Allison Grimaldi Donahue
Art by Betsy Weis
A dog circles around the old city gate, lost and alone, and eventually crosses, dashes over to its owner who is calling him beyond my sight. I can hear the human shouting to the dog; the dog crosses the four lanes with ease—there isn’t any traffic. Italy has been on lockdown since March 9th. Health care professionals work endless hours, as do grocery store employees, bus drivers, and many others who provide essential services. But most of us sit home. We sit and wait anxiously for something to change while attempting to work remotely (if we’re lucky). I’ve never felt such a collective loss of control, and I have never felt so useless.
This is not the first epidemic Bologna has seen. The city was hit hard by the 1630 plague in northern Italy, made famous in Alessandro Manzoni’s The Betrothed. Bologna was a wealthy university and textile manufacturing center; between 1629 and 1633 the city lost a quarter of its population. The very gate the dog wanders around now was already there, and bodies were hauled out from that very passageway, through the once-standing walls, by the poorest citizens and criminals. We think to ourselves about how long ago this was, how different and distinguished we are from those victims of the past. But I don’t quite see it that way. I have quite a queer vision of history as I gaze at those ancient structures from my bedroom window. It is a history that encompasses the present and the future in one continuous mess.
“The AIDS crisis and COVID-19 are different in myriad ways, but the desire to other the illness in time, space, and culture remains characteristic of both. One country accuses another: first Italy demonizes China, xenophobia looms large, then the anglophone and francophone media Orientalize Italy repeatedly. The discourse of power does not want to admit that there are events in the world for which none of us is prepared and that perhaps we have been doing it wrong. All of us.”
I can’t help but think of the people of 1630 as clumsy and dirty, lacking in basic knowledge of hygiene and sanitation. And this of course is partially true. However it doesn’t explain everything. A lot of this inability to process what is happening to us in Italy (and in the rest of the industrialized world) likely comes from our foolhardy belief that Western society is past this, that we are modern, clean, and mechanized, ready for everything, science-centered, and above all, more evolved. A culture different from anything that has ever come before it and therefore protected, better. In his “Theses on the Philosophy of History” Walter Benjamin writes, “History is the subject of a structure whose site is not homogenous, empty time, but time filled by the presence of the now.” We have always looked back to reassure ourselves that this (this tragedy, this outbreak, this war) could never happen again, not to us, and now it has happened. Nothing is easier to other than the past.
In his essay “Medieval/Postmodern: HIV/AIDS and the Temporality of Crisis” Steven F. Kruger explains how the AIDS crisis was framed as something “primal” and “medieval,” something invasive to the modern discourse of health and order. Kruger refuses this dichotomy and asks if true progress might be achieved “not by moving beyond trauma but by grappling with a traumatic present and by recalling past traumas as a way of being released . . .” The AIDS crisis and COVID-19 are different in myriad ways, but the desire to other the illness in time, space, and culture remains characteristic of both. One country accuses another: first Italy demonizes China, xenophobia looms large, then the anglophone and francophone media Orientalize Italy repeatedly, blaming extended family structures, physical closeness, and poor healthcare systems for the gravity of the outbreak. The discourse of power does not want to admit that there are events in the world for which none of us is prepared and that perhaps we have been doing it wrong. All of us.
Perhaps we already have some of the solutions to change how we live. Looking at the dog I can’t help but think of the origins of COVID-19, of the human-nonhuman organic interaction that it took to make this virus that is hurting so many of the people we love. Even if we cannot see the microbes, entities too small for us to visualize, too other for us to materially grasp— we know they are there and we know how they work. We also know how to guard against them. The dog can be a synecdoche of the human relationship with the other; we can know enough about something to respect its difference and its unknowable qualities. And as Bruno Latour points out in We Have Never Been Modern, “the more we forbid ourselves to conceive of hybrids, the more possible their interbreeding becomes.” The same ideas are found in Donna Haraway’s The Companion Species Manifesto, “Relationship is multiform, at stake, unfinished, consequential . . . Immune systems are not a minor part of naturecultures; they determine where organisms, including people, can live and with whom. The history of the flu is unimaginable without the concept of coevolution of humans, pigs, fowl, and viruses.” The less we accept the possibility that nature and culture, human and nonhuman, interact, the more they will interact and do so with no supervision or control. If we take all of this into consideration, we must demand a different kind of future. A new future that looks to where we have been before, to the middle ages and to the prehistoric. We need a present that stops believing in the unstoppable progress of culture. And this means a reframing of what we are here for, and a reframing of human use value. In this new condition we need to see ourselves as part of the entire nature-culture environment.
Despite not being able to leave the house we feel like we haven’t accomplished enough, haven’t done enough work. I get emails from students stuck in quarantine in various countries. One student’s grandmother has the virus. My partner goes out to buy groceries and it takes three hours, she has to wear two masks and rubber gloves, and it takes up most of the day. We watch the television news and the numbers go up, a morbid gameshow of dread and death. The other day I heard a rumor that dolphins have returned to the canals of Venice. It made me smile, before I had another, more troubling thought: I worry more about the dolphins and their peace in a reclaimed habitat than about us returning to normal. I don’t want the motorboats and cruise ships to return to Venice. I don’t want to get back to normal. This world we have isn’t the best one we could have and certainly not made for the common good. This epidemic has the possibility of inviting us to dismantle structures built to confine and restrict, to narrow and to regulate all forms of difference, all forms of queerness, and to bring organisms on the margins to the center of the discourse. In What’s the Use? Sara Ahmed writes, “Use becomes an accumulated somatic history, a history of qualities that are acquired over time, even if what is of use now might be different from what was of use before.” Now is the time to explore those reserves of use, forgotten and sleepy in the recesses of our brains, to rearrange them and to find old ways that can be new ways, ways that reach beyond productivity, modernity, consumerism, borders, and speed. These alternative modes are in us.
During the quiet hours my partner and I watch DVDs that have been sitting on our shelves for years and we pick up books we’ve forgotten about. Our personal library becomes Borges’s near-infinite library—it is our world. We order vegetables online from a local farm, vegetables we have never cooked before, and we search through old cookbooks for recipes that take hours. There is no doubt that it is worth our time. The telephone rings, I rest on the couch talking to elderly relatives and friends, listening to their experiences, letting them know how much they are valued. We listen to opera and Ethiopian rock and Lucio Dalla and we dance around the living room. In the midst of all the dying and fear we have each other, we have the tools, we have enough. We finally recognize how lucky we are. The reserves are deep.