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Hallucinations With Coronavirus

Hallucinations With Coronavirus

Wednesday, 8 April, 2020 - 10:15

Looking at the photos of city squares broadcast by the media and television stations, you sometimes feel obliged to read their captions to make sure that you are indeed looking at Times Square or Piccadilly Circus. Places you know well or the images of which know you well at least. Without their people and their congestion, however, these places become unrecognizable.

For removing people from a place, something done much more savagely by wars, deprives places of their identity and turns them into lifeless postcards.

This feeling becomes stronger when one of us walks the actual streets of his city. Here, you are overwhelmed by the equivalence of mornings and evenings, night and day, and rural and urban. You might conceive of the street that you are walking alone as yours, but a corollary feeling tells you that you own nothing or that no one wants this place that you were deluded into thinking you owned. Only hungry cats, because the closure of the restaurants that used to feed them their leftovers, occupy this space.

This equivalence among places extends beyond a single country, reaching the whole world, allowing some to use the term "world war" to describe coronavirus and its effects. However, it also creates equivalence between times, or more precisely, between the spaces of time, whereby Monday is the same as Tuesday, Tuesday is the same as Wednesday. Any given morning is the same as any other morning and evenings are the same as well.

So, one cannot but laugh when faced with the question asked over the phone or e-mail: “what’s up”? For events, which become news, are not occurring because of that absolute equivalence of our days and surroundings. There are three or four activities we all engage in, only the mundane details of how each of us goes about doing them differ. Some of us, for example, walk a little around their house in the morning while others walk in the evening, or do either the cooking before the washing or the reading before writing or vice versa.

So, everything and everyone is the same and the same Coronic news dominates our days, from the moment at which we get up in the morning: How many infections? How many deaths? What about Italy? And Britain? What about us?

Since those who have studied totalitarian regimes found that they politicize everything, make everybody one, bind their lives to a single issue, mobilize them in its name and control them, they may find that coronavirus has implications that resemble those of totalitarianism, especially since both of them take the two most precious things people own from them: freedom and the keys to the doors of their homes.

As the violence that has been repressed builds within totalitarian societies and the competing organizations of “comrades” proliferate, coronavirus makes one’s hand his enemy or a dubious party whose movements and whereabouts should be monitored. Indeed, the hand may get lost along its way as it moves to touch untouchable things, thereby betraying its owner and returning with an infection. Inside the home, conflict rages over the availability of space, over sneezing and coughing and the physically stronger person resorts to domestic violence against his "partner" or victim.

Conversations, for their part, lose much of their meaning. Think of that phrase we often say to one another: “I miss you”. This longing may indeed be felt, especially in light of the pandemic's “social distancing”. But, on the other hand, the urge cannot be realized, and those who expressed it do not want it to be given a chance to realize it because of its well-known hazardous consequences.

Czesław Miłosz, the Polish poet and novelist, left us a wonderful book called "The Captive Mind" on the alteration and falsification of speech in Communist Poland. He borrows a theory about "kitman" (concealing) from the aristocrat and racist French theoretician de Gobineau, which he developed as a traveler and diplomat living in Persia between 1861 and 1863. That is, those who internalize ''kitman'' live amid contradictions that lead them to say something and its opposite, to adapt to the whims of their rulers and to believe that they retain their independence as free people, or that they are, at best, free people who have decided to sacrifice their freedom voluntarily. This ''kitman'' gives one comfort and reassurance, as well as a wall on which to enclose his desires. Because of ''kitman'', citizens live on two levels; an internal and an external; a muffled one and a declared one. This duality is accompanied by a profound change affecting the nature of the surrounding scene, the city and the profession, which must be adapted, otherwise, the outcome is intolerable.

There is much literature on language that does not say what it means, from George Orwell’s “newspeak” to the “as if” Liza Wedeen used to describe “Assad’s Syria”, where what is important is not what one says, but what one wants to say. However, the other problem is the normalization of this rhetoric, and more so, the danger of normalization with life in the time of coronavirus, our home life, and the possible fear of "returning to life" when things go back to normal. This fear also afflicted some of those whose totalitarian regimes fell, as they feared change and going out into the world. However, the collapse of those regimes left whole countries closer to the rock bottom, and this is something coronavirus might also leave behind.

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