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THE PANDEMIC: A PHILOSOPHICAL DIAGNOSIS

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By Mikhail Epstein

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The Montréal Review, August 2021

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The Pandemic as a Metaphor for Our Time

Every epoch has a predisposition for a certain type of disease that becomes its symbol. Illness is not only a physiological phenomenon, but also a moral and historical one. In the postrevolutionary 1920s, Boris Pasternak’s Dr. Zhivago, who suffers from sclerosis of the heart vessels and will eventually die of a heart attack, explains the nature of his ailment: “The disease of our time is one microscopic form or other of cardiac haemorrhage, brought on by a constant, systematic dissembling. It’s impossible, without its affecting your health, to show yourself day after day contrary to what you feel, to lay yourself out for what you don’t love, to rejoice over what brings you misfortune.... The great majority of us are required to have a constant, systematic crookedness of the soul.” Soviet propaganda and rising totalitarianism turned out to be not only socially oppressive but also medically dangerous.

Some ailments are truly epochal and emblematic. Plague serves as a metaphor of the Middle Ages; syphilis, of the Renaissance; consumption (tuberculosis), of the nineteenth century; cancer, of the twentieth, and AIDS, of that century’s latter part. For example, the plague is representative of medieval culture, and reveals its meaning no less than crusades, troubadours, and carnivals... The plague is abstract, like scholasticism; it befalls humankind for unknown sins, while syphilis is terrifyingly concrete, specifically targeting the Renaissance individual’s craving for earthly pleasures: a punishment for lust. All of these are not mere diseases, but metaphors for a particular era and type of society.1

In this sense, Covid-19 is a metaphor for our time. Long before the pandemic, there was a rapidly growing biological alienation in Western and especially American society, which was becoming increasingly sterile. Fewer and fewer people were casually and naturally touching and talking to each other, because where individuals come into contact, they violate the boundaries of private space, giving rise to suspicions and accusations. It is much easier to communicate at a distance, through telephones and computer networks. Indeed, these days even a phone call can be considered “improper,” almost an invasion of privacy, unless agreed upon in advance; after all, it is a live voice, which “should” preferably be preceded, or replaced, by an e-mail message or text. People become imprisoned in their electronic shells. A human being as such appears annoying and dangerous, because s/he is not as predictable and controllable as a machine. In general, physical reality, in increasing contrast to virtual reality, where everyone is free to choose their own comfortable environment, is more and more perceived as a zone of discomfort. Even if the technical mind has not yet prevailed in its entirety in modern society, it makes its triumph known “from the opposite direction” – through distrust of all living things. This complex can be called biophobia. You don’t know what to expect from life-forms, especially from the most willful and freedom-loving of them – the human being.2 Animals and especially plants are much preferable in this sense: you can stand an orchid or a cat next to you, but a human being is far more troublesome.

Biophobia manifests itself in many ways. For example, an increasing number of asexuals prefer to avoid this overly intimate side of life altogether, or to interact rather with machinery. The Japanese term hikikomori (a kind of severe social withdrawal) has become popular among young people the world over. Teenagers who identify as hikikomori seek to isolate themselves from society as much as possible, to exclude all social contact, simply not leaving their own room. The categorical refusal of any contact with people is an alarming sign of biophobia and sociophobia. Moreover, many “hikis” remain in a state of isolation till their middle age, shutting themselves up in their apartments and/or the care of their parents. Any contact with otherness disturbs and offends them and leads to neurosis. This is a predisposition of total resentment and complaint against anyone who is different from oneself. People find it difficult to bear one another’s presence. They become more narcissistic, and the world around them becomes less tolerable.

It is significant that the growth of biophobia and sociophobia has coincided with the spread of electronic modes of communication – or discommunication, when people simply immerse themselves in virtual worlds, games, and TV series. It is no coincidence that codes of interpersonal behavior began to tighten in the 1990s, when the sphere of the Internet began to expand rapidly, and people were able to do without physical contact, with the latter increasingly perceived as difficult and annoying in contrast to the “purity” of the screen environment. The electronic world became psychologically more comfortable and attractive for people – and society was not slow to respond with the establishment of more rigorous etiquette, for instance, practically banning the “cold call.”

The invasion of viruses has sharpened this biophobia, although viruses themselves, as we know, are not living organisms – they become such only by penetrating their victim’s cells. But in the current perception, the coronavirus exemplifies the danger of life in general: the danger of human breath and touch, the danger of the air, of enclosed spaces, of any surface that has been touched by a human hand. One must keep one’s distance and protect oneself with masks, gloves, goggles, or transparent shields, or better yet, not leave the house at all.

Even before the coronavirus struck, the twenty-first century prepared people, psychologically and socially, for self-isolation. This disease is emblematic of the spirit of its time; or rather, the spirit of the time itself – remoteness, distance, inner- or self-directedness – takes the form of a disease. In this sense, Covid-19 is precisely the ailment that humanity has endured in itself in recent decades.

Homo Tegens, the Man in the Case

Now even the most familiar and anthologized texts can be reread in a new way. For example, Chekhov’s Belikov, the main character of “The Man in the Case” (1898), has always been perceived as the embodiment of philistinism and repressive narrowness, a destroyer of living social connection. “This man had a constant and irresistible desire to surround himself with a shell, to make himself, so to speak, a case which would isolate him and protect him from external influences. Reality irritated him, frightened him, kept him in continual agitation.” Dark glasses, a sweatshirt, cotton in his ears, and more cotton in his quilted coat, galoshes and an umbrella even in good weather, and all his things, including watches and a penknife, also in cases.

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"The man in the case" (1940–41) by Kukryniksy

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If Belikov were to add a mask and nitrile gloves, he would be quite up to date – a biocorrect citizen, an exemplary figure of the coronavirus era. The 2020 version of Belikov is a model social-distancer, setting an example of civic awareness and responsibility. He elicits nothing but respect, for in isolating himself from the world, he thus isolates the world from himself.

Or consider Mavra, the wife of the village head, in the beginning of the same Chekhov story: “For the last ten years she has been sitting behind the stove, going out into the street only at night.” Note: at night, when the risk of breaking the social distancing norms or becoming infected by a passerby is minimal. A very prudent, socially sane woman. What in former times was a sign of the cruelest sociopathy and misanthropy, today becomes almost a model of reasonable self-care and worthy service to the wellbeing of humankind.

In a strange way, the whole hierarchy of values is changing and even being overturned. It seems to me, for instance, that the detective genre created by Edgar Allan Poe in 1841 – not so long ago by historical standards – is running out of steam. The “cops and robbers” pairing was deeply meaningful to the era of rationalism and individualism, when the forces of society had occasion to struggle against particular villains who insidiously undermined its foundations. Now one does not feel up to tales of these particular anomalies that disturb the relatively smooth course of social life. Viruses are not criminal deviants, they are natural products of our own world; and are they not, contrary to how we fancy ourselves, nature’s most viable offspring? (A frightful question.) An infectious agent is more dangerous and all-pervasive than a “secret” agent like James Bond.

The detective tale is ready to make way for another genre, which we might call accordingly the protective. While “detective” comes from the Latin detegere, “to expose,” “to remove the veil,” “protective” comes from protegere, of the same root but with the opposite meaning: “to cover or pull a veil over oneself.” How to protect yourself from the overarching danger, what mask to put on, what fortress to build? If the detective genre shows the investigation of a committed crime, then the protective one tells of disaster prevention, protection from an anomaly that is already prevalent – the experience of surviving at the extreme.

The genre has a venerable history, much older than detective fiction, and dating back to the Bible. Noah’s ark, the motif of building an ark and being saved in it, is a prototype of the situation we are experiencing as we try to gather into our homes everything we need for a multiday, perhaps months-long stay in a life-saving confinement. As we know, the flood lasted forty days, after which the waters lifted up the ark; all life on earth perished, leaving only Noah and his companions, and the water did not begin to recede till 150 days later. We seem to face an even longer siege, until a dove with a vaccine in its sharp beak arrives and gives sufficient numbers of the people of Earth a shot.

“Protective” stories can be environmental, psychological, domestic, political, apocalyptic. Wherever there is a protective shell, a cover, a shelter, desperate hope to shut oneself away and fortify oneself, to plug all the gaps, seal all the holes – this is an example of the protective genre. Defoe’s Robinson Crusoe, Gogol’s The Overcoat, Zamyatin’s The Cave, Nabokov’s Luzhin’s Defense, Lovecraft’s The Color out of Space, Kobo Abe’s The Box Man – all are various examples of protective fiction. Protection from the wild elements, from the cold, from meteorites, from outer space and aliens, from aggression, from revolution, from utopia, from mysterious enemies and unfathomable dangers, from the outside world as such. This genre is, in fact, no less exciting than the detective one. Will the hero manage to build a defense, hide in a hole, cram into a crevice?

Sadly, the coronavirus ordeal is likely to turn the future of civilization into a myriad of layers and covers, a triumph of enclosure. Such an imperative, of course, contradicts romantic ideals, revolutionary and totalitarian utopias of all-openness, complete nakedness, the fusion of bodies and souls. But in essence, humans as the creators and creatures of culture are enclosed entities; no wonder the mask has stuck to their faces like a second skin. A human being is not limited to the cover given him or her by nature, but creates the multilayered system of “covering one another” that we call civilization. This includes the covers of the first level, clothing; of the second, shelter; of the third, the artificial habitat: the village, the city... It is this multilayered structure of their civilizational cocoon that distinguishes humans from other living beings. The species goes by many different definitions: Homo sapiens, Homo faber, Homo loquens, Homo ludens – the “intelligent,” “toolmaking,” “speaking,” “playing” person... To these we can add: Homo tegens, the “cloaking” or “encapsulated” person, the one who  throws a veil over everything including him- or herself.

Humans are the most “hidden” of all creatures, and the layering of covers attests to the depth of the mysteries they conceal within themselves. The more precious and sacred the entity, the more layers there are to envelop it. This is why the priest has the greatest number of vestments. To perform the sacrament, he covers himself with several layers of clothing, each with its own symbolic meaning. In the Orthodox Church, the priest and deacon wear a cassock, a robe, a veil, an epitrachelion (stole), and a phelonion (cape). A bishop wears a sakkos, a palika, an omophorion, a panagia, and a mitre. This tradition goes back to Old Testament religion, and is related to the arrangement of the “holy of holies,” the innermost sanctum where the ark holding the tablets of the covenant was kept. “This is how Aaron is to enter the Most Holy Place:... He is to put on the sacred linen tunic, with linen undergarments next to his body; he is to tie the linen sash around him and put on the linen turban. These are sacred garments” (Leviticus 16:4). In this broadest context, all of us, in masks and coverings, can likewise be perceived as ministers of some exotic cult, which requires all manner of self-isolation and a persistent asceticism.

In fact, the first act after the fall of man was his donning of “garments of skin” (Genesis 3:21) – in literal terms leather, but often interpreted as the very flesh put on the soul as a sign of its compaction and expulsion from paradise. It is likewise clearly no accident that the first city, a “garment” of stone, was built by Cain, the firstborn of the original sin, who in turn committed the first sin of murder and fratricide (“and he built a city” – Genesis 4:17). Sin separates man from creation, causing a chain reaction of concealment and attire, from skin to city to state.

Once humankind became ashamed of its nakedness and sought out coverings, these began to multiply and reproduce on ever more levels. This almost manic passion, the universal Belikovism, has become one of the motifs of contemporary culture, which gives packaging its own value. For example, postmodernism constitutes the self-consciousness of culture as an endless series of such hollow packages nested one within the other: pack-culture. The artist Christo Vladimirov Javacheff (1935–2020), who wrapped entire buildings in fabrics, foil, polyethylene, or light metal, aptly imitated this infinite multiplicity of shells inherent in culture as such, or rather, in humans as clothed beings (clothed initially in their bodies, then in everything else). Christo was famous for wrapping Paris’s Pont Neuf in beige fabric in 1985, and in 1995 he covered the Berlin Reichstag in a silver metallic shell. Christo’s art deals with the ultimate expression of Homo tegens – with those ultramodern shells that over millennia of civilization have accreted to Adam’s first “garment of skin.” Now the pandemic brings us to a rapid increase in this kind of “packaging.” (“Art becomes life!”) In terms of art trends, an observer from another planet might easily take the pandemic for some new post-postmodern fashion.  

Viruses are most often characterized as “organisms on the border of the living”: they have some signs of life and lack others. It is profoundly ironic that the “crown of all living things,” as Hamlet called man, must bow to the bearer of another corona. We have to sacrifice our own living space in order to resist these “half-alive entities.”

Can we consider Belikovism, however bitter it is to realize, a natural form of human survival and self-preservation in a world of microscopically small, almost molecule-like carriers of death? It is unlikely that civilization, having absorbed the new protective layer, will reject it altogether: rather, it will creatively transform it. And then will Belikov be perceived, not as a satire on the dull routine of the late nineteenth century, but as a harbinger of the era of self-isolation in the twenty-first, a pioneer of new ways to save humanity.

How Human Nature Is Changing During the Pandemic

The pandemic is a new and unique experience in history, when humanity for the first time has acquired a gut feeling of itself as a whole – not as an abstract concept, but an integral, living organism, desperately fighting the invasion of microorganisms. The significance of this event, in my opinion, goes beyond history and belongs to a larger process: anthropogenesis, the formation of humans as a species. It is still too early to define this new entity in rigorous terms, but certain projections seem reasonable.

Anthropologists have been reiterating for decades that human biological evolution is giving way to a sociocultural one, and in the twenty-first century a new vector of this process – electronic technology – has quickly come to the fore. In recent years, virtuality has been increasingly absorbing the real, and it took only a deadly threat and strong push from the real itself for civilization to begin to rapidly shift online: business, trade, services, culture, education, even sports...  Paradoxically, the pandemic turned out to be the strongest and perhaps decisive blow from nature itself to slow biological evolution in favor of the incredible acceleration of technological and intellectual evolution.

According to one major version of anthropogenesis, in the Miocene epoch, global cooling ousted the savannah rainforests and drove primates from the trees to the ground, which is what put them on their feet, freed their hands, allowed them to make tools, and turned them into Homo sapiens or “intelligent people.” Now viruses drive people out of the biosphere, inaugurating a new round of evolution in the noosphere. The human being undergoes transformation (or regress) from an upright being, Homo erectus, to one sitting (in front of a screen) – Homo sedens.

With the development of civilization and the transition to mental work and a sedentary lifestyle, the organs of sight and hearing become increasingly dominant. The main flow of information passes through them, which sets humans apart from other species that are more dependent on direct contact with the physical environment. Sight and hearing as remote organs of perception meet the epidemiological requirements of “social distance” and “self-isolation,” which, due to the preferential development of these organs, are favorable for the preservation of humans as a species. They do not require direct physical contact and therefore prove to be evolutionarily advantageous in a pandemic. One could easily imagine a jocular but essentially correct slogan: “Eyes and ears are the best antiviral agents.” Sight and hearing operate with conditional symbols, mediated by signs: this is why there are arts of speech, sound, and image (literature, music, painting, cinema, etc.) – and practically no fine arts based on the other three types of sensations. Indeed, culture as such gives priority to the “distant” in the human physiological apparatus itself.

To be sure, the sense of touch, more than all others, continues to be responsible for our representation of physical reality as opposed to illusion or hallucination. One may not believe one’s eyes or ears – but it’s hard not to believe a direct touch. “Am I dreaming? Pinch me!” – such is the stock question-exclamation used to convey bringing oneself to one’s senses, which is primarily understood as touching – “pinching.” Tango ergo sum. I touch, therefore I am. It is possible to think (cogitare) both in dreams and in visions, but the pinch is a sign of an indisputable  presence, the beginning of awakening. Going online is humanity’s departure into collective dreams, into creative fantasies, into the depths of the “I” and the “we.”

I am not saying that humanity will go entirely online, only that the virtual environment will eventually become more and more organic and productive for the development of human abilities. Nothing is stopping people from climbing trees, but after a certain evolutionary point, they became more accustomed to walking on the ground. Just so, over time, it will probably be more natural for humans to go online than to go outside. This prospect does not excite me at all; we are all pre-viral, “outside” people. But I do not rule out the possibility that our grandchildren and great-grandchildren will already perceive us as “prehistoric,” “old-fashioned” – envy us in some ways, but also scoff and scratch their heads at us.

Let us hope that the current pandemic will be overcome and humanity will find ways to protect itself against new viruses, to preserve and even expand its living space on a grand scale (the exploration of other planets and star systems). Still, the push from the current pandemic will be powerful enough to allow colonization and the new frontier of civilization to move deeper into virtual worlds. We can treat this with melancholy or sarcasm, we can imagine the coming Luddites smashing electronic terminals as they once did with textile machines. But they failed to prevent the Industrial Revolution...

What Can Unite Humankind?

Now is the time of introverts. Studies show that extroverts find it far more difficult to transition to telecommuting. Extroverted teachers, for example, are much more tired when they interact with students on Zoom rather than in person. From the introvert’s perspective, on the contrary, “social distancing” – which in fact is physical distancing – promotes new forms of socialization, bringing people closer together precisely via virtual proximity.

Introverts are known to have contributed as much to the development of civilization as extroverts. In the face of a mortal enemy, humanity, divided by lockdowns, quarantines, borders, walls, doors, can internally unite, deepening  within itself. As it matures, it moves from a culture of noisy gatherings to one of introspection and selective, focused communication. We can get a much stronger sense of humanity as a single organism now than we did in the “pre-viral” era of big crowds, flowing tourism, and rapturous, fan-filled sports stadiums. We are all mostly sitting at home, under the same conditions of temporary “surrender” to the common “enemy of the human race”; but thanks to this, it is easier for us to feel the fragility of our species and the commonality of our destiny.

Many experts have proclaimed that the pandemic signals the end of globalization. Indeed, nations are fencing themselves off, and sometimes even dividing their own territory, with quarantines. But globalization means not only freedom of movement over the surface of the planet; it is also a sense of belonging to the human race. Globalization now shifts from an extroverted to an introverted stage. Faced with a ubiquitous danger that makes no national, ethnic, or religious distinctions, humanity, despite the loss of tactile contact, becomes a more palpable reality than our former vague conception of it. We have all been members of certain groups and organizations: nations, professions, churches, clubs; while humanity as a whole was perceived as a kind of abstraction (“abstract humanism”). Now it becomes Organization No. 1, not only because it is the first in importance, but also because one can belong to it only individually, one on one, in one’s own place, through self-isolation.

In the recent past, as a result of the growing nuclear threat and international tension (the US and Europe vs. China and Russia), there was a feeling that a new major war was drawing closer and could be imminent. People wondered: what could prevent it? What can unite humankind? Only something more foreign to all of us than we are to each other. It would have to be the arrival of aliens...

But instead came viruses. They have unleashed a new world warthe first world war capable of uniting rather than dividing humanity.

Is it possible for other life-forms to contribute to our unification? It seems that all of humanity, despite physical separation, has now merged into one “symphonic” body, resisting the invasion of anthropophagi, an incomprehensible form of alien vitality. These “newcomers” are scarier than aliens from other galaxies, for they are within us. Viruses have reminded humans that they are all brothers and sisters in the lungs, in the heart, in the blood vessels, and that what brings us together – life itself in its simplest foundations – is incomparably more important than what divides us.

If the Spanish flu had broken out, not at the very end of the First World War, in 1918, but before it began in 1914 – could it have averted that conflict? Or, on the contrary, would it have made it even more violent and destructive? Could the pandemic itself be a “bio-political” vaccine to prevent the death of humanity?

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Mikhail N. Epstein is a Russian–American cultural and literary scholar. He is Samuel Candler Dobbs Professor of Cultural Theory and Russian Literature at Emory University (USA). From 2012 to 2015, he served as Professor and Founding Director of the Centre for Humanities Innovation at Durham University (UK). Epstein has authored 39 books and more than 800 articles and essays. His work has been translated into 24 languages. His latest books include: The Transformative Humanities: A Manifesto (Bloomsbury Academic, 2012); The Irony of the Ideal: Paradoxes of Russian Literature (Boston: Academic Studies Press, 2017); Russian Postmodernism: New Perspectives on Post-Soviet Culture (with A. Genis and S. Vladiv-Glover; Berghahn Books, 2016). The Phoenix of Philosophy: Russian Thought of the Late Soviet Period (1953-1991) (Bloomsbury Academic, 2019); A Philosophy of the Possible: Modalities in Thought and Culture" (Brill, 2019).

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1 See in particular Solzhenitsyn’s characteristic comparison of the communist system, especially the Gulag, with metastatic cancer. In her books Illness as Metaphor (1978) and AIDS and Its Metaphors (1989), Susan Sontag gives numerous examples of the metaphorization and symbolization of cancer and AIDS, though she herself calls for a medical-pragmatic understanding of these diseases.

2 A voice from Dostoevsky comes to mind: “We even find it burdensome to be human beings, with a body and blood of our own” (“Notes from the Underground”).

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