As the Corona Virus pandemic marches on, despite having claimed more American lives in four months than the entire 19 years of the Vietnam War, Americans are becoming increasingly impatient. Some are frightened about their health and economic well-being, some are panicked and locked in the grip of irrational fear, hoarding food and supplies, and too many, it seems, deny that there is anything to fear from the disease and rail against the weak-minded, cowardly lot of social isolators and distancers, and take no precautions against the virus whatsoever (some people in this category have paid for their dubiety with their lives). Of course, confusion and anxieties are stoked by leaders who dismiss science, history, ethics, and instead rely on wishful thinking, superstition, and lies. This isn’t new, of course, and certainly by now we shouldn’t be surprised by the craven personalities that populate elected seats of government.
Mark Twain is supposed to have remarked that “history doesn’t repeat itself, but it does rhyme,” and that is, whether Twain said it or not, the truth. In 430 B.C.E. Athens found itself in a profound political crisis as the result of a plague. Thucydides tells us that prayer and appeals to the gods were useless, that social order disintegrated, and anarchy reigned because there wasn’t a figure of authority capable of managing the response to the emergency. In Sophocles’ drama, Oedipus Tyrannus, the city-state of Thebes is being devastated by a plague. This play, many scholars agree, was performed for the first time after the outbreak of plague in Athens, and opens with a chorus of Thebans of all ages pleading with Oedipus the King to find a way to end the devastation. Oedipus assures them that he has it under control, that the best minds are on it, and relief will soon be found. Of course, the problems that perpetuated the plague in Sophocles’ play were problems fundamental to the person of Oedipus. Once he had been deposed and proper expiation made, the miasma was eliminated.
In ancient Rome, there were nine plagues between 174 and 463 C.E. and no doubt out of desperation and due to the lack of scientific understanding of viral and bacterial contagions, sometime in the late 3rd century C.E. an island in the Tiber River was set up as a sanctuary and temple to the Greek god of healing and medicine, Asclepius. This seemed to have some palliative effect, but it was probably due more to the island temple’s proximity to fresh water and its isolation making it a good place to quarantine that helped to flatten the curve, rather than any kind of divine intervention. But human nature being what it is, I’m reasonably sure the citizens of Rome were relieved to be able to “return to normal” and were satisfied to attribute their good fortune in surviving to “amazing, tremendous leadership” and to the gods hearing and responding to their supplications.
It doesn’t appear that much has changed in the past 1,900 years or so. A surprising number of people still say the pandemic will be neutralized by prayer and that god will protect them; that the virus “will just disappear,” that it isn’t any worse than a cold, or that it’s a hoax. Many people are mobilizing to protest lock downs, even in states that are among the hardest hit by the virus. Please explain to me, as Lionel Trilling put it,
Why, in American Culture, intelligence is considered to be some sort of perilous faculty, that ‘cleverness is the first step into mischief,’ that the heart and the mind are rivals in the struggle for truth. Why is it always too late for mind, yet never too late for honest stupidity; always a little too late for understanding, never too late for righteous, bewildered wrath; always too late for thought, never too late for naïve moralizing? (The Moral Obligation to Be Intelligent)
Another, less obvious part of our problem in dealing with COVID-19 is that there are the primordial, archetypal fears which are reflexively attributed to a surprisingly novel existential threat, a threat which we don’t understand and can’t control. Viral pandemics carry with them the metaphor of pollution. There is something unclean, something dirty, something disgusting, about a virus that requires constant hygienic attention, and it seems, perhaps because of its asymptomatic presence, much more hygienically disturbing than say, a rhinovirus that gives one watery eyes and a runny nose. With Coronavirus, one can’t be self-aware enough to know that one is dirty; and such unknowing is shameful, a bit like not knowing that much of one’s supper has remained in one’s beard. Anxieties about cleanliness and purity are often accompanied by feelings of disgust, revulsion, and abhorrence, feelings that have some evolutionary benefit to us in that they help us to avoid substances like feces, vomit, blood, or rancid, maggot-infested meat. We also instinctively avoid people with visible signs of something that might be contagious—suppurating wounds and lesions, infestations of one kind or another (DO NOT google this), or disfiguring illnesses (probably shouldn’t google this, either)—as a way of enhancing our own chances for survival.
But unfortunately, our mysophobia, fear of dirt or germs, often crosses over into xenophobia, a phobia of strangers, and in this case the stranger is identified as the threat rather than the actual threat, which is the virus itself. A variety of Xenophobia is probably at work in the willingness of some people to let others (most likely strangers to them) die in order to develop “herd immunity.” Surely they aren’t so committed to the well-being of the herd that they would consider sacrificing themselves, their own spouses, their own children, their own parents to scale up the immunity of the herd, would they? I’m doubtful. The cruelty of relying upon herd immunity is hard to escape; it lies in the sacrifice of those who are deemed to be impure, polluted, and unhealthy, those who have themselves become societal pollutants, and they are, unconsciously, held responsible for the miasma that can only be eradicated by their sacrificial death. This reflexive need for purification is unconsciously, and ironically, reinforced by handwashing, the most effective way we have of preventing COVID-19 contagion.
Handwashing is a way of removing personal responsibility and guilt. Idiomatically we say, “I’ve washed my hands of this matter.” Pontius Pilate washes his hands in front of the crowd and says, “I am innocent of this man’s blood.” After King Duncan is brutally murdered, Lady Macbeth tells her blood-soaked husband, “a little water clears us of this deed.” But her compulsive handwashing is a sign that her contamination cannot be washed away, her guilt is inescapable, and her crime, unpardonable.
Therefore, if one is so inclined (and I fully realize that I may be the only one) to understand handwashing as activating an unconscious awareness of guilt and the attempt to expiate it, what exactly are we guilty of? First of all, we are all of us, every day and to varying degrees, guilty of the petty larcenies and perjuries of social interaction, of living a life that bumps up against other lives in a sometimes messy, frustrating, and disingenuous manner. Some are petty criminals and engage in misdemeanor frauds or thefts, some commit crimes of passion, some aspire to be criminal masterminds and ply their nefarious trade as racketeers, CEOs, or politicians. These last mentioned are, obviously, lives of crime that require a degree of intent, a certain level of mens rea, stitched together with a crippled conscience that is usually not found to such a degree in an ordinary life.
But even those of us living relatively normal lives, comfortable with our image of ourselves as good citizens, good neighbors, and good parents, even we are condemned to live with a guilt of which it is hard to rid ourselves. Paul Tillich put it this way:
The citizens of a city are not guilty of the crimes committed in their city; but they are guilty as participants in the destiny of [humanity] as a whole and in the destiny of their city in particular…. They are guilty, not of committing the crimes of which their group is accused, but of contributing to the destiny in which these crimes happened. (Systematic Theology)
I realize there are people who, thinking and acting in good faith, refuse to believe that we are interdependent to that degree and who, perhaps, wrestle with the competing values inherent in governmental intervention in areas of social and individual self-determination. But such an acknowledgement of, and struggle with, competing values suggests at least some small awareness of existential guilt. In what I’m about to say, I’m referring only to the most arrogant and radical of the protesters, those who stand in heavily armed defiance of best medical advice and mock or aggressively threaten those who attempt to follow it.
People who behave in such ways are self-righteously convinced that they have been prevented from achieving the kind of life they wanted by outside forces, some massive conspiracy instigated by minorities, a secret cabal, or a “rigged” system. They imagine themselves bold enough to have chosen the “red pill,” smart enough to avoid the comfortable prison in which most people live, and their public pose indicates that they are no longer subjugated to, or enslaved by, anyone. They ignore expertise and believe they know more themselves than scientists, intellectuals, or anyone whom they derisively associate with “the elite.” They are always self-righteous, they tell themselves that they know what is right, what is correct, and what is true in any situation. Their unconscious defenses are revealed in their refusal to wear masks, in their ridicule of those who do, and in their refusal to pay any heed whatsoever to the communicability of the virus; they may privately believe they won’t contract the virus, or even that it doesn’t exist in the first place. They protect themselves, not from a real physical threat, but from feelings of vulnerability, a lack of understanding, and profound insecurity; all of which, one may presume, present a greater threat to them than death. These compensatory behaviors don’t allow for the possibility that they might possibly bear a significant degree of responsibility for their dissatisfaction with the state of their lives and the state of their world, and therefore they won’t allow any kind of introspection or any acknowledgement of guilt, either consequential or existential.
If we are to be connected to our own inner world, more connected to other human beings, and more connected to the natural world, we must engage our faculty of self-reflection and take stock of how we live, exploring the nature of our own existential guilt. We must eventually come to accept that we can’t possibly know everything, that our lives collide with other lives in all sorts of ways, often unintended, and that most pernicious of American Myths, that of the rugged individual, is an invention designed to let one rest comfortably within a specious sense of unrivalled individual mastery and unfettered free will. However, by becoming more self-aware we have a better sense of reality, we actually end up making better choices for ourselves, for others, and for the planet, by understanding that we cannot overcome the difficulties of living by simply martialing personal will, by a declaration of individual fiat, or pretending that such difficulties don’t exist.
Individual acts of self-reflection can initiate powerful personal changes; it gives one the opportunity to experience the gift of self-reconciliation via a radical acceptance of one’s own life, and life in the world, exactly as it is and needing nothing in it to be different. Reconciliation may even be found in washing and keeping social distance if we do it with an eye toward understanding the unconscious specter of existential guilt and, perhaps, even the guilt of privilege which we might otherwise deny and repress. It affords one an opportunity to face that guilt and privilege and cast off the comforting, albeit distorted and deadening, illusions of security, opportunity, freedom, exceptionalism; especially the delusions of la folie pour beaucoup.
Appreciated this way, the modest act of self-reflection lays the groundwork for a revolution that is at first personal, but one which, some way or another, eventually radiates out to one’s friends, community, state, nation, even the entire world. That’s the type of pandemic we need, a pandemic whose symptoms are self-awareness, compassion, and communitas. A contagion that opens the mind and expands the heart, rather than one that closes the heart and suffocates the mind. With an open mind and a heartful attention we may take in the whole of life, “wrapped cool in its mystery and promise” (F. Scott Fitzgerald, My Lost City), and be confident that no matter what we may face, it is right and proper and entirely suitable that we should face it.
Brad has lived in Flagstaff nearly 25 years and is a Dept