It is March the twentieth, in the first plague year. Online everyone shares video clips of quarantined people serenading each other in Italy. Meanwhile Italy’s hospitals are turning people away. I don’t say this to scourge the moonlit singers. I would rather be in Italy now, sitting at an open window, looking out on such a street as the singers look out on, on such a night. My subsidized apartment in uptown Seattle doesn’t look out on much of anything: a restaurant recently closed by city-wide quarantine measures; a long-empty store whose last tenant sold “resort wear”; a real estate brokerage, its windows dark now. Since long before the virus, people have been sleeping in the doorways over there.
In the apartments above the closed restaurant, the tenants never turn on their lights in the daytime or change the position of their Venetian blinds: closed, half-mast, or dangling from a corner. In daylight, the windows look black. At night, lights reveal most of these apartments are occupied. Looking across the street, I hesitate to open my own blinds: what do the people over there know?
It’s wrong to call this the first plague year while it’s still unfolding. My friend Brian, in a lecture on Macbeth he uploaded to a website, points out that kings and queens are not called “the first” until there has been a second ruler with that name, and to call one “the first” while they still live anticipates their death. Likewise, it’s a principle of good mental health to not borrow trouble from the future, to not pretend to know what we do not. Maybe it won’t last even one year. Or maybe there will be no one left who numbers the days.
I also can’t pretend not to know what I know.
My friend Alyssa posts a quotation on Facebook:
I often reflected upon the unprovided condition that the whole body of the people were in at the first coming of this calamity upon them, and how it was for want of timely entering into measures and managements, as well public as private, that all the confusions that followed were brought upon us, and that such a prodigious number of people sank in that disaster, which, if proper steps had been taken, might, Providence concurring, have been avoided, and which, if posterity think fit, they may take a caution and warning from.—Daniel Defoe, Journal of the Plague Year.
Before I go on, a note about these friends of mine. They’re only online, and not because of quarantine conditions. For several years now, from week to week, I have spoken in person only to cashiers and bus drivers. For the most part, that is. It would have taken willed effort to make my isolation total. But still. I have been a person who is easy to drop. “You have a powerful negative charisma,” Brian once told me (we were face-to-face friends then, though we now live in different parts of the country). He meant it impartially, as one has a certain eye color or hair color, though I don’t know whether he believed it was permanent or insurmountable. Sociology suggests it is: lonely people, whether of the scowling or the beseeching type, repel others.
(But last week acquaintances and fallen-away friends here in Seattle said yes to my request for aid, in the form of scheduled phone calls. It would do these people dishonor to say, here, that they are not my friends. And though the anarchist phrase is “mutual aid,” I offered them nothing in return, only asked. In consequence of my social starvation, I glut myself on my few chances to speak, and so I speak only of myself and still am not really a friend to anyone.)
Owing to what Defoe calls my “unprovided condition,” it takes only ten days of quarantine for me to start cracking up. I am afraid, justifiably so, but I’m also paranoid: everything signals, everything refers. And—but this hardly seems crazy—I have begun to look around my apartment at the things I am fond of and see them the way some ill-paid worker without a hazmat suit will one day see them, as just so much garbage. But it’s not the virus I’m afraid of, or not principally, even though I’m at a higher risk for a severe case of Covid-19.
I am visibly trans. I won’t be safe in this neighborhood or this building if social conditions deteriorate. When they deteriorate, or deteriorate further, that’s really how I think of it, but I have been told that I catastrophize, that I cling to the worst, the better to shut out uncertainty. In un-catastrophic times, you can jolly the catastrophizer, or soothe or tolerate them, or even drop them when you tire of their doomy self-absorption. But every now and then the stopped clock of their pessimism turns out to be right.
My neighbor across the hall despises my kind—transgender people—and he has let me know it. He said so only once, obliquely, and that was months ago, but how many times and how directly need it be said? And it isn’t only him I fear, or only the people in this building; on the street hereabouts I’m called “he-she” and “faggot.” So I do not like my chances, once 911 calls regularly go to call waiting. In general, we are advised not to panic, and in general I agree. But in this building and on this street I feel close to the possibility of a violent end, even if I grant that I don’t know for certain what will happen. Sometimes I wish I would hurry up and die of Covid-19, so as to avoid the other deaths I cannot stop imagining. Now, while hospitals are still admitting patients. Now, while I can hope that my corpse, even if denied burial rites, will be spared the worst desecration.
This last is an odd notion, even for a frightened imagination like mine; surely no one will be tempted to disturb the corpses of the plague dead. That scene of imagined desecration must stand in for some other fear of mine, some last warped concern for my still-living body. Horkheimer and Adorno in Dialectic of Enlightenment. “Whatever someone fears, that is done to him.” I look around my apartment, try to hide anything that might be turned against me as a weapon.
Let these apocalyptically torqued remarks be embarrassed by my survival; I would be glad of that.
Prisoners say that you should order your days by a schedule, in solitary most of all. I am not in prison, my risk of infection is nothing like a prisoner’s, but lately I am predisposed to entertain the idea of such a regimen. Back in January, when the virus was already here but I didn’t know it yet, I read the lecture notes of the last university course Roland Barthes taught, How to Live Together. I say that I “read” the book; I leafed. Apparently his students were bored by these drifting, discursive lectures, which vexed them because they wanted the Barthes of A Lover’s Discourse: aphorisms, structuralist analysis, psychoanalytic nuance without a confessing and responsibilized subject. How to Live Together is nothing like that. Instead Barthes combs through French novels for traces of an ideal communal life, a way to live together that is neither the couple nor any of its variants, however multiplied or expanded. And neither was Barthes’s ideal the monastery or its double, the revolutionary cell. A book of utopias. It lets me hope that there are ways to live other than the fretting toil, in labor and in leisure, on a self that always earns out, a life always worth just what it costs. Like Barthes’s, my experiment in how to live will imitate the monastery only to surpass it. I look up the names of the canonical hours and write some of them down, but soon I lose interest in thinking up a day, a life, to go along with them.
How to live apart, that’s the book I need now. From the third of March until now I have seldom slept more than four hours a night. But sleep sometimes runs me down in broad daylight. Food ceases to interest me after a few bites. This is not like me, neither the not-eating nor the hunger-brag of “a few bites.” Happy or no, I was a doughty eater, if sometimes in a mildly orthorexic way. Not anymore. Other appetites curdle too. Sex, even fantasized, threatens a collapse of the ground beneath me.
After a while, all this talk of not panicking yet, not yet, begins to sound like a joke I first heard in the movie La Haine: A man steps off a rooftop, and all the way down, as he passes each floor in turn, he says, “So far, so good. So far, so good.” It’s not the fall that gets you, the punchline goes; it’s the landing.
“On March the tenth I wrote a frantic email to a relative. The prospect of quarantine was closing in, and I was desperate to not have to endure a lockdown here, on this street, in this building. The relative counseled calm and waiting. “Let’s take a breath,” they said (though breathing was the whole issue).”
It is not only that I have a penchant for doom, one that now seems corroborated by the world at large. When I say that I know what I know, my knowledge is of a kind that is conditioned by fiction (in addition to the fulminating paranoia that is all a-roil in my quarantined skull). Which is not to say that this fictional knowledge is false. In fiction, there is a chain of consequences, each event causing the next, and that chain is artfully constructed so that a reader’s expectations are foiled and the character’s fortunes are reversed. In the story, ignorance is supplanted by knowledge, and happiness turns to unhappiness. There is an error, and then a fall. I’m getting this from Jacques Rancière, who has it from Aristotle. But at this level of generality, the ideas don’t need Rancière’s imprimatur. Brian, too, has said the same in lectures I’ve downloaded: in real life, someone can say of a cough that “it’s just a cough.” They can say it and mean it in real life, but in fiction both the cough and its disavowal are signs of a coming doom. (Brian said all this before the virus, before coughing took on such dread weight.)
What I mean is, many errors went into my ending up here, and it is hard, now, not to see those errors as destinal, in exactly the ways that fiction has taught me.
Here is one error. On March the tenth I wrote a frantic email to a relative. The prospect of quarantine was closing in, and I was desperate to not have to endure a lockdown here, on this street, in this building. Could my relative fly me to Florida, I wanted to know, and put me up in a motel for fourteen days of quarantine, after which I would go and live with my eighty-three-year-old mother. The relative counseled calm and waiting. “Let’s take a breath,” they said (though breathing was the whole issue). For my part, I failed to make my case plainly enough, and I didn’t press the issue. I waited and I breathed. The idea was mad; quarantine or no, I would be bringing another disease vector into my mother’s house. And I don’t even know if my relative had enough money to do what I asked—not just airlift me out of here but potentially pay for my keep as well, since I would not have a job in the new place. I might even have become their ward for life, whatever of life is left for me, which after all could be long. So we took that breath, and the window closed.
It is hard for me not to see in all this the sinuous workings of fate, the error that propels me into my fall.
Another error, or a nexus of errors. In February I entered a lottery for a subsidized apartment in a brand-new building on Capitol Hill, Seattle’s one-time “gayborhood” and now its most gentrified, best-appointed neighborhood. Even with most of the stores and restaurants closed, life on Capitol Hill would be unimaginably different than in this neighborhood. (I used to say, whistling in the dark, that my neighborhood was “dedicated to drinking and hate crimes.”) I didn’t win that lottery, but I was offered something second-best. The housing nonprofit left me a voicemail saying I could be added to their waiting list if I called back by nine the next morning. I failed to check my messages in time. The missed call, and even more than that, the failure to see what was right in front of me in this neighborhood and this building—these errors, too, have the feeling of something fated.
A reader could be forgiven for feeling restive right about now. In a novel, there would have been developments—incidents, suspense, intrigue. In a novel, if someone button-holed you to say they were about to be murdered—or if, like Edmund O’Brien in the movie D.O.A., they told you they had already been murdered—then that pronouncement would be followed by vivid scenes persuading you of this startling claim. Colin Burrow, in the London Review of Books, makes this point by quoting the rhetorician Quintilian on how to speak at a trial: “I am complaining that a man has been murdered. Shall I not bring before my eyes all the circumstances which it is reasonable to imagine must have occurred in such a connection? Shall I not see the assassin burst suddenly from his hiding place, the victim tremble, cry for help?” As Burrow notes, “The Latin word for this kind of vividness, intriguingly enough, is evidentia, the root of our word ‘evidence.’” When the plague dead are counted, to the extent that they ever will be, and when monuments are set up to take the place of the graves that survivors could not give them, those dead will have to be considered the victims of murder. Given everything that was left undone, and everything that worsened the pandemic here, in Seattle and the US, it will have to be said that victims of Covid-19 were murdered. But I can produce no evidence, now, that I will be among them, or that I will have died by a still more direct form of murder.
My murder plot—my idea that I will be killed by the very same forces that exploded in violent jubilation when the president was inaugurated—is both rational and mad. It moves along a chain of reasonable suppositions, but it is also an “extravagance,” in the sense proposed by existential psychoanalyst Ludwig Binswanger in Drei Formen missglückten Daseins: Verstiegenheit, Verschrobenheit, Manieriertheit (Three Forms of Failed Existence: Extravagance, Eccentricity, Affectation). I haven’t been able to find the book for less than a hundred dollars, but its opening pages, the ones on extravagance, are easy to come by in PDF. Brian is reading him, is how I know about Binswanger.
The idea of extravagance is this: cut off from friendship and love, a person can wander too far and get lost. They can get lost and also stuck, welded to an idea. Or welded to a feeling, or an ideology, a deed or misdeed. The English word “extravagance,” as Binswanger’s translator Jacob Needleman remarks, doesn’t really capture the German word Verstiegenheit. “The verb, sich versteigen, means to climb too high so as not to be able to return,” writes Needleman in a footnote. “To feel the full sense of the word, imagine a mountain climber trapped on a narrow ledge such that he can neither descend nor ascend, and from which he must be rescued.” The translator doesn’t say what happens when no rescue is forthcoming. I am surely not overreacting when I describe the risks I face as someone with less than ideally functioning lungs and a severely stigmatized identity. And it’s not an overreaction when, like so many others, I call my parents again and again, so that we can say goodbye while there’s still time. But I get riveted to the murder plot, and then life becomes unlivable. I find myself on a ledge from which there is no return.
The news brings horrors. Illness is poised to tear through refugee camps in Syria. Swarms of locusts presage famine in Africa. Here in the US, the prisons and “immigration detention facilities” will become charnel houses. The president lies, postures, self-deals, lies some more. A Seattle epidemiologist tells a reporter that the warehouses here are empty of medical supplies. In Italy, the dead pile up, and funerals are banned to halt the spread of the virus.
The president announces that asylum seekers will be turned away from the Mexican border because we cannot let our detention centers be overrun with the virus. On the same day he makes that announcement, on the very day that shelter-in-place orders take effect in California, ICE is out in force, rounding up people in Los Angeles, delivering them to the detention centers that will become forcing-houses for the virus.
In Seattle, even as people are encouraged to stay home, the para-police are out, “sweeping” the encampments of the houseless, throwing tents and belongings—IDs, medicines, photographs—into the garbage.
On the East Coast, rich Manhattanites flee to their bolt holes in the Hamptons, panic-buying food on a scale that wipes out the local supermarkets. They dump their hoard into brand-new freezers—a local hardware store had orders for seven hundred new freezers on a recent weekend—while the year-round locals, most of them service workers, cannot find any food to buy.
There are news stories I cannot bear to read, and yet I have read them. These concern the reaction of American white supremacists to Covid-19, their plans to sow chaos. Intercepted online chatter reveals their plans to infect as many people as they can if they themselves fall ill, to spit on doorknobs and elevator buttons in the houses of their enemies. As in the best murder mysteries, two different plots—in this case, assault and infection—turn out to be one. Maybe the white supremacists really will carry out these plans. But long before that, the very spreading of the rumor, the setting into words of this fiction of theirs, is itself a form of contagion. The effects of terror—whether carried out by state or non-state actors—are not just physical, or not only. As everyone knows, it’s not just the number of those killed or maimed, but the panic sown, even just the possibility that terrorists might maim and kill again. In another context—that of Ian Hacking’s notion of “transient mental illnesses,” those bundles of symptoms that come into being and pass away again like fads—Mikkel Borch-Jacobsen writes, “Faced with such entities, the question is no longer whether it is real, but only whether it propagates or not, and how. And to what extent our own discourse—Hacking’s, mine, yours—contributes to this process.” Once again, the infection is already an assault.
In an oligarchic pseudo-democracy (the US, for example), the constitution is designed to be a drag-weight on democratic participation, for fear of the mob. That vile, destructive mob was always the fantasy of a fearful ruling elite. A ghost. But in this country, ever since the president’s inauguration, it’s as though that fantasized mob has been precipitated out of the people, distilled somehow, and now it walks abroad, in the person of the neo-Nazi. He is constituted by a fiction, but one with violent material effects.
But are neo-Nazis so special, so rare? A friend and I once collaborated on a book about murder, about a particular serial killer who, at the time, had not yet been caught. Like most of my books it went unfinished; this one terminated in a small and artfully designed pamphlet. We meant to persuade readers that the as-yet-unidentified killer could be anybody. The focus on the unique psychopathology of the killer was misplaced even if not entirely incorrect, we said; in principle, we said, everyone is capable of murderous rage.
Monday, March the twenty-third, in the first plague year. Two weeks ago I started the process of buying a gun—for self-defense, but I would be lying if I said it had never crossed my mind to use it as a way out, not now, but later, maybe. But there was a string of errors; as in a novel, my every attempt to make things better only made them worse. My state ID did not have my current address on it and, like an idiot, I said so to the pawnshop owner. I was standing in a space as narrow as a submarine galley and trying not to breathe. The shop owner gave me a long look and then told me maybe I had better update it in the next two weeks. He wrote down my new address and the number of my now-outdated ID; I’m not sure how he expected it all to work, but it didn’t. My new ID came in the mail; it had a new number on it. On the twenty-third, on one of the last days on which “nonessential” businesses would be open, a clerk from the police department called and left me a message. The store owner hadn’t attached a xeroxed copy of my driver’s license to my “gun transfer permit” and they could not find a driver’s license for me in their system, so would I please fax them a copy?
The free fax programs that I download fail to work, so I walk to a store a block away, a place that rents out mailboxes and sells greeting cards and printer paper, with a sideline in Himalayan salt lamps and woven rugs. The rugs are from Afghanistan, I think, not because I know rugs, but because the shop owner wears a rumpled brown Chitrali cap.
I wore a mask, its effect probably more consolatory than prophylactic. When I got to the copy shop, another customer was inside, and I lingered outside, waiting for the shop to clear. In that time two more people entered and exited, each one pausing to hold the door handle with their shirt cuff. A stranger walked by me, much too close, and he hocked up phlegm into his throat, exaggeratedly, deliberately. I must have looked afraid, standing there in my mask, and, in contempt, he let me know that he knew; he coughed. When will coughing and spitting be weaponized for real? Already Asian people are assaulted on the streets, yelled at and beaten for supposedly transmitting what the president calls the “Chinese virus.”
The fax errand was a failure, and I went home still not licensed to own a gun.
That night, the governor was expected to announce a stay-at-home order. In forty-eight hours, all “nonessential” businesses will be closed. The pot stores will stay open, like the liquor stores, but soon I won’t have money for intoxicants. And maybe not for rent, or food. I lost my main gig on a Friday afternoon at the end of February, when the manager emailed all us freelancers to say thanks for all our hard work these past three years. I had been planning to stop buying groceries, the one elastic expense, and instead get everything from food banks, but then the virus hit and I no longer wanted to wait in those crowded rooms, sitting shoulder to shoulder until your row is called. There is that one relative who might help me, of course. I don’t come from money; my relative stumbled upon it, and the rest of us have gone to them with our hands out ever since, a situation that was fraught and unstable in better times, but now, with the stock market tanking, that arrangement too may be at an end. If not already, then soon.
That night I watch the governor’s address on my laptop. I am hunkered down in bed, or rather, on the foam pallet that I always meant to replace with a real bed. To my embarrassment I find that I am shaking.
The next day, the president says that soon it will be time to get America back to work. “By Easter,” he says. “Why not?” He speaks vaguely of “sections” of the country that might resume functioning as normal, even as “hot spots” like New York fester. His words are outrageous, but I’ve just eaten some pot candy, heavy on the anxiolytic CBD. The dope has its effect: my outrage sputters and stalls, and I also temporarily lose interest in the unfolding novel of my personal peril. But as anxiety recedes, grief swells. Several times that day, the day the president announces his Easter offensive, I burst into tears for all the people who will die. Later I weep again, watching a video of a speech by the prime minister of Ireland. It’s not just his reasonable and kindly tone that sets me off. His assurances make me aware of all that we will be expected do without in the US. It would cost so little to let us all have food and housing and medical care.
“In the forty-eight hours before the stay-at-home orders go into effect, I do nothing special. Someone from a mutual aid group drops off groceries for me. I open monumental books—Mimesis, the Iliad, Moby-Dick—and I put them down again after a few pages. The apples from the mutual aid group are on the mealy side, and I think about making applesauce, and I also look up how to make sauerkraut from red cabbage. I don’t do any of these things, don’t read a great book, don’t preserve any food, but I like to think that I could.”
I pore through Leslie Feinberg’s Stone Butch Blues, but I can’t find the passage I’m looking for, something about moving out at the first sign of danger. I might be confusing it with this, from weiter leben, by Ruth Klüger: “Staying nowhere long, readily moving out, leaving cities and apartments behind and then inventing the reasons only afterward . . . Taking flight was beautiful.”
A year ago, in early March, when I was still new to Belltown, someone fired a gun into a dance studio on a Friday night. One witness said they counted fifteen shots; the TV news reported “a hail of gunfire.” No one was hurt, but the shooting was unusual enough that it dominated the local news for a day.
The news report said the dance studio’s windows were shattered, but the word “windows” doesn’t really describe that expanse of floor-to-ceiling glass. The building was a common type for Belltown nowadays, something called a “five-over-one,” five floors of luxury apartments over a single, glass-walled leisure emporium on the ground floor. In the winter dark, behind huge sheets of plate glass, young people exerted themselves at boxing or cycling or Pilates. Often the swankier buildings don’t rent out their ground floor to commerce; instead, their display windows reveal plush lobbies with modular Swedish furniture and quirky chandeliers.
I don’t know what the shooter thought. Maybe they were aiming at someone who stood on the sidewalk. Maybe thought waves from Mars, broadcast by way of radio implants in their teeth, told them to pick up a gun. But it seems entirely possible that the motive was class resentment. That doesn’t justify terrorizing people with a gun. “Die, yuppie scum” isn’t much of a political program for dismantling the city’s inequalities, even when you make the death threat real. But someone may have tired of seeing all that wealth flaunted behind thin sheets of glass.
I once researched the history of display windows for an article someone else was writing on the sex worker windows of Amsterdam. Windows of this kind, floor-to-ceiling glass, only became possible in the nineteenth century, with advances in sheet glass manufacture and iron construction for building frames. The first such plate-glass windows were conceived of as the fourth wall of a stage, but at first only the commodities themselves capered on that stage: heaps of brocade and porcelain and crystal, piled up as if spilling from a cornucopia. Emile Zola describes such windows in his novel The Ladies’ Paradise. Naïve young Denise Baudu, newly arrived from the provinces and in the company of her brothers, stops short at a Paris display window, entranced: “They were at the corner of the Rue de la Michodière and the Rue Neuve-Saint-Augustin, in front of a draper's shop, whose windows displayed a wealth of bright color in the soft, pale October light.” Some eighty years later, Nathalie Saurrate, in her Tropisms, begins with what appears to be this same scene, a gaggle of naifs struck dumb by a display window:
They stretched out in long, dark clusters between the dead house fronts. Now and then, before the shop windows, they formed more compact, motionless little knots, giving rise to occasional eddies, slight cloggings.
A strange quietude, a sort of desperate satisfaction emanated from them. They looked closely at the piles of linen in the White Sale display, clever imitations of snow-covered mountains . . .
Before long, window displays included human figurines alongside the heap of commodities. These mannequins could prefiguratively enjoy the goods behind glass, touch them and wear them and even just stand amid them, basking. As before, one looked into a department store window as into a stage, into its depths.
Toward the end of the twentieth century, the display window changed radically. Stores started covering their expanses of glass with huge color photographs printed on Mylar. The stage was gone, depth was gone, and now the laminated, sealed-off window imitated not a theater but a screen. The display window was now a computer, a television, a smartphone.
Now, with the advent of the glass-fronted five-over-one, the display window is once again a theater, but a theater staffed with live mannequins: boxing, dancing, toning themselves in full view of anyone on the street. A drama of conspicuous leisure, performed by the able-bodied and the well off. In the luxury lobbies, though, leisure is signaled in the opposite way, by the absence of people. The empty stage sets signal that the residents have better things to do than hang about; they are upstairs, living out their cosseted lives.
This neighborhood, Belltown, has gentrified, but unevenly, not so much changing block to block as building to building. To the northeast, near the glass domes of Amazon—a Crystal Palace for the end times—there you can see full-on gentrification, the luxury towers surrounded by exactly the sort of shops you would expect the luxuriators to give their custom to: a shop selling a mixture of black coffee and clarified butter, called “bullet coffee,” drink of the achievers who keep “bullet journals,” and of course yoga studios and barber shops for the bearded and restaurants done up as food trucks, every one of these places lit up with the sort of lights these people love to take pictures of, incandescent bulbs with a visible, glowing filament. Nothing is wasted in that neighborhood, no fleck of ground is not turned to account. Here in Belltown, it’s not like that. All the gentrification—all the gentry—is confined to isolated towers, some of them high rises with tremendous views of the water and the mountains, some of them five-over-ones, and all of them interspersed with many buildings like mine, shabby and old, or empty, like the ones across from me. “Dead housefronts,” as Sarraute writes.
At Life Care Center in Kirkland, a nursing home just outside Seattle that harbored the some of the early, community-transmitted cases of novel coronavirus, the problem wasn’t acknowledged in time. Infection-control measures were left undone or only half done. When the story broke, people with relatives inside, barred from visiting, walked up to the nursing home’s ground-floor windows. They waved, or talked on cell phones, one person inside the glass, the other outside. Thirty-five people died at Life Care.
Coming home from my failed fax errand, on the day the governor announces the stay-at-home order, I see that all the restaurants along First Avenue are boarded up. Sheets of plywood have been nail-gunned over the display windows. At some of the restaurants, people are spray-painting whimsical designs on the plywood. A merchants’ association must have hired them to put a happy face on these anti-riot, anti-looting measures. People will no longer be content to stand at the windows and stare, all a-daze with what Sarraute calls “desperate satisfaction.”
I walk in the street, to get away from the smell of spray paint—organic solvents, toluenes, their chemical reek a kind of invasion, a contagion. It is safe in the street. There are no cars.
In the forty-eight hours before the stay-at-home orders go into effect, I do nothing special; I make no attempt to buy crucial, soon-to-be-unavailable supplies. I go nowhere. And yet I take an interest in the world, or in this bounded life. Someone from a mutual aid group drops off groceries for me. I open monumental books—Mimesis, the Iliad, Moby-Dick—and I put them down again after a few pages. The apples from the mutual aid group are on the mealy side, and I think about making applesauce, and I also look up how to make sauerkraut from red cabbage. I don’t do any of these things, don’t read a great book, don’t preserve any food, but I like to think that I could. I sign petitions, I write letters to officials, arguing for a rent moratorium, for shutting down the detention centers and prisons. On a telephone pole I find a flyer about a rent strike, and I tear off the phone number, just like we used to, back when we encountered the world with our hands.
I am back from the ledge, for now. When I imagine being assaulted—a track my mind runs along less and less these days, or less automatically, but I remember all of it and I hesitate to call it any of it a delusion—when I think on it now, I still sometimes think to myself, “They will take everything.” Acquire everything, mock everything, despoil all. I wonder if I can train my mind to hold on to a memory of some other, better life, from before or still to come, something they cannot make theirs.
I reread the president’s remarks from Monday and Tuesday, looking more closely. Alongside his call for people to go to their deaths for the sake of the economy, a call that stands to make the US the most lethal place on earth during this pandemic, he also warns of a wave of suicides. If the shutdown goes on too long, thousands of people will take their own lives, he says. In predicting it, he initiates it, his discourse propagating the viral message. “Let the killings begin,” he may as well have said.
“I am terrified,” I write to my friend Matthew, who is my friend, online or no. I am terrified of the ones who will commit suicide by mass shooting, who will take a hideous pleasure in outliving all the others for just a moment.
I meant for this to end on a ringing peroration, something like “there is only one task now, to outlive this shame.” A voice that causes the words “outlive this shame” to ring out is perhaps not to be trusted. Such a voice might have two contradictory aspects: a devastating foreknowledge of its own death, bravely borne; and a heartbreaking ignorance of how close death was already, even then, though the writer did not know it. But these ambiguities would be in play only if I were dead, and only if the reader knew it. Weeks have passed since I wrote this; I live still. The first anniversary of the death of the poet W.S. Merwin has come and gone. Merwin, who wrote in “For the Anniversary of My Death,” “Every year without knowing it I have passed the day/ When the last fires will wave to me.” What must be borne is not knowing.
Weeks have passed, and the catastrophe, this maddeningly soft and amorphous apocalypse, remains omnipresent and yet impalpable. Nothing has taken so concrete a form as I had imagined it would by now. The “forces that broke into violent jubilation when the president was elected” really do menace me, but so far they do it otherwise than I had pictured; they menace us all, in the manipulated and specular form of the pro-death riot. (Merwin again: “the shamelessness of men.”) Inverted world: the starkest inequalities in the US are now apparent, but the pandemic itself both looms and recedes, bears down on us with terrible weight even while dictators the world over threaten to “disappear” it, prolonging the emergency by attempting to nullify it. So far, so good.
No one in my building takes part in the nightly applause for front-line workers. The only joyous sounds come from the windows of the luxury high rises. How to live together; it may take some tearing down. If I have a hope, it is that another end of the world is possible.