There was one thing that I found increasingly difficult to bear as we settled into the crisis.
And that was the rapt remarks I heard, both in conversations among friends and in print, on the theme: “I saw a deer crossing the Champs-Élysées; a hummingbird was at my window; the sky has never been so blue, nor nature so pure, nor New York so beautiful, as during the time of the coronavirus.”
I am as sensitive as the next guy to the sweetness of decarbonized air.
I, too, noticed myself experiencing moments of grace at the sight of my city slumbering under the sun, crystalline, abstract.
And it goes without saying (but is just as well said) that I view the fight against climate change as one of the great emergencies of our time and consider climate change deniers (led by Donald Trump and Brazil’s Jair Bolsonaro) to be dangerously disingenuous at best and close to criminal.
But, as always, there are good ways and bad ways of putting things.
And there was, in this particular way of admiring nature, an embarrassing combination of pious sentiment, bad instincts, and, for anyone with a modicum of historical sensibility, echoes that were regrettable, to say the least.
First, a Freudian slip and, though it may not seem so at first, a shameful one: the notion that the virus was not altogether bad, that it possessed a hidden virtue, and that there were in this “war” things to be glad about. The shame is obvious. That is how French writer and appeasement advocate Jean Giono sounded in June 1940, just as France was falling to Germany. In the courtyard of the Carrousel du Louvre, Giono enthused about a Paris that had never been so beautiful or in such lush bloom. The same goes for Henry de Montherlant, another pro-Fascist writer. Delivering lectures in Limoges and Lyon in December of the same year, he marveled at the city “without the noise of cars,” where “the commotion” was “reined in by the difficulty of transportation.” Paul Morand, another writer of the same ilk, sounded a similar note the following year. Having abandoned the French Republic in 1939 to repose in Vichy, by 1941 Morand was charmed by the “disappearance of the billboards,” the arrival of “the country air in Paris,” and the “renaissance of the horse.” But aren’t the shame and hypocrisy amply clear to anyone? Who can bear to hear that the overwhelmed hospitals, the tears, the lives cut down have the side benefit of producing a “poetic” or “surreal” New York (I heard both claims)?
Deo gratias …
Next, a sleight of hand that, in the mouths of the most militant, became tantamount to a coup. The litany begins with people’s suffering, the cantors perching on the shoulders of the dead and the revived alike. Oozing goodness and contrition, they sing, reminding us that even before the pandemic they warned against the folly of a world that could not continue as it was, a world headed straight into a wall. They fob off on us, disguised as good medicine, old finger-pointing claptrap that they hope this time will stick. With restrained (but cruel) gloating, they hail the revenge of the real, or the natural, over the arrogance of man and his sins. The deviousness of these flagellants, trying their damnedest, from their perch on the backs of the victims, to scold the survivors and overwhelm them with remonstrances! The calls for a change, no less than the streams of reproof and the invitations to rebirth, echo the sermons France heard in 1940, asserting that the country had had too much fun, that it had reaped more than it had sown, that it had marched, said André Gide, “blindfolded, to defeat,” and that it was time to turn everything around. But they also echo the words of the proponents of America First in the late 1930s. They, too, viewed the calamities befalling old Europe as the price to be paid for sins that had gone unpunished for too long. In 2020, in any case, both the French and the Americans found themselves in Argos, the city of Aegisthus in Jean-Paul Sartre’s The Flies, transformed now into a giant penitentiary. Or in Oran, the city of Albert Camus’s The Plague, with Father Paneloux castigating his flock for their “criminal indifference” and intoning, “Calamity has come to you, my brethren, and, my brethren, you deserved it.” We were in La Fontaine, with the king of the animals announcing to his council that heaven permitted this misfortune because of our sins. Nostra culpa.
Oozing goodness and contrition, they sing, reminding us that even before the pandemic they warned against the folly of a world that could not continue as it was, a world headed straight into a wall.
And, finally, there was a foolish conceit: the idea that the virus is speaking to us, that it has a message to deliver, and that because nothing in this world happens without cause or intention, this particular virus, this coronavirus, this virus with spikes and a crown, this king of a virus, must be secretly invested, like a cunning ruse of Hegelian history, with a part of the spirit of the world and thus with a mission: to re-orchestrate the fanfare of All against the Government; to function as an unsparing critic of failed globalization or, as Ivan Vejvoda said in The New York Times, to pose “questions about the interconnectedness of the world as we’ve built it.” According to them, it was the virus that brought into view, as if from invisible ink, the disorders and injustices of the famous “world before” that people were now claiming to have been absolutely detestable. As if a virus could think, know, or intend anything! As if a virus were living!
If there is just one thing one should know about a virus, Georges Canguilhem used to tell us, it is that, unlike a microbe, which, etymologically, signifies “small life,” a virus is a poison. It is not alive or dead and may be nothing more than the radicalization of, and a metaphor for, Martin Heidegger’s concept of “being-toward-death.”
If there is one thing to add to Canguilhem’s rule, it may be Jacques Lacan’s warning that this less-than-nothing, this tiny, furtive monster ready “to spread over the world like the locusts of the Bible,” has no name in the Creation, no more so than bacteria, and thus owes part of its existence to scholars—that is, to humans, who, by naming it, pull it from nothingness.
And, finally, you do not have to be Lacan or Canguilhem to understand two things. First, it is an iron law for any progressive that there is never a “good side” to a calamity, never anything positive or useful to be taken from it. And second, there have always been viruses (and bacteria!). Take the Black Plague, which killed nearly half of Europe’s population in the 14th century. Take the Plague of Athens reported by Thucydides. The plague of Thebes. The Cough of Perinthus, which furnished the occasion for the Greek language to invent, if not the thing itself, then at least its name, epi demos, or, literally, “on the people,” and the first calamity that, in contrast to the biblical idea of a “scourge” afflicting the “firstborn,” fell on an entire people without distinction as to age, rank, or quality. None of these had anything to do with liberal globalization, the depletion of fossil fuels, or atmospheric concentrations of carbon dioxide. You do not have to be a scholar to notice that, all things considered, viruses were on each of those occasions the weapon nature used in violence against humanity more than a sign of the crime humanity had committed against nature.
From this dark providentialism, this punitive magical thinking, this viral catechism that turned our locked-down dwellings into so many purgatories and lazarettos, no one was exempt.
And perhaps it is a general principle of pandemics: in the face of plague, of the implacable, in the face of the prospect of imminent and indiscriminate death, communities have an irrepressible tendency to bond together in fear and shared repentance and to offer up a promise to the virus god never to return to the old ways but rather to invent themselves anew. This is illustrated, by the way, in The Horseman on the Roof, the very great novel of an epidemic—and of freedom amid an epidemic—penned by the same Jean Giono (who was more than just a Pétainist).
Take the Black Plague, the Plague of Athens reported by Thucydides, the plague of Thebes, the Cough of Perinthus. None of these had anything to do with liberal globalization, the depletion of fossil fuels, or atmospheric concentrations of carbon dioxide.
But there are two schools of thought that have been particularly egregious, two whose sanctimonious warnings to the effect that the coronavirus is speaking to humanity have done the most damage.
On one end of the spectrum, there are those who believe that human actions “made the virus,” arguing that when we disrupt natural habitats and meddle with eco-systems, viruses emerge, or that human overpopulation provokes viral exchanges from animals to humans, as David Quammen argued in The New York Times. And there are those who would have us believe that the coronavirus is the direct result of human hubris, interconnectedness, and globalization. Or that “nature is sending us a message,” in the words, alas, of Inger Andersen, the executive director of the United Nations Environment Programme. Or, as filmmaker Michael Moore postulated, that the “virus is a gentle warning from the planet before it takes revenge on humanity over climate change.”
These ecologists, sovereignists, and anti-globalists wanted us to know that they “knew” all along and saw it all coming. Crying, “I told you so,” they have been all too happy to remind us that we had to pull back from globalization, manufacture at home, consume fruits only in season, and beware of international markets. “Never again!” they cried, since one vulgarity more or less won’t make a difference.
These imaginary physicians straight out of Molière (no longer insisting, “The lung, I tell you!,” but now, “The virus, I tell you!”) did not want to miss the “rendezvous.” (They said that!)
They found the crisis to be “sensational” and “the apocalypse” to be an “exciting” theme.
They were obsessed with the risk of “missing the catastrophe” (they said that, too!) and not being in time to seize the “historic opportunity” offered by the pandemic.
Politico, the experts sharing their visions on what the future might bring: “a new kind of patriotism,” “a decline in polarization,” “a new civic federalism,” “a healthier digital lifestyle,” “more cooking,” and so on.
They plied us day in and day out with their “day after,” an evangelical version of the old Leninist “grand soir,” after which nothing would ever be as before because the “ideals of solidarity-equality-moderation” would have “gone viral.”
A “warning” from nature, said one, demanding a transition to a world less destructive of biodiversity. An “ultimatum,” said another, from a mistreated Gaia whose patience had worn thin. And, from all of them, servility with respect to the virus.
The most eminent representative of the servile contingent was French philosopher Bruno Latour, who had the gall to write that the virus is “a tremendous opportunity”; that it is an invisible hand that, with a great “screech of the brakes,” will help ecologists advance their “landing program,” whatever that means. We are faced with an emergency challenge, he said: to combat the coronavirus spread by becoming, like the virus, “globalization cutoff switches” whose “small, insignificant actions, laid end to end,” will do what “the virus does through small exhalations from mouth to mouth”—namely, bring about the revolutionary “suspension” of the “world economy.”
This is the old Marxist refrain of the final crisis of capitalism in her morning-after guise of collapsology, or one of the children’s diseases of socialism updated as disasterism. I know this all too well, having been born and raised in it! It is disastrous, indeed. And obscene.
At the right end of the right, we have the American Pentecostalists, who saw the coronavirus as the judgment of God, a reckoning unleashed on the states that had legalized abortion and marriage for all.
On this side is Ralph Drollinger, the minister who leads a weekly Bible study for Trump’s Cabinet, assuring us that the virus was God’s judgment. Right-wing radio host Rick Wiles claiming that the virus is God’s “death angel seeking justice for transgendering children and putting filth on TVs.” The French bishop who explained to an empty church that “God uses the troubles that befall us” to encourage us to draw from those troubles “lessons of conversion and purification.” A former French-government minister who tweeted that “we all knew something was going to happen” and exulted at seeing gentle Mother Earth finally giving us a spanking. And another French politician, Philippe de Villiers, connecting the pandemic with the Notre Dame fire and seeing in it the second warning bell (with the third not far off in his faux-tragic vision of the world)—a drama of punishment that ushers in a new paradigm for a changed world, just as it does for the left.
This is the old Marxist refrain of the final crisis of capitalism in her morning-after guise of collapsology.
We have Brazil’s Bolsonaro proposing a national fast to exorcise the demon and implore him to take pity. We have a radical Islamic preacher, Hani Ramadan, brother of Brother Tariq, for whom the virus was the fruit of our “turpitudes” and could, if we wished (and if its victims were celebrated as martyrs), be turned into a call for a return to Sharia law.
Not to mention Turkey’s Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, ordering everyone under 20 and over 65 to stay home. And Chechnya’s Ramzan Kadyrov, taking advantage of the quarantine to identify and eliminate some of his opponents. And, in Europe, Hungary’s Viktor Orbán, eagerly reading the nanometric tea leaves of the modern coronavirus to justify new moves in his illiberal takeover, as if these had not been waiting in the wings.
This boils down to more Father Paneloux (from Camus’s The Plague), ending his sermon on the victims of Oran’s epidemic with a peroration on the virtues of suffering: “This same pestilence which is slaying you works for your good and points your path.” It amounts to more Aegisthus (from Sartre’s The Flies), exhorting the new Thebes to beat its breast and “follow the path of redemption.”
A moment later, these profiteers of the virus, buoyed by the wind of conspiracism blowing across the planet, were off on a hunt, not for patient zero but for guilty-party zero and, as in La Fontaine’s fable, the accursed, mangy animal (some would say the scapegoat) whose excesses brought “celestial wrath” down upon us and whose sacrifice was necessary to lift the plague. The only thing missing was the man with his forehead smudged with ashes, the Wandering Jew, walking, in Eugène Sue’s telling, at the pace of “brother Cholera.” And we got there soon enough. Among far-right agitators, the indictment of the “Chinese virus” was quickly followed by the announcement of a “Judeo-virus,” worse than the coronavirus. This led, in turn, to a variety of wild claims. The virus had been designed by Israel as a biological weapon, according to Paul Nehlen, the white supremacist and failed congressional candidate. From the Nation of Islam’s “research group,” we heard that Israel had developed the virus for political assassinations. A Swiss Holocaust denier claimed that George Soros was spreading the virus through his biological laboratories in Wuhan.
Confronted with so much opportunism, with an interpretive fever in which all parties seemed to want to think of themselves as the exclusive augury of the world after the virus (whereas they were doing no more than setting a date with themselves), I began to miss the lessons in simplicity offered by Dr. Rieux in The Plague and Orestes in The Flies …
The American Pentecostalists saw the coronavirus as the judgment of God, a reckoning unleashed on the states that had legalized abortion and marriage for all.
All my life I have fought against the trap of secular religiosity.
Since my early days, when I wrote Barbarism with a Human Face and first read Lacan, I have maintained that assigning a sense or meaning to something that has none and putting words to the beyond-sense that is the inexpressible fact of human suffering is one of the sources of psychosis at best, and totalitarianism at worst.
And I have always thought that it does no one any good to reduce politics to the clinic, to classify as “disorders” the parts of man that are death and evil, or to claim to be able to cure the human race of those conditions.
So, it seems to me appropriate, confronted with obscurantism with a scientific face, to recall two things.
I will repeat, first, that viruses are dumb; they are blind; they are not here to tell us their stories or to relay the stories of humanity’s bad shepherds; and consequently there is no “good use,” no “societal lesson,” no “last judgment” to be expected from a pandemic, nothing to be drawn from it except simple, unemotional observations on the state of a health system (for example) and the fact that we never spend enough, anywhere, for research teams or hospitals.
And next, as Canguilhem taught us, the questions of immunity, recovery, and biological innocence, the relations between the normal and the pathological, health and illness, and life and death, are, epistemologically, much murkier than we have been led to believe over the past few months.
What is a virus? Is it a thing in itself, an essence visiting the body of the patient, something that one can separate from the body and treat in isolation? Or is it instead, as post-Bachelardian epistemology established, a dysfunction in the collection of organs and pathologies that makes a given subject unique? If it is the second, the directors of the blockbuster War Against the Virus, the new Dr. Purgons promising that they were on the way not only to containing it but to purging society of it and eradicating it, should think again.
What is a body? Is it made up of silence and confinement? Or, rather, is it—as taught by true medicine, the medicine that grew from the classification systems of the ancients to the clinical-anatomical method described by Foucault and Canguilhem—a set of miasmas, mucus, coughs, sputa, fears, pathologies, terrors, sweat-drenched nightmares, and bodies attached to other bodies—all capped by the freedom that hovers over all disorders and that Nietzsche called “the great health”?
In which case the Purgons are Diafoiruses who dare not confront the evidence that humanity has always lived, and will continue to live, with its viruses.
To them all, to the rentiers of drama and death, to the bio-dolatrous ventriloquists who made the coronavirus speak (as old-time radio used to give voice to Edgar Bergen’s Charlie McCarthy and Mortimer Snerd), to the thaumaturgists who adored their beautiful virus as Dante did Beatrice and whose armchair catechism could not conceal how little importance they attached to real people and their pain, to the invasive chatterboxes whose positivistic religiosity drowned out the voices of the caregivers on too many days, I was dying to say, “Shut up! Please just shut up.”
One day or another, the virus will be tamed.
By then, will we have forgotten their screeching? I hope so.
Bernard-Henri Lévy is a philosopher, an activist, a filmmaker, and the author of more than 30 books