Though mild, I have what I am fairly sure are the symptoms of coronavirus. Three weeks ago I was in extended and close contact with someone who has since tested positive. When I learned this, I spent some time trying to figure out how to get tested myself, but now the last thing I want to do is to go stand in a line in front of a Brooklyn hospital along with others who also have symptoms. My wife and I have not been outside our apartment since March 10th. We have opened the door just three times since then, to receive groceries that had been left for us by an unseen deliveryman, as per our instructions, on the other side. We read of others going on walks, but that seems like a selfish extravagance when you have a dry cough and a sore throat. This is the smallest apartment I’ve ever lived in. I am noticing features of it, and of the trees, the sky and the light outside our windows, that escaped my attention—shamefully, it now seems—over the first several months since we arrived here in August. I know when we finally get out I will be like the protagonist of Halldór Laxness’s stunning novel, World Light, who, after years of bedridden illness, weeps when he bids farewell to all the knots and grooves in the wood beams of his attic ceiling.
I am not at all certain that my university in Paris will be open for business when it comes time to reinstitute my salary in June, which I had voluntarily suspended in order to take a year-long fellowship in New York. I am not at all sure that a few months from now the world is going to be the sort of place where a citizen of one country can expect to resume his public function in another country’s education system. I am not at all sure universities are going to be the sort of place where one can, again, get together with others in a room and deign to speak with them of what is beautiful and true. Meanwhile, my mother is in cancer treatment in California, and I fear I may never see her again. Until a few days ago my sister, a glacial marine geoscientist, was stuck in unexpectedly thick ice, on an icebreaker too small to break it, in the ocean somewhere off the coast of Antarctica; now her international crew is floating again, uncertain how they will get back to the Northern Hemisphere in a world of quarantines, closed borders and canceled flights, but still just happy to be back on the open sea. My wife is here with me on a tourist visa that will soon expire. We do not know what things will be like in New York when that happens, or whether there might be an exemption for foreigners who overstay their visas only because they are unable to leave what might by then be a fully locked-down city. She has an elderly grandmother in Europe. Should she leave now to be with her, while she still can and while her papers are still valid? What would become of me, if she were to go?
These are some of the questions we find ourselves asking right now. They are not exceptional, among the billions of small tragedies this pandemic has churned up. But they are mine. I have often wondered what life would be like for the survivors of a nuclear war, and in these fleeting recollections of the old world—there used to be Starbucks and barber shops, there used to be a subway I’d get on to go to the library, there used to be embrassades—I feel like I am gaining a small glimpse of that.
I find that I am generally at peace, and that the balance between happiness and sadness on any given day is little different from what it always has been for me. I find that there is liberation in this suspension of more or less everything. In spite of it all, we are free now. Any fashion, sensibility, ideology, set of priorities, worldview or hobby that you acquired prior to March 2020, and that may have by then started to seem to you cumbersome, dull, inauthentic, a drag: you are no longer beholden to it. You can cast it off entirely and no one will care; likely, no one will notice. Were you doing something out of mere habit, conceiving your life in a way that seemed false to you? You can stop doing that now. We have little idea what the world is going to look like when we get through to the other side of this, but it is already perfectly clear that the “discourses” of our society, such as they had developed up to about March 8 or 9, 2020, in all their frivolity and distractiousness, have been decisively curtailed, like the CO2 emissions from the closed factories and the vacated highways.