Virginia Woolf, laid up with the flu, wrote that: “the merest schoolgirl, when she falls in love, has Shakespeare or Keats to speak her mind for her; but let a sufferer try to describe a pain in his head to a doctor and language at once runs dry.”
Among all the gaping holes and wounds in our collective life that the new coronavirus has revealed is the fact that our public language long ago depleted its resources and then debased itself. We must be the first and only civilization to use a word, “viral” — a term that denotes death and destruction — to signify a quintessentially American form of success.
One would be right to condemn government for not taking the possibility of a viral pandemic seriously. But neither did we. No one would have used the word “metastasize” to describe the effect of someone or something being universally read or seen on the web because we know that cancer kills. But a virus also kills. How could we have been so blind to that?
And now, as if emerging from behind its disgraceful function as a simile, “viral” has returned in its original, primal form to entirely overtake our language.
Panicked, confused, riveted by the imminent possibility of catching a possibly fatal illness, the entire country, it seems, has lost the capacity to reimagine the world in language or thought.
Just a few weeks ago, you could turn on the TV news and see a wide array of experts addressing a broad variety of subjects. Now there is one type of expert almost exclusively dominating the media. The epidemiologist has become the central figure of our time.
Against the necessary, sometimes terrifying, sometimes reassuring streams of epidemiological reports, we now have to maintain our ability to think non-biologically, to mentally escape the mental stressors of material concerns like “flattening the curve,” social distancing, mortality rates and modes of contagion.
Even as we plan, prepare, follow official guidelines and steel ourselves with all the facts we can gather, we are faced with the challenge of also enduring the new coronavirus with the heat and light of our imaginations: We need to exercise the power and autonomy of our mind’s highest faculty to keep our spirits high and free.
Like the surge of alternative treatments, especially among elites — the fanciful pseudo-mysticism of Moon Dust and Goop — a literary or intellectual interpretation of the new coronavirus may strike some people as not just irrelevant, but also just this side of obscene.
An instinctive distaste for perceiving illness as anything more than a clinical fact owes much to Susan Sontag, who argued in “Illness and Metaphor” against spinning literary or abstract intellectual interpretations of physical sickness.
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Sontag derided how tuberculosis was conceived of in the 19th century as, in her words, an “inward burning” caused by a raging romantic passion — think of the doomed, lovelorn, consumptive Mimi in the final scene of “La Bohème”: “I am so cold” … (she coughs).” Sontag excoriated the way cancer was often characterized (though hardly as often as she thought) as a mysterious contagion caused by sexual repression, a disease whose name should not even be spoken.
All this symbolic interpretation, Sontag believed, had the effect of shaming and disempowering patients. She also thought that it led the mind astray, obscuring the true medical and clinical facts with a silencing denial.
But there is another way to look at trying to draw some type of moral or intellectual meaning out of illness. Metaphorical thinking can also be how we retain our humanity in the face of the inhuman indifference of physical breakdown. Virginia Woolf was not triumphantly demonstrating the impossibility of using metaphor to express illness. She was lamenting it.
Or as Elaine Scarry put it in her classic study “The Body in Pain,” “Physical pain does not simply resist language but actively destroys it, bringing about an immediate reversion to a state anterior to language, to the sounds and cries a human being makes before language is learned.”
We spend our entire existence keeping ourselves human by trying to protect ourselves against the forced regression of physical pain.
Now, in the age of the new coronavirus, the entire world is either in pain or on the verge of pain. Even if we ourselves do not become sick, more and more of us will know people who are sick. Everyone is at risk of falling ill. The most vulnerable are at risk of dying.
Sontag’s noble attempt to destigmatize illness to the contrary, if ever there was a time to use our minds and imaginations to resist the inhuman indifference of physical illness, it is the present moment.
Consider what is now surely the quaint abomination of going “viral.” It was never really clear what was so great about a viral phenomenon anyway, except for the uncertain benefits briefly bestowed on some of those who went viral. If you are swept along with a viral event, then you are robbed of your free will every bit as much as if you were sick.
But so smitten were we by the personal gratification and commercial rewards of going “viral” that we allowed the blithe use of the term to dull our alertness to its dire scientific origins, as well as to what turned out to be the political consequences.
For much of the populace, any proud possessor of viral status was king or queen for at least a day. The eerie images of the virus now stalking humanity, its spikes resembling a crown, are like a deliberate, malevolent mockery of our viral internet royalty.
Writing in “The Tipping Point,” published in 2000 and the bible of viral culture, Malcolm Gladwell talks about how what he calls “emotional contagion” can be a powerful tool for the world’s influencers. He then goes on to make an analogy between the Spanish Flu pandemic of 1918 — a nightmare long unspeakable, suddenly oft-cited — and his concept of “stickiness,” a precious quality of persuasion that fastens people’s attention on whatever you are trying to sell.
The culture of virality is so firmly entrenched that Kate Starbird, an associate professor of design and engineering at the University of Washington in Seattle, is studying the way virality has made the virus go, as it were, viral, resulting in rumors and misinformation.
I’m hardly blaming Mr. Gladwell or internet culture for the new coronavirus (and how painfully apt it is that the virality the internet modeled itself on has now made the self-isolation of the internet the only safe refuge from the virus). Many of us have been living in a bubble of complacent blindness to what truly matters in life.
Like the fear of terrorism after 9/11, one of the horrific qualities of the current atmosphere closing in is that the fear of us or our loved ones catching the new coronavirus has blended into and become nearly indistinguishable from a general existential dread.
Mass shootings, hate crimes, sexual predation, social and economic division, climate change and the way all these specters of doom crystallized into extreme, destructive politics — the new coronavirus seems to have collapsed our manifold terrors into itself.
The world was in an upheaval to begin with but lacked the vocabulary to express it and the structures to reorganize itself in response. Now it is acquiring both.
When a government official has to tell millennials that the lives of the boomer generation depend on their commitment to staying home so as not to spread the new coronavirus if they are infected, the true extent of our alienation from each other is laid bare.
When, in response to that official’s plea, the beaches of Florida — the state with one of the country’s oldest populations — continued to overflow with college students, it became clear that large numbers of us have become toxic to each other.
Yet the outrage was prompt and universal. Suddenly “slow the spread” and “flatten the curve” made “going viral” and “trending” sound like “telephone” and “typewriter.”
In our mad rush to connect with one another by isolating from one another, we had forgotten that the real contagion was an infectious absence of true human sympathy and concern.
The indiscriminate, all-embracing, leveling quality of the new coronavirus has, in one blow, pulverized our already fragmented social life. Against the general, undifferentiated threat to our humanity, our humanity is becoming general, and undifferentiated.
The cruel effects of the new coronavirus have exposed society’s hidden cruelties. What the new coronavirus is doing to us has exposed what society needs to do.
If the virus is like a nightmare, then the sudden response to it is like a dream. Paid sick leave, a ban on foreclosures, free health care for those stricken, expanded unemployment insurance, more spending on health care for the poor, cash payments to struggling Americans — for the first time, as the product of a horrific illness, we have a language for the disease that has plagued our social order.
Perhaps we are on the verge of a new tipping point, one that has replaced buying and selling with kindness and concern. Perhaps in this new situation, unimaginable until now, what was once an imaginative social and economic arrangement is a growing reality.