I paid my credit card bill today. Apparently, I was on a weekend getaway roughly a month ago and ate at a lovely little restaurant named Ida B’s Table in my hometown, Baltimore. I remember enjoying the three guitarists playing background music, the wonderful and surprisingly spicy take on Southern food promoted by the restaurant, the courtesy of the waitstaff, the friendliness of the whole atmosphere. I also “remember” not knowing about COVID-19.
I put “remember” in scare quotes for an obvious reason. We don’t really remember not knowing something in the literal sense. We can be aware of our previous lack of awareness. We can even be nostalgically envious of our benighted insouciance. But a lack is not something positive (by definition) that can be remembered as such. Rather, we reflect back on the moment before knowledge (and we pretty much only do this with respect to bitter knowledge) as a simpler time—knowing all the while that there are no simple times. My anxieties were merely different then, perhaps not as heightened as they seem at the moment, but there, nonetheless.
And yet what a difference a month makes. Now, in the US (like the rest of the world) we are immersed in a national crisis, without leadership that inspires any kind of confidence, in a situation where even the level-headed feel compelled to behave in an irrational manner simply to counteract and protect themselves from the irrationality of others. We are faced with an unfamiliar familiarity.
We know disease; we comprehend the notion of a virus. Perhaps this one too will recede into the background of assumptions we carry around with us on a daily basis. We know a certain percentage of people contract the flu and another percentage die from it each year—but we carry on. Perhaps we will adjust our background assumptions to accommodate COVID-19 as well.
But there is a difference here and part of it has to do with the irruptive manner in which we have gone from ignorance or indifference to all-pervading threat. On one level of scale, those who insist that this is like the flu aren’t entirely wrong. However, the potency and the hidden nature of the symptoms (the fact that one might have it for roughly two weeks before showing symptoms if one shows them at all) makes the distance between the flu and Coronavirus more than a difference in mere degree; it becomes a difference in kind.
More to the point, we are currently in a social situation that itself carries along a certain threat: a threat of alienation, a threat of heightened fear of others, a threat of violence (trivial and profound). We are now in a moment where the social contact that humanizes us has the potential to bring us great harm. Will we drift ever more apart? Will we become ever less human (insofar as being human is not a given, but rather an ideal to which we aspire)? What a difference a month makes.
I was last in New York City on 10 March. It had already become the uncanny valley. I teach at two universities (City College and the Graduate Center). The latter is right next to the Empire State Building — one of the busiest shopping districts in all of Manhattan. It is on the same street as the famous Macy’s (among other stores, of course) and is the site of the yearly Thanksgiving Day parade. There is never a time—no day of the year, hardly any time of the day—when that area is not utterly packed with people.
After I teach (at 5PM) I walk from 34th and 5th Ave to Port Authority, which is nestled in Times Square (42nd and 8th Ave) — amidst that much-disparaged (at least by locals) province of lollygagging, conspicuous consumption, and corrosive crowding. I walk. I don’t take the subway. This is partly because I refuse to pay nearly $3 for such a short ride, and partly because I relish a challenge. Navigating that particular part of the city at 5PM with only 40 minutes to do it—well, it isn’t for the weak at heart, nor for anyone lacking a clearly defined sense of purpose in such trivial matters.
One must channel Baudelaire’s flaneur—to become the dilettante observer, united with the crowd, caught up in its tide, yet continually apart from the crowd, able to use its momentum to propel yourself forward toward your goal, able to dodge the predictably unpredictable stops and veers of the lost, the tourist, the inane. There is something wonderfully challenging about those minor frustrations. Walking in that part of New York City is a game one plays with oneself—always looking a block ahead, assessing flows and counterflows, evaluating possible lines of flight, anticipating opportunities for escape. I love it. I hate it. I love to hate it and hate that I love it.
This was not the case on Wednesday. For the first time in 20 years, I saw that area—all of it, from 34th to 42nd and from 5th Ave to 8th—nearly abandoned by foot traffic. Cars remained plentiful but they clearly saw their advantage and refused to give way to most of us lonesome walkers. I should have been exhilarated. I made it in record time. But it felt all wrong. And it felt damned scary. Over the course of the month, the masks had become ever more prevalent, the gloves increasingly in view.
People are funny though. They take comfort in these modes of protection and then completely misuse them. One woman had cleaning gloves on as well as a mask in the subway. She was holding a post (the dirtiest, grimiest, germiest area known to man) with a gloved hand and reading a book. Obviously without thinking about it, she reached up and rubbed her eye with a gloved finger that was just on the pole, and then pulled down her mask and traced her lips with the same finger—all the while seeming entirely oblivious to her own actions. I can’t fault her, of course, We just aren’t trained to pay attention to our every move in the way that seems now demanded of us.
My universities were more or less shuttered by the following morning. We went immediately to distance learning. I’m in a constant game of catchup that I can’t possibly win in an effort to turn two courses (an undergraduate and graduate course) designed to run in the normal manner to now run as though they were online courses. That kind of shift at the midway point of the semester is hard to manage, as I’m constantly discovering.
Then there is the worry about the students from whom you don’t hear. Are they just dodging work? Are they overwhelmed (perfectly reasonable) and don’t feel like reaching out? Or are they suffering in some manner that I can do nothing about?
So that is the converse element to the observation that this crisis has the potential to push us farther apart from one another. Of course, it does. But in the immediate sense I find that I feel closer to my acquaintances than I had assumed I was. I worry about everyone. I think that’s actually important. When you see people fighting over eggs and napkins in the grocery stores (which they seem to now do daily here) you realize that we don’t worry enough about each other, we don’t worry enough about our world, or the impact we have on it and the people that we pass by without our barely registering their existence.
This is where the spirit of capitalism—the assumption that we all have to look out solely for ourselves and our immediate loved ones, the assumption that I can only win by the same margin that someone else loses—will come to bear down upon us in the most inexorable and lamentable manner. If I allow myself to think that I only have bread by depriving someone else of it, then I fail myself as much as I fail my fellow citizens.
If nothing else, we are going to have to learn how to take care of each other. Looking out for others, especially those we don’t know, isn’t easy in the best of times. These are not the best of times. Therefore, it becomes imperative now more than ever that we discipline ourselves not to be so disciplinary with others. We have to be strict with ourselves in our effort to be gentle with others. We have to learn to love—even if we are now loving from a distance. In one sense, this predicament clarifies an essential element of love. Love always occurs at an ontological distance.
My love for you acknowledges (if it is true love and not an attempt at ownership) your eternal distance from me. I love you from afar, no matter how close we are, because love is predicated on the unbridgeable distance between us. My love is a signal across an ineluctable chasm that separates us. Love is not an attempt to understand fully because that would imply that whatever is real in you, whatever is really yours and yours alone can be mastered by my concept of you. But love is not about mastery. Love admires the ownmost nature of the loved one’s integrity. I love you because I cannot collapse you into an identity with me without the loss of the very thing I love.
This makes love a veritable action at a distance—returning it, in a sense, to the cosmological level granted it (alongside strife) by Empedocles. Action at a distance is one thing acting upon another without direct contact. Love only ever acts indirectly because it attempts to get at that untouchable core of the loved one without ruining it, without reducing it to something accessible, something trivial, something definable.
It is all too easy to see our current situation as a justification of strife over love. It is all too human to see this moment as a justification for becoming less human. But love would insist on another reading of the possibilities inherent in this moment, a moment that literalizes the distance that love always overcomes without obliterating. If we have any hope of coming through all of this with our humanity (again, humanity not as a given but as an ideal, not as an is but as an ought), then we must learn the action at a distance that love ultimately entails.