A plague has befallen the city.
It is the nature of any sickness to reveal what lies hidden under one’s body. For through its symptoms the sickness manifests what has remained invisible, hidden inside the body—or, to be precise, because it is hidden by the body.
It is the sick body that allows us to know our bodies objectively, that is, as bodies that can be examined and treated. Such an objective knowledge of the body—the knowledge of my own body as an object for me—is disclosed by the body’s pathology, for as long as the body functions properly it is unnecessary and perhaps impossible to see my body, that is, myself (the body given in temporality, flesh) as an object for myself (the spatialized body, Körper). It becomes so, however, when the body’s functions malfunction—when the body falls ill.
In this sense, the knowledge occasioned by the body’s pathology is itself as much pathological as it is revelatory of the body’s objectivity. To be precise, it is a pathological knowledge because it manifests my body as an objectified and objected body.
Of course, a plague is not just any disease: it is an infectious disease—that is a disease that manifests itself not on the body of the individual, not on an individual body, but on the communal body, so to speak, on the body of a community such a city or a nation—or, in the case of a global pandemic such as the present one, on the bodily as such. Plague, for Sophocles as later for Camus, does not affect so much the individual qua individual as their relationships—insofar as one belongs to a community and precisely on account of that belonging.
As Thucydides wrote in The Peloponnesian War: “It was appalling how rapidly men caught the infection; dying like sheep if they attended on one another; and this was the principal cause of mortality.” (II, 51). The plague is a sickness of the community, of the city, of the polis. The plague is a political disease.
Is perhaps the plague, as a political disease, a disease of the political as well? The plague appears to be both epidemic, that is, adventitious, coming from the other outside my body, but also endemic, affecting and infecting the insides of the metaphorical body of the polis, the body politic. As the city “digests” its citizens by appropriating individuals into one collective, common, political “body,” so, at times, the citizens turn the city into a reservoir of material and immaterial goods available solely for the satisfaction of their (individual) needs and desires.
In such times, the identity of the polis, its unity and community, becomes for its citizens both sicken and sickening. In his description of the plague, Thucydides discovers precisely the paradox of the individualized citizen. It is telling, I believe, that the expression “there is an individual in the city” is how one calls in Chinese a “paradox” or a “contradiction” (矛盾).
Whatever pleasure was hitherto concealed, was now done boldly. For, seeing the sudden change—how the rich died in a moment, and those who had nothing immediately inherited their property—they considered that both, bodies and monies are ephemeral, and they resolved to haste their enjoyments and to think only of pleasure.
Who would be willing to sacrifice himself to the law of honor when he did not know whether he would ever live to be honored? A moment’s pleasure and any sort of thing which conduced to it became both good and useful. Neither the fear of god nor the law of man deterred them. Those who saw all perishing alike, thought that whether one believes in god or not made no difference. For offenses against human law no punishment was to be feared; no one would live long enough to be held responsible. Already a far heavier sentence had been passed and was hanging over their heads; before that fell, why should they not take a little pleasure?
The dramatic tenor here can be misleading. For in expecting to read an account of a disease that “no words can describe” and which “was too much for human nature to endure,” as Thucydides, forgetting his characteristic sobriety, puts it, we come to realize that the behavior meant to portray the calamities of the plague is nothing new. On the contrary, it is a very familiar picture of how people have always behaved or, at least, have always wished to behave. The plague has only uncovered, revealed, and made manifest this picture that is now left out there for all to see.
The plague comes to remind what individual citizens have, by means of their individuality, so successfully forgotten, namely that, even though the city distributes its benefits individually and unevenly, it does not do so with the perils that befall its political community as well. Those are dealt equally to all. Only in extreme emergency becomes the polis a democracy. For as long as any restriction is imposed on the individual’s enjoyment, on the travels and business of its citizens, all is left for them is the inconvenient reality of sharing the space of polis with others and with their fate—even unto death.
…they thought that everything still was possible for them; which presupposed that pestilences were impossible. They went on doing business, arranged for journeys, and formed views. How should they have given a thought to anything like plague, which rules out any futures, cancels journeys, silences the exchange of views. They fancied themselves free, and no one will ever be free so long as there are pestilences.(36)
Now would be the appropriate time to retrieve some of Freud’s insights from his Civilization and Its Discontents. When the mutually benefitting relationship between the citizen and civilization is working as it is supposed to work, Freud’s theory of the existential malaise that the individual experiences within society (repression, frustration) might sound far-fetched. The tension between society and myself is concealed, so to speak, precisely by the smooth operation of society’s apparatus. When, however, that operation does not go as smoothly as, for example, in the current pandemic, then the tension between society and its members begins to appear. What we are all witnessing at the moment is the revelation or a realization, if you prefer, of several points:
- Civilization cannot keep its foundational promise of safeguarding my survival. On the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic, a series of measures (necessary, no doubt) were taken by states across the world by which human and individual rights— even the right to a funeral (on which see another Sophoclean play, namely the Antigone)—have been suspended overnight. The root of the problem is not the virus per se but the fact that we are not prepared to respond to the aftermath of a pandemic. It is the basic goods that will first become scarce and not the money for buying them.5 It is the health system that will first become overwhelmed and unable to provide the care needed, not necessarily the fatality of the infection. Therefore, civilization cannot anymore safeguard my basic biological survival.
- As a result, it is easier (and indeed inescapable) to realize now that civilization allowed my personal “pursuit of happiness” only for as long as it did not threaten any public interests. The plague comes to remind me that the preservation of political collective overrules my personal well-being. So, I must be confined at home; my freedoms of movement and social interactions curtailed; and, ultimately, my right to life might have to be decided by government regulations directing health care providers to determine whether I should receive the medical care needed and thus live, or be left to die.
- Why would people, at a time of distress, feel the need to use their money to buy something (toilet paper) that is absolutely ineffective on the danger of an epidemic? One answer is already suggested by Freud. Money originates in feces—their retention gives to the infant the same pleasure as the accumulation of wealth for the adult. The Roman temple of Juno Moneta, after which “money” is named, derives its name from the Greek μονήρης: that which is alone or kept apart—“quarantined” we could say today. It makes perfect sense, then, that at the critical moment, money would reassume its original meaning and function and paper currency would be exchanged for toilet paper.
The difficulties of our new reality—restrictions in travel and mobility, restrictions in the availability of various goods, limitations imposed on work and pleasure—are precisely the difficulties that await the individualized citizen as the plague forces him to accommodate others while he rehabilitates himself in the space of the political.6 One can live with others only to the extend one also lives for others. If I don’t live for others, then living with others is hell (case in point, Sartre’s No Exit).
Oedipus’s fatal encounter with his father at the crossroads outside Thebes signifies that every murder is potentially a patricide for every other is always the parental other— the other who gives birth to me since I cannot be my own origin. Similarly, every returning upon oneself (cor curvum in se) constitutes a form of incest. Jocasta is for Oedipus an other bereft of otherness; an other upon whom I have projected my own familiar image, that is, my expectations, my feelings, myself. Such a projected “other” is nothing but a mirror that reflects back my own reflection and therefore my relationship with such an “other” is deeply incestuous. The recognition of this double crime will break down the imaginary self and will “give birth” to a new identity (“this day will give you birth and kill you;” verse 438).
And yet, can I live for others when I live in the city? Where is the encounter with otherness to take place in the homogenized space of the polis? Isn’t it the polis—this particular polis, Thebes, in the case of Oedipus Rex, and, by extension, every polis) founded upon the exclusion of (its) other? The other who is, like the Sphinx, kept at bay beyond the city borders, beyond pleasure and its principle, other than life?
This is why, as we have now seen, authoritarian regimes, to the extent that they suppress significantly the individuality of the citizen, are better suited in containing and controlling the political infection. Thus, epidemics are endemic to democracies. However, one’s ability to share his freedom with others is genuine only when exercised freely.
If the proper place for philosophy is the city, as Socrates insists in the Apology, that is because philosophy is the study of death and dying, as that same Socrates claims in the Phaedo. Isn’t it because of this—because the role of philosophy is to keep uncovering the political concealment of lēthe and lathos—that the dialogue on the political must end in Hades as in the last book of the Republic?
If there is anything we can learn of what it means “to be in hell” from the stories about Hades, that is only this: time in hell does not run but remains static, a monotonous nunc stans. The stories of Sisyphus, Tantalus, Ixion, and the Danaids (one could also add to this list Prometheus) offer unanimous witness to this observation. Even though their punishment in Hades takes different forms, the root of their torment remains the same: the futile effort, the attempt to satisfying a desire without success over and over again.
“So you haven’t understood yet?” Rambert shrugged his shoulders almost scornfully.
“Understood what?” “The plague.”
“Ah!” Rieux exclaimed.
“No, you haven’t understood that it means exactly that—the same thing
over and over and over again.”(145)
In Hades time does not move forward, in fact it does not move at all; it falls back upon itself in a semblance of movement that is nothing else than an everlasting present. Remove this element, and there is no punishment anymore.
The enigma of the Sphinx had opened up for the polis the horizon of time—in fact it was nothing less than an invitation to think man’s existence as stretching from past to future, to think the present as a present offered by the past for the sake of a future and to think the one in terms of the other, to see, that is, the past under the light of the future.
The Sphinx’s enigma was:
What is that animal that
In the morning walks on the four, At noon on two feet
And at the evening on three?
Oedipus’s answer was only a word: man. A word that, strangely, referred back to him, insofar as he was his answer. In retorting against the monstrosity of the Sphinx with the humanity of man, one could feel tempted to say that Oedipus becomes the first humanist, and in doing so solely with confidence in his reason, he also becomes the prototype of a rationalist as well. If, however, Oedipus succeeds in solving the Sphinx’s enigma, this is because he thought of a particular characteristic of man and his existence: he conceived of man in his timely manifestation—of the human being as projected in the horizon of time. For it is precisely time that the three periods of the day (morning, noon, and evening) indicate. Oedipus thinks of man as that being that persists in temporality—he thinks, in other words, of being and time.
Having solved the enigma of time, Oedipus closed his being and that of the city in the present—and thus they live, as Creon aptly says, trapped in the isolated now. Asked why the city did not investigate the death of Laius, Creon replies that “we were compelled to attend to what lies at our feet” (τὸ πρὸς ποσὶν σκοπεῖν, verses 130–131) that is, to an instantaneous present that unfolds into a series of “now” without ever forming a memory or becoming one’s past.
As Thucydides wrote: “Some again had no sooner recovered than they were seized with a forgetfulness [lēthe] of all things and knew neither themselves nor their friends.” (II, 49)
The citizens of Oran, too, had “forced themselves…to cease looking to the future, and always to keep, so to speak, their eyes fixed on the ground at their feet.”(65) And as Camus later explains:
Without memories, without hope, they lived for the moment only. Indeed the Here and Now had come to mean everything to them. For there is no denying that the plague had gradually killed off in all of us the faculty not of love only but even of friendship. Naturally enough, since love asks something of the future, and nothing was left us but a series of present moments.(162)
It is precisely an unacknowledged past or an unexpected future that returns—in the form of disease—to plague the present. Indeed, not only does it return in the form of the plague but also it returns with the urgency of a responsibility that demands to be assumed insofar as the plague has now made the private citizen public and the individual political.
One could think of a number of other ways that the present apocalypse might had happened. There is no shortage, after all, in the dystopian variations generated by our collective imaginary that we call Hollywood. It could had been the invasion by an alien species, the attack of a meteorite, the eruption of a super-volcano or, simply, the uprising of the zombies. In each and every of these scenarios our response to the threat of destruction, whatever form it might had assumed, would have found us united by a renewed sense of community, a community solidified by its common struggle for survival. Not so with the plague. He who faces the plague stands alone. For it is precisely society that is sick and it is only in isolating itself away from society that the individual might have hope for its survival. Hence, the new imperative of social distancing and of voluntary or enforced quarantine.
The element of contagion, which plays so large a part in an epidemic, has the effect of making people separate from each other. The safest thing is to keep away from everyone else, for anyone may already have the infection on him. Some flee from the town and disperse to their estates; others shut themselves up in their houses and allow no-one in. Each man shuns every other; his last hope is to keep his distance. The prospect of life, and life itself, is expressed in terms of distance from the sick. Those who catch the infection end by forming a dead mass; those who have so far escaped it keep away from everyone, even their closest relatives, their parents, husbands or wives and children. It is strange to see how the hope of survival isolates them, each becoming a single individual confronting the crowd of victims.(275, my emphasis)
Since it is through community that the pandemic spreads, mankind has lost its ultimate and most effective line of defense, that is, our ability to organize ourselves into communities. “The only community admitted by the plague is the community of its victims, the numbers of which are promptly updated daily.”(274)
Unlike all other enemies, no matter how fanciful and apocalyptic, the virus is an intruder as intimate as my own skin. The virtue of the virus is that it is microscopic and thus invisible. Because it is invisible, the virus cannot be seen anywhere and, therefore, its presence must be assumed everywhere: on anything I touch and by which I touch the virus touches me back. The virus inserts itself in that imperceptible space between me and the world, so that avoiding it would necessitate that, somehow, I extricate myself entirely from the world—a task that, as we find out daily, is impossible since I am not in the world as a fish is in the aquarium, but rather I am the point of convergence for the infinite nexus of relations among the things of the world and, therefore, I take the world with me wherever I go. Its workings are equally unnoticeable. For one cannot know when or even if the virulent adversary has launched its attack, except when it is already too late.
Not only does it have such virtues, but the virus itself is in some sense “virtuous.” See how quickly it has us all—states and governments, factories and corporations, churches and universities—grounded in our homes like misbehaving children who need to learn not to do it again. Do what? Touch it, of course. That has been always the parental interdiction: “don’t touch it!”
…but God did say, “You must not eat the fruit from the tree [of the knowledge of good and evil], and you must not touch it, or you will die.” (Gen. 3:3)
Was this prohibition a prohibition against touching the tree of knowledge or against knowing that knowledge that is acquired by touching? Was it that I cannot touch the tree of knowledge so that I don’t come to know—grasp, as we say—the knowledge of touch? For there is a knowledge of the eyes (of insight, foresight and hindsight), as there is a knowledge of touching and tasting, of sapience and sagacity (from the Latin sapere, to taste). The former is established in distance, the latter is occasioned only in proximity. I can see you without being seen and I can know you without you knowing that I do or without knowing me, indeed, without knowing myself, but I cannot touch you without being touched by you, without both of us touching and being touched.
Touch does not produce the transcendence beyond an active subject and a passive object, it requires it.14 On the other hand, vision, as the knowledge of distance, cannot but objectify not only the other but even myself as, for example, when ill my body presents itself to me as an objectified and objected body. I have called such knowledge above pathological. Indeed, all epistemic knowledge (gnosis) is at bottom a diagnosis. Keeping in mind the distinction between senses of distance and senses of proximity, I find it quite suggestive that the symptoms through which COVID-19 manifests itself—apart from those that it shares in common with the rest of respiratory infections, such a coughing and fever—are precisely anosmia and ageusia, that is, the inability of the infected person to smell and to taste.
Without such tactile senses that operate by de-distancing, to borrow Heidegger’s expression, the virus compromises one’s health by depriving him of his sense of proximity. It has been speculated by Carsten Niemetz that the characteristic upright posture of a human being as well as its coordinating bipedalism became the evolutionary results of a human’s need to rely more on his sight and less on his smell.(241-63) By standing up, smell—the predominant sense for social interaction among animals—was replaced for man by sight.
This is well-attested, after all, by the miasmatic sensitivities of our culture that finds our bodily odors repulsive and, therefore, a civilized person should do everything possible to eliminate them. If such a hypothesis is correct, then the anosmia of the COVID-19 patients makes them, paradoxically, somewhat more of a human being and less of an animal. But such an observation should not come as a surprise.
Man is distinguished from other animals by the privilege of being sick; there is an essential connection between being sick and being civilized. It is the privilege of man to revolt against nature and make himself sick, as Norman O. Brown has argued.(62-3)
And so, once more, the undergoing pandemic reiterates the ancient prohibition: “you must not touch, or you will die.” The tactile taboo, of course, cannot be blamed entirely on the measures against the COVID-19 outbreak. These are only the latest and perhaps more emblematic examples among many others that pathologize touch. More recently, for example, the ideological discourse of the Me Too movement provided us with another case that illustrates the criminalization of interpersonal contact. To trace the genealogy of such puritanical attitudes on touch and touching would take us as far back as Plato who, faithful to his Greek worldview, gives to theoria, (that is, to the knowledge of the eyes), the prominent place in his metaphysics.
Not only has touch nothing to offer to the philosophical observations of the speculating soul, it even hinders them. We should not expect to hear something different from philosophy’s mouth except “don’t touch it!” Only this time the taboo is reinforced with a language that sounds particularly familiar to us today, that of miasma (according to Plato in the Phaedo:
While we live, we shall be closest to knowledge if we refrain as much as possible from association with the body and do not join with it more that we must, if we are not infected with its nature but purify ourselves from it until the god himself frees us. In this way we shall escape the contaminationof the body’s folly; we shall be likely to be in the company of people of the same kind, and by our own efforts we shall know all that is pure, which is presumably the truth, for it is not permitted to the impure to touch the pure. (67)
There is only one notable exception in the long history of the devaluation of touch: Christianity. Against Plato’s axiom “gods do not mix with men,”18 the Fourth Gospel offered a radical alternative: “and the Word was made flesh, and dwelt among us” (John 1:14). In no better way can we glance over the intellectual abyss that separated antiquity from Christianity than in the juxtaposition of these two statements. From the clandestine touch of the bleeding woman to Thomas’ fingers touching the wounds of the crucifixion, Christ is not a god who watches the world from a distance but a god who touches us and whom we can touch. According to one possible etymology the Greek term for god, theos, is derived from the verb “to see,” theaomai.
In the no-foam, no-fat spirituality that in the last few years spread across Catholic campuses and which has come to be known as Agape Latte, the scandal of a physical God was enlisted in the war against the younger generation’s addiction to pornography and the hook-up culture. It remains all the more paradoxical, therefore, how easily and quickly both institutions, the church and the academy, hurried to embrace, implement, and promote the same tele-technological media and their voyeuristic principles— previously vehemently criticized—on the wake of the present pandemic. In doing so, they replaced the hitherto required physical presence of the faithful in the pews and of the student in the classroom with webcam lectures and live-streamed masses that can now be enjoyed from the safety and comfort of one’s bedroom. Being-there (Dasein) and
being-present are not essential anymore either for faith or for knowledge. As Heidegger writes: “de-distancing means making distance disappear, making the being at a distance of something disappear, bring it near. Dasein is essentially de-distancing encountered in nearness.”(95)
As the being that it is, it lets beings be, for surely one does not forego the essential as readily as that. That swift transition from the physical to the virtual space cannot but signal the triumph of the ocular hegemony. The commandment “don’t touch it” is best enforced when there is nothing left that one could still touch.
Yet, it was not too long ago that clergy and parishes lamented over the dropping numbers in church attendance. The majority of the absentees among the faithful did not leave the Church altogether; even if they did not attend services regularly, they still continue to consider themselves members of their church; only they could not understand why is one required to be physically present in the services when one can simply pray from their home.
As it was not too long ago either that colleges and universities, especially those with a pedigree, scorned the fast-food approach to education that online institutions offered to students who could not afford the architecture of their campuses. The advent of the pandemic has forced a change on both establishments—and it has done so for good. For, once they have replaced themselves with a cheaper, more expedient, virtual copy of themselves, could either church or academy continue to lay a claim afterwards to the authenticity of the original?
Surely, one might retort, the extraordinary danger to the common good posed by the pandemic ought to excuse and justify such measures of emergency. As second best, a “second sailing” of sorts (Phaedo, 99e) to a disembodied subjectivity, virtual learning and worshiping might be an expedient alternative for a Platonist who, like Plato, turns to the logoi of things, when the things themselves become inaccessible. But Plato is Greek, a Christian, however (or a phenomenologist for that matter) can never exchange the incarnate Logos for the fleshless logoi. I would argue that the temporary suspension of classes and even of the liturgy would have been preferable to their substitution.
The problem—as of yet neither acknowledged nor recognized—is that by offering a virtual alternative for themselves the institutions of faith and knowledge have already conceded that personal and physical participation is not essential to their respective practices of learning and worshiping. If I am told now that praying from my home is the same as going to church, then it will not be possible, after the plague, to claim that my participation in the sacramental life of the Church is essential for my salvation. If remote- learning classes are now supposed to offer the same quality of instruction as that in a classroom, then it cannot be maintained, after the plague, that paying the steep prices for room and board in a pretty campus is somehow essential to the quality of my education.
Finally, the response of Christian churches around the globe to the new reality of the pandemic confirms what Derrida has called—to return to the language of viral pathology—the auto-immunization of religion, as Derrida calls it:
Whether it is a question of the cenotaph, of the tomb without corpse, or of the void of kenosis, that absence or emptiness, the disappearance of the body does not necessarily contradict the appeal to visibility or to the image. In a certain manner television itself would be the figure: the appeal to the media is the disappearance of the body, whether because there is no longer a corpse…or because it has become wine and bread, wafer, spiritualized blood and body, spectralized, virtualized, sanctified, and consumable. Certain Christian theologians can denounce, no doubt, television as a perversion. But that does not necessarily go against this logic. Theology always has more resources than one believes. Television is conjured not as a spiritualizing spectralization but as the temptation of a new idolatry, a pagan cult of the image. Evil, for this theology, is the carnal temptation of the idol, not the spirituality of the icon.(93)
The mediation of the Eucharist was, for Derrida, structurally parallel with, if not responsible for, the “globalized mediatization of religion.” There is a common structure, for Derrida, between the live broadcasting of a television program (“the simulation of ‘live’ transmission which has you believe…that you are before ‘the thing itself’; you are there”)(63) and the “hoc est [meum corpus]” of the Eucharist:
During a Christian mass, by contrast, the thing itself, the event takes place in front of the camera: communion, the coming of real presence, the Eucharist…the thing actually takes place “live” as a religious event, as a sacred event.(58)
I admit that, in part at least, Derrida’s critique of the televised mass was right then and even more so now in the time of live-streaming the Eucharist. It seems that the Church has forgotten not only that the Eucharist is not an event open to all but also that it is par excellence an act of embodiment. Not even for the catechumens who, after a certain point in the celebration of the liturgy, are expected to leave the church. The first Christians worshipped in secret and that secrecy (disciplina arcani) was despised by Roman society, which began to fabricate notorious stories about cannibalism and incest. In the Orthodox churches, the icon-screen that separates the sanctuary from the rest of the church protects the altar from the curious gaze even of the faithful themselves. The invitation expressed by the words “take, eat, this is my body” cannot be taken as anything less than an exhortation to touch—and to touch not only what can be touched but even the intangible.
Lentivirus in medical terminology is a retrovirus characterized by a slow or long period of incubation (from the Latin adverb lente, cf. Lent). The enforcement of a global quarantine in response to the pandemic coincides with the observation of this year’s Lent. A coincidence of course, but a coincidence that might be meaningful perhaps, as coincidences often are for those who observe them.
We think of a quarantine as a confinement in space and as the name for the room or the building in which such a confinement takes place. Yet, quarantine is the name for a duration, a number of days. The word derives from the Italian expression quaranta giorni—that is, a period of forty days during which any ship sailing to Venice had to remain moored away from the city’s port as a precaution against the plague. A quarantine, therefore, is first and foremost a temporal category, a mark of time, and only secondarily of space.
In fact, the quaranta giorni spent in Venice (and I am here reminded of a later quarantine in Venice as told by Thomas Mann) borrows its name and its meaning from the forty days of Lent (Quadragesima). Lent is still the number of forty days in Italian and French (la Quaresima and le Carême respectively).
Every Lent is a quarantine. For the practices observed during Lent meant to place the world and our daily interactions with the world and with others under suspension. We call that suspension fasting. To fast is to abstain primarily from food—since digestion is our main connection with the world and the exemplar of all the ways in which we relate to the world and to others—and, subsequently, from any other habit that attaches us to the world. By detaching us from the world, either literally or symbolically, fasting allows us to look at and reflect upon the world.
Detachment is a necessary condition for such reflection. For as long as we are attached to the world, we remain bound to it by a double bind: the more we occupy the world and we let ourselves be preoccupied by our worldly affairs the more difficult it becomes for us to understand what it means to live in the world. Fasting introduces a distance between ourselves and the world—the very distance that allows us to look and reflect upon the world and our worldly existence.
The quarantine of the coronavirus pandemic has forced upon all of us that distance. For the first time, Lent is “observed” by the entire world. A Lent pandemically observed offers a rather different and somewhat unorthodox appraisal of the new reality that has emerged around the globe.
I do not suggest that we should rejoice amidst the ever-rising number of infections and fatalities on account of some vague “spiritual” benefit. On the contrary. Rather, I suggest that there might be more than one way to contextualize and understand the suffering that is the result of this ongoing crisis. To understand the coronavirus as, in more than one sense, a lentivirus and to read the quarantine within the context of Lent a reading invited, after all, by the very fact that they coincided—is to avail of a richer vocabulary that derives from certain Biblical narratives (e.g., Israel’s forty-year wandering in the desert; the forty-day fasting of Moses and Elijah) and thus to connect our quarantined lives today with the past, to inscribe them within a tradition, in short, to given them a language.
There has been, of course, plenty of talk about the coronavirus, an abundance of graphics and statistics, and a daily dose of reportage from the affected communities. Yet, this remains for now an experience without language. Biological and epidemiological terminology—necessary as it is—remains ineffective in giving sense to our experience of this pandemic and that’s because the language of science is abstract but my experience of the dismantling of the world as I knew it remains concrete. Since Homer’s epic stories and parables have proven more successful in bestowing and communicating meaning to our reality than abstract definitions and formulae.
The forty days of Lent originate from the forty days that are often mentioned in the Scriptures as a time of preparation for an encounter with the wholly (and holy) Other:
“Moses was there with the Lord forty days and forty nights without eating bread or drinking water. And he wrote on the tablets the words of the covenant—the Ten Commandments” (Exodus, 34:28).
“So he [Elijah] got up and ate and drank. Strengthened by that food, he traveled forty days and forty nights until he reached Horeb, the mountain of God” (Kings I/III: 19:8).
While Moses and Elijah fast in preparation for these theophanies, Christ does so immediately after the theophany that occurs in His baptism at Jordan and in preparation for His public ministry.
“Then Jesus was led by the Spirit into the wilderness to be tempted by the devil. After fasting forty days and forty nights, he was hungry.” (Matthew, 4:1-2)
In retaining the fast of the forty days the Lord shows the unity and continuity between the two covenants, the Old and the New; yet, by reversing its order and placing His forty days of fasting after, instead of before, the theophany of His baptism, He shows that, unlike Moses and Elijah, He was not simply one of the Prophets in need of preparation and purification for the encounter with God. Thus, His fasting comes after the revelation at the banks of Jordan, as a preparation that would also lead Him to a mountain— spiritual geography is always demarcated by holy mountains—however, His ascent to Golgotha has an entirely different purpose: not to meet God, but rather to be forsaken by God. Yet, like Moses and Elijah, though in a different way, Christ’s passion on Calvary is the moment of His glory.
Through this brief scriptural retrospect, we can come to understand Lent as a symbolic and spiritual ascent to “God’s mountain” (Sinai, Horeb, Golgotha) where we hope, like Moses and Elijah, to encounter God, while remaining mindful that such an ascent can become cruciform—that is, it can take the form of the way of the Cross. In that sense, a Christian’s entire life can be understood as a Lent, during which the Lent we are currently traversing assumes the meaning of the “lengthening” of one’s efforts as a result of which the days become “long” (“Lent” in English derives from the German verb “to lengthen”).
Yet, the days of Lent are numbered. The enumeration of the days reveals to us a different meaning: if we can count them, this is because we could count them down. “Forty-days” means forty-days-until: an element of expectation and anticipation is already inscribed in the numbering of the days. They are forty and no more: here one should hear and feel some consolation, for already from their beginning one begins to see their end. For they have an end in both senses: they have an end, that is, there is a point by which they will be over, and they have an end in the sense that they serve as means to that end. In both senses, then, the end of Lent is Easter.
The forty days before Easter (or better yet, the forty days until Easter) are like the forty days after Easter: they belong to Easter. For the Church’s calendar Easter is indeed a big feast, for not only it is celebrated continuously throughout the year on every Sunday, but its proper celebration too becomes the focal point of a long fore-feast and an equally long after-feast which, taken together, amount to almost one-third of the year. The importance allotted to Easter can be explained by, among other things, its function as our East. Easter is our east in the sense that it helps us orient ourselves in time as the geographical east provides our orientation in space.
Without such an orientation, time becomes flat. One doesn’t quite know at what time of the year we are. A time that is indistinguishable becomes unbearable and unlivable: not only because it becomes terribly monotonous, but also because without orientation time lacks direction and without direction no action can be undertaken. Temporal disorientation paralyzes man. Precisely because Lent is a counting-down to Easter it is inevitably a period of alertness.
The Bridegroom’s coming is imminent; thus we cannot anymore spend our days in forgetfulness amidst the world. Fasting—the preeminent characteristic of Lent— serves as a practice of reminding: a reminder that comes in the form of a continuous dispossessing of the world. If by eating we integrate the world into ourselves, fasting extricates us from the world. It opens up a space, a distance between ourselves and the world, in which the waiting for the Bridegroom can take place.
This temporary suspension of the world is not motivated by a hatred for the worldly and the secular, nor does it devalue the world, on the contrary; if, for the period of Lent, I suspend my worldly attachments to the world, that is not in order to avoid any moral contamination from it, but rather in order to retrieve and re-enjoy the original joy that the world held for me when I first discovered it.
If the promise of Easter is offered to all, if all nations are invited to partake in thevictory of life over death, it might be appropriate that we should all travel together the penitential route of this year’s Lent.
Now that that sickness of nature—the sickness that man is, considered from nature’s point of the natural—is sick, one can again behold the world’s beauty. Air pollution has rapidly dropped, the waters of seas and rivers are clear again, the animals that had been pushed to the margins of their environment by man’s ceaseless busy work have returned to reclaim what was always theirs. It would be hard to deny it: nature rejoices in the plague.
For a brief moment, the plague’s advent rendered capitalism’s televised holy scriptures obsolete. Watching commercials in those early days of the plague (for cruises and resorts, for cars particularly suitable for one’s weekend excursions or for the daily routines of soccer moms) had a particularly eerie and sad effect, as when one returns to an abandoned house and finds all its objects and furnishings still there as when its inhabitants had suddenly left them many years ago. But the success of capitalism lies precisely in its cunning adaptability. So a few days later new commercials aired, all with subtle references to the pandemic, signaling a return to business as usual. For even if some consumers were to die, consumerism as such will always go on.
That adaptability was itself adopted, in their own clumsy ways, by parishes and universities in what I have called the post-plague pornification of Church and the Academy. Do you know how when some people fast—say, during Lent—they replace all non-fasting items in their dietary menu with “fasting” substitutes, with vegan milk and meat for example, thus annulling the very purpose of fasting while still appear to keeping it? That is what these talking heads have all become during the quarantine which, as I have argued, is an idiomatic Lent during this year’s Lent: “fasting” substitutions.
Only it is not clear whether the emergence of this phenomenon was prompted by the people’s gluttony for a daily dose of idle talk or rather out of the narcissistic need that those disembodied heads which popped up through webcams everywhere have for being virtually consumed. The post-plague porn stars are not amateurs: they all have MDivs and PhDs.
We do know, don’t we, that it feels good to feel bad, that man thrives most of all in destruction and catastrophe, that his spirit—poisoned for too long by the inertia of a life made safe and comfortable by his science and technology—is finally free to soar. Didn’t we yearn for something like this plague, didn’t we long to taste the taste of the real, fed up as we were by its fake substitutions with which the dystopian thrills of Hollywood and the news broadcasts provided us daily? Haven’t we already realized, with much surprise and guilty joy, that our permanent dysanexia to our world has suddenly disappeared?
Raskolnikov’s nightmare has become our dream. The reference here is to Raskolnikov’s fourth and final nightmare from the epilogue to Dostoyevsky’s Crime and Punishment. While hospitalized during Lent, Raskolnikov dreams of a devastating plague that comes from Asia and kills most of the world’s population.
Is it too early, then, for admitting that we do enjoy the plague?
John Panteleimon Manoussakis is Associate Professor of Philosophy at the College of the Holy Cross. He serves as the editor-in-chief (together with Dr. Brian Becker) of the Journal for Continental Philosophy of Religion, published by Brill. He is the author of God After Metaphysics: A Theological Aesthetic (Indiana University Press, 2007) and The Ethics of Time: A Phenomenology and Hermeneutics of Change (Bloomsbury, 2017).