From where I am standing right now, in my apartment on the 19th floor of a high rise building in Jersey City, New Jersey, I can see across the Hudson River to Manhattan, where the World Trade Center glitters sullenly against the night sky. The streets beneath me are deserted, as are the streets across the river; the entire metro region has come to an eerie standstill. There are hardly any cars in sight, and no people. Several blocks down, closer to the river, I can see the flashing strobe of a siren, but there is no sound. I have been living in cities for most of my adult life, and this is not like anything I can recall.
The novel coronavirus has spread across the world so quickly and with such terrifying impact that it hardly feels real; like that other great disaster of our time, 9/11, it seems weirdly to be happening in some parallel reality. Its particular valence, its vibrations of panic and menace, its garish eschatological overtones, feels cribbed from disaster movies and pulp science fiction. It is perfectly characteristic, perhaps, that this should be so; our imaginations have long since been colonized by the imagery and narratives of popular culture, and so when reality lurches towards us it does so in the familiar grooves of cliche and myth. “Listen to me,” writes Francesco Pacifico, from Rome, in n+1. “The problem is your imagination. Stop using dystopia as your compass. Stop using metaphors.” It’s hard.
The acceleration is the most disorienting part. Last Friday, a friend of mine, an artist and college instructor, and I went out for a bite and a drink at a pub in Journal Square. My friend had seen or read that the businesses in the area were already suffering, and we wanted to get out of the house and catch up, anyway. Inside the bar everything felt normal, at first—despite the hand-written sign establishing a 10 p.m. curfew. It wasn’t crowded, but it was early, and we saddled up at the end of the bar and ordered our club soda and wine and egg rolls and salad.
The bartender asked us to write our names and phone numbers on a clipboard. In case of infection? The purpose seemed vague. The owner came over and chatted with us for a while, emanating worry. He was already losing money, he said, and would be forced to lay off staff soon. Management concern for one’s employees at times feels performative, but the lines on this man’s face, and the sick look in his eyes, felt genuine.
The lights came up at 10 p.m. on the dot. It had been years since either my companion or I had closed down a bar at last call, and it felt unnerving. We said goodnight and parted. It wasn’t until I got home and checked into Twitter that I became aware that my friend and I had committed what was, at best, a gaffe, and at worst, a violation of public health. People were being shamed for public socializing. Something was shifting, with astonishing speed, and I was not keeping up.
It is six days later and bars and restaurants have been shut down. My colleagues at an independent publishing house in Brooklyn and I have been working from home. It is hard to get much done; the number of cases keeps spiraling up. Is this what it feels like to be at war? No one can say. Everyone I know is paralyzed with rage and helplessness: a toxic combination.
At night, when not scrolling numbly through Twitter like some kind of drooling digital addict, I read. Congenitally prone to reading more than one book at a time, I switch between Jean Baudrillard’s Fragments, which is mysteriously out of print and which I bought used from an online bookseller, and a worn paperback edition of the collected works of Sir Thomas Browne, to whom—for some bizarre reason—I often turn in times of stress. Thus accidentally paired, the two books exhibit a dreamlike syllogistic anti-logic, a kind of ghostly dialectic that feels very in tune with the coronavirus crisis. “In everyday life, there forms between us and others,” Baudrillard writes,
a web of predictability which may be a residue of affection or hatred, but which we cannot escape … The ultimate trick is to be secretly at home when everything thinks you are elsewhere, or to slip from the field of vision with the collusion of chance.
But then Browne, in “Religio Medici”:
There is another offence unto Charity, which few take notice of, and that’s the reproach, not of whole professions, mysteries, and conditions, but of whole nations, wherein by opprobrious Epithets wee miscall each other, and by an uncharitable Logicke from a disposition in a few conclude a habit in all … for by a word we wound a thousand, and at one blow assassine the honour of a Nation. It is as compleate a piece of madnesse to miscall and rave against the times, or thinke to recall men to reason, by a fit of passion.
The French high priest of postmodernism, with his invisible “webs” and “fields”; the English Renaissance humanist, with his antique mysticism, knit together in the impossible tangle of decoding the world around us. And me, reading them both, while tweets and headlines and ventilators and virus cells tick silently away, high above a city of illness, a nation in plague, feeling useless. Tomorrow I will get up and I will do my best to work from home, teleconferencing and e-mailing and Gchatting and checking headlines and newsfeeds. More people will have become ill by then. By then, more people will have died.