by Guy Walker
There’s a famous photo of a man mowing his lawn with an enormous tornado looming in the background. It’s inanity in its rawest form, but also a biblical representation of our own broader calamity as a species. I went surfing a couple mornings ago, fraternizing with friends on the bluff’s edge, smoking weed together, laughing about the skyrocketing divorce rates now that couples have to spend time with one another amidst this global lockdown from coronavirus. But our collective scenery was hued with the grim residue of history’s past epidemics. We all knew, without acknowledging it seriously, that everything was up in the air.
Slavoj Žižek called the panic surrounding coronavirus a “Kill Bill”-esque blow to capitalism. Populations are now realizing directly that insurmountable debt, rent payments, and meaningless jobs were just made-up hobbies for the rich and powerful to keep us dithering in the sludge of tomorrow. And it might be more difficult to pack us all back into the paddocks of servitude once this blows over. Suddenly all of Bernie’s ideas and Andrew Yang’s ideas aren’t so crazy after all, and the economic survival of a people is tantamount to global riots. At least for a shotgun-fart of a moment, some politicians seem to be prioritizing the decency and welfare of its electorate over the riches of war. I’m not being cynical. There are real fragments of governance that deliver the morning fog of optimism.
But the universal hope now seems to be for things to go back to normal as quickly as possible. We’ve seen it in the Democratic primary race that has all but dwindled into the rearview of reality tv reruns. Joe Biden’s entire presidential campaign is resting on the belief of the return to normalcy. He doesn’t believe in anything—except for immaculate gleaming fangs for dentures, and pocketed hair plugs that camouflages the emulsified rot of his skull, and aviator sunglasses that promote some vague sense of youth, he has never shown us through policy that he cares about the betterment of the people. Now this fiendish poetry of hell actually makes Joe Biden the best candidate for president: we can all return to normal, whatever our pallid impression of that is.
The implication of this taxpayer bailout, mortgage and eviction suspension, free medical treatment, etcetera, is that this is only temporary. Those of us who survive the virus (and more concerning, the panic around the virus), will have to return to our obligatory suffering once this is all over, scrambling to collect money to pay rent on time, stressing into our own cauldrons of disease because the banks are demanding their loans back. A return to normalcy is a return to self-immolating idiocy. Wading knee-deep through the binary fusion of human filth, our excrement killing everything in its frothy wake. Most certainly, things should not go back to normal. This experiment of killing the planet for a fucking smashing good party wasn’t a good one.
Rahm Emanuel, in the wake of the 2008 financial collapse, is credited with saying you shouldn’t let a good crisis go to waste. (Obviously he did let it go to waste. Or whatever. The bankers never went to jail, they only got richer.) But he didn’t coin the phrase anyways. It was Winston Churchill amid the second World War, and the collective mobilization for a greater good. Franklin Roosevelt used the Great Depression to deliver a massive overhaul of our economic and social systems for the better. It may sound trite, but this is indeed our opportunity to rework so much that has been broken for so long.
There will always be a humanity, a decency, out there in the streets, however feral it becomes. I walked by a homeless man early this morning standing in the same place that I walked by him last night. It was still dark and he was shivering uncontrollably, and still had the decency to say “How’s it goin’ brother.” I went back to my apartment and gave him a huge warm coat and a thermos of tea. And for one reason or another, his bedraggled state made me emotional. There’s sixty thousand homeless people here in Los Angeles, and this guy moved me. But now I ask myself if I unwittingly gave him the virus that will eventually kill him in the cold. I surely didn’t, but the pandemic of fear has seeded that thought.
I am a young single healthy male living at the base of the Hollywood hills, so I inadvertently speak about this arrogantly. But this is good for us Americans. The terrible swine flu that swept through China months ago; the charred blizzard of locusts ravaging many parts of Africa; the flooding of distant island nations—these are all things that happen to strange people in stranger lands. Our gaudy celebration of rose-scented farts was make-believe all this time. It’s good for us to remember firsthand we are bags of rotting infectious meat scurrying frantically on this flooded rock, spiraling around an enormous fireball.
Someone on the Internet tweeted something about the need to eat some peyote and speak to the pangolin in these strange times. This is that time, for all of us. Eat peyote, and speak to the pangolin will become my mantra. This isn’t working for any of us. I don’t believe we have to always be the saboteurs of all life. There’s something beautiful inside us somewhere. When we are free from our quarantine, we should have sex in the tall prairies, drink whiskey by the bottle with our grandmother, kiss one another’s cheeks like the French do, swim in the sea, rub ourselves with handfuls of moss and soil, drive motorcycles out to the desert, fall madly and briefly in love.
For now though, Žižek believes we should look to the five stages of trauma while dealing with this crisis: denial, anger, bargaining, depression, and finally acceptance. But in the final stage of acceptance, he notes, we should look to the social uprisings in France and Hong Kong for a more conclusive trajectory: “they don’t explode and then pass away; rather, they stay here and just persist, bringing permanent fear and fragility to our lives.” This, I believe, is most necessary. We should accept we are being presently dragged through the mud into this new reality, and move forward with collective solidarity. Not the fear, but the new reality. Žižek continued that when we are being ravaged by one of nature’s vast reservoir of viruses, it’s “sending our own message back to us.” A virus just reproduces itself stupidly, without reason, identical to the way we humans do. We have barbecued the green terrariums and waterfalls and loamy beds of mushrooms and mosses into a bubbling scab, like a frat party that left half the town dead. It doesn’t have to be this way.
Charles Baudelaire wrote a great deal about the existential gore of our species. Flowers of Evil is a masterpiece of our collective sin of being bored amid this blaze of life.
At my side the Demon writhes forever,
Swimming around me like impalpable air;
As I breathe, he burns my lungs like fever
And fills me with an eternal guilty desire.
After all this panic, we might compulsively return to the “wilderness of Ennui”. Because we’ll think that’s how it always was—we had a few good years in this viral circle jerk of modernity, driven by a maniacal lust for more bricks and concrete and plastic toys, our swollen genitals releasing like the last rains of winter. But we believed this movie was the sharply bordered tapestry of life, that this is just how the whole fucking thing hummed along and would continue to hum along. Baudelaire said he wanted to write poetry that would fire a cannonball into the future; and somewhere under our panoply of barbarism, we’re all poets, and can do the same.
The internet isn’t real. A whole culture industry structured around going viral, groping at the melancholy storm above to magically deliver our drooling, spluttering ego across the globe. We want to be seen; we want strangers we didn’t even know existed to catch the disease of our personalities. Now, some bat in some market in some village in China, gave this virus to another animal, and then to a human, and then to all of us, killing scores of the old and weak, sending the stock market into free fall, directing everyone home to sit behind their screens to make ironic quarantine-themed Tik Tok videos that will go viral. The toilet paper hysteria is purely viral, snowballing on its own momentum.
Richard Dawkins popularized the word “meme,” to mean “viruses of the mind,” in which cultural frames inhabit themselves in our minds, only to infest on the emulsified rot of our habits. Theodor Adorno and Max Horkheimer wrote at length about what they termed the culture industry, in Dialectic of Enlightenment. The factory production of popular culture is now facing a burden in this virus. Normal popular culture will survive, of course, but hopefully morph into something more meaningful.
As far as social isolation is concerned, the virus hasn’t really achieved anything out of the ordinary. Quarantine, self-isolation, a chronic loneliness that has blanketed the frontier. British journalist, Sam Kriss, notes that it’s only amplified what we were already practicing en masse anyways. Stay home; binge watch made-for-television series until your eyeballs rot from their stems; post clever memes on the internet, and then scroll frantically to tally who saw it, who might be impressed now by your isolated wit and sheltered charisma during these dark times; watch porn; smoke weed, eat edibles, eat food; shelter yourself behind childhood forts of toilet paper, lather your genitals in Purell disinfectant; buy things from Amazon you don’t need. Young people who say they love to read, but the only writers they can name are Bukowski and Hunter Thompson.
Adorno wrote elsewhere that “Distance is not a safety-zone but a field of tension. It is manifested not in relaxing the claim of ideas to truth, but in delicacy and fragility of thinking.” The technology of today allows us to not really reap the benefits of this isolation. I want to believe we are collectively introspecting on the acute parochialism of this haphazard arena-of-gore we’ve made for ourselves, and how we will design a better one. But until the power and wifi goes out on all of us, and we can’t take refuge in Youtube self-help tutorials, or FaceTime our ex-girlfriends from a decade ago, we won’t be joining any mass meditations. “Only at a remove from life can the mental life exist, and truly engage the empirical.” We have tethered ourselves to life with evangelical fury. There’s no escape.
What about the prisons? The homeless? The nursing homes? More people are dying by the day from climate change, and yet something about the immediacy of coronavirus makes it more of a threat than the growing severity of flood and fire, or storm clouds of locusts ravaging through entire continents. And as bad as this pandemic is, it’s going to be remembered as incredibly tame compared to the next one. Many public intellectuals have called it a dress rehearsal for the next one. Or, what it could be, what another pandemic inevitably will be at one time or another. There is already a great deal of concern when some super-predatory anthrax melts out of the carcass of a woolly mammoth from under the permafrost. This will happen. And coronavirus will be remembered as another era of quaint naiveté.
I couldn’t imagine having children who are dependent on me, with bills to pay, and no money coming in sight. Yet still, things aren’t that bad comparatively to what could be. Imagine the so-called Big One—the earthquake, not the frozen pizza company—hits Los Angeles tomorrow. Or up in the Pacific Northwest. It’s entirely possible—we’re something like a hundred years overdue. Or, this panic and virus carries on through to fire season, sending hundreds of thousands fleeing from their homes like diseased roaches.
The canals in Venice, Italy have already been returned with swans, dolphins, and fish, as the murky death-blended smoothie of canal has cleansed itself to a pristine shimmering postcard; reports estimate the lockdown in China likely saved 77,000 lives just from the reduction in pollution alone; oil stocks have plummeted to possible unrecoverable lows. An invisible lifeless bug did in a few days what us environmentalists have been trying to achieve for decades. There’s part of me that wants to believe this is only one of a multitude of nature’s self-correcting mechanisms to get back on course. SARS, like corona, came from the wild animal trade—from a civet, the enigmatic wild quadruped. AIDS came from eating wild bushmeat. Lyme disease comes from our disruption of New England forests. Maybe it’s only metaphor, and therefore not real, but sometimes I think nature’s trying to say something. English scientist James Lovelock introduced his Gaia hypothesis to the scientific and popular world, in that the earth functions like a single living organism. Or rather, more mundanely, like a self-regulating system. It was initially mocked as hippie science, but it’s since evolved into widely accepted scientific theories, now known as earth systems science.
Whatever the case, this will of course go far beyond coronavirus. When we open our curtains and unlock the deadbolt from our doors for the first time since this quarantine, pale and naked, squinting into the feral daybreak, we’ll scan if everything’s back to normal. The clouds will darken. A butterfly will land on a man’s balls. Stock markets will crawl upwards. And we’ll drink whiskey with our grandmothers.