to understand how quickly we can adapt.”
The sense of solidarity across time and space that art can provide was something I often thought about. It existed in an obscure conjunction with another facet of art I reflected on: what might be framed as art’s mystery.
I remember reading an interview between the poet Mark Strand and the playwright Wally Shawn in which Strand spoke of a kind of poetry wherein the poet offers the reader an alternative world through to read this world. It’s not about a reinforcement of one’s own experience, but the excitement of being saturated with other voices. “I like to be mystified,” Strand said. “It’s really that place which is unreachable, or mysterious, at which the poem becomes ours, finally becomes the possession of the reader. I mean in the act of figuring it out, of pursuing meaning, the reader is absorbing the poem, even though there’s an absence in the poem. . . . We come into possession of a mystery,” Strand remarked, adding that this was something we resist in the course of everyday life where we seek to pin fixed meanings on our experiences.
The observations resonated for me with comments made by the director, Andrei Tarkovsky, son of the poet Arseniy, about the reception of his work. Often his dream-riven films were met with bewilderment or even outrage—a sense that there was something unhealthy, politically suspect, perverse, in their lyrical ambiguities, and he fought against bitterness. But then every so often he would receive a letter from someone living an ordinary life of toil and struggle far away from the premises of high art who had found something in his movies that struck a deep chord. A woman from Gorky marveled about a scene from his intensely autobiographical film, Mirror. “My childhood was like that. . . . Only how did you know about it? There was that wind, and the thunderstorm. . . .’ Galka put the cat out,’ cried my Grandmother. . . . It was dark in the room.” A worker in a Leningrad factory who took night classes told Tarkovsky that the film was one he could not even talk about “because I am living it.” A woman from Novosibirsk wrote, “Everything that torments me, everything I don’t have and that I long for, that makes me indignant, or sick, or suffocates me, everything that gives me a feeling of light and warmth, and by which I live, and everything that destroys me—it’s all there in your film, I see it as if in a mirror.” Only inside it did she feel truly alive, she went on. Tarkovsky realized that in his most uncompromising rendering of his individual experience, he’d succeeded at times in presenting a world “that other people recognize as a part of themselves that up till now has never been given expression.” What better motivation could there be for one’s creative work? he asked. In plumbing the utmost foundations of his own being, he’d exposed profound commonalities of human existence—which is to say the mystery of solidarity, the solidarity of mystery.
“A person has one body, wrote his father at the start of “Eurydice,” “Singleton, all on its own, / The soul has had more than enough / Of being cooped up inside / A casing with ears and eyes / . . . Out through the cornea it flies / Into the bowl of the sky, / On to an icy spoke, / To a wheeling flight of birds, / And hears through the barred window / Of its living prison-cell / The crackle of forests and corn-fields / The trumpet of seven seas.”
But it was in the course of the conversation with which I began, the fourth exchange I had with my son after the malady swept through New York, that questions of art in relation to human responsibility became paramount. We’d touched on the issue of culture’s relevance at times of great suffering before, but as the first wave of calamity began to subside the subject became the heart of our dialogue. Does art really do anything except distract us from people’s fundamental needs, like the opium of religion Marx inveighed against? Why make art at all when reality is so urgently clamoring? What is art? The questions were ancient and elemental, but the convulsion of our world gave them new wings.
When Zach spoke about his disenchantment—the way that illusions swiftly fell away in these times—I found myself saying something about how, while the world of art might have properties distinct from the one our physical selves typically navigates, this was not necessarily equivalent to its being illusory. For one thing, we really do live in the realm of our minds and our passions much of the time. If the visions we experience through art can occupy our consciousness, and sometimes even direct our actions, is it right to say that because they don’t correspond to what’s incarnate outside us today they simply don’t exist?
Even as I was speaking I felt the pedantic muzziness of the argument and its lack of bearing on why art was the wager I’d staked my existence on—but then what was the real explanation for this venture? I knew that part of me harbored impossible, magical aspirations for art. “We wish to be creators in our own, lower sphere. We want to have the privilege of creation, we want creative delights; we want—in one word—Demiurgy.” So proclaims the father in Bruno Schulz’s The Street of the Crocodiles. And I felt my spirit quicken on reading Lucian Freud’s declaration that he wished his portraits “to be of the people, not like them. Not having the look of the sitter, being them.” Perhaps the embarrassing hubris of such ambitions made me wish to hide in the bushes of theoretical abstraction. For nothing I said would contravene the significance of what Zach had witnessed: He had seen what lies underneath. That revelation could not be unlearned. Didn’t the knowledge, moreover, have a correlative in aesthetics? Just as, under the face waits the skull, below the surface of literature runs a set of patterned vocalizations, carved lines or squiggles. Beneath the gobs of flesh-mimicking paint lies the linen weave of a canvas. Under the digital phantasmagoria, rare metals, plastics and electricity confabulate.
And yet . . . what if, in fact, above and below were not firmly segregated, but conjunctive, interpenetrating categories for which art itself supplies the unifying vision?
When I shut my eyes, I could picture my son sitting in the little room of the apartment he shared with his old friend, a space dominated by an elaborate keyboard he’d constructed on which he played his own ambient nocturnes, for he himself—along with being a paramedic—was a musician. I saw him by himself late at night entering into the sonic spaces he dreamed in the moment as they came through his fingers. And then at some twilight hour, he rose from that instrument and donned his dark blue uniform. He laced up his heavy black boots and assembled his large bag of equipment, hoisted it onto his shoulder and prepared to leave for the other world. He glanced backward once more, then switched off the light. I could picture my son so vividly the sight overcame me, yet my hands when I reached for him kept drowning in emptiness, a steady fall of nothing, like the walls of water flooding down the sides of the 9/11 memorial at Ground Zero.
“In our response to a great work of art we know ourselves in the presence of something that’s real,” I blurted out, almost imploringly. “Something has been revealed, a connection to some greater truth, whether it’s spiritual or . . .” My voice trailed off.
I realized that I’d been treating our exchange as if I were at once giving courtroom testimony in defense of my own choices and trying to lead my son onto a path that would transport him from the infernal scenes he presently labored in toward some more sublime prospect. I wanted to wrest him from the underworld through the liberating necromancy of art. At some point in the course of that fourth conversation the question of the purpose of life and the meaning of art become snarled.
“You’re speaking about the idea of connection,” Zach interrupted. “And it’s true the sense of connection you can get from art is fantastic. But this event has created a disconnection.”
It was then that he raised the idea of the two ecosystems his life had formerly been balanced by, which now had gotten disrupted by the disease. “The thing is,” he went on, “I’ve allowed myself to exist in a social world that’s white, privileged—all from a certain ‘group’ where we can talk about art and appreciate the finer things of life. I mean that makes it sound too high class. That’s not the point. But there’s no way to connect with what’s beautiful now, because there’s all this other shit going on. The disparity was always there but somehow this intensified it, so it’s one world. So you ask how could you ever do both? How could you ever turn a blind eye to the suffering?”
When my son said “both” I knew he meant seek out life’s cultivated pleasures while also ministering to the raw pain of others. And that he used the word “beautiful” in a broader, more nuanced sense than just that which is pretty or delightfully uplifting. I think he would have acknowledged the beautiful as the true—and still not have excused that in his current mood. For even art which engaged substantively with life’s tragic dimensions and specific catastrophes did not assuage people’s visceral misery, and might convey a false sense to spectators that by appreciating the pathos in some portrayal of hardship they were doing something to alleviate it.
“The only examples of people bridging that divide right now are just the little individual things a few people are doing to reach out. Like there’s this actor from Westworld—Jeffrey Wright—who’s been giving a full meal of good food to everybody at my station every single day for the past month. Those little acts of kindness—Somebody taking a really direct, personal approach, cutting through the system—”
“But that’s it.” He was getting more and more worked up as he spoke—talking in ways I’d never heard him speak. “When I got into being a paramedic I just wanted to do something cool—something real. It wasn’t about class. I didn’t get into this to help ‘the working class.’” He laughed. “I’d heard about that stuff all my life from you guys and I’d had enough. But you can’t deny the reality when you’re faced with it again and again. Then the race thing as well—in New York they’re just so intermingled. Having to be on the other side of that, it wasn’t my intention, but you see how the system is plagued by these issues to such a degree. All of it is a racism and classism, that’s all you’re dealing with. If you do any job in the public sector you can’t get away from it. So what’s your reaction in opposition to that?”
“Right . . . like in Camus, that notion of taking individual responsibility—”
“I guess. With an event like this you just see how people are so disconnected that even if they’ve got collective instincts, those instincts don’t have an outlet because there’s so little understanding of what’s going on. In New York you can be so totally desensitized to what’s around you that it’s automatic to turn your back on things and go back to—whatever. New York just maintains such disparities, despite its incredible wealth. How can you ever connect when there’s just such a total disconnect in the way things are set up? I still don’t know personally a single person who’s been hit by this. Not the parent of a friend. Not an aunt or an uncle. Not the grandparent. And then you go to work and it’s just death after death after death. How is there not even one? How is that even possible? It’s not about good and bad people. It’s that you’re allowed to be a good person in this horrible, horrible system. It’s so easy not to deal with. I wouldn’t have dealt with it if I hadn’t become a paramedic. I wouldn’t be a worse person for not dealing with it, but then something like this happens and the disparity just becomes unbearable.”
As his voice dropped, I found myself thinking that on some level the excruciating incongruity my son had descried through the disease itself had the character of recognition a work of art might provoke. For the pandemic of course had not created the disjunction between the domains of my son’s social life and that of his job, but instead scrambled them together—shown that the two worlds were in truth entwined all the time, even if this connection was ordinarily deniable. Drawing the lines between them was in fact what much of the art that interested me accomplished.
But if this terrible illness was acting on the consciousness of my son and others in a manner reminiscent of certain powerful art works, what did that say about the nature of individuals who made art—those anthropoid scourges? I recalled a comment from the Viennese writer Stefan Zweig late in 1940, when war was raging and his few friends who’d remained behind in the “hell” of Europe had fallen silent. “People who make ‘literature’ today or are able to speak, I cannot fully understand: it seems to me more like a human defect than a virtue (but perhaps art is really always determined by defects.)”
At the same time, however, mightn’t it be the artists who would gaze back at the cataclysm and raise from its ashes the living reality of those neglected souls who’d been its main victims? Along with the age-old puzzle, what is art, came the question, What is an artist?
There were in fact times in my younger adult life when, confronted yet again with my failure to earn enough money as an artist to survive—by the logistical strain and psychic torment of trying to split myself between work that paid and the work I valued—I’d sought to leave the vocation behind, seeking employment as a teacher, a therapist, a physician’s assistant. But invariably I found that I could not surrender my passport to the land of make-believe. And so the words of my writing continued to eat away at the organic structure of my life, like termites in timber. Indeed, the pursuit had been part of what drew me away from New York two years before, leading to this moment now when I felt grief-stricken by the distance from our American family. For, between the consuming political debacle and the fulfillment of consumer-society capitalism, even the ideal of creative freedom had come to seem obsolete during my last years in the city.
But this was hardly the first time art had removed me from those I loved. Every day when I closed myself off in my study, I felt how the work ripped me away from the realm of the living. How could one possibly justify sacrificing that warm responsibility to the construction of imaginary worlds? Even were it true that art might sometimes reveal or forge connections between severed parts of human experience, for the artists themselves the process of creation often entails a profound withdrawal. Yet art and life also obviously intermingle promiscuously. How could the paradox ever be resolved?
With the regular order of the world suspended, my thoughts moved relentlessly backward and forward in time. Night after night I dreamt of the lives of the artists. With so much that I loved, ideals and individuals, receding further and further from my reaching fingers, I turned to the question of what happens when Orpheus at last could no longer see Eurydice. Of course, he was still weeping, and would look back again and again, but at some point, nonetheless, his feet began to trudge forward. In the midst of lamentation and songs conjuring her memory, Orpheus began to open his eyes to where he found himself now.
Early in the summer of 2020 I spoke with my son Zach again and his tone had transformed. It wasn’t so much that he sounded hopeful, as surprised into a sense of brash indeterminacy. The energy of the protests that had broken out against racist police brutality seemed to him to have been magnified by the pandemic. “The virus shone a light on the inequality, that’s for sure,” he said. “When it was just every day, All the poor people are dying, and Manhattan just left . . . It made people see—the cop stuff is part of it obviously—but there’s a lot to fix. The city feels more interesting again. There’s definitely an edge.”
He talked about the way police were now receding from the streets, which meant that he and the other EMT teams were sometimes going into volatile crowd scenes without the backup they’d had in the past.
Did this make him feel concerned for his safety? I asked, feeling concerned for his safety.
“Not really. Not so far,” he laughed. “There’s a possibility of things just spiraling out of control, but it hasn’t happened yet. Things get hectic—people drinking—there’s a hecticness, but things are actually better for the most part. It’s like all that endless pushing poor Black and immigrant people to the margins got interrupted. Now the rich white people are gone, and the people who are left are just hanging out. It feels like a city that belongs to more than just the people who have money. It’s Brooklyn. This is what people look like. It’s cool, and there’s also a bit of a feeling of lawlessness—that’s part of it. So the question now I guess is, is it just summer after a pandemic strikes or the start of real changes? I don’t know. We’ll see.”
I questioned him about the state of mind of his old friends—the gang he’d gone to elementary school with nearby the Trade Towers, who were still part of his life. What was their take on what was happening?
“It’s mixed,” he replied. Some were leaving town. His roommate, for instance, who worked for a financial data service, was thinking about moving to San Francisco to get some type of higher degree in business. “He’s thinking maybe it’s time for a change,” Zach remarked, which meant that Zach himself would have to find a cheaper place to live—but he didn’t seem unduly troubled. As for the others, he continued, people were basically behind the protests, but not necessarily reckoning with the implications for themselves personally. “A lot of my friends are very focused on the policing issue, which is good but—you start bringing up other stuff and they get uncomfortable.”
“Uncomfortable in what way?”
“Like when I say that if you live in a society with people living in projects across the street from people with tons of money, there’s going to be an issue, even apart from the police—that’s the place they don’t really want to go when we talk. Stuff I see all the time in the world I work in. But honestly, a lot of what my friends speak about is just feeling bored because of the restrictions. Very, very bored. It hasn’t been a boring time for me. I go back and forth between being terrified and happy. People are not as into the status quo as they were—and that’s kind of amazing. It’s definitely a moment. The first pandemic in a hundred years. The biggest civil rights movement in a long time. . . . I didn’t see this coming. I thought things would just go back to what they were once, and that pissed me off. Maybe policing would improve a little, then people would slip into their lives again, but it hasn’t happened. There just might be something more. Now it’s about—Why is this fucking city the way it is? The virus shone a light pretty hard,” he repeated.
As he went on I found myself taking inspiration from his description of this unanticipated arrival of open-endedness. I had yearned to deliver him from the underworld and found myself being rescued from my own fixed image of the world above.
At a symposium held in Philadelphia in 1961, Marcel Duchamp suggested that capitalism had become so hypertrophied that it was now shaping the contours of artists’ imaginations. The issues before young artists today were, in his view, far more significant than the “‘representative or non-representative’ dilemma.” So close a connection was operating between the laws of supply and demand and the creative field that artistic production was now as commonplace as “soap and securities.” The situation had led to a tremendous dilution in the artist’s vocation, Duchamp observed, expressing hope that this mediocrity would incite “a revolution on the ascetic level,” which could be developed “on the fringe of a world blinded by economic fireworks.” In conclusion, Duchamp, announced, “The great artist of tomorrow will go underground.”
Another version of the Orpheus myth might end with Orpheus choosing to spend time in the underworld even apart from the quest for Eurydice—not descending to retrieve anyone, but to learn about the place’s denizens, architecture and nature. For the overworld appears before us today stale, grossly furious, predictable, and doomed. Another Orpheus might seek for a new muse in the depths below what we can see from here now.
Adapted from a book in progress.