“[Hope] is tied to the most rigorous realism … it is an attitude of conquest and of a decision to fight. It is an entirely positive, constructive, demanding, and vigorous value. Hope involves an ethic, and it produces in us the appearance of power. It orders time. Nothing in the time of our technological society any longer has order, ordination, nor any qualitative reciprocal variety. Everything flows with insipid liquidity. Yesterday and tomorrow are meaningless … Hope is constructive of true time.”
— Jacques Ellul, Hope in Time of Abandonment
A new month is upon us and even as the daylight hours begin to stretch another kind of darkness settles in. I’m afraid the old Eliot line, April is the cruelest month, may now take on far too literal a sense. One of the strangest aspects of our moment, at least for those of us in the northern hemisphere, is the incongruity of the nature of our situation, on the one hand, and, on the other, the advent of spring. As life leaps forth, we retreat. Here in north Florida, the weather is lovely, although already a touch warm for my tastes. The sky is blue and, of late, cloudless. Birdsong fills the air. Flowers bloom, etc. Meanwhile, we grow tense and anxious, waiting for the storm to overthrow the relative calm.
I hope you are well, although it pains me to consider that this may already not be the case. We are well, all things considered. My family and I are healthy. I have work to do. Our small community, now that most students have cleared out, seems for the moment to be spared a serious outbreak, although, of course, that could change within days. But, I confess, I’ve struggled to get this installment together. I’ve been stuck. Words have been on the screen, but they’ve seemed wrong or they petered out, unable to sustain their forward momentum. Thoughts refused to coalesce meaningfully. Instead, they frayed into threads that I could not quite weave back together again.
So this newsletter arrives in your inbox a couple of days late and with very little to offer. Of course, you care not at all. I realize that. Everything is off somehow, and the least of your worries or mine is the tardiness of an email.
A few weeks ago, I was reading Lewis Mumford’s Art and Technics, and he refers in the opening pages to the old anecdote about the man who wishing to curse his enemy said to him, “May you live in an interesting age.” It seems that we have all been so cursed.
I won’t say much more here this time around, except to reiterate, as I suggested in the last installment, that we have been presented with an opportunity to see more clearly and think more critically about what had passed for normal just two weeks ago. It is, to be sure, an opportunity arising from circumstances we would not have chosen for ourselves. We, however, have no power to change what is now the case, but we do have the ability to do something about what will be the case.
We may now, for example, examine with a greater degree of clarity the rhythms and patterns that shaped the passing of our days and weeks and months, so that we might arrive at a better ordering of our experience of time, learning to receive it as a gift to be embraced rather than as an enemy to be mastered.
Perhaps we will learn to distinguish between solitude and loneliness, cultivating a capacity for the former while alleviating the latter where it is in our power to do so.
Maybe, too, we will find a renewed appreciation for the consolations of fully embodied encounters with one another and with the world beyond our “skull-sized kingdoms,” as David Foster Wallace once aptly put it.
Finally, I’ll leave you with a few words from Blaise Pascal, which, while not directly or obviously apropos to our crisis, seem nonetheless apposite to it.
“We do not rest satisfied with the present. We anticipate the future as too slow in coming, as if in order to hasten its course; or we recall the past, to stop its too rapid flight. So imprudent are we that we wander in the times which are not ours, and do not think of the only one which belongs to us; and so idle are we that we dream of those times which are no more, and thoughtlessly overlook that which alone exists. For the present is generally painful to us. We conceal it from our sight, because it troubles us; and if it be delightful to us, we regret to see it pass away. We try to sustain it by the future, and think of arranging matters which are not in our power, for a time which we have no certainty of reaching.
Let each one examine his thoughts, and he will find them all occupied with the past and the future. We scarcely ever think of the present; and if we think of it, it is only to take light from it to arrange the future. The present is never our end. The past and the present are our means; the future alone is our end. So we never live, but we hope to live; and, as we are always preparing to be happy, it is inevitable we should never be so.”
In the coming days, I aim to pay less attention to the digital feeds and updates. After a certain point, it ceases to be helpful, and, in fact, becomes debilitating. I’d encourage you to do the same if, like me, you’ve been compulsively consuming COVID-19 information for weeks now. I think for now we have our anti-marching orders, as it were: stay home if you can, wear a mask if you can’t. Stay safe.
News and Resources
If you’re looking to make a donation to a non-profit assisting with the health crisis, Charity Navigator may be helpful. If you’re interested in volunteering time and expertise, consider Help With Covid or U.S. Digital Response. Also, here’s a website connecting those who are sewing DIY masks with those who need them (how-to guides for sewing your own masks linked at the site).
April Glaser on the emergence of mutual aid groups around the country in response to COVID-19.
Sean McDonald on “The Digital Response to the Outbreak of COVID-19” : “There is no shortage of inspirational stories emerging from the COVID-19 response — many of which involve the use of technology, but very few of which are driven by it. Emergencies, especially at a global scale, cause fear and, in many instances, truly awesome generosity. No matter your interpretation of the COVID-19 response, one thing should be universal: emergencies are not a blank cheque for state or digital platform power.”
Jaron Lanier and E. Glen Weyl on “How Civic Technology Can Help Stop a Pandemic”: “Taiwan’s success has rested on a fusion of technology, activism, and civic participation. A small but technologically cutting-edge democracy, living in the shadow of the superpower across the strait, Taiwan has in recent years developed one of the world’s most vibrant political cultures by making technology work to democracy’s advantage rather than detriment. This culture of civic technology has proved to be the country’s strongest immune response to the new coronavirus.”
From James Duesterberg’s “Killing Time” at The Point: “More and more often over the last few years I find myself sitting in front of my computer, having brought up a blank browser tab, trying to do something between remembering and anticipating. Was there a piece of information that some other piece of information had reminded me I wanted to check on? Or is there some new thing to find, some new chain whose links might lead to something unexpected? I sit there with my fingers hovering over the keyboard, Ouija-like, waiting to be moved by an impulse, or an algorithm. Now entire days seem to vanish into that waiting room. People compare the internet to a drug, but this is worse, or weirder: it’s like spending all day preparing your kit in case the desire for a fix were to hit you. It’s like wanting to kill time and being unable to find it.”
“Coronavirus Is Speeding Up the Amazonification of the Planet”: “In a scenario as dire as that, Amazon’s moves this week could prove presciently symbolic for a permanent transfer of traditional jobs at local small businesses to unreliable, part-time work for tech giants that distribute products and services through online platforms — the ‘Amazonification’ of our economy.”
Richard Hughes Gibson on tele-teaching in the Hedgehog Review: “This move to tele-teaching has made me recognize that in times like these any channel through which we can still communicate is good. And thanks to the Internet, I think that we can say that we have it really good at the present time. But at least regarding the classroom, I find myself wanting to double down on the argument that I made that the ‘phatic communication’ we perform on social media is second rate.”
A 2017 Jennifer Stitt essay on the distinction between solitude and loneliness in the work of Hannah Arendt: “Arendt observed: ‘Thinking, existentially speaking, is a solitary but not a lonely business; solitude is that human situation in which I keep myself company. Loneliness comes about … when I am one and without company’ but desire it and cannot find it.”
The New Atlantis under the direction of Ari Schulman has been producing helpful analysis and commentary on the coronavirus crisis. Here’s the homepage for their coverage.
Robin Sloan asked his followers on Twitter to share “the most beautiful maps you've ever seen, particularly maps that show topography & vegetation, particularly maps of fictional places.” Here’s the ensuing thread. Curiously, about two-thirds of the way down, there was one that caught my attention. I realized that it had been created by a former student of mine about seven or eight years ago.
— Jonathan Malesic on regret and moral growth at the Hedgehog Review:
“Moral growth doesn’t just mean looking to the future but reconciling past and present selfhood. It demands regret. The person who regrets nothing becomes a conduit for experience without being enlarged or deepened by it. It passes right through her uninterrupted, never bending back on itself, never pooling, never overflowing her banks.”
— Mason Curry, the author of a book on the habits of famous writers, channels this earlier work to write about how to navigate days that no longer have any rhythm or structure. Here are the words of two authors cited by Curry:
William James: “There is no more miserable human being than one in whom nothing is habitual but indecision, and for whom the lighting of every cigar, the drinking of every cup, the time of rising and going to bed every day, and the beginning of every bit of work are subjects of express volitional deliberation.”
W. H. Auden: “A modern stoic knows that the surest way to discipline passion is to discipline time: decide what you want or ought to do during the day, then always do it at exactly the same moment every day, and passion will give you no trouble.”
— From Olga Tokarczuk’s 2018 novel Flights, via Austin Kleon:
“Once we’re on the bus, she sets out her theory of time. She says that sedentary peoples, farmers, prefer the pleasures of circular time, in which every object and event must return to its own beginning, curl back up into an embryo and repeat the process of maturation and death. But nomads and merchants, as they set off on journeys, had to think up a different type of time for themselves, one that would better respond to the needs of their travels. That time is linear time, more practical because it was able to measure progress toward a goal or destination, rises in percentages. Every moment is unique, no moment can ever be repeated. This idea favors risk-taking, living life to the fullest, seizing the day. And yet the innovation is a profoundly bitter one: when change over time is irreversible, loss and mourning become daily things.”
— John Kaag on the art of walking:
“When we give ourselves over to the art of walking, we exist in the moment for no reason or purpose other than that of the experience alone, for the appreciation and apprehension of beauty. There is no purpose in this occurrence, only the immeasurable effect it has on our nerves, our body, our being. Woe the society that sees little or no value in this.”
Again, I hope this note finds you well and please accept my apologies for a lackluster effort this time around. I at least hope that you find the resources linked above helpful and, in some cases, maybe even encouraging.
I’ve opened up the comments to everyone for this installment. Feel free to let us know how things look from where you stand.