BY MATTHEW HERBERT
The title of Joan Didion’s personal history of California, Where I Was From, presents you with a wrinkle in time. Don’t we usually say “where I am from”? Why the extra layer of past-ness? What the 70-year old Didion was implying was that by the time she looked back at her home state in 2003, not only had it changed beyond recognition, but so had she. She left home to write for Vogue in 1961, and then life kept happening, mostly in New York but also in Paris, Hawaii, Central America. She could no longer say she was the Joan Didion who comes from California; now she was someone who once came from there.
The realization that you can’t go home again is a common one; you try to go back only to discover it was an earlier, different version of yourself who lived there. The lack of fit is overdetermined: it runs both ways.
When we try to imagine the the world after COVID-19 (the “new normal”), we can easily assume the same naivete Didion sheds in the title of her memoir. We picture ourselves dazed, enervated, bereaved, and disoriented but essentially still who we were before the pandemic. We will blink our eyes and try to work out how far magnetic north has shifted, try to get our minds around where the world’s coordinates have come unfixed. How will we travel? Eat out? Vote? Change jobs? Send kids to camp?
But we will be mistaken to think it is the same old us navigating these questions. Because, like Didion, we will have changed too. And we will have no time to mourn the loss of our old selves. The grief of this loss will slip silently onto those already accumulated. So soon, we will have to say we were from the world before COVID-19.
Historical change is nothing new, of course, and individuals never emerge from it unscathed. My dad was from the world before Vietnam, for example. Lots of things were different after the war, including him. Three books I’ve read recently, alongside Didion’s Where I Was From, have helped shape my thoughts on what is happening to us. In particular, they’ve helped me meditate on how entrenched our assumptions are about who we will be on the other side of this crisis.
Milan Kundera’s Ignorance is a novel about the urge that central European exiles felt to return home when the Iron Curtain fell in 1989. Kundera himself had fled his native Czechoslovakia after the Soviet invasion of 1968, so there is a certain amount of factual autobiography that informs Ignorance. I remember that heady time too. The Berlin Wall fell down.
In Ignorance, as communism is swept off Europe’s map with dizzying speed, the novel’s antagonists, living in Paris, are encouraged by their friends to join the “Great Return.” Go home and celebrate the liberation of your homeland, they are urged. There is dancing in the streets. This call is a nearly irresistible force. But Kundera asks why this is the case. The thing is, he has not just been waiting, holding his breath in France. He built a life there. He writes his novels in French, about themes that concern the French, and all of literate humankind. His antagonists in Ignorance follow suit, in their own ways; they have misgivings.
The urge to go home is strong, but unfiltered nostalgia freezes the exile in time, takes no account of the effects of choice and circumstance that have accumulated over the exile’s intervening lifetime. Kundera goes back to the beginning of European literature to locate this paradox. What he finds is revelatory. “In Book Five of the Odyssey,” Kundera writes, “Odysseus tells Calypso [who had captured and held him for seven years in a life of erotic luxury]: ‘As wise as she is, I know that Penelope [Odysseus’s wife] cannot compare to you in stature or beauty. . . . And yet the only wish I wish each day is to go back there.” He had been seeking home for 10 years. Kundera goes on la little later:
Homer glorified nostalgia with a laurel wreath and thereby laid out a moral hierarchy of emotions. Penelope stands at its summit, very high above Calypso.
Calypso, ah, Calypso! I very often think about her. She loved Odysseus. They lived together for seven years. We do not know how long Odysseus shared Penelope’s bed, but certainly not so long as that. And yet we extol Penelope’s pain and sneer at Calypso’s tears.
What happens to the life we lived and the world we constructed during our pandemic exile? Do they simply lose all meaning once the conditions of exile have been lifted? Whose attentions will we abandon when we blindly make the same choice as Odysseus?
It strikes me that I spend several hours a day now in intense contact with my son, whom I am home-schooling. This will almost certainly never happen again, depending on how far back to normal we are able to go after COVID-19. I don’t know how long our present routine will last–almost certainly not seven years!–but when my son and I do go back toward normal, we will be different people than we were just a few months ago. The “moral hierarchy of emotions” established by Homer says we must bend our entire will to just going “home.” We will reassert the old ways of school for him, office for me. But will we not have cause to wonder why not everything fits the same? I imagine a day in my son’s future adolescence when he and I speak to each other not at all. He’s studying for finals and I’m puttering; our paths don’t cross, even under the same roof. Won’t I think of the present days with nostalgia? Won’t he? We used to talk for hours.
In his 1939 novel Coming Up For Air, George Orwell anticipates how the approaching climax of World War II will change the politics of all the warring countries. Even if they win, the western Allies, liberal democrats all, won’t be able to escape the coming darkness, Orwell believes. Contending against monsters will put them at risk of turning monstrous themselves.
Coming Up For Air is a very pessimistic novel. It postulates that to win the war, Great Britain and the United States will have to adopt as expedients certain authoritarian powers that could prove corrupting of decency over the longer term. Nations will become militarized, weapons massively lethal; police will rule the streets; citizen surveillance will become pervasive; propaganda will condition the masses to hate outsiders; economies will remain on a permanent war footing, beating plowshares back into swords. All the societal movement in Coming Up For Air is downward. The antagonist, George Bowling, looks ahead, to what will happen after the crisis has passed:
But it isn’t the war that matters, it’s the after-war. The world we’re going down into, the kind of hate-world, slogan world. The coloured shirts, the barbed wire, the rubber truncheons. The secret cells where the electric light burns night and day, and the detectives watching you while you sleep. And the processions and the posters with enormous faces, and the crowds of a million people all cheering for the Leader till they deafen themselves into thinking that they really worship him . . . . It’s all going to happen.
Bowling believes he just might survive the descent into darkness if he manages to take one last breath of his former innocence, England’s former innocence. And so he arranges a weekend trip to his boyhood home of Lower Binfield. There’s a fishing spot there that he knows, he just knows, no one else has discovered. The fish he had to abandon there one summer day long ago must be huge and unwary, he believes. His anticipation builds for weeks as he plans his escape. He hasn’t fished since he was a boy.
The reader doesn’t find out whether any anglers discovered Bowling’s secret pond and fished it out, and neither does Bowling. The developer’s bulldozer certainly found the pond–and drained it and flattened it for houses to be built on top of it. Lower Binfield is unrecognizable when Bowling arrives. Its center has been dwarfed by new factories, its old, well-formed town boundaries obliterated by sprawl. There are new sorts of people there, drawn by factory work, who don’t know anything about the town’s past. The pubs have fake wooden beams. Bowling comes face to face with an old lover who fails entirely to recognize him. She’s addled, unpleasant and gone to seed.
So Bowling gives up and goes home. The novel ends, or simply stops, one almost feels, with him contemplating which shabby lies he should tell his wife to put her off the scent of the real nature of his trip. (He’d told her it was a business trip, but she sniffed out that part of the lie.)
Is this the plainly bathotic ending it appears to be? Not really. The reason Bowling had kept his getaway secret was because he, a plain, fat, dull and inconsequential salesman, had political motives for trying to take a last gulp of clean air, and he didn’t think anyone would understand his grandiosity. In a changing world that threatened even the common man with propaganda, secret police, and wage slavery, there was no such thing as staying out of politics anymore, even for someone with such a trivial, deadend life as Bowling’s. This was something Orwell said over and over again in his essays of the time: the dynamics of what he called “after-war” dictated that even strong, successful nations would be perpetually in the preparatory stages of new war and, therefore, subject to emergency rule and contingency planning, habits that shade into authoritarianism. We can dream of the world that existed before we all became national-security states, but we can never go back to it. It has been obliterated by things we have done.
If we try to go back to the world before COVID-19, it won’t be there either. Biology is an even more efficient equalizing force than politics, and none of us can escape the tyrannizing effects of a pandemic. As Bob Dylan once put it, “You may be an ambassador to England or France; you may like to gamble, you might like to dance; you may be the heavyweight champion of the world; you may be a socialite with a long string of pearls.” Dylan was making a point about a different threat to our existence, but his reasoning remains solid: no one will be able to escape thinking about, and, in some sense, planning for, contagion in the future. We’ll just have to breathe that air.
Memory and longing will always reach backward in time. But as a basis for living, we can only look forward. Orwell knew this, and we are about to know it. The unspoken optimistic message of Coming Up For Air is that, despite the grief of abandoning what is lost, it is always for the best to strike a new course and move forward. That is almost literally the definition of progress. The new normal will improve upon the old normal.
Adolescence is, for almost everyone, a period happily left in the past. It may provide useful marks for measuring one’s intervening life journey, but it usually offers little worth dwelling on as such. My adolescence was particularly a wreck. I was in the grip of a religious “theory” of morality that held up sexual purity as an ultimate ideal. When I wasn’t reading Paul saying that sex was bad, I was reading how Lancelot ruined not just his own life by sleeping with Guinevere, but also his friendship with Arthur and the whole basis for British monarchy, which I took to be synonymous with heroic virtue at the time.
The point is, I was morally serious but entirely misdirected. Because I exhausted all my energy in pursuit of Paul’s ridiculous and sociopathic ideal, I gave myself a free pass on all other issues of moral consideration. Which is to say, I was an asshole. I simply had no conception that morality involved other people and that being kind to them or at least avoiding harming them was an important goal in life. Luckily, I met good, patient people who would lead me out of the wilderness. I also read new books that would raise me up like Saul Bellow’s Augie March to where I could try to navigate “by the great stars, the highest considerations.” I got lucky.
It took me years to understand the moral wreck that was my adolescence. I would recall episodes of casually bullying someone or flagrantly harassing someone else, and they revealed how unreflectively cruel I was. No surprise in retrospect, though: my entire capacity to reflect was absorbed into a doomed, Quixotic scheme for overriding the biological drive that perpetuates the species. Oops. (And which, if piloted with care, gives way to the best things in life.)
In his quietly devastating novel The Sense of an Ending, Julian Barnes’s antagonist Tony Webster looks back on a youth 40 years gone by. He has long understood his adolescence as merely conventionally awkward, or maybe squalid around the edges, at worst. He had girl trouble, yes, he was slightly pompous and insecure, but wasn’t everyone? Then, tracing the lines of an old love triangle that led to the suicide of a boyhood friend, Webster comes face to face with documentary evidence of his own blatant cruelty. Stung by love betrayed, 20-year old Webster wishes the worst on his friends in clear, vigorous terms, and it comes to pass. Tragedy ensues in a way that ruins the lives of people who appeared nowhere in young Webster’s moral calculations. They couldn’t have: he was so selfish and stupid–blind, really. Like I said, he was twenty.
When we sketch out the new, post-pandemic normal and inevitably look back to the old one for reference points, we will be forced to see how ill prepared we were for the shock. Then we will realize how little moral fiber ran through our national character when our time of trial arrived.
Here is what the post-COVID-19 world will bring sharply into focus: We, the generations that have shaped political culture since Ronald Reagan and Margaret Thatcher, have built a system that seeks an upper limit on depriving people of the means to care for themselves. And after we’ve watched them on reality TV, we condemn the same people to the impersonal forces of social Darwinism to render hard but just rulings on them. Back when we came up with this arrangement, we thought of it as a capitalist Shangrai La. It was so fraudulent in its inception that we needed a movie–a movie!–to produce its slogan: “Greed is good.”
If the real-life truth of the matter could be put into a novelistic document like the one that jolts Webster out of his moral complacency in Barnes’s The Sense of an Ending, it would be a letter from us–the ruling class and its close aspirants–to the other 80 percent of our fellow humans, telling them, why don’t you just fucking die? If you don’t like the $8.00-an-hour no-benefits service jobs that retail provides you, please take the suicide pills that the pharmaceutical industry so generously supplies you.Or maybe a gun in the mouth is more your style. Or eat your way to diabetes and wait to be priced out of insulin. Many of your fellows take a long turn in a prison run for profit. But in any case if you can’t hack it, just get out of the way. The future does not need you.
When we stopped believing that society existed, we stopped investing in it. Many moral outrages like the few I just alluded to took root. I agree, by the way, with Reagan and Thatcher that society does not exist. But unlike them, I believe it is one of the best and deservedly most robust fictions we have come up with. It is what the historian Juval Noah Harari would call a shared fiction worth believing in. The thing about shared fictions, though, is that they abhor a vacuum. Stop believing in one, and another will rush in to take its place. So, we may have weakened our collective belief in society, but oh, boy do we believe in corporations now. That’s who came rushing into fill the vacuum created by Reagan-Thatcherism.
Society is the bedrock of democracy. If individuals fail to identify with a national group with whom they are willing to pull together, they cannot define any national interests. So those interest get defined for them. In our case, the defining of interests is done by organized money in the form of corporations. This is all fine for the few who own the corporations, but for the rest of us it means we are living in a failed state. Don’t believe me? Try this brief summary of our symptoms on for size (from an Atlantic Monthly article by George Packer):
When the virus came here, it found a country with serious underlying conditions, and it exploited them ruthlessly. Chronic ills—a corrupt political class, a sclerotic bureaucracy, a heartless economy, a divided and distracted public—had gone untreated for years. We had learned to live, uncomfortably, with the symptoms. It took the scale and intimacy of a pandemic to expose their severity—to shock Americans with the recognition that we are in the high-risk category.
The crisis demanded a response that was swift, rational, and collective. The United States reacted instead like Pakistan or Belarus—like a country with shoddy infrastructure and a dysfunctional government whose leaders were too corrupt or stupid to head off mass suffering.
Our moral past–like Tony Webster’s, like my own–is a mirage. It never existed as we pictured it. What we thought of as the mere, regrettable side effects of greed–a little functional poverty here, a decline of infrastructure there–came into focus over the years as the essential aims of the system we invited to take over our lives. Greed is good?–That’s the system. The undeniable fact that we are presently subjects to corporate profit-seeking, not citizens in a democracy, should tell us that our past is not what we thought it was either. It was a different country.