“We lost our home, which means the familiarity of daily life. We lost our occupation, which means the confidence that we are of some use in this world. We lost our language, which means the naturalness of reactions, the simplicity of gestures, the unaffected expression of feelings.”
With these words Hannah Arendt gave expression to the refugee experience. She knew of what she spoke. A German Jew, Arendt fled her native country in the 1930s after a brief imprisonment at the hands of the Gestapo. She lived in Paris until France fell to the Nazis and she found herself a stateless person. She fled once more, this time making her way to New York in 1941, where she lived for the rest of her life.
I hope it does not disrespect her experience, or that of countless other refugees of her time or ours, to suggest that in her words I am finding a way to make sense of our life during a pandemic.
I suspect most of us have not fled our homeland under threat of violence or oppression, although perhaps your parents like mine did, but we have nonetheless lost the familiarity of daily life to the pandemic. In countless ways we have bid farewell to the condition formerly known as normal. Millions of our fellow citizens in the United States have, in fact, lost their occupation. And while we may not have lost our language in the literal sense that Arendt means, we, too, have lost the naturalness of reactions, the simplicity of gestures, and the unaffected expression of feelings, whether because face coverings and social distancing protocols discourage the handshake, the hug, the kiss on the cheek or because these ancient tangible signs of warmth and affection cannot exist in the virtual spaces to which we have been lately exiled. What’s more our language, while still functioning, nonetheless fails us as we seek to make sense of our experience.
Even those who have thus far been spared the worst of the pandemic find themselves anxious, restless, and uneasy. Public health officials warn of a mental health epidemic that will follow on the heals of the viral epidemic and the social measures we have taken against it. Frustration and anger erupt throughout the country, explained in large measure by the failures of our political leadership but no doubt also stemming in many cases from profound loss, uncertainty, precarity, and a grief that does not yet know itself as such.
It is not that we have fled the world we knew, as Arendt and her fellow refugees did, it is rather that the world we knew has fled from us. So we have become the refugees that never left home, indeed, whose world was lost precisely while we stayed home. And while many hold out hope that a vaccine or a therapeutic or herd immunity or whatever other miracle we hope for will somehow let us bring that old world back, it seems increasingly clear that it will not return, not in its old familiar form anyway. Change cannot be undone, the thread of time cannot be rewound.
It is worth noting that Arendt spends a great deal of time in her short essay discussing the contrived optimism of the refugee class with which she was familiar. “Their optimism is the vain attempt to keep head above water,” she writes. “Behind this front of cheerfulness, they constantly struggle with despair of themselves.” So, too, we might confess, does our optimism sit uncomfortably close to despair.
I have no answer and much less a solution to offer you, but I think we do well to acknowledge our status as refugees from a world to which we will never return and about which we can now only tell stories. Such an acknowledgement seems to me a necessary first step toward whatever good we might yet make of our situation.
But there’s something else we might note. In the experience of crisis we are merely compressing and intensifying a condition that has been endemic to modern life—the experience of a world being lost, of recurring little apocalypses. “Freely men confess that this world's spent,” the seventeenth century poet John Donne lamented. “Tis all in pieces, all coherence gone.”
Much more recently, the novelist Jonathan Franzen, in his discussion of the work of Karl Kraus, another prophet of worlds lost, spoke truly when he wrote, “The experience of each succeeding generation is so different from that of the previous one that there will always be people to whom it seems that the key values have been lost and there can be no more posterity. As long as modernity lasts, all days will feel to someone like the last days of humanity.”
Maybe this is why nostalgia is native to modernity. There is always something lost: a place, a time, a self. The losses are not uncompensated, of course. They are the price we pay, under varying degrees of consent, for the dynamism of modernity, whose gifts, however unevenly distributed they may be, are not illusory, even if their costs are often veiled. This is the tale of creative destruction. It is the condition of a society characterized by what the German sociologist Hartmut Rosa has aptly called “social acceleration,” which now achieves a rate at which worlds are lost not just from one generation to the next but intra-generationally.
Don’t misunderstand me. This is not itself an exercise in nostalgia, expect insofar as it might be a “reflective nostalgia,” as the Russian-American philologist Svetlana Boym, has put it, which “tries to tease out the difference between the past and present to formulate the future.”
Perhaps, then, one of the chief virtues of our moment is that, by the speed and intensity of its effects, it has made plain to us the condition under which we have lived but which, unfolding at a more deliberate and uneven pace, escaped our notice except insofar as it registered as an inarticulate unease or unnamable emptiness.
And in this realization we may find the sources of a concerted effort to realize a more humane future, one in which the cost of our security and prosperity is neither the servitude of others nor what Arendt later went on to call a state of world alienation. World in this sense is not synonymous with the earth, but rather is Arendt’s way of talking about durable human culture, which grants human beings a stable and meaningful context within which to live and act. It is little wonder that Arendt the refugee came to see the state of worldlessness as one of the dangers characteristic of the modern era.
The displacements, the internal and sometimes external experience of exile, the recurring “little apocalypses,” were a theme also taken up by Arendt’s contemporary, the remarkable Simone Weil, especially in The Need for Roots, which Weil first wrote as a framework for rebuilding French society after the German occupation. In one of its best known passages, Weil wrote,
“To be rooted is perhaps the most important and least recognized need of the human soul. It is one of the hardest to define. A human being has roots by virtue of his real, active and natural participation in the life of a community which preserves in living shape certain particular treasures of the past and certain particular expectations for the future. This participation is a natural one, in the sense that it is automatically brought about by place, conditions of birth, profession and social surroundings. Every human being needs to have multiple roots. It is necessary for him to draw well nigh the whole of his moral, intellectual and spiritual life by way of the environment of which he forms a natural part.”
This paragraph opens the second major section of the work, which goes on to catalog the sources of uprootedness in modern society. It is easy to see, I think, the relationship between the condition of uprootedness Weil analyzed and the worldlessness Arendt feared, and, by extension, our own experience of displacement.
Weil wrote in order to clarify an opportunity, to plot a new path forward. The cataclysm that was the Second World War had created the space to reimagine society built upon a new, firmer foundation. Needless to say, such projects are hardly ever realized, but they should not for that reason be discounted or abandoned, especially to degree that they are grounded in some genuine insight about the human condition.
We, too, have an opportunity in the space created by the pandemic we still fail to fully understand and which we are far from mastering. Right now, our collective efforts and attention, when they are not ill-spent on culture war skirmishes and hyperreal spectacles, are focused on the work of finding medical remedies and developing strategies to make due in their absence. But many are now also positioning themselves to seize this opportunity to shape the future. But in whose interest and toward what sort of future?
Will we move forward with a renewed appreciation for our “need for roots,” as Weil put it, or for a durable and common world as Arendt would have it? Can we imagine communities, institutions, economic arrangements, political structures, cultural practices, and creative endeavors that generate a vibrant and stable world that is more conducive to human flourishing? I hope we have the opportunity to wrestle with these questions as a society. Failing that, I hope we find sufficient freedom and courage to strike out on our own and with whatever band of friends we can muster in new and better directions based on whatever wisdom we’ve gleaned from our little apocalypse. After all, our word apocalypse, coming to us via Latin from ancient Greek, literally means to reveal or unveil. May we have eyes to see.