The pandemic has made philosophers of us all. Questions that were ignored or swept into the mind’s unattended corners have crept to the forefront. How will the future be different from the past? What risks are worth taking? Is solitude an endurable human condition?
Such enquiries and more, are at the heart of two short, dissimilar books by philosopher Bernard-Henri Lévy and novelist Zadie Smith, respectively. Both are mid-pandemic musings, written when the global crisis has yet to play itself out.
Of the two, Lévy’s The Virus in the Age of Madness is more polemical, questioning our response to the coronavirus and referring to past thinkers and plagues to make scathing judgments. Smith’s Intimations, on the other hand, is a series of personal essays ranging over facets of her life just before and after the crisis washed over the world.
For Lévy, responses to the virus are akin to a form of collective blindness, as in the José Saramago novel. “All across the planet, in the most impoverished lands no less than in the great metropolises, we have witnessed entire populations tremble and allow themselves to be driven into their dwellings, or sometimes clubbed in, like game into its burrow,” he thunders.
This is an epidemic of fear, not just of COVID-19, according to him. There have been earlier plagues that humankind has survived, he points out, such as the so-called Spanish flu or the 1968 Hong Kong outbreak. In contrast, the rhetoric of an invisible enemy being kept at bay by frontline and healthcare workers seems to be all-pervasive nowadays.
He wonders whether it’s too early to tell if “the masters of the world” see this great confinement as a rehearsal for a new way to arrest, oppress, and detain a mass of people. Meanwhile, other pressing issues such as climate change, global hunger and the refugee crisis are pushed into the background.
Unfortunately, Lévy appears to look upon social distancing and mask-wearing as burdensome, even if necessary. He also seems unusually alarmed by the notion that the handshake may soon be obsolete.
It’s not that Lévy is insensitive to renewed civic spirit and solidarity. Further, “we should be eternally grateful to have finally become aware not only of the existence, but also of the eminent dignity, of an entire population of invisible people (caregivers, cashiers, farmers, freight haulers, garbage collectors, delivery workers) who suddenly became visible.”
It’s the out-of-proportion reactions that concern the controversial French thinker. He takes issue with what he calls “the rise of medical power”, pointing to Foucauldian notions of control. There is no one single-minded medical establishment, he points out, warning of the pitfalls of blind confidence.
Lévy also pooh-poohs those who say that the virus is a lesson from the destruction of natural habitats and that “nature is sending us a message”. His pragmatic point is that assigning a sense or meaning to “the inexpressible fact of human suffering” is absurd.
The virus is dumb and blind, and one day it will be tamed. There’s no need for “rentiers of drama and death” and “invasive chatterboxes”. As for those who feel that this is a chance for an ennobling solitude, Lévy’s view is that confinement is the opposite of the human condition. In his words, “hell is not other people, but the self”. Not a fan of staying indoors, then.
Evidently, the book contains many provocations. One doesn’t have to agree with all of them to see that, in his own grandiose manner, he is calling for a sense of perspective. The pandemic is one global mess out of many, he asserts, and should be handled with proportion instead of putting everything else on hold.
To turn from Lévy’s screed to the essays of Zadie Smith is to go from the bustle of a podium to the intimacy of a drawing room. One of her epigraphs is a statement by Marcus Aurelius: “No role is so well-suited to philosophy as the one you happen to be in right now.” It’s apt for the series of musings that follow.
“These are above all personal essays,” she writes, “small by definition, short by necessity.” The size of the pieces belies their depth. Characters, places and moods mingle in these pages, along with observations on her art.
“Writing is control,” she explains. “The part of the university in which I teach should properly be called the Controlling Experience Department.” Writers take a “largely shapeless bewilderment” of life and pour it into “a mould of their own devising.”
The moulds she uses are of various types. There is a description of watching bright pink and orange tulips in the barred enclosure of a New York garden a few days before “the global humbling” enclosed most of us. There is a meditation on the changing nature of our attitudes towards concepts of death and fear. There are mini-portraits of characters, from a salon masseur to a homeless Broadway eccentric to an old family acquaintance at a London bus stop, all of whom exhibit a prism of reactions to the pandemic.
Another essay on the people in her life takes a different form. These are “debts and lessons” in the shape of succinct, impressionistic and sometimes moving sketches on her parents, friends, husband, teachers and artists such as Tracy Chapman, Zora Neale Hurston, and Virginia Woolf. She confesses that “her children know the truth about me but still tolerate her, so far” and that her “physical and moral cowardice have never really been tested, until now.”
The extended postscript shows her at her most stirred-up. Where Lévy points to a pandemic of fear, Smith unearths a deadly virus of contempt. This spreads rapidly from individuals to families, communities, peoples, power structures, and nations. “When contempt kills you, it doesn’t have to be a vendetta or even entirely conscious. It can be a passing whim. It’s far more common and therefore more lethal.”
In this light, she excoriates the actions of Dominic Cummings and spotlights a system that leads to the death of George Floyd. Those infected by the virus of contempt can be unaware of it, and afterwards, do little more than reading relevant volumes or posting on social media.
Superficial cures aren’t enough. “The DNA of this virus is economic at base, and therefore is most effectively attacked when many different members of the plague class -- that is, all economically exploited people, whatever their race -- act in solidarity with each other.” A rousing and fitting finale.
These books, in their different ways, are vistas of our changed lives. Lévy takes a wide angle; Smith favours a close-up. Lévy shows us a panorama; Smith, the individual in the landscape. Think of them as bookends to the large number of pandemic volumes that are soon going to fill the shelves. Sanjay Sipahimalani is a Mumbai-based writer and reviewer.