Please! Hold Off on That Novel Coronavirus Novel!

Got some bad news for you, on the off chance your bad news supply chain is breaking down. American publishers have gone on a spending spree in hopes of snagging breakout books spawned by the coronavirus pandemic. “Three months into the biggest public health and economic crisis of our era,” The New York Times reports, “authors and publishers are racing to produce timely accounts of the coronavirus outbreak, with works that range from reported narratives about the science of pandemics and autobiographical accounts of being quarantined, to spiritual guides on coping with grief and loss, to a book about the ethical and philosophical quandaries raised by the pandemic, written by the Slovenian philosopher Slavoj Žižek.”

The operative words in that sentence are racing and timely because they point to an irony that can be viewed as an axiom: writing that’s forged in the cauldron of a crisis almost always winds up being undercooked. A writer racing to be timely is, by definition, not pausing to digest, muse, rethink, revise. Some of the forthcoming writing about the pandemic might throb with immediacy, but the bulk of it will likely be solipsistic and slapdash, especially the fiction and diaries and, ugh, those autobiographical accounts of being quarantined. In this case, writing that’s timely is likely to be ephemeral, destined to fade soon after the virus runs its course or gets vanquished by a vaccine. Remember the immediate wake of the 9/11 terrorist attacks, all those proclamations that irony was dead? Irony didn’t merely rise from the ashes of the Twin Towers; it went on to become the gyroscope of much contemporary fiction, sometimes for better, mostly for worse, and by now it has become a universal mechanism for coping with day-to-day life in a rattled world. And that was before this pandemic descended.

Some of the forthcoming plague books might prove me wrong, especially the nonfiction titles about the economic fallout of the pandemic, frontline accounts from overwhelmed hospitals, forensic studies of how the virus took root in human hosts, and a forthcoming collection of case studies of how Covid-19 and other infectious diseases spread. (The question must be asked: who’s racing to write the books about cooking, binge TV watching, pet grooming, and Donald Trump’s golf scores during this pandemic?)

Far less promising is the coming glut of personal accounts, whether they’re fiction, poetry, diaries, or journals. Exhibit A: the ongoing “Pandemic Journal” series in The New York Review of Books, which features writers all over the world sending in personal dispatches. These accounts blur after a while because they swim in a soup of sameness and lack the specificity that brings writing to life. When everybody in the world is doing the same thing, just how unique or interesting can it be? For instance, we learn that there are chronic toilet paper shortages in both London and Sydney (and, I’m guessing, in every other hamlet on the planet). Ali Bhutto writes from Karachi that the usual hum of traffic coming through the bedroom window “has been replaced by silence” (Ditto here in downtown Manhattan). Liza Batkin writes from Rhinebeck, N.Y., that she had to pause to ask her mother if she should dry the dishes with a dish towel or a paper one (I know the feeling). Christopher Robbins writes from New York that “a playground writhing with children in 60-degree weather feels downright sinister” (Got that right). If I know these feelings, do I benefit from knowing that millions of other people know them, too?

Exhibit B: a recent issue of The New York Times Magazine, which features a roster of writers relating “What We’ve Learned in Quarantine.” Among the predictable lessons are that many people liken quarantine to being in prison or at war, yet there are salutary rewards to be found in such solitary activities as braiding your own hair, learning to play the piano, watching birds, and photographing your daughters. Most of these accounts barely rise to the level of tepid uplift, and they’re further proof just how difficult it is to say something wise, or even original, about a pandemic. If you doubt this, I present Exhibit C: a recent essay in The New York Times Book Review by Michiko Kakutani, who was struck by the eerie silence and emptiness of the streets in New York, which, she reminds us, used to be known as “the city that never sleeps.” When the high priestess of American lit crit is reduced to borrowing clichés from Ol’ Blue Eyes, you know you’re in trouble. Kakutani then reminds us just how primitive life was in 17th-century London when the bubonic plague descended: “There was no Purell back then, no Clorox wipes or Lysol spray, no grocery deliveries from Fresh Direct and Whole Foods, no Netflix or Roku to help pass the time.” Thanks for the heads-up, Michiko!

Now I’d be the last person to knock writers who have the good sense and the good luck to get paid for their work. So on one hand, I say bravo to all the writers with freshly inked contracts for pandemic books. On the other hand, I would like to make a simple plea, especially to the writers of poetry and fiction: don’t rush, take your time, let the current horrors seep in deep before you try to make art out of this nightmare we’re all living through. For inspiration, novelists and poets and short story writers should look at the examples set by two writers, one from the 18th century, the other working today.

Daniel Defoe took his time before writing about his era’s horrific calamity, publishing A Journal of the Plague Year almost 50 years after the bubonic plague ravaged London in 1665. The book purports to be a first-person account of that grim year, and its rich detail and plausibility led many readers to regard it as a work of nonfiction rather than what it was—a deeply researched work of imaginative historical fiction. (Defoe was five years old during the plague.) The Nobel laureate Orhan Pamuk has spent the past four years researching and writing an historical novel called Nights of Plague about an outbreak of bubonic plague that killed millions in Asia in 1901, more than a century ago. Before putting pen to paper, Defoe and Pamuk had the good sense to let time do its work of giving traumas context and perspective.

Back on April 8, Edan Lepucki, a gifted novelist and one very funny mother of three, imagined the “least anticipated” fiction that might come out of the pandemic that was then beginning to unleash its ghastly fury. If ever there was a time that demanded a good laugh, this was it. And Lepucki delivered, imagining novels with such titles as Social Distance Warrior, The Spread and my personal favorite, Stay-at-Home Mom. This last, in Lepucki’s overheated imagining, is the story of a woman named Hannah who’s cooped up in her tiny Brooklyn apartment with her husband and daughter and feels her sanity slipping. Slipping so badly, in fact, that “sometimes she imagines cutting off her own arms and legs and hoisting her bleeding torso into her rollaway suitcase and zipping it up (with her teeth) and rotting there forever.” (After being cooped up in my tiny apartment for 11 weeks, I know the feeling.) “And,” Hannah muses, “how all this is better than her old publishing job where she was regularly expected to kiss the egomaniacal asses of Bookstagrammers who never read the novels they posed next to succulents and mugs of bone broth.” Now there’s a novel coronavirus novel I would pay good money to read.

Image Credit: health.mil.

Bonus Link:
On Pandemic and Literature

By Myself but Keeping Company with Lauren Bacall

1.
You could say that pandemic quarantine has compressed our lives from three dimensions into two: we hear voices but don’t see faces; we see faces, but without bodies; we see bodies, but in rectangular frames and on a flat screen, absent the feel or smell or vibrations of them. We scroll through videos, but of course even the most impromptu “reality” iPhone shoots are composed—timed and captured for specific purpose, to tell a particular story. For those of us already at odds with social media—its brevity and pacing, its bent for surface more than depth—human interaction during lockdown can feel like a lot of performance and exhibition: like driving through quarantine country, looking out the passenger window, and every so often murmuring, Isn’t that lovely. Isn’t that awful. Are we there yet?

On the other hand, if you are fortunate to have at-home stability, and a measure of solitude, there is also a lot of time—for peeling back surfaces and investigating depths, making new discoveries.

Who ever knows why or how we fall down certain rabbit holes. Often it starts with a basic need or instinct—in my case, escape into romanticism. Late at night, after full telework-and-family days, I started watching old movies, golden age stuff of the ‘30s and ‘40s—Hitchcock, Stevens, Mankiewicz; Curtiz, Hawks, Huston. It started with Bogie, whose appeal I used to scoff at (in favor of pretty faces like Gregory Peck and Gary Cooper) but now suddenly “got.” I’d seen some greatest hits—The Maltese Falcon, Sabrina, Casablanca—but watched for the first time The Petrified Forest, The African Queen, Beat the Devil, High Sierra. Once I got to To Have and Have Not, I had to pivot to Bogie & Bacall: four films together in five years, that undeniable, intriguing chemistry. (That one off year, 1945, was the year Bogie sorted out his messy, unhappy marriage to Mayo Methot, and Bogie & Bacall got hitched.) I rewatched The Big Sleep, then on to Key Largo and Dark Passage in one sitting.

Finally, it was all about Lauren Bacall.

I sunk in deeply, hours and hours with her lesser known filmography: she appeared in nearly 60 films (you’re welcome, Amazon Prime). Then I began digging into her life, the woman behind the glam and romance, behind that feline allure and femme-fatale voice. With a film, stage, and TV career that spanned nearly 70 active years; three memoirs (the first of which won the National Book Award); and a rich personal and family life, only 12 of which involved Bogie; there was much to discover. My lockdown has been at times lonely, but notably less so with Bacall’s company.

Bacall and Bogart in The Big Sleep

2.
Born Betty Perske in 1924 in the Bronx, you could paint Bacall’s life as charmed and destined from the get-go—no late bloomer when it came to ambition. But the thing about a rapid early rise: what goes up must come down. The road following early success is inevitably a rocky one, if for no other reason than—if you are blessed with good health and many years, as Bacall was—it’s a long one.

As a teen, Betty and a friend would skip school and go to the movies, where Betty fell hard for her first love, the other Bette (Davis). Those mesmerizing afternoons in movie houses made clear to her that she needed to be an actor. Bacall’s mother Natalie (née Natalie Weinstein Bacal) was both pragmatic—a Jewish immigrant from Romania and single mother by the time her daughter was six—and a vicarious dreamer. Thus she fully supported her only child’s ambitions. At 16, Betty enrolled at the American Academy of Dramatic Arts, where she immersed herself in the craft of stage acting. “They stressed self-discovery—studying life, as that was what acting was all about,” Bacall wrote in By Myself and then Some. “How to use one’s body to project emotions…My days were full and near perfect that year.” There also she met Kirk Douglass, a few years ahead of her, who became a short-lived beau, then later a colleague and lifelong friend.

At 17, when money for acting school ran out, Betty starting working as a model for agencies in the garment district. She also started selling Actors’ Cue magazine outside Sardi’s, where she met (accosted) influential Broadway folk, including producer Max Gordon, who liked her pluck and kept an open-door policy for her, and actor Paul Lukas, who became a mentor. She then started working as a theater usher on Broadway—anything to be in/near the world of acting, and to have days free to pound the pavement for auditions. By the time she had her first walk-on Broadway role, she had taken her mother’s second name and added an extra “l.” Her first substantial role in the theater (thanks to Max Gordon, who brought her in for an audition) was in George S. Kaufman’s Franklin Street. The play opened in Wilmington to mixed reviews and never made it to Broadway. Betty was still just 17, disappointed but unfazed. “Funny how you get the feeling that once you have a part in a play the work will never stop,” she wrote. “Was that ever a wrong feeling, as I would spend the next 30 years discovering.”

The next year, she went with her mother and her Aunt Rosalie to see Casablanca. Her aunt loved Bogie, thought him sexy and charismatic, but Betty didn’t see it; he was no Leslie Howard, she thought.

At 18, Bacall met an editor at Harper’s Bazaar, who in turn set up a meeting for her with Diana Vreeland. Vreeland asked her to come in for a shoot; she saw something in Betty, a glamor that Betty herself did not see. She appeared in Harper’s several times that year, and in 1943 made the cover. Inquiries came pouring in—David O. Selznick, Columbia Pictures, Howard Hughes—but the most appealing offer came from director Howard Hawks, whose tough-talking wife, Slim, had seen the Harper’s cover and encouraged Hawks to track her down. Bacall’s Uncle Jack, a lawyer for Look magazine, advised and encouraged her move to California for the screen test—six to eight weeks in L.A., with the potential for a personal contract with Hawks, who by then had made Only Angels Have Wings, Bringing Up Baby, and other well-known films. And so she went, across the country alone, at age 19—still starry-eyed, and very much a naïve kid.

From there it was a whirlwind, then a rocket-ship launch to both stardom and one of Hollywood’s greatest love stories: playing an assertive and sexy drifter in the screen adaptation of Hemingway’s To Have and Have Not—a character fashioned after Slim Hawkes and nicknamed Slim by Bogart’s character—Betty Bacall, stage-named Lauren now, dropped her chin, raised her eyes (all this in fact to control the nervous tremble of her head), and suggested to Bogart’s character that he put your lips together and blow. The rest, as they say, is history.

3.
Fast forward now, through the years familiar to most of us: love, marriage, two Bogart children; those three films together after To Have and Have Not; a fabulous Hollywood life, friendships with the likes of Sinatra and John Huston, Katie Hepburn and Spencer Tracy, Vivien Leigh, Dick Powell and June Allyson, novelist Louis Bromfield, the Gershwins; and lots of time sailing on Bogie’s beloved boat Santana. During that decade, Bogie made The Treasure of the Sierra Madre, The African Queen (for which he won the Oscar), The Caine Mutiny (nominated for the Oscar), and The Barefoot Contessa, among many other films.

Meanwhile Bacall garnered a reputation in Hollywood for being difficult (i.e., she spoke her mind, then was deemed a bitch for it, even suspended from contracts), as she turned down what she felt were bad scripts or bad fits. She’d become gun shy after her first film following To Have and Have Not, Confidential Agent, bombed—sending her Hollywood stock plummeting in an instant. Still she managed to make Young Man with a Horn (with old friend Kirk Douglass), How to Marry a Millionaire, Written on the Wind, and Designing Woman—dramas and comedies alike. Millionaire and Designing Woman were especially well received, though I myself recommend the less-lauded Young Man with a Horn—in which Bacall plays a lesbian, scripted evasively (the only option in Hollywood in 1950) as a woman who is “sick” in her romantic relationships, “a strange girl” and “complicated.”

Bacall devoted herself during this time to the roles of wife and mother. By her own account, her marriage to Bogie did and did not affect her career: he made her promise to put family before work, which she did willingly. Apart from this commitment to priorities, he neither intervened (she was already contending with being “Mrs. Bogart”) nor interfered with her professional choices. The work-family balance and traditional gender roles fulfilled them both: Bacall was, after all, just 20—still a virgin in fact—when she married Bogie; he was 46, experienced in life, love, and the actor’s vocation: “[F]or twelve and a half years he was, among many other things, my teacher,” she wrote. “He taught me his philosophy of life. He taught me the rules of the Hollywood game…He taught me about standards and the price one must pay to keep those standards high. He taught me about the value of work and the importance of truth and character.”

They had, for the most part, a beautiful life together. They were surrounded by talented, interesting people. “What a good time of life that was,” Bacall wrote, about both work and friendships. “The best people at their best.” In the early 1950s, Bacall also explored a different side of herself by becoming involved in politics—as a member of the anti-HUAC Committee for the First Amendment, and also as an ardent supporter and friend of Adlai Stevenson.

A good time of life. And yet: what goes up must come down. In 1956, it all came to a screeching halt. Bogie was diagnosed with lung cancer. He died in 1957, at age 58. Bacall, age 33, was alone, bereft, mother of two. Her career was middling, stalled to some degree. The fifth Bogie & Bacall film, Melville Goodwin, USA, was never to be.

Bacall and Bogart in To Have and Have Not

4.
This is where Bacall becomes most interesting to me. I love the love story, don’t get me wrong—I came looking for escapist romance after all. But, what did Lauren Bacall do when everything came tumbling down? When the sepia dream came to an end, and she awoke to a harsh new reality?

Well, she made mistakes. Two relationships we know of, the first with Frank Sinatra—a dodged bullet, as she tells it. He was an old friend whom she leaned on for solace and then nearly married (he backed out, in response to unleashed press attention, for which he unjustly blamed her). The second, with then-stage actor Jason Robards, sent up all the red flags—alcoholism, all-night carousing, plus he was married—but she was determined to “save” him from the unhappiness she decided was the source of his drinking. “Having lived through a few relationships, I do know now that I’ve endowed the men in my life with the qualities I wished them to have, rejecting whatever qualities they actually possessed that interfered with my romantic notions…once I found Jason and made up my mind that this was what I had to have, I would not give up. Utter tenacity.” They married in 1961, and quickly had a son, Sam (now an actor). Robards did not change. The relationship remained rocky, though they stayed married eight years.

Professionally, though, Bacall finally began tending to and following her gut ambitions. She’d wandered Europe while recovering from Bogie’s death, and took a good role in J. Lee Thompson’s Flame Over India, which brought her to London and Rajasthan. When that was done, she had decisions to make about the next phase of her life and reconnected with her love for the stage. She got an offer to do George Axelrod’s comedy Goodbye, Charlie on Broadway (basically a bomb, but she herself was well reviewed), and with that moved back to New York, where she lived—solo, after her divorce from Robards—for the rest of her life.

Bacall did two movies during that time—a comedic role in Sex and the Single Girl, opposite Henry Fonda, and a dramatic one in Harper, with Paul Newman. But with the move back to New York, the theater became her new, old flame. Her life was beginning anew, though not exactly with the freshness of her youth: on the heels of separation from Robards, followed by her beloved mother’s serious decline in health, came the opportunity to play Margo Channing—Bette Davis’s star role in All About Eve—in the Broadway musical version of the film, Applause. Bacall was 45 years old.

“I’d always been musical. One of my great frustrations had been my inability to sing…could I do it?” She decided she had to find out. “What the hell. With everything else in my life shaken up, might as well go all the way.” Voice lessons, personal training, dance training—she took it all on, building physical stamina, and terrified; but also with less to lose than she’d ever had. And yet, soon came more loss: her divorce was finalized, her beloved mother died, and her son got married. She was alone now, middle aged, and running out of money.

But what then did she do? How did she respond to loss and instability? She threw herself into work, into becoming a star, like she never had: “It would be the first time distractions would be at a minimum…From the time I fell in love with Bogie I had never been able to forget my personal life and zero in on my career. Now I would do it with a vengeance.” And she did. In March 1970, Applause opened on Broadway, to unanimously rave reviews. She won the Tony that year for Best Performance by an Actress in a Musical.

The magic of the theater is the live performance that cannot be reproduced. But I was able to catch grainy bits of recordings of Applause on YouTube, from 1972, when Bacall was 47—my age now. She bursts with life, and also with the gravitas of life experience. Her opening song takes place in a gay bar, where she’s playing hooky from the opening night party after her character’s own stage triumph. Bacall shimmies, kicks, and gyrates, exuberantly but also humorously—she is “too old” for this, and that’s the joy of it.
I feel groggy and weary and tragic
Punchy and bleary and fresh out of magic
But alive, but alive, but alive!

I feel twitchy and bitchy and manic
Calm and collected and choking with panic
But alive, but alive, but alive!

I’m a thousand different people
Every single one is real
I’ve a million different feelings
OK, but at least I feel!
Clearly—as both character and actor (and woman)—she is having the time of her life.

Bacall and Bogart in Dark Passage

5.
In her 50s, Bacall appeared in a few movies—Sidney Lumet’s Murder on the Orient Express; The Shootist, John Wayne’s last film; and Robert Altman’s political satire HealtH, in which she plays an absurdly youthful 83-year-old narcoleptic virgin (hilarious and worth seeing). At 54 she published By Myself, which won the National Book Award.

In 1981, at age 57, Bacall returned to Broadway, to star in the musical version of Woman of the Year. Her friend Katherine Hepburn had originated the role of reporter Tess Harding in 1942, at age 35, while Bacall’s Tess was an older, successful broadcast journalist fashioned after Barbara Walters. A decade after Applause, Bacall shone just as brightly. “This star’s elegance is no charade,” wrote Frank Rich in The New York Times, “no mere matter of beautiful looks and gorgeous gowns…As hard and well as Miss Bacall works in ‘Woman of the Year,’ she never lets us see any sweat. That’s why this actress is a natural musical-comedy star.” Watching (again, on YouTube) Bacall’s performance at that year’s Tony’s—she won again for Best Actress in a Musical—is indeed to see an actress at ease. She seems to me more comfortable in her body, more relaxed than we’ve ever seen her, on screen or on stage. No more trembling; she holds her head, and her heart, up high.

6.
If you’re still reading, you won’t be daunted by yet another chapter in Bacall’s life. She just. Kept. Working. In her 60s she performed in a Harold Pinter play, Sweet Bird of Youth, and in a British mini-series, A Foreign Field, with Alec Guinness. In her 70s, she reunited with Robert Altman for Prêt-à-Porter (playing another “Slim”), was nominated for the Best Supporting Actress Oscar for Barbara Streisand’s The Mirror Has Two Faces, made one more film with Kirk Douglass (Diamonds), and worked with Lars Von Trier in Dogville as well as its sequel, Manderlay. She also made a bad French film called Day and Night with Alain Delon and Jeanne Moreau, directed by Bernard Henri-Levi, and performed on stage at the Chichester Festival in Friedrich Durrenmatt’s The Visit, which was not a particularly positive experience. At age 83, she played a political wife in Paul Schrader’s critically praised The Walker, which featured a formidable ensemble cast including Kristin Scott Thomas, Woody Harrelson, Lily Tomlin, and Willem Defoe. In these later years, Bacall said yes to working with talented people and always counted these rich and valuable experiences, whether they were hits or flops or somewhere in between.

Herein lies Bacall’s “secret” to a full and meaningful life; to aging well—something I think about often, as a woman in my own “third act.” She was always in it for the love, the experience, the richness; the aliveness of the here and now, the people who animate the work. The dedication for her second book, Now, reads: “To friendship, the relationship I value above all others” (by this time she’d been living alone for more than 30 years). She wanted to do the work she loved, to learn from wonderful and talented people, more than she wanted fame or the glamorous life.

It can’t be denied that Betty Perske was extraordinarily lucky. But what is luck, other than a discipline of openness, willingness, alertness to one’s desires, gifts, and limitations. Things can, and do, fall into all of our laps; but we aren’t always paying attention or ready for these miracles. Neither young Betty Perske nor the mature Lauren Bacall took anything for granted—money, her looks, friendships, jobs, support from influential people. When opportunities came her way, she stepped forward, sometimes off a ledge. She worked hard, pushed herself. In her later years, with so much life and success behind her, she still approached her work with humility—deferring to younger actresses like Barbara Streisand and Nicole Kidman, throwing herself into comedic roles where she could easily have made a fool of herself, submitting herself to the risky artistry of directors like Lars von Trier (twice), playing minor roles in all-star ensemble casts.

Bacall and Marilyn Monroe in How to Marry a Millionaire

7.
Was Lauren Bacall a little polyannish? Did she acknowledge only the good stuff and either conceal or deny the messier realities? Some believe that Bogie carried on an affair with his hairdresser, Verita Bouvaire-Thompson, throughout their marriage; some claim Bacall had started her romantic relationship with Frank Sinatra while Bogie was still alive. And what about her old friend Kirk Douglass’s womanizing and alleged rape of Natalie Wood? Did Bacall not care about other people’s bad behavior? Did she keep her nose clean by turning the other way?

I have no idea. Maybe. It makes a difference, but not a big one. People—even celebrities—are entitled to their private failures and inner conflicts. It seems to me undeniable that she and Bogie had a great love. If extramarital relationships were part of that, so be it. People are complicated. Our lovers, friends, family. Bacall ultimately lived many lives and surely was no exception to these human complexities.  She seemed only and always to speak positively in public about people she loved and worked closely with, even those we know behaved badly. Maybe she should have denounced the rampant sexism, racism, and homophobia she surely experienced or witnessed in Hollywood. But she chose to keep things close, the most private things private. In her time and place, she would have understood this as both classy and shrewd.

During this strange, upending time, I’ve enjoyed getting to know this elegant, tough, passionate, and vulnerable woman; it’s helped me get to know myself. In the end—or the middle-end, at 60, 70, 80—I hope am able to claim what Bacall wrote in the final words of By Myself:
I have learned that I am a valuable person. I’ve made mistakes, so many mistakes. And will make more, big ones. But I pay. They’re my own…I remain as vulnerable, romantic, and idealistic as I was at 15…I’m not ashamed of what I am, of how I’ve passed through this life. What I am has given me strength to do it…I have a contribution to make. I am not just taking up space in this life. I can add something to the lives I touch. I don’t like everything I know about myself, and I’ll never be satisfied, but nobody’s perfect. I have no idea where the next years will take me, what they will hold, but I’m open to suggestions.
Image Credits: Wikimedia Commons, Pixabay, Needpix.

On Verisimilitude

My father-in-law died unexpectedly on the last day of the decade. He was a quiet, gentle man who had affected my husband’s and my lives more and more the older we became. We were devastated, and I felt guilty.

In 2008, after a trip to Kenya with my parents-in-law, I had begun a novel loosely based on the migration story of their family, in which each of the last three generations grew up on a different continent. My husband’s grandparents were from Gujarat, India, and immigrated to Nairobi—another corner of the British Empire—as teenagers. My Nairobi-born parents-in-law moved to the United States as a newly married couple. My husband was born in Wichita and grew up in Minneapolis. In my own Jewish-European family, I have to go back five generations to find someone born outside of the U.S., so I was fascinated by the dramatic movements and decisions of the family I’d married into.

In fiction, you build characters around a few important traits and pieces of biographical data. Personalities are expressed and tensions ratcheted through events large and small, lined up like mile markers on the highway. I knew I could not love my characters too much. If I were too easy on them, if I spared them from hard decisions and tragedies, the novel would be dull and lifeless. And so, after I made up a husband and wife from the Indian enclave of Nairobi who immigrate to the United States to further the husband’s career as an infectious disease doctor, I inserted a tragic accident that spurs a move from the U.S. back to Nairobi. I couldn’t have been more surprised when my in-laws announced in 2013, a couple of years after I finished the first draft of my book, that they would do the same. Kenya was warm, affordable, and near a network of relatives who would help take care of them as they aged, my mother-in-law told us. I understood this explanation because my characters had made a similar calculation.

It’s a long story, but my in-laws’ life in Nairobi didn’t last long. They landed, eventually, in Florida. My husband and I were relieved. Tampa is a direct flight, and, more than anything, I was grateful that the fatal scene I had imagined on the streets of Nairobi for the father character in my novel had not played itself out in real life. My in-laws move to Kenya had spooked me, made me feel my novel prophesized their lives.

As publication day drew near, and the advanced reader copies arrived, I panicked. What if, despite years of observation, research, and triple-checking my facts, I had gotten some aspect of Indian life wrong? What if my in-laws were offended and enraged? In the early years of writing, I had shared with them interesting facts I’d found in my reading and asked questions about their experiences. Occasionally they’d assisted my research: my mother-in-law recommended a book she’d read about the horrific mass imprisonment of Kenyans under British rule during the Mau Mau Revolution; another time, my in-laws introduced me to a Ugandan Indian friend who had narrowly escaped Idi Amin in the trunk of a car. Snippets from both these sources made it into my novel. But my in-laws had never read a draft, and I had never told them the plot.

When the early reviews rolled in, including those by Indian and Indian-American writers, and they were positive, heralding the research and true-to-life dialogue, I began to sleep better at night. And now that my in-laws had moved back to America from Nairobi, they wouldn’t think I had simply written down their life story as it occurred. Gradually, I realized that the release of my book had hardly registered. Despite my husband writing his mother to share publication news and to suggest that they send me a congratulatory email, they never once mentioned my book.

The father character in my novel, Premchand, is a reserved man who values his freedom and always wanted to live and practice medicine in America. This independent loner who loves his son intensely, who draws from his well of kindness when he speaks, who fights hard to maintain an optimistic view of life, is in many ways a portrait of my physician father-in-law, Popatlal Hirji Shah. In the novel, Premchand develops a special relationship with his new daughter-in-law, a Jewish-American woman who works in public health; they bond over corny doctor jokes and their love for Premchand’s son. When the book was published, I heard from readers how much they relished this unusual relationship. In one scene, Premchand tells his daughter-in-law that the song lyric from the Bollywood movie Taj Mahal, roughly translated as “the substance of you is missing from your picture,” could apply to her own emotionally reserved presence. Instead of protesting, she argues that the words are also an apt description of him. I didn’t realize until the book came out that the intimacy these characters share is an idealization of life. I never had that closeness with my father-in-law, but I sometimes thought it might be possible.

For most of his life, my father-in-law suffered severely from clinical depression, undiagnosed and untreated until he was in his 50s. He was psychologically well for much of the time I knew him, and this, plus his son’s security from a good job and stable relationship, had allowed for a new sense of understanding and respect to flow between father and son. But it occurred only in flickers, as if hesitant to heat up to a full burn. Largely unconsciously, I redirected and amplified this development in my novel, in Premchand’s emotional journey from being a supportive but mostly absentee father during his son’s childhood to developing a renewed interest in his grown child’s life. And then, because a novel needs drama, I abruptly ended this incipient closeness. The rightness of this decision, from a plot point of view, was confirmed by the devastated reactions of readers. One writer friend told me, “I loved the character Premchand and the interactions he had with Amy. I wanted so much more of that, but YOU KILLED HIM!” I did. As my friend reluctantly agreed, the story demanded it. But it did not feel good, on a personal level, to have killed an avatar of my father-in-law.

And it would come to feel worse.

On Christmas Eve, we Skyped with my in-laws. It was a tense and worrisome conversation. My father-in-law had fallen in the middle of the night a week before, and after seeing the x-ray he believed he had fractured his ilium, the curved broad bone forming the upper part of the pelvis. But he had not received the report from the doctor to confirm what he had seen. The connection was bad, and we had to turn off the video. We had grown used to seeing their faces when we talked, and there was something bare and wrong with looking at a black screen. Additionally, we could only hear their voices when one of them was positioned directly in front of the screen. We made sure the person we could hear the best was my father-in-law, the physician turned patient. We asked if he thought surgery would be recommended; “No no,” he said, “just rest.” “But what about physical therapy?,” I asked. “How will you be able to keep moving, and prevent muscle atrophy, if you can’t walk?” I was also worried about blood clots, but I didn’t say so. My father-in-law, in his ever-patient, gentle way, reassured me he would be plenty active and I should not worry about atrophy. “Do you need handrails in the bathroom?” “No no,” he said, “There is no issue there.” In my mind, I began to hire a physical therapist to work with him at home, as soon as he got the doctor’s report.

Then at the end of the conversation, he said something about my mother that came out of left field: “Your mother must be very proud.” I was confused, we had not been talking about my mother. But yes, my mother was a good person (and it was from her I had learned to ask the probing medical questions), and I imagined she did take pride in doing things for other people, so I simply agreed and said, “Yes, I think she is.”

That was the last time we spoke. He died on New Year’s Eve from pulmonary thrombosis, a blood clot in the lungs.

Bereft in his absence, my husband and I try to talk about his father often, to keep his memory alive. Together we wrote an obituary that ran in his old newspaper, the Minneapolis Star Tribune, and shared it as widely as we could. The loss of a parent is no easier for being universal; it makes one face the abyss.

My husband’s father is also a conversation topic via his influence on my novel. In the months since his death, friends have noted both the eeriness of Premchand’s fate and the warmth with which the character was written. My husband tells me he feels reassured by the way the book preserves the memory of his dad. I never intended my novel to carry this weight, but I am glad for it now. I spent many years imagining what someone like my father-in-law would think in a given situation, what he would say if he were asked about why he became a doctor. How he would address conflict in his own family; how he would face death. In fiction, I could have the answers that were in life an enigma. In many cases, my speculations veered close to home.

It has in fact become hard to separate in my mind the things I imagined from the things that transpired. Did my father-in-law really tell me that childhood story about the rough characters who threatened the poor settlement where he grew up with six siblings, or did I make it up based on some slivery detail? And had he seen himself in my novel? A month before he died, he’d surprised us by saying suddenly during one of our video chats that he was reading my book. He had checked it out from the library. So far, he said, it was very interesting.

What did he think of Premchand, who so clearly loves his son but struggles to express it? What went through his mind during the character’s final helpless fall onto the street in the city of his birth? He couldn’t have thought I, the author of the act, wished him dead, could he? This is perhaps what haunts me the most.

There is solace in the fact that some of the last words my father-in-law spoke to us were to me. My husband had to point it out: that when my father-in-law said that my mother should be proud, he meant she should be proud of me. Because I was asking questions about his care. Because I cared about him. Though he brushed my concern aside, I have to believe he knew it was sincere.

As for what he thought of my novel, or even if he finished reading it, I will never know. He never mentioned it again, and I didn’t want to press him.

When I Mean I

The conventions of essays being what they are, when I write “I” here, you’ll probably assume that I’m referring to myself. If I want you to think otherwise, it’s up to me to give you some kind of sign.

Maybe you object. Maybe, for example, the whole idea of a self seems like a dangerous and unstable fiction to you. Or maybe you think that the very act of writing distorts the self by forcing it into and through generic and linguistic conventions incompatible with the experience of selfhood as you know it. Fair enough. But I don’t think that would prevent you, in objecting, from writing “Farmer argues….” I’m on the hook for these words and these ideas, and it would be absurd for me to reply that “No, it was the speaker of this essay who said that.” And within the larger conventions of our lives among each other, the ones that entail accountability and obligation, the ones that allow us to meet, to agree or disagree, to act in concert or opposition to each other, to write, to speak, that matters quite a bit. It matters quite a bit to me.

But if, instead, I write
I am referring
to myself
there’s a much greater chance you’ll assume that both “I” and “myself” refer to someone else, someone fictional. Even if you don’t assume that, if you’re sufficiently familiar with the conventions of talking about poems, you’ll probably speak as if you do, referring to me as “the speaker.” In fact, given how we’ve been taught to talk and think about poems, those lines have an irony I can’t write out of them, no matter what I add or how I revise them—unless, that is, I put them back in prose.

This seems like a problem. Or: This seems like a problem to me.

I think we’ve done what we often do: we’ve taken a true statement—“in some poems, the person speaking is not the author”[1]—and turned it into a shortcut, without even realizing that we’re doing so. And by now we’ve taken the shortcut so many times we don’t even notice that it sometimes leads us astray.

Here’s a true story: A man wrote and published a book-length sequence of poems in which the speaker describes the death of someone dear to him. He—the author—gave a reading from the book, and afterwards, during a Q&A, someone in the audience offered condolences for his loss, and so the author had to explain, awkwardly, that he had experienced no such loss. Afterwards, someone wrote an essay about this, explaining, based on this moment and others, how important it was that we not confuse author and speaker. Look, the essayist said, where that can lead.

Fair enough. But I imagine another reading, this one by someone who had, in fact, lost their beloved and published a sequence of poems about it. And I think about how strange it would be to preclude such awareness, to offer no fellow feeling there. I imagine referring to the author, standing in front of us, maybe still lit up with grief, as “the speaker.” And I can’t help thinking how strange it is to pretend, while we ask questions about the poems, that we are unaware of the actual grief, the actual person who died.

Here’s another true story: A small child was kidnapped. The white parents of his white mother took him from his black father when he was old enough to retain some ghostly memories of his father, but nothing precise. His white grandfather, a white supremacist, raised him to believe he was white and often abused him, presumably outraged at least in part by the blackness he (the grandfather) could not acknowledge and no one, including the child, could altogether avoid noticing. That child grew up to be an extraordinary poet, writing lines like these about his experience:
Growing up black white trash you grow up wondering you
are raised
Wondering what you did and when Lord wrong to
Deserve your skin     / You grow up wondering you / You
grow up standing Lord outside       yourself and sometimes it’s not bad           / You ride
your in your body bike
but no    matter how hard you pedal how
Steep Lord the hill you dive down head first almost falling like you’re falling down
You stand
Outside yourself stand still
Like how it seemed when you were younger      Lord like the world moved beneath
The wheels of the car and car didn’t move
Growing up raised by white
supremacists     / You grow up skinned / You make
a puppet of your skin
These lines, by and (I believe) about the poet Shane McCrae, seem masterful to me, but one potential meaning of their mastery depends on the admission that this is a real person talking about what happened to him. These lines, like many in McCrae’s poems, not only embody pain and confusion, they enact the human ability to use language, convention, shared experience, and imagination to channel the currents that can elsewhere cut us off from others. They involve the worst of life in meaning, and in that way they hold open a hope for continuance, if not for healing. They are at once an image of breathtaking human cruelty and a proof of human beauty. If this were only imagination, it would still be masterful, but it wouldn’t mean that—not exactly, not quite.

It matters, similarly, to know that Robert Lowell’s “Skunk Hour” is about Robert Lowell—the same real person I have also encountered in many other Lowell poems—even as I know that the scene described here is partly fictionalized (partly borrowed, in fact from a story about Walt Whitman) and that the lines also borrow from and allude to John of the Cross, John Milton, the blues song “Careless Love,” and, more broadly, Elizabeth Bishop’s “The Armadillo,” whose form they follow:
One dark night,
my Tudor Ford climbed the hill’s skull;
I watched for love cars. Lights turned down,
they lay together, hull to hull,
where the graveyard shelves on the town. . . .
My mind’s not right.
A car radio bleats,
“Love, O careless Love….” I hear
my ill-spirit sob in each blood cell,
as if my hand were at its throat. . . .
I myself am hell;
nobody’s here—
In one valence, these lines are an inverse of McCrae’s. Instead of gathering speed, they drift away, apparently unmoored. In the span of just eight lines, Lowell trails off four times. You can hear an awareness of his own excesses and register the work that his mind must do to avoid his mind’s accelerations and distortions (alongside, perhaps, the gaps written into his mind by the medication that allowed him to recover from the breakdown the poem describes). It’s worth noting that Lowell did not, in fact, write this in the present tense of the poem. But as with his slightly falsified version of events, that does not undo the importance of the person speaking here being the person writing here, being the person who lived through, more or less, these things.

Here, too, the poem feels masterful. And here, too, the mastery becomes an emblem of our ability to live meaningfully in spite of circumstances that threaten meaning—so much so that those threats become a fundamental element of their meaning, like the high bar that proves the pole vaulter’s achievement. If the person writing here has not survived the breakdown of his mind, it matters less that his mind can orchestrate these lines so artfully.

I wonder sometimes, thinking about that book of poems describing the death of someone loved, why, if the author didn’t want anyone to think that the speaker was him—that the beloved was his—he didn’t do anything to keep that from happening. He could, for instance, have given it a subtitle like “A Novel in Verse” or “A Poetic Fiction,”[2] or he could have made the speaker female or in some other way signaled the separation between the two.[3] He could even have done what John Berryman did when he got tired of people equating him with the speaker of The Dream Songs, and included a note at the front saying, in essence, this isn’t me.[4] One plausible answer is that the separation of speaker and poet is so doctrinal that he saw no need. Another is that he valued the heightened immediacy of the lost beloved, the way a lingering suspicion of her reality shortened the distance his poems must travel to make her real (which is one of the challenges most fictions have to overcome).

If so, that’s fine. Writers have been playing with these lines (and drawing an added charge from their live currents) for a long time. Philip Roth, as just one example, has written fiction about a character named “Philip Roth.” Purity is not the point, which is probably good, since I doubt purity is possible. Even in our greatest intimacies, we are always mediated, multiple, compromised. Even when reading a memoir, most of us recognize a distance between the artistic representation and the original events. And yet many of us choose to read memoirs, biographies, and histories, not to mention newspapers and nonfiction articles in magazines, in spite of the artistic potentials all of those genres and media can impede. We do so, I believe, because we believe in reality (a reality that, of course, includes fiction, that is full of novels and movies and poems and plays with a nearly infinite variety of relationships to reality; and that is only partly knowable, always mediated by the limitations and beauty of our minds and bodies). And because we believe in the importance of not only real events but real people. And we would like to meet them. And we would like to be heard, and understood, by them as well.

There’s a risk in assuming that the speaker is the poet. When I first reviewed Claudia Rankine’s Citizen, I hadn’t read anything about it, and I assumed that the stories she told about “you” all referred to her. I was wrong—factually, demonstrably, wrong. Rankine gathered those stories from others and stitched them together through stylistic consistency and a standardized mode of address. It bothers me to have gotten it wrong, and to have done so so publicly, at that. Looking back at the book, I think I should have been able to figure it out just by paying closer attention, and I feel a lingering queasiness that my visible foolishness also means that I misrepresented the experiences of real people—including Rankine—in print. But that matters for the same reason that I think it matters when we fail to see the reality, however mediated or complicated, of an actual person speaking to us through a poem.

As in the other places where we sometimes encounter real people—parks, offices, bedrooms, streets—we will sometimes misunderstand them in poems. Humility matters. We should be wary of too much presumption. We should listen carefully, judge slowly, take care. We should not, however, make the unknowability of others into the sole or primary thing we know about them. And we should not let the risk of making a mistake narrow our sense of possibility or starve us in our hunger for people who are real. We should listen carefully enough to hear a poem when it tries to tell us that the person speaking to us exists.

[1] And maybe this one, too: “In some poems, poets present fictionalized versions of themselves and their experience.”

[2] Working in the other direction, poets seem to be adopting a fashion for including the phrase “self-portrait” in the title of a poem, but more often than not, those poems tend to play with the idea of selfhood, displacing self-conception into other objects or beings.

[3] McCrae, who frequently writes poems about both historical figures and fictional characters has no shortage of means for signaling those differences, even as he filters their imagined (and sometimes actual) speech through his distinctive rhythms and patterning.

[4] Berryman’s note—which begins “It is idle to reply to critics, but some of the people who addressed themselves to the 77 Dream Songs went so desperately astray (one apologized about it in print, but who ever sees apologies?) that I permit myself one word”—always amuses me, because even if the speaker isn’t him, it’s clearly not not him, either. He’s mythologizing himself there, and so his protestations never quite ring true. He’s putting on a John Berryman mask and then complaining that people call him John. The differences between the face and the mask matter, but they don’t do away with the similarities, as he undoubtedly knew.

On Isolation and Literature

“The mind is its own place, and in itself/Can make a Heav’n of Hell, a Hell of Heav’n.” —John Milton, Paradise Lost (1667)

“All of humanity’s problems stem from man’s inability to sit quietly in a room alone.” —Blaise Pascal, Pensées (1670)

In a field between Sharpsburg, Md., and Antietam Creek in the fall of 1862, more than 21,000 men would die in a single day. In a photograph taken by Matthew Brady of the battle’s aftermath, which in the south is named after Sharpsburg and in the north is referred to by Antietam, there is a strewing of bodies in front of the Dunker Church maintained by a sect of Pennsylvania Dutch Baptists. In their repose, the men no longer have any concerns; in the photograph it’s difficult to tell who wears blue and who wears grey, for death has never been prejudiced. Americans had never experienced such destruction before, such death, such a rupture from what they had defined previously as normal. If Americans had been cursed with their own erroneous sense of exceptionality in the decades before the Civil War, believing that suffering was something that only foreigners were susceptible to, then that carnage temporally availed them of their self-superiority. Drew Gilpin Faust writes in This Republic of Death: Suffering and the American Civil War that the “impact and meaning of the war’s death toll went beyond the sheer numbers. Death’s significance for the Civil War generation arose as well from its violation of prevailing assumptions about life’s proper end—about who should die, when and where, and under what circumstances.”

The United States was unprepared for the extremity of this thing—22,717 young men dead in a day—with almost a million perishing by its end. Faust writes that “Americans of the immediate prewar era continued to be more closely acquainted with death than are their twenty-first-century counterparts,” though if the state of exception demonstrated by the war proves anything, it’s that nobody should be so sanguine concerning his privileges. One survivor of Antietam, a member of the Massachusetts 15th named Roland Bowen, castigated a friend who wanted ghoulish details of the battle. He writes in a letter that such images “will do you no good and that you will be more mortified after the facts are told than you are now.” Such suffering couldn’t be circumscribed by something as insignificant as mere words, nor was it the task of Bowen to supply such texture in fulfilling his friend’s prurient fascination. The task of putting words to this horror belonged to somebody with no allegiance to anything as crass as the literal, and paradoxically it wouldn’t come from somebody who was actually witness to the horrors. A year before Antietam’s blood-letting, and a 31-year-old woman sequestered in a 970-square-foot room in a yellow wooden house in Amherst, Mass., would presciently write on the back of an envelope that “I felt a Funeral, in my Brain,/And mourners to and fro/Kept treading – treading – till it seemed/That Sense was breaking through.”

Emily Dickinson is American literature’s most significant recluse. She is our hermit, our anchorite, our holy isolate. Despite Dickinson’s self-imposed solitude, first limiting herself to Amherst, then her family’s house, and finally, finally living only in her own bedroom where she would speak to visitors from the half-opened door, her poetry is the greatest literary engagement with the trauma of the war. She was a spiritual seismograph, transcribing and interpreting the vibrations that she detected through the land itself, and though she never saw the battlefields at Antietam or Gettysburg, never even leaving Massachusetts, her 1,789 short lyrics are the fullest encapsulation of that event, even while it’s never specifically mentioned—though lines like “My Life had stood – a Loaded Gun” evidence her mood.

Only a handful of her poems were published in Dickinson’s own lifetime, normally anonymously, with a notable example being a few lyrics included in the 1864 anthology Drum Beats whose proceeds went to Union veterans. The war’s apparent absence from her poetry is incongruously proof of its presence, for as Susan Howe writes in My Emily Dickinson, the “Civil War broke something loose in her own divided nature.” Other figures like Walt Whitman and Herman Melville produced brilliant poetry about the war as well, but the absence of explicit language about battle-field deaths in Dickinson’s verse is a demonstration of Bowen’s warning that mere reportage “will do you no good.” She isolates not only herself, but the meaning of her poems, from the brutal reality of that American apocalypse—such isolation mimics the brutality of the event all the more completely. “I have an appetite for silence,” she wrote, for “silence is infinity.”

Within the cocoon of that silence, Dickinson made herself a conduit for the blood-sacrifice then taking place; despite being in solitude, she was not solitary; despite being isolated, she was not an isolate. There are two ways of producing literature; from her multitudinous contemporary Whitman there was the gospel of extroversion, the smithy of the crowd whereby the throngs are the source of his energy and the “sidewalks are littered with postcards from God.” His engagement with the war was visceral, forged in Washington D.C.’s hospitals where he tended to the injured. Dickinson’s poetry of seclusion was more abstract, but no less pertinent, and from her introversion a different variety of poetry could be produced. Dickinson is too often reduced to mere recluse, she is transformed into a crank sequestered in an attic, but she was actually a brilliant performance artist for whom the process was as integral as the product. Buddhist scholar Stephen Batchelor writes in The Art of Solitude that there is more to that state “than just being alone. True solitude is a way of being that needs to be cultivated. You cannot switch it on or off at will. Solitude is an art…When you practice solitude, you dedicate yourself to the care of the soul.” Dickinson’s isolation wasn’t just how she crafted her verse, in some sense it was her verse.

“Interiority” is one of those literary critical jargon terms that is overly maligned, for it expresses something useful about this quality of consciousness we share, a term for the many mansions in our head. There is a breadth and width to the human experience—and the experience of the human experience (if I’m to be meta)—that only “interiority” can really convey. Douglas Hofstadter writes in I Am a Strange Loop that “what we call ‘consciousness’ was a kind of mirage…a very peculiar kind of mirage…Since it was a mirage that perceived itself…It was almost as if this slippery phenomenon called ‘consciousness’ lifted itself up by its own bootstraps, almost as if it made itself out of nothing.” Such an ex nihilo self-creation can only take place alone, of course. And in her solitude, Dickinson, like all hermits, made the very substance of her thoughts a living work.

Some people, perhaps most people, live their life on the outside, all thoughts conveyed in a running monologue to the world. But the isolation of crafting literature, even if done in a crowded room, is such that any writer (and reader) must be by definition solitary, even while entire swaths of existence are contained inside one human skull. Such is the idealism of Dickinson when she claims that “To make a prairie…The revery alone will do.” Isolation is the hard kernel of literature. Beyond the relatively prosaic fact that there have been reclusive writers and secluded characters, isolation is also the fundamental medium of both reading and writing, traceable back to our inherited numinous sense and the thread of expression that intimates works hidden, all that we shall never read but that nonetheless radiate outward into the world with beauty.

A history of isolation is a history of literature, albeit a secret one. Historically we’ve valorized men of action, but it’s people of seclusion who just as easily move the Earth. Think of Christ’s Lenten vigil in the Negev, the way in which Satan tempted him and the Son of God so easily resisted, the Lord kept company only by silence and perdition. Isolation is a counternarrative of human existence; for every vainglorious general like Alexander the Great conquering until the ends of the Earth, there is the philosopher Diogenes living naked in an Athenian pot and imploring the former to get out of his sunlight. Emperor Qin Shi Huang can be answered by the sage Lao-Tzu riding off by himself unto the west, and every bishop and pope can be matched by the Desert Fathers and anchorites. For every Andrew Carnegie, there should be a Henry David Thoreau in his Walden cabin. Isolation is one of the fundamental themes of literature, the kiln of experience whereby a human is able to discover certain aspects of character, personality, and existence through journeying to the center of their being (though results are certainly varied).

In fiction, there are the recluses damaged by their toxic loneliness: think of Miss Havisham in Charles Dickens’s Great Expectations in her filthy, tattered wedding dress sadistically toying with Pip and Estella, or of the psychically diseased anonymous narrator in Fyodor Dostoevsky’s Notes from the Underground who can intone that “To be acutely conscious is a disease, a real, honest-to-goodness disease.” For all of the sociopathic recluses, biding their time under floorboards and going mad in attics, there are also positive depictions of isolation. Daniel Defoe’s titular character in Robinson Crusoe, ship-wrecked upon a desert isle and thus forced to recreate civilization anew, has often been understood as a representative citizen of hard-working, sober, industrious modernity, whereby “We never see the true state of our condition till it is illustrated to us by its contraries, nor know how to value what we enjoy, but by the want of it.” Something similar in Jack London’s The Call of the Wild, when writing of the isolation of the Alaskan wild he could declare that there is an “ecstasy that marks the summit of life, and beyond which life cannot rise. And such a paradox of living, this ecstasy comes when one is most alive, and it comes as a complete forgetfulness that one is alive.” Isolation, however, is far more than a subject authors describe now and then.

Few religious traditions are lacking in the hermitage or the monastery, at least in some form. Among the ecstatic Hasidism there are stories of rabbis like the Baal Shem Tov who lived at least part of his life as a hermit, and according to tradition, the second-century founder of Kabbalah Rabbi Shimon bar Yochai resided in a cave for 12 years as the Romans destroyed Jerusalem, exploring mystical secrets. When he could finally leave, bar Yochai’s focus was so intense that he was able to smite people with his eyes. Christianity potentially adopted monasticism from the esoteric first-century Jewish group the Essenes, and from the Desert Fathers onward, men who lived their lives sitting atop tall columns or who would meditate among the sands of Sinai, would develop a full-fledged system of religious seclusion. The wages of silence have defined the life of figures as varied as the nun and sacred composer Hildegard of Bingen in the 12th century to the Trappist monk and activist Thomas Merton in the 20th For Merton, to be silent was to be radical; in Choosing to Love the World: On Contemplation, he explains that his vows are “saying No to all the concentration camps, the aerial bombardments, the staged political trials, the judicial murders, the racial injustices, the economic tyrannies, and the whole socio-economic apparatus.” Hermits are replete in Hinduism, Buddhism, Jainism, as much as in Judaism and Christianity. To be a hermit, to make sister or brother with your own isolation, is to commit a profound act of courage. To have no company other than yourself can be dangerous. As the 12th-century Sufi Muslim hermit Al-Ghazali said, “I have poked into every dark recess, I have made an assault on every problem, I have plunged every abyss.” What’s brought back from the emptiness at the beating heart of every ego is something ineffable, and only privy to those willing to look for it.

BBC reporter Peter France asks in Hermits: The Insights of Solitude if it is “possible that solitude confers insights not available to society? Could it be that the human condition, even the ways we’re related to each other, is better understood by those who have opted out of relationships?” Certainly there has long been a religious tradition of answering that question in the affirmative; a literary one as well if we think of authors like Dickinson and Thoreau as psychological astronauts who returned from inner space with observations not accessible to those of us enmeshed in the cacophonous din of everyday social interaction. In a more modern sense, imagine the singular focus, the elemental personality, the bare simplicity of Christopher Thomas Knight’s life. From 1986 until 2013, the North Pond Hermit of Maine’s Belgrade Lake’s pushed the stolid and taciturn New England personality to extremes, living alone on campgrounds and surviving from pilfered supplies and burglarized cabins, while only once speaking the single word “Hi” to a hiker sometime in the ‘90s.

When finally apprehended by local police, the harmless eccentric supposedly told the officers that he thought Thoreau had been a “dilletante.” A voracious reader, Knight had consumed Walden and thousands of other books, often on the subject of solitude, and if he found Thoreau lacking, he saw great value in other works. Lao-Tzu’s Tao Te Ching, the collected essays of Ralph Waldo Emerson, and of course the collected poetry of Dickinson were all held in high esteem by the hermit. Journalist Michael Finkel recounts his conversations with Knight in The Stranger in the Woods: The Extraordinary Story of the Last True Hermit, whereby the dedicated Mainer claims that “solitude bestows an increase in something valuable…my perception. But…when I applied my increased perception to myself, I lost my identity. There was no audience, no one to perform for.” Stripped of all of the socially constructed, arbitrary, imposed, and chosen definitions of the self, Knight had become a singular consciousness, an aggregate of experience divorced from the humdrum job of applying meaning, significance, or gloss to the fact that things happen one after the other. “To put it romantically,” he said, “I was completely free.” Knight had become, in a manner, God.

Nomads as these are cracked, their extremity such that they dance on the precipice of either saintliness or madness. When journeying to the center of one’s own mind, care must be taken not to lose it. Knight was able to return relatively unscathed from both the chill New England forests and from the solitary experience of only having himself for company for almost three decades, but he is in some sense lucky as regards extreme hermits. For example, there’s Christopher McCandless, the subject of Jon Krakauer’s bestseller Into the Wild, who followed Jack London dreams into the Alaskan brush, where the aspiring naturalist’s decomposing corpse would be discovered next to his extensive diaries in a broken-down bus that he’d been living in. Krakauer writes about how for McCandless, to hike alone was to “constantly feel the abyss at your back,” where the “siren song of the void puts you on edge,” yet as with Knight, a type of elemental solitariness emerges as well.

For McCandless, existence could become “a clear-eyed dream,” wherein a “trancelike state settles over your efforts.” A danger with dreams however, for it’s never clear to the dreamer himself just how clear-eyed they actually are, so that the zealotry of a McCandless that confuses the echoes in his own mind for other voices can easily transmogrify into a different type of hermit. Witness the former mathematics-professor-turned-recluse-turned-domestic-terrorist Theodor Kaczynski. In Walden, Thoreau claimed that “the mass of men lead lives of quiet desperation.” That’s clearly not identical to Kaczynski’s claim in his anarcho-ecological manifesto Industrial Society and its Future that “almost everyone hates somebody at some time or other, whether he admits it to himself or not,” but there are some resonances. A special type of wag would claim that the Unabomber was simply an angrier Thoreau with a chemistry set, but they both arguably are examples of not unrelated strains of American antisocial individualism, albeit with incredibly different outcomes. “Whosoever is delighted in solitude,” wrote Francis Bacon in the 17th century, “is either a wild beast of a god.”

Thoreau would be instrumental to any cultural accounting of isolation; from a literary perspective he’s the most obvious of hermits in our national tradition. His biographers Robert D. Richardson and Barry Moser note in Henry Thoreau: A Life of the Mind that the hermit “argued with himself in his journal…about his need for solitude versus the merits of society,” an incredibly American argument, and as the authors note, his conclusion was also particularly American: “He came down repeatedly for solitude.” Thoreau’s understanding of solitude derived from that sense of the frontier, that desire for unlimited elbow room that distinguishes this country from the Old World. When my wife and I used to live in Massachusetts, it took less than half an hour to drive to the recreation of Thoreau’s cabin on the shores of that glacial pond, and it’s understandable why he chose to spend a few years there pretending to live off the land. It’s an exceedingly pleasant space, and his example spoke to some sort of romancing of solitude that exists deep within my Pennsylvania soul.

I’m a city boy who grew up in a house that was so close to our neighbor that we could hear when that gentleman sneezed, and I’ve lived in apartments since I was 18, yet I harbor some delusion that if given half a chance I’d live in the middle of nowhere surrounded by nobody. A foolish dream, but my rightful inheritance as an American. The author of Walden is the primogeniture of that particular counter-cultural vision—it’s not wrong to see him as a kind of proto-hippie, living off the land and spouting mistranslated versions of the Upanishads, the grandfather of both John Muir and Edward Abbey. But the boot-strapping, the rugged individualism, the obsession with industriousness—Thoreau is a proto-survivalist as well. When he writes in an 1847 diary that “Disobedience is the true foundation of liberty,” it sounds more a creed for somebody with a “Don’t Tread on Me” flag decal on their truck as much as somebody with a “Coexist” bumper sticker on their Volvo. As our favorite hermit, Thoreau is in some manner the patriarch of us all, both left and right, liberal and conservative, anarchist and libertarian. He proves that Americans are nothing so much like each other, especially when we’re alone.

Thoreau isn’t our only reclusive writer. Gravity’s Rainbow author Thomas Pynchon eschews almost all media spectacle and refuses to update his author bio from a senior yearbook picture (though he did do a voice on The Simpsons); Harper Lee retired after To Kill a Mockingbird from Manhattan to her hometown of Monroeville, Ala., where she supported the local high school drama club; and Cormac McCarthy living rugged and without punctuation in a New Mexico trailer only broke his silence to appear on The Oprah Winfrey Show, as one does, when the book club read The Road (he has since been more chatty). For most supposedly hermit authors, the reality might be more prosaic; as an irate Pynchon told CNN, “My belief is that ‘recluse’ is a code word generated by journalists… meaning ‘doesn’t like to talk to reporters.’”

No accounting of literary isolation can credibly ignore J.D. Salinger whose The Catcher in the Rye, despite read less frequently by adolescents today than it once was, remains the Great American Teenage Novel. Within The Catcher in the Rye there are intimations of that profound desire to be left alone, with its main character Holden Caulfield ruminating that “I’m sort of glad that they’ve got the atomic bomb invented. If there’s ever another war, I’m going to sit right the hell on top of it. I’ll volunteer for it, I swear to God I will.” Salinger’s biography has an unmistakable romance, the scion of the Upper East Side who was feted by The New Yorker and The Paris Review, a brilliant enfant terrible who produced perfect short stories and the immaculate novel with which he’s most associated, only to retire to rural New Hampshire, reject all media and appearances, and yet continue to prodigiously write until his death in 2010.

His last story appeared in The New Yorker in 1966, yet according to journalist and novelist Joyce Maynard in At Home in the World, her memoir about her affair with Salinger in 1972 when he was 53 and she was only 18, he “works on his fiction daily,” claiming that since he’d last been published he’d written two more novels. By the time of his death, Salinger had written 13 more. His dedication to the craft itself was pure—in a rare interview with The New York Times in 1974 Salinger said that “There is a marvelous peace in not publishing…I like to write. I live to write. But I write just for myself and my own pleasure.” The purest form of composition. Upon his death, journalists discovered that the residents of Salinger’s New Hampshire hamlet fully knew who he was, but helped to mislead gawkers from tracking down the author. Katie Zezima writes in The New York Times that “Here Mr. Salinger was just Jerry, a quiet man who arrived early to church suppers, [and] nodded hello while buying a newspaper at the general store.” Keeping with a venerable New England sentiment that perhaps both Knight and Thoreau would recognize, a woman quoted in Zezima’s article says that his neighbors did “respect him. He was an individual who just wanted to live his life.” It’s unknown if any of them read those 15 novels.

Solitude and quiet are often figured, albeit in perhaps fewer extreme examples than Salinger’s method, as integral to the process of composition. Susan Sontag opined that “One can never be alone enough to write;” Ernest Hemingway said that “Writing, at its best, is a lonely life;” and the Romantic poet John Keats enthused that “my Solitude is sublime.” Peruse the rightly celebrated author interviews in The Paris Review, and you will discover that a space carved out for the self’s sovereignty is one of the few things that unite writers with their varying schedules, methods of research, and editorial eccentricities. The private John Updike, fully inhabiting the 9-5 ethos of his suburban Pennsylvania middle-class youth, wrote his novels in a rented office above a restaurant in Ipswich, Mass.; Wallace Stevens composed his poetry in the quiet of his own head, pounding out the scansions in his steps as he walked to his job in a Hartford, Conn., insurance office. Isolation can take many forms, not all of them literal, but in the pragmatic necessity of a writer needing a “room of one’s own,” as Virginia Woolf famously described it, there need be, well, a room of one’s own.

Woolf’s formulation was of course gendered; her point throughout A Room of One’s Own was the way in which the details of domestic responsibility (among other factors) contributed to the silencing of women. In short, if you don’t have the dedicated space and the leisure time in which to write in peace, you’re not going to be writing in peace. Philosopher Gaston Bachelard says as much in The Poetics of Space, noting that the house is “psychologically complex,” whereby “the nooks and corners of solitude are the bedroom.” Living collectively dampens the interior a bit, which is why the privacy of an individual space becomes instrumental in producing individual works. “The house, the bedroom, the garret in which we were alone,” Bachelard writes, “furnished the framework for an interminable dream, one that poetry alone, through the creation of a poetic work, could success in achieving completely.”

A direct causal relationship could be drawn between the architectural development of independent bedrooms in the early modern period and the evolution of the novel, the literary genre that most aggressively displays subjectivity. Like all things we take for granted, the bedroom, or the office, or the study, and all places of individual and solitary repose have their own history. Bill Bryson explains in At Home: A Short History of Private Life that the “inhabitants of the medieval hall had no bedrooms in which to retire,” and that “Sleeping arrangements appear to have remained relaxed for a long time.” The word “bedroom” itself didn’t exist until well later; Bryson writes that as “a word to describe a dedicated sleeping chamber… [it] didn’t become common until” the 17th century, the exact period in which the novel began to emerge.

People wrote long narratives before the novel and the bedroom, and for that matter there have always been venerable forms of collaborative writing as well. Yet the possibility of privacy and solitude—not just for a St. Jerome sequestered in his study or a Trappist whose taken his vow of silence—arguably contributed to certain literary forms that not only require isolation in their production, but in some sense mimic a type of isolation as well. To argue that writing requires quiet is in some ways too prosaic an observation. Writing is silence—writing is isolation. By shielding themselves in the cocoon of composition, writers are in some sense able to create rooms of their own, wherever they happen to be writing. Writing can function as its own type of sensory deprivation, an activity that can erase the outside world in the construction of a new internal one. Think of Stevens lost in his rhythmic reverie pounding out poems on his way to the office, or of James Baldwin writing Go Tell It on the Mountain in a busy Parisian café. Being ensconced within the process of writing, letting yourself become a conduit for words (and wherever they come) is a type of armor against the outside world; it’s a form of isolation that can be brought with you wherever you go.

Which is also true of reading, the only cultural medium that is purely mental and can be done in any situation, circumstance, or setting, and that if we’re considering its non-digital forms can be rapaciously consumed free of any outside interference, a universe cordoned off in a book. Reading a book on the bus or a subway, in a Starbucks or on a park bench, is a manner of building your own room within the public. It’s the profoundest type of privacy there can be as you generate an entire new reality alongside the author of the words you’re reading. When language was primarily an oral form, it was delivered collectively, and there is great power in that. But the proliferation of wide-spread literacy several centuries ago, the promulgation of affordable print, and the development of book forms like the 15th-century Venetian printer Aldus Manutius’s innovation of the cheap and portable octavo form made it possible for people to dream with their books not just while sequestered in a monastery, but anywhere that they pleased, from the encampments by the side of Renaissance Europe’s roads to a New York City taxicab.

Alberto Manguel describes the innovation of silent reading (which becomes common in late antiquity, in the fourth century around the time of St. Augustine), whereby readers could “exist in interior space…[where] the text itself, protected from outsiders by its covers, became the reader’s own possession, the reader’s intimate knowledge, whether in the busy scriptorium, the market-place or the home.” When I argue that the history of literature is the history of isolation, I mean something more than writers often require solitude, or that the hermit is a popular figure to be explored in fiction. Rather, the deep vein that runs through the experience and definition of both reading and writing is precisely the sort of solitude of that Manguel describes. Isolation is not a medium for literature, nor is it a method of creating literature; it is the very substance of literature itself.

If there is something special about seclusion, about quiet, about aloneness that defines our literature, if something about isolation defined the shift from oral cultures to written ones, then perhaps it’s in the imitation of that original Author who was the first to compose in quarantine. Judaism’s God was distinguished from His pagan colleagues by being a singular creator-being, from forming His world not out of raw materials in collaboration with a pantheon, but of His own singular volition from nothing at all. Nobody could have been more isolated than God in the beginning, and no literary work emerging from that aloneness more powerful than all of existence. Such a model, of creation ex nihilo, is the operational essence of literary composition, a medium that requires no performers and no audience and exists only in the transit from one mine to another (and not necessarily even that).

As Dickinson approached her death, she asked her sister Lavinia to immolate her correspondence, but disregarded instructions concerning the poetry, assuming it didn’t even merit mention. It appears that Dickinson never intended her work for publication, that the author and audience were one, the purest form of poetry conceivable. Lavinia recognized their brilliance, which is the only reason that we’re able to read them today. What’s remarkable isn’t that they were almost destroyed, but that Dickinson’s poems survived at all. How many comparable works were penned by names unknown, by women and men innumerable? How much is written and read in glorious isolation never to extend to an audience beyond its creator? What shall be written in the coming days and weeks and months of isolation, existing only for the delight and glory of its creators, and none the less for its impermanence? In the end all works are immolated. Even that of the Creator’s shall be deleted. That Book’s glory is no less because of it.

Image Credit: Wallpaperflare.

Letter from the Other Shore

“Beyond right and wrong there is a field. I’ll meet you there.”
—Jalal ad-Din Muhammad Rumi

They’ve constructed tent hospitals in Central Park across Fifth Avenue from Mt. Sinai Hospital and the foreboding is so palpable to me, the sense that what’s coming can’t be prepared for so visceral, that I can barely stand to consider it. New York used to be home, at least for the better part of most weeks when I’d commute in from small-town northeastern Pennsylvania to stay with my now wife while she was completing a residency in the city.

Every decent person loves New York, and some indecent too, but that it stands as the greatest of American cities is so axiomatic that I care not to even make an argument on behalf of it. Central Park is the great lung of Manhattan; when my wife was at work I’d wander the paths, the ramble, the Great Meadow were now medics work. There are few places—for many of us—as evocative of what a better world could look like. Think of it, unlike all of those royal pleasure palaces in the world of old, Olmsted’s lush urban garden is free and open to all. And now the dying too. All I will say is that I’ve heard from those who still live in the city (for anyone in publishing knows a lot of New Yorkers) that right now the sirens are deafening, that there are refrigerated trucks parked outside the hospitals because of the morgue overflow, and that EMS is working longer and harder hours than they did during 9/11. Speaking of that seminal event that inaugurated adulthood for those of my generation—for that was a disquieting year to be an 18-year-old man—sometime this week our nation will begin to suffer deaths equivalent to the World Trade Center attack every single day until this burning stops.

According to the almost certainly sugarcoated predictions of the man with the unenviable task of being the chief epidemiologist for our current, cankered administration, this pestilence could see 200,000 Americans die in the next few months—more than four times as many men who died in Vietnam. If one consults the terrifying Imperial College of London report, the reality—if nothing was done and social distancing was ignored—would be closer to 2.2 million women and men. That’s more than twice as many Americans who died in the four years of the Civil War. When the rebels fired on Ft. Sumter and Washington D.C.’s precarious position too many miles south of the Mason-Dixon Line made it an obvious target for Confederate invasion, President Abraham Lincoln ordered the capital to be heavily fortified. And in a few months, it became the most solidly protected city on Earth. Lincoln was not necessarily an optimist, but he was a hopeful man, and that is a difference. One thing that he wasn’t was a denialist; when he refused to abandon Washington, he knew what the score was, capable of seeing from the balcony of the White House a massive Confederate flag flying from an Alexandria hotel across the Potomac, the pestilence already infecting the body politic. Regardless of the city’s fortifications, there were still incursions into the District of Columbia. The Battle of Fort Stevens, late in the war during 1864, occurred when Confederate Lt. Gen. Jubal Early invaded just over the northern border of the city from Maryland. When remembered at all, it’s sometimes configured as just an unsuccessful scouting mission. But almost 1,000 men died. The same number as the average losses we’re about to suffer every day.

Washington D.C. is my home now; spring really is prettier here than it is further north, albeit perhaps less earned after the warm winters. The cherry blossoms bloomed early this year; I gather they’ve been doing that more frequently of late. I haven’t been to the National Mall for a few weeks, even though it’s less than a mile away. We’re new to the city, so I still don’t totally intuit that this is where I live. When boredom compels me to go for a brief drive, the neighborhood looking nothing so much like the bougie Mid-Atlantic neighborhood of my Pittsburgh upbringing, I’ll occasionally turn one of those narrow, brick-lined rectilinear alphabet streets and suddenly see the Capitol dome. The experience always strikes me as strange and dreamlike, since I’d forgotten where I was for the past few weeks. All that dysfunction, all that callousness, all that refusal to see what we face while giving people the bandage of a one-time $1,200 check, mere blocks from where I’m in quarantine.

Not far from the site of Early’s rebellious perfidy, and there’s the National Arboretum maintained by the Department of Agriculture. Though a poor substitute for Central Park, the space is not without its charms, not least of which is the surreal spectacle of the National Capital Columns, an arrangement of 22 of the original Corinthian support columns from the United States Capital, looking nothing so much like some abandoned temple in a field. They’re uncanny, eerie, unsettling—like seeing the debris of a lost civilization that happens to be your own. A few weeks ago, before social isolation became de facto policy, my wife and her brother drove with me throughout the arboretum to see if we could see any of the cherry blooms from the car windows. The bonsai museum and the visitor’s center were closed, but the paths were packed with people meandering in groups, as if nothing was different here, as if there was no need for fortifications at all, as if they couldn’t hear Jubal Early moving in from the north.

The sirens are not yet deafening here, though I hear them more frequently. More medivacs flying low over Capitol Hill, too. Whatever is coming is coming. It no longer feels like we’re on the Potomac, but waiting to cross the River Styx. I figure it might behoove me to gather some of my thoughts in an epistle here from the opposite bank of that river. Because I fear that none of us are prepared for what’s coming; none of us can truly comprehend the enormity of the changes that will take place, even if some of us had our ears to the ground and could hear those hoofbeats coming months ago. Anyone who isn’t an abject denialist, somebody enraptured to false paeons of positivity or an adherent of the death cult that currently masquerades as this nation’s governing party, can intuit the heat in the atmosphere, all that horror and sadness that’s already happened, that’s waiting to come. Those people dead in New York, around America, around the world. All those stories, all the narratives brought to an end. If you’ve got your empathetic radio tuned into the frequencies that are coming out of every corner of the land, then the songs you’re hearing are in a minor key. Obituaries are starting to fill up with mentions of the virus, and those strange icons of celebrity have it: Prince Charles, Tom Hanks—and most heartbreaking to me, the death of brilliant folkie John Prine. There’s an unreality to the whole thing; as those seemingly unassailable of the rich and wealthy succumb to the pestilence. I wonder if it will soon seem more real to those blocking up the road in the arboretum?

Never forget that less than a few weeks and several members of the chattering class of columnists who bolster the delusions, lies, and taunts of the junta were “simply considering” the possibility that it might be worth it to have a few million Americans die—the elderly, those with preexisting conditions, and a bunch of the unlucky of the rest of us—to jumpstart the economy. As if an economy that demanded a blood sacrifice of citizens was an economy worth having. If we remember our villains after some of us have survived, then the pharaohs of the supply-side cult governing from the White House and the Senate should forever be emblazoned as a travesty, whose intentions were a cruel pantomime of their self-described “pro-life” positions. Some commentators described them as offering the populace up as if infants to the Canaanite deity of bull-headed Moloch who immolates the innocent in the fiery cauldron of his bronze stomach. It’d be an overwrought metaphor if it wasn’t precisely what they were doing.  Anger is my most reliable emotion; I can convert sadness, depression, anxiety into its familiar and comfortable contours, so for at least a few hours of the day I let myself feel that hatred towards the ghouls a few blocks down Pennsylvania Avenue. Otherwise I’m like the rest of you, little idea what soundtrack to put on as you rocket towards the singularity. I’ve no clue how one prepares for something like this, what one expects April, or May, or June to look like when you’re facing that abyss that feels like the end of the world every day. Right now, I’m adhering to that old Program mantra of “One Day at a Time” and that seems to work while I’m white-knuckling it through the apocalypse. That means steadfastly following social distancing and getting proficient with disinfection. What one should also do, of course, is believe the science, believe in medicine, listen to the doctors and the epidemiologists who know what they’re talking about (no matter how disturbing) and ignore the pundits, politicians, and talking heads who trade in masturbatory, sociopathic tweets while people die.

I’m under no illusions that what I’m doing right now makes a contribution, for the best thing that all of us can do is to exile ourselves from this world. The woman I love more than my own heartbeat goes off to deal with this on the frontlines every day, so I know that anything I offer is paltry. Good Romantic that I am, I of course adhere to the power of words, the transcendence of poetry, the power to reach out and connect to others that are suffering. That’s not just lip service, I do believe that, even while I think that washing your hands can be as immaculate as a poem, staying inside as triumphant as a novel. So, what I want to make clear is that right now I’m writing for myself, and should any of that be useful to some of you than I am grateful. But I’m fundamentally offering a non-essential service, and it does no harm to my ego to admit that. What’s difficult is to know what to turn to when facing something this unexpected, this enormous. Peruse Facebook and Twitter right now, there’s a way of talking that’s expected of late-stage capitalism, or post-modernity, or whatever the fuck we’re supposed to call it. Snarky, outraged, absurd at times, perennially aggrieved, concerned with piffling bullshit. I suspect that by summer many of us won’t be talking that way anymore. I think, if we can, we should try and turn to something a bit more permanent, a bit more real, to help us hold our heads above water for a few more minutes even while the water is burning our lungs.

In the coming weeks, the coming months, this whole damned year, there will be death. This will be a season of death. All of us will lose people we know, lose people that we love. The famous will die, and the unknown will too. Both the poor and the rich; the powerful and the powerless. Unless you were witness to atrocities in Syria and Iraq, unless you are a refugee from El Salvador or Honduras, or a survivor of when this government let young men die by the thousands simply because of who they loved, then little will prepare us for such staggering loss, I think. This devouring reminds me of a poem of crystalline beauty by the underread Irish poet Eavan Boland from 2008’s New Collected Poems. In Boland’s appropriately named “Quarantine” she writes, “the worst hour of the worst season/of the worst year of a whole people” during the Great Hunger in 1847, when the potato blight and its attendant famine decimated Ireland. A million women and men dead, a million more forced into exile across the ocean. Victims of potato mold, yes; but more approximately humans killed by negligent or actively murderous government policy from the colonial rulers. Into that abyss, that cacophony of numbers and statistics, she reminds us that all of those millions were human beings, that each death was the conclusion of a unique story, placed into a mass grave and dusted over with soil.

Boland writes of “a man set out from the workhouse with his wife. /He was walking—they were both walking—north.” Across this broken world, this scarred earth, Boland describes that the wife “was sick with famine fever and could not keep up. /He lifted her and put her on his back. /He walked like that west and west and north. /Until at nightfall under freezing stars they arrived.” As a poet, Boland is no fabulist, she is no nostalgist, or sentimentalist. She does not give into the charming narcotic of optimism, and abides not by keeping spirits up. Boland is, however, resplendent with grace—in the full religious implications of that word. She writes “Let no love poem ever came to this threshold. /There is no place here for the inexact/praise of the easy graces and sensuality of the body.” Romanticism is a luxury that Boland can’t countenance for her characters, not in Ireland, not in the black year of ’47. This is a poem about “what they suffered. How they lived/And what there is between a man and a woman. /And in which darkness it can best be proved.” She writes not of happy endings, but of the possibility, the reality of love. In her third stanza, the middle one, Boland writes:
In the morning they were both found dead.
Of cold. Of hunger. Of the toxins of a whole history.
But her feet were held against his breastbone.
The last heat of his flesh was his last gift to her.
What I’m saying to you is that I know not who among us shall live or die, but Christ I pray that we all have the ability to be the breastbone.

I’ve decided to write an obituary for our dying world while I’m still well, while most of you are still well. The world is convulsing. I’ve no idea what it will ultimately look like, nor does anyone else for that matter. Jeff Sharlet and Peter Manseau wrote about the aftermath of 9/11 in Killing the Buddha: A Heretic’s Bible, asking “How many times can the world end? How many times can it begin again? As often as you survive. As often as you tell the story. The apocalypse is always now, but so is the creation.” This seems right to me—the world is ending now. But something else is coming out of it. Possibly it could be a far worse world, the authoritarians and aspiring dictators using pandemic as an excuse to further tighten the noose, the obscenely wealthy retiring to their palaces as inequity grows even starker and the people who bag our groceries are forced into a virtual death sentence as disease runs rampant. Or, perhaps our current moment of unlikely solidarity, our new consciousness on what work is, what work requires, will continue unabated; maybe there will be a new demanding of justice, new victories for equity, for fairness, for fundamental human dignity. In our current touchless epoch it’s impossible to know. All that can be offered is the breastbone, the reminder that you must give to those you love, even as the world ends.    

I can list what I do know will be on that other side, what will be there after the world stops ending. Whenever we emerge, whenever we’ve buried our dead, whenever we’ve mourned the losses and tabulated the incalculable grief that we can barely comprehend in this darkest of Lents, I say to you that the following things shall be waiting: A plate of half sours at the Second Avenue Deli. The way Manhattan looks at sunset when first espied from a bus as it turns around the cliffs of Weehawken toward the tunnel. The perfumed scent of a magnolia tree at dawn. Primanti Brothers sandwiches. Calloused hands of strangers grasped together in a church basement as they utter the Serenity Prayer. Roadside rib festivals where flimsy napkins do literally nothing to sop the mess up as you eat. Corny and wonderful beachside art festivals where everything is pastel and painted on drift wood. Baseball (but the Pirates will sadly still suck). Dog parks where the concentrated joy is almost unimaginable. Refreshing summer breeze and spray rolling off the forks of the Ohio River. Scorching hot sand at the Singing Sands Beach in Manchester-by-the-Sea, and the attendant mystery-meat hot dog purchased from a bored teenager. Ridiculous small-town music festivals where you can pay bottom dollar to hear classic rock warriors on their epic road downward, and yet they still absolutely shred it. Pittsburgh’s skyline when you first emerge from that tunnel. Ice cream trucks. Cheesesteaks made with the worst meat but with the best of intentions. Cannoli. The Metropolitan Museum of Arts alabaster gleaming Roman room. The old men playing chess in Washington Square Park. Holding hands. Falling in love. The cherry blossoms. Central Park. The world on the other side of what’s coming will not look exactly like this one. But there will be a world. I hope that most of us can meet there.

The Necessary Staying Put: Beckett and Social Distancing

After reading a witty reimagining of famous first lines rewritten for social distancing, it occurred to me that one really wouldn’t have to tweak much with Samuel Beckett’s oeuvre. (Though the meeting with Godot, alas, might have to be postponed.) Beckett doesn’t necessarily offer solace in these times; one can only grin, or grimace, at his buoyant pessimism: “What room for worse!” we read in one Worstward Ho. He is however, one of the great modernist chroniclers of isolation, and one who labelled his own mid-career burst of production from 1946 to 1950 as the “siege in the room.” So join me, dear, homebound reader, on a tour of Beckett’s circumscribed though capacious universe.

In an essay on Hermann Hesse’s novel Demian, the critic Walter Bauer described the young hero’s coming-of-age as “Die notwendige Reise,” or “The  Necessary Journey.” Coming across this phrase as a young man, Samuel Beckett noted in his journal: “Journey anyway is the wrong figure. How can one travel to that from which one cannot move away?  Das notwendige Bleiben [The Necessary Staying Put] is more like it.” Throughout his career, Beckett’s protagonists undertake journeys that are more and more stationary, compelled by their obsessions (Krapp), their hopes (Vladimir and Estragon), or their surrounding (Winnie) to stay put.

We begin with the eponymous hero of Murphy, who in the novel’s opening has tied himself up, naked, to a rocking chair with seven scarves such that “only the most local movements were possible.” Thus bound, he comes “alive in his mind…And life in his mind gave him pleasure, such pleasure that pleasure was not the word.”

Murphy is eventually thrust into “the jaws of a job” and into the “mercantile Gehenna” of London—the novel is in some ways about the tragicomic impossibility of separating oneself from the world—though we can nonetheless look to Murphy, that “long hank of Apollonian asthenia” who rocks from home to avoid all worldly bustle, as one who strove valiantly to attain bliss-in-solitude.

Molloy, Beckett’s great road novel, sees both hunter, Moran, and quarry, Molloy, reduced to increasingly hobbled or immobile conditions—the latter recounting his troubles in a Wordsworthian vein: “It is in the tranquility of decomposition that I remember the long confused emotion which was my life.” Like Murphy, Molloy is torn between the desire to stay put and the compulsion to advance: “For in me there have always been two fools, among others, one asking nothing better than to stay where he is and the other imagining that life might be slightly less horrible a little further on.” The novel tends to bear that out. We first see him bedridden in his mother’s room, where he hopes to “finish dying” after a journey that ends with him lying at the bottom of ditch.

And in this germ-conscious era, we must make brief mention of Molloy’s stone sucking. I won’t linger on his intricate, obsessive-compulsive ritual, but suffice it to say the cavalier use of saliva would give Dr. Anthony Fauci a panic attack.

The Unnameable supplies a starker version of social distancing. The Unnameable is a “caged beast born of caged beast born of caged beast born of caged beast born in a cage and dead in a cage.” He is a dyspeptic creation who spews invective at the shadowy creators who spawned both him and the other “miscreated puppets” of the novel. Among them is Mahood, who has lost all his members “with the exception of the onetime virile” and resides in a sawdust-filled jar on Paris’s Rue Brancion.

Perhaps Mahood shares a realtor with Nagg and Nell, Hamm’s ash bin-dwelling parents in Endgame. The peremptory Hamm is not brimming with empathy, begrudging them when they emerge from their cans to demand food: “The old folks at home! No decency left! Guzzle, guzzle, that’s all they think of.”  And yet if your own “accursed progenitor” insists on carelessly roaming about, it might not be the worst idea to toss them in a recycling bin for a spell. Desperate times…

Krapp from Krapp’s Last Tape is well-equipped for a prolonged seclusion, armed with his stash of bananas and tapes he has recorded as a young man. I am of the 99 percent of people mortified to hear their voice on tape, but Krapp listens to his confident younger self with an intoxicating mixture of fascination, scorn, and yearning. He is tethered to the tape recorder and the unfulfilled vision of the future it contains, even as it tortures him.

In contrast to the generally ornery Krapp, Winnie, the indefatigable heroine of Happy Days, has an obstinately roseate worldview. Her husband navigates his burrow with increasing difficulty, occasioning Winnie to reflect back on his happier, and more slithery, days: “Not the crawler you were, poor darling.” Winnie, though, is always ready to look on the bright side:  “What a curse, mobility!” she says, buried in sand up to her waist as the play opens, to her neck as it ends.

And then there are Beckett’s two most famous players, Vladimir and Estragon, rooted in place for their perpetually deferred meeting. Their entire existence depends on killing time—through improvisational “canter[s]” or squabbles or lyrical flights of fancy—between their sporadic encounters and interminable waiting for Godot: “We always find something, eh Didi, to give us the impression we exist?,” says Estragon.  The strain, however, does wear on them, as made clear in a line some of us may have uttered over the past week: “Nothing happens, nobody comes, nobody goes, it’s awful!”

Finally, there is Company, Beckett’s extraordinary late work in which a voice comes “to one in the dark,” identified by the second-person pronoun “you, and delivers a fiat: “Imagine.” Imagine what, exactly? First, a past, a series of formative vignettes involving “You” and his father, his mother, a lover, a diving board, and an unfortunate hedgehog. And second, a more companionable existence: “Devised deviser devising it all for company,” Beckett writes. “You” exists in a state of isolation and near-total sensory deprivation, and so imagines a series of pleasant additions to the monotony: a “shadowy light” in the dark; the “mercy” of an odd sound, “some soft thing softly stirring soon to stir no more”; or even—and here the “temptation is great”—a fly to swat away, “a live fly mistaking him for dead.” Crawling would also be a pleasant addition to company, but by this point in Beckett’s career, the mere possibility of movement becomes a theoretical, empirical, and ethical question: “Can he move? Does he move?  Should he move?”

This short novel is a highly refracted autobiography, an accomplished exercise in style and a fable of the artist’s mind, a “bourneless dark” in which creator and created, deviser and devised, create the momentary illusion of company:

With every inane word a little nearer to the last. And how the fable too. The fable of one fabling of one with you in the dark. And how better in the end labour lost and silence. And you as you were always were.

Alone.

Image Credit: Flickr/rich_f28

How to Survive the End of the World with Jenny Offill

My family and I walked to a few different stores in our neighborhood today, in search of bananas and fresh air. I love bananas and we’d run out, but there aren’t bananas anywhere right now. Finally I found some on the counter next to the register in a liquor store: 75 cents each. I bought four. Across the country the person I love most in the world, after my own children, is getting home from rehab. I realize an AA meeting is a gathering of more than 20 people, and I worry they’ve all been canceled.

I loved Jenny Offill’s Dept. of Speculation, but I wasn’t sure what to make of Weather. It didn’t seem to be about anything.  It’s told in a similar format as Dept. of Speculation—little paragraphs about the narrator’s job (a librarian), her husband, her son, her neighbors. I had heard the book was about climate change, or maybe it was about addiction. It didn’t seem to be about any of these things, really, but I kept reading. Usually, I read a little before I go to sleep. I don’t have much time. I have two children, a five-year-old daughter and a 10-month-old son. I work. I try, and fail, to write. Like everyone else, I’ve been following the coronavirus stories this month. I just lived day-to-day, because coronavirus or not, that’s all I’m capable of right now.

So I read Weather, and didn’t think too much about it. The narrator meets some cats, avoids other moms at her son’s school. She takes a car service, she takes the bus. She has funny one-liners. She feeds the dog. She starts to work with an old mentor from grad school, a woman named Sylvia who is an expert on climate change. Her brother, a recovering drug addict, meets a woman and they have a baby. Interspersed in the text are handy tips for the end of the world. How to make a candle out of a tin of tuna. How to fish in a river with nothing but your shirt and the spit in your mouth.

I order diapers, formula, soap, baby wipes, baby food, and vitamins. We go to grocery stores and buy toilet paper, flour, yeast, canned tomatoes, rice, beans, wine, chips, chocolate. I order refills of my Xanax, Prozac, and birth control. The narrator of Weather asks, where should we go, where will my son be safe from the ravages of climate change? And her mentor answers: nowhere. Nowhere will be safe. Want to be safe? Become rich.

My kids and my husband went to sleep and I stayed up late to finish the book. Los Angeles Unified School District canceled school. A friend is scared she has it, the virus, but she can’t get tested. She’s worried about her parents. My mom is 65 and won’t stop working. She buys groceries for my 95-year-old grandma. My loved one is coming home from rehab. Somewhere in the middle of the book, we learn the narrator dropped out of graduate school to keep her brother alive, to help him recover from drug addiction. Later we learn she’d keep him on the phone late, and then instruct him she had to tell him something tomorrow morning, so he wouldn’t kill himself during the night.

It’s at this point in the book, I realize this is what the book is about: everyday living during the end of the world. The futility, the impossibility, the absurdity of trying to keep people alive, trying to keep them safe.

My loved one comes home from rehab and drives around the city, trying different meetings. They are all canceled. He calls me in between each attempt. I get off the phone and I cry, because there’s nothing I can do. My daughter wants to know why I am crying. She cries with me. Then the baby starts crying, because he cries whenever she does. I pick him up and hold him close. We blow raspberries at each other. Everyone is smiling again.

The narrator loves her husband, her son, her dog. She just continues to go about living her life the best she can, showing up at work, helping her brother, newly sober, with his infant daughter.

My family and I go for a walk and I stop in at a corner grocery store, which has been in the neighborhood for more than 60 years. They keep open tabs for all the people in the neighborhood who need it. When someone needs food and can’t afford it, this place gives it to them. They don’t have the bananas I am looking for, but I give them a $20 bill, which is all the cash I have, and tell them to use it to help someone pay for food. I don’t know what else to do. I try not to let my daughter see me cry as we walk home.

For more information about online AA meetings, click here and here. For more information about Al-Anon, click here. Please reach out to anyone you know in AA or Al-Anon for information about Zoom meetings.

Letter from the Pestilence

One particularly brutal winter, more than half a decade ago now, I used to find myself fantasizing about stripping down to my underwear and t-shirt and calmly walking out into the massive field of snow that blanketed the flat lot across from my apartment complex so that I could quietly freeze to death. These day dreams came on casually, and it was only after a few times of realizing that I had been online looking up “What does it feel like to die from the cold?” that I might be in trouble. For several weeks following an arctic blast, my small Pennsylvania town was covered in snow and ice, which the tax averse city fathers did little to clear. Though I obviously wasn’t ensconced inside my apartment for the entirety of that time period, able to mostly slide down the hill to my job, and more frequently to the bar where I could get black-out drunk and somehow amazingly get back home, the isolation somehow felt both metaphorical and literal. During that time I mostly kept company with box wine, liquor, beer, and a Netflix subscription, and despite my Google searches I thankfully never saw fit to try my experiment during those blackouts. Weather wasn’t the cause of my depression obviously; my father was dying of a terminal illness at the time, I had yet to figure out that I should stop drinking, and there is some betrayal in my brain chemistry. But the chill permanence of the starkly beautiful and isolated landscape was certainly an affirmation of the pathetic fallacy, every bit as trite as if I’d made it up for a book. I eventually came out of the depression—as one does.

If you’ve ever been depressed, then you know that sometimes it feels like you’ve been wearing dark sunglasses on a bright day; the strange film that seems to cover everything and muck up the synapses in your brain. There might be drama to some people’s depression, and while there was certainly anxiety and the dull hiss of fear punctuated by moments of panic in mine, for much of it there was a surprisingly low volume. It occupied you all the time, but there was something almost relaxed about it, like the way the moment before you freeze to death is supposed to feel like a gentle letting go of one sense after the other. One of the signs of depression is that you lose interest in things that you love. In a clinical sense, that was true for me; I abandoned a lot of the intellectualization of literature that was my passion (and my paying job as a graduate student), but in a far deeper way it wasn’t accurate at all. Maybe I didn’t want to write interpretations of poetry, teach the novels that I kept on teaching, or talk about drama in graduate seminars, but words were stripped to their most elemental and jagged for me, boiled down and rendered into a broth that I kept on drinking. This isn’t going to be where I set up a false dichotomy between thinking and feeling, between interpretation and experience, nor is it a rejection of the critical discussion of literature. I truly derive pleasure from those things, and it was a blessing when my desire to engage them returned.But when everything was stripped away from my desire, when I could scarcely feel love, least of all for myself, the words were still there. At the core of the humanities, it turns out, remains the human. Sometimes reading felt like running in place in a swimming pool; sometimes I was so distracted by my malady that the connection between sense and syntax was all but severed. I was lucky enough that I could still do it though—and with a dim awareness that it was because I had no choice if I was going to come out on the other side. During this period, either ironically or appropriately, I read Andrew Solomon’s stunning personal etiology The Noonday Demon: An Atlas of Depression. Much like Leslie Jamison in The Recovering: Intoxication and Its Aftermath, Solomon gives an account of our shared affliction in terms of history and medicine, and offers his own dark nights of the soul. Solomon writes “To give up the essential conflict between what we feel like doing and what we do, to end the dark moods that reflect that conflict and its difficulties—this is to give up what it is to be human, of what is good in human beings.” The Noonday Demon’s great power is that it doesn’t reduce depression to character building, nor does it simply explain it away, but it does give some scaffolding of meaning to the experience of meaninglessness. Solomon’s prose is exemplary, his empathy is complete, and though I don’t personally know him, reading The Noonday Demon was just enough a connection—as weak as my transponders were—that a bit of static electricity was able to power me through when I got better.I only bring this up because currently we’re all in the pest house. What a strange thing, this social isolation, the self-quarantining? Suddenly societal survival depends on all of us anointing ourselves as depressives, staying sequestered in our homes as whatever hell burns through the immune systems of our fellow humans. When I was depressed, I drew hope from the fact that other people weren’t depressed; it felt like if my world was unravelling there was at least a world. The surrealism of our current moment is that none of us have that same luxury anymore. Ironically there’s something democratic in our common situation, the way in which we’re all feeling the same fear, the same uncertainty, the same panic, worry, anger, and anxiety. A solidarity, finally. If there’s anything different between our current situation and personal depression—the sense of doom, the preoccupation with a malignant force, and the inability to fully immerse yourself in that which gives joy make this feel like a type of cultural depression—it’s that there’s also a weird joviality out there. The often funny social media gallows humor (I’m partial to a picture of the advertising mascot Mr. Clean with the caption “He left us when we needed him most.”) and the odd confessions with strangers, like the Trader Joe’s checkout guy who told me he’d miss karaoke most of all.

The depressed, ironically, might have an immunological consciousness more prepared for the quarantine that is now necessary. No longer kept in my apartment by diminished serotonin levels and several feet of snow, now it is the coronavirus that keeps me home. “Depression at its worst is the most horrifying loneliness,” Solomon writes, “and from it I learned the value of intimacy.” Our school has been those feelings of nothing that have trained us in the art of that most human of things, our need for connection, precisely at the moment when its necessary to sever those ties. “You cannot draw a depressed person out of their misery,” Solomon correctly notes, but “You can, sometimes, manage to join someone in the place where he resides.” We live in an ugly era—mean, intemperate, cruel, cynical, narcissistic. Everyone says that of their age, but doesn’t it feel a bit more true of our own? Now, as if the Earth has a breaking fever, it seems as if the very planet itself is shaking us off. We’re all in that dark place now; some of us will get sick, as well. Many of us will. We will all require a kindness in that.

Like Solomon was once something I was able to hold onto—however so slightly—that returned me to life, there must be an engagement with each other, with that which we’ve created, with that which exists to make connection, with that which joins us in the places where we reside. Creation can’t be a luxury, nor is it just entertainment, or a way of passing time. Recently, I saw a video of an empty street in Florence, where women and men are quarantined where Boccaccio was once sequestered from the plague, where Petrarch’s beloved Laura de Noves succumbed to it. From an open window, a strong baritone voice from an unseen man starts singing in an Italian I can’t understand, then a woman joins in somewhere down the alley, then another man, then another. Even the feral dogs in the street are barking joyfully by the end. All of them were isolated, but none were alone. Creation must be a kindness.

Image Credit: Needpix.com.

On Pandemic and Literature

Less than a century after the Black Death descended into Europe and killed 75 million people—as much as 60 percent of the population (90% in some places) dead in the five years after 1347—an anonymous Alsatian engraver with the fantastic appellation of “Master of the Playing Cards” saw fit to depict St. Sebastian: the patron saint of plague victims. Making his name, literally, from the series of playing cards he produced at the moment when the pastime first became popular in Germany, the engraver decorated his suits with bears and wolves, lions and birds, flowers and woodwoses. The Master of Playing Cards’s largest engraving, however, was the aforementioned depiction of the unfortunate third-century martyr who suffered by order of the Emperor Diocletian. A violent image, but even several generations after the worst of the Black Death, and Sebastian still resonated with the populace, who remembered that “To many Europeans, the pestilence seemed to be the punishment of a wrathful Creator,” as John Kelly notes in The Great Mortality: An Intimate History of the Black Death, the Most Devastating Plague of all Time.

The cult of Sebastian had grown in the years between the Black Death and the engraving, and during that interim the ancient martyr had become associated with plague victims. His suffering reminded people of their own lot—the sense that more hardship was inevitable, that the appearance of purpled buboes looked like arrows pulled from Sebastian’s eviscerated flesh after his attempted execution, and most of all the indiscrimination of which portion of bruised skin would be arrow-pierced seeming as random as who should die from plague. Produced roughly around 1440, when any direct memory of the greatest bubonic plague had long-since passed (even while smaller reoccurrences occurred for centuries), the Master of the Playing Cards presents a serene Sebastian, tied to a short tree while four archers pummel him with said arrows. Unlike more popular depictions of the saint, such as Andrea Mantegna’s painting made only four decades later, or El Greco and Peter Paul Reubens’s explicitly lithe and beautiful Sebastians made in respectively the 16th and 17th centuries, the engraver gives us a calm, almost bemused, martyr. He has an accepting smile on his face. Two arrows protrude from his puckered flesh. More are clearly coming. Sebastian didn’t just become associated with the plague as a means of saintly intercession, but also because in his narrative there was the possibility of metaphor to make sense of the senseless. Medical historian Roy Porter writes in Flesh in the Age of Reason: The Modern Foundations of Body and Soul that the “Black Death of the mid-fourteenth century and subsequent outbreaks…had, of course, cast a long, dark shadow, and their aftermath was the culture of the Dance of Death, the worm-corrupted cadaver, the skull and crossbones and the charnel house.” All of said accoutrement, which endures even today from the cackling skulls of Halloween to the pirates’ flag, serve to if not make pandemic comprehensible, then to at least tame it a bit. Faced with calamity, this is what the stories told and the images made were intended to do. Religion supplied the largest storehouse of ready-made narrative with which to tell stories, even while the death toll increasingly made traditional belief untenable. John Hatcher writes in The Black Death: A Personal History that many lost “faith in their religion and…[abandoned] themselves to fate,” where fatality is as unpredictable as where an arrow will land.

A different narrative, though not unrelated, was depicted 40 years later. Made by the Swedish painter Albertus Pictor, and applied to the white walls of the rustic Täby Church north of Stockholm, the mural presents what appears to be a wealthy merchant playing a (losing) game of chess against Death. Skeletal and grinning, Death appears with the same boney twisted smile that is underneath the mask of every human face, the embodiment and reminder of everyone’s ultimate destination. Famously the inspiration for director Ingmar Bergman’s 1957 film The Seventh Seal, Pictor’s picture is a haunting memento mori, a very human evocation of the desperate flailing against the inevitable. Both pictures tell stories about the plague, about the lengths we’ll go to survive. They convey how in pandemic predictability disappears; they are narratives about the failure of narratives themselves. What both of them court are Brother Fate and his twin Sister Despair. The wages of fortune are the subject of which cards you’re dealt and the tension of strategy and luck when you avoid having your bishop or rook taken. Life may be a game, but none of us are master players and sometimes we’re dealt a very bad hand.

There has always been literature of pandemic because there have always been pandemics. What marks the literature of plague, pestilence, and pandemic is a commitment to try and forge if not some sense of explanation, than at least a sense of meaning out of the raw experience of panic, horror, and despair. Narrative is an attempt to stave off meaninglessness, and in the void of the pandemic, literature serves the purpose of trying, however desperately, to stop the bleeding. It makes sense that the most famous literary work to come out of the plague is Giovani Boccaccio’s 1353 The Decameron, with its frame conceit of 100 bawdy, hilarious, and erotic stories told by seven women and three men over 10 days while they’re quarantined in a Tuscan villa outside Florence. As pandemic rages through northern Italy, Boccaccio’s characters distract themselves with funny, dirty stories, but the anxious intent from those young women and men self-exiled within cloistered walls is that “Every person born into this world has a natural right to sustain, preserve and defend” their own life, so that storytelling becomes its own palliative to drown out the howling of those dying on the other side of the ivy-covered stone walls.

Pandemic literature exists not just to analyze the reasons for the pestilence—that may not even be its primary purpose. Rather the telling of stories is a reminder that sense still exists somewhere, that if there is not meaning outside of the quarantine zone there’s at least meaning within our invented stories. Literature is a reclamation against that which illness represents—that the world is not our own. As the narrator of Albert Camus’s The Plague says as disease ravages the town of Oran in French Algeria, there is an “element of abstraction and unreality in misfortune. But when an abstraction starts to kill you, you have to get to work on it.” When confronted with the erraticism of etiology, the arbitrariness of infection, the randomness of illness, we must contend with the reality that we are not masters of this world. We have seemingly become such lords of nature that we’ve altered the very climate and geologists have named our epoch after humanity itself, and yet a cold virus can have more power than an army. Disease is not metaphor, symbol, or allegory, it is simply something that kills you without consideration. Story is a way of trying to impart a bit of that consideration that nature ignores.

The necessity of literature in the aftermath of pandemic is movingly illustrated in Emily St. John Mandel’s novel Station Eleven. Mostly taking place several years after the “Georgian Flu” has killed the vast majority of humans on the planet and civilization has collapsed, Mandel’s novel follows a troupe of Shakespearean actors as they travel by caravan across a scarred Great Lakes region on either side of the U.S.-Canadian border. “We bemoaned the impersonality of the modern world,” Mandel writes, “but that was a lie.” Station Eleven is, in some sense, a love letter to a lost world, which is to say the world (currently) of the reader. Our existence “had never been impersonal at all,” she writes, and the novel gives moving litanies of all that was lost in the narrative’s apocalypse, from chlorinated swimming pools to the mindlessness of the Internet. There is a tender love of every aspect of our stupid world, so that how the crisis happened can only be explained because of the fact that we were so interconnected: “There had always been a massive delicate infrastructure of people, all of them working unnoticed around us, and when people stop going to work, the entire operation grinds to a halt.” As survivors struggle to rebuild, it’s the job of narrative to supply meaning to that which disease has taken away, or as the motto painted on the wagon of the traveling caravan has it: “Survival is insufficient.” The need to tell stories, to use narrative to prove some continuity with a past obliterated by pandemic, is the motivating impulse of English professor James Smith, the main character in Jack London’s largely forgotten 1912 post-apocalyptic novel, The Scarlet Plague. With shades of Edgar Allan Poe, London imagines a 2013 outbreak of hemorrhagic fever called the “Red Death.” Infectious, fast-moving, and fatal, the plague wipes out the vast majority of the world’s population, so that some six decades after the pestilence first appears, Smith can scarcely believe that his memories of a once sophisticated civilization aren’t illusions. Still, the former teacher is compelled to tell his grandchildren about the world before the Red Death, even if he sometimes imagines that they are lies. “The fleeting systems lapse like foam,” writes London, “That’s it—foam, and fleeting. All man’s toil upon the planet was just so much foam.”

The Scarlet Plague ends in a distant 2073, the same year that Mary Shelley’s 1826 forerunner of the pandemic novel The Last Man was set. Far less famous than Shelley’s Frankenstein, her largely forgotten novel is arguably just as groundbreaking. As with Station Eleven, narrative and textuality are the central concerns of the novel; when the last man himself notes that “I have selected a few books; the principal are Homer and Shakespeare—But the libraries of the world are thrown open to me,” there is the sense that even in the finality of his position there is a way in which words can still define our reality, anemic though it may now be. Displaying the trademark uneasiness about the idea of fictionality that often marked 19th-century novels, Shelley’s conceit is that what you’re reading are transcriptions of parchment containing ancient oracular predictions that the author herself discovered while exploring caves outside of Naples that had once housed the temple of the Cumae Sibylline.

Her main character is a masculinized roman a clef for Shelley herself, an aristocrat named Lionel Verney who lives through the emergence of global pandemic in 2073 up through the beginning of the 22nd century when he earns the titular status of The Last Man. All of Shelley’s characters are stand-ins for her friends, the luminaries of the rapidly waning Romantic age, from Lord Byron who is transformed into Lord Randolph, a passionate if incompetent leader of England who bungles that nation’s response to the pandemic, to her own husband, Percy, who becomes Adrian, the son of the previous king who has chosen rather to embrace republicanism. By the time Verney begins his solitary pilgrimage across a desolated world, with only the ghosts of Homer and Shakespeare, and an Alpine sheepdog whom he adopts, he still speaks in a first person addressed to an audience of nobody. “Thus around the shores of deserted earth, while the sun is high, and the moon waxes or wanes, angels, the spirts of the dead, and the ever-open eye of the Supreme, will behold…the LAST MAN.” Thus, in a world devoid of people, Verney becomes the book and the inert world becomes the reader.

The Last Man’s first-person narration, ostensibly directed to a world absent of people who could actually read it, belies a deeper reason for the existence of language than mere communication—to construct a world upon the ruins, to bear a type of witness, even if it’s solitary. Language need not be for others; that it’s for ourselves is often good enough. Literature thus becomes affirmation; more than that it becomes rebellion, a means of saying within pandemic that we once existed, and that microbe and spirochete can’t abolish our voices, even if bodies should wither. That’s one of the most important formulations of Tony Kushner’s magisterial play Angels in America: A Gay Fantasia on National Themes. Arguably the most canonical text to emerge from the horror of the AIDS crisis, Kushner’s three-hour play appears in two parts, “Millennium Approaches” and “Perestroika,” and it weaves two narrative threads, the story of wealthy WASP scion Prior Walter’s HIV diagnosis and his subsequent abandonment by his scared lover, Louis Ironson, and the arrival to New York City of the closeted Mormon Republican Joe Pitt, who works as a law clerk and kindles an affair with Louis.

Angels in America combines subjects as varied as Jewish immigration in the early 20th century, Kabbalistic and Mormon cosmology (along with a baroque system of invented angels), the reprehensible record of the closeted red-baiting attorney and Joseph McCarthy-acolyte Roy Cohn, and the endurance of the gay community struggling against the AIDS epidemic and their activism opposing the quasi-genocidal non-policy of conservative politicians like Ronald Reagan. If all that sounds heady, Kushner’s play came from the estimably pragmatic issue of how a community survives a plague. Born from the pathbreaking work of activist groups like ACT UP, Angels in America has, because of its mythological concerns, an understanding that pandemics and politics are inextricably connected. In answering who deserves treatment and how such treatment will be allocated we’ve already departed from the realm of disinterested nature. “There are no gods here, no ghosts and spirits in America, no spiritual past,” says Louis, “there’s only the political, and the decoys and the ploys to maneuver around the inescapable battle of politics.” Throughout Angels in America there is an expression of the human tragedy of pandemic, the way that beautiful young people in the prime of life can be murdered by their own bodies. Even Cohn, that despicable quasi-fascist, who evidences so little of the human himself, is entitled to some tenderness when upon his death kaddish is recited for him—by the spirit of Ethel Rosenberg, the supposed Soviet spy whom the lawyer was instrumental in the execution of.At the end of the play, Prior stands at Bethesda Fountain in Central Park, with all the attendant religious implications of that place’s name, and intones that “This disease will be the end of many of us, but not nearly all, and the dead will be commemorated and will struggle on with the living, and we are not going away. We won’t die secret deaths anymore… We will be citizens. The time has come.” In telling stories, there is not just a means of constructing meaning, or even endurance, but indeed of survival.  Fiction is not the only means of expressing this, of course, or even necessarily the most appropriate. Journalist Randy Shilts accomplished something similar to Kushner in his classic account And the Band Played On: Politics, People, and the AIDS Epidemic, which soberly, clinically, and objectively chronicled the initial outbreaks of the disease among the San Francisco gay community.In a manner not dissimilar to Daniel Defoe in his classic A Journal of the Plague Year (even while that book is fictionalized), Shilts gives an epidemiological account of the numbers, letting the horror speak through science more effectively than had it been rendered in poetry. Such staidness is its own requirement and can speak powerfully to the reality of the event, whereby “the unalterable tragedy at the heart of the AIDS epidemic…[was that] By the time America paid attention to the disease, it was too late to do anything about it,” the shame of a nation whereby Reagan’s press secretary Larry Speakes would actually publicly laugh at the idea of a “gay plague.” Shilts waited until he finished And the Band Played On to be tested for HIV himself, worried that a positive diagnosis would alter his journalistic objectivity. He would die of AIDS related complications in 1994, having borne witness to the initial years of the epidemic, abjuring the cruel inaction of government policy with the disinfectant of pure facts.

Most people who read about pandemics, however, turn to pulpier books: paperback airport novels like Michael Crichton’s clinical fictionalized report about an interstellar virus The Andromeda Strain, Robin Cook’s nightmare fuel about a California Ebola pandemic in Outbreak, and Stephen King’s magisterial post-apocalyptic epic The Stand, which I read in the summer of 1994 and remains the longest sustained narrative I think that I’ve ever engaged with. Because these books are printed on cheap paper and have the sorts of garish covers intended more for mass consumption than prestige, they’re dismissed as prurient or exploitative. Ever the boring distinctions between genre and literary fiction, for though the pace of suspense may distinguish entertainment as integral as aesthetics, they too have just as much to say about the fear and experience of illness as do any number of explicitly more “serious” works.

The Stand is an exemplary example of just what genre fiction is capable of, especially when it comes to elemental fears surrounding plague that seem to have been somehow encoded within our cultural DNA for more than seven centuries. Written as an American corollary to J.R.R. Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings trilogy, The Stand depicts a United States completely unraveled one summer after the containment loss of a government “Super-Flu” bioweapon nicknamed “Captain Trips.” In that aftermath, King presents a genuinely apocalyptic struggle between good and evil that’s worthy of Revelation, but intrinsic to this tale of pestilence is the initial worry that accompanies a scratchy throat, watery eyes, a sniffling nose, and a cough that seemingly won’t go away. If anything, King’s vision is resolutely in keeping with the medieval tradition of fortuna so expertly represented by the Master of the Playing Cards or Pictor, a wisdom that when it comes to disease “Life was such a wheel that no man could stand upon it for long. And it always, at the end, came round to the same place again,” as King writes.

Far from being exploitative, of only offering readers the exquisite pleasure of vicariously imagining all of society going to complete shit, there is a radical empathy at the core of much genre fiction. Readers of Robert Kirkman and Tony Moore’s graphic novels The Walking Dead (or the attendant television series) or viewers of George Romero’s brilliant zombie classics may assume that they’ll always be the ones to survive Armageddon, but those works can force us into a consideration of the profound contingency of our own lives. Cynics might say that the enjoyment derived from zombie narratives is that they provide a means of imagining that most potent of American fantasies—the ability to shoot your neighbor with no repercussions. More than that, however, and I think that they state a bit of the feebleness of our civilization.

This is what critic Susan Sontag notes in Illness as Metaphor about how pandemic supplies “evidence of a world in which nothing important is regional, local, limited; in which everything that can circulate does, and every problem is, or is destined to become, worldwide,” so that products and viruses alike can freely move in a globalized world. The latter can then disrupt the former, where plague proves the precariousness of the supply lines that keep food on grocery store shelves and electricity in the socket, the shockingly narrow band separating hot breakfast and cold beer from the nastiness, brutishness, and shortness of life anarchic. Such is the grim knowledge of Max Brook’s World War Z where “They teach you how to resist the enemy, how to protect your mind and spirit. They don’t teach you how to resist your own people.” If medieval art and literature embraced the idea of fate, whereby it’s impossible to know who shall be first and who shall be last once the plague rats have entered port, than contemporary genre fiction has a similar democratic vision, a knowledge that wealth, power, and prestige can mean little after you’ve been coughed on. When the Black Death came to Europe, no class was spared; it took the sculptor Andrea Pisano and the banker Giovanni Villani, the painter Ambrogio Lorenzetti and the poet Jeauan Gethin, the mystic Richard Rolle and the philosopher William of Ockham, and the father, mother, and friends of Boccaccio. Plague upended society more than any revolution could, and there was a strange egalitarianism to the paupers’ body-pit covered in lye. Sontag, again, writes that “Illness is the night-side of life, a more onerous citizenship. Everyone who is born holds dual citizenship, in the kingdom of the well and in the kingdom of the sick. Although we all prefer to use only the good passport, sooner or later each of us is obliged, at least for a spell, to identify ourselves as citizens of that other place.” Such equality motivated the greatest of medieval artistic themes to emerge from the Black Death, that of the Danse Macabre or “Dance of Death.” In such imagery, painters and engravers would depict paupers and princes, popes and peasants, all linking hands with grinning brown skeletons with hair clinging to mottled pates and cadaverous flesh hanging from bones, dancing in a circle across a bucolic countryside. In the anonymous Totentanz of 1460, the narrator writes “Emperor, your sword won’t help you out/Scepter and crown are worthless here/I’ve taken you by the hand/For you must come to my dance.” During the Black Death, the fearful and the deniers alike explained the disease as due to a confluence of astrological phenomenon or noxious miasma; they claimed it was punishment for sin or they blamed religious and ethnic minorities within their midst. To some, the plague was better understood as “hoax” than reality. The smiling skulls of the Danse Macabre laugh at that sort of cowardly narcissism, for they know that pestilence is a feature of our reality and reality has a way of collecting its debts.

Illness sees no social stratification—it comes for bishop and authoritarian theocrat, king and germaphobic president alike. The final theme of the literature of pandemic, born from the awareness that this world is not ours alone, is that we can’t avert our eyes from the truth, no matter how cankered and ugly it may be in the interim. Something can be both true and senseless. The presence of disease is evidence of that. When I was little, my grandma told me stories about when she was a girl during the 1918 Spanish Influenza epidemic that took 75 million people. She described how, in front of the courthouse of her small Pennsylvania town, wagons arrived carting coffins for those who perished. Such memories are recounted to create meaning, to bear witness, to make sense, to warn, to exclaim that we were here, that we’re still here. Narrative can preserve and remake the world as it falls apart. Such is the point of telling any story. Illness reminds us that the world isn’t ours; literature let’s us know that it is—sometimes. Now—take stock. Be safe. Most of all, take care of each other. And wash your hands.

Image Credit: Wikimedia Commons.