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Tuesday, March 31, 2020

Is This The Big One? Our Existential Overreaction To Corona

“This is the big one”, says the Tom Waits character to his wife, played by Lili Tomlin in the Robert Altman film, Short Cuts. Standing in the doorway of their trailer home, drinking the last of their Hawaiian punches (the ones with the little Japanese paper umbrellas), they kiss each other, happy to go out together, and are disappointed when the shakes subside.

Image result for images Tom Waits Lily Tomlin Shortcuts

The fact that their lives might only be beginning, or need renewal, or are awaiting redemption, or even ending is incidental.

Lord Jim, the hero of Conrad’s novel of the same name surrenders to the rebel chief whom he feels he has betrayed and is killed by him, an honorable, redemptive death after years of humiliated flight and attempts and moral redemption.  Heyst, the main character in Conrad’s Victory, realizes that he has facilitated the evil that has taken over Sambouran, and commits suicide – an act not of cowardice but of courageous acknowledgement of the evil world which he had always tried to escape.  Conrad’s Kurtz in Heart of Darkness lies dying without regret or fear; and he like Lord Jim and Heyst acknowledge their frailty and incompetence in an evil world.

Lord Jim (1965) - Rotten Tomatoes

Tens of thousands died at the Battle of Borodino, but are described in Tolstoy’s War and Peace as heroic.  Russian soldiers, assured of certain death as the French cannonballs landed around them, enjoy the camaraderie of the moment.  Dying in a patriotic fight among brethren was not the unhappy end of Hobbes’ short, brutal, and nasty life, but an affirmation of it.  No life was worthy of merit unless it had achieved merit, and falling in the cannonade of Borodino qualified.

In Shakespeare’s Henry V, the king goes disguised to find out what his fighting men think of him and the battle he is waging.  The men, Henry V, are dismissive if not scornful of the king’s ambitions – personal rather than national – but they will fight on nonetheless.  Wars have always been fought so if one’s blood were not shed at Agincourt, it would be spent in Spain, Ireland, or Scotland. Death was a part of life in the early 15th century, and a military one, regardless how unnoticed it might be among thousands of others, had particular value, merit, and meaning.

In those more principled times Death was considered part of life not just its end.  Death had as much meaning as the events which preceded it.  In the Ridley Scott film, Gladiator Maximus, about to be executed by the illegitimate new Emperor's men, says to his executioner, "Give me a clean death.  A soldier's death".  He wasn't afraid of death, nor was he looking for a ceremonious or noble one, just one to satisfy his own sense of dignity, duty, and responsibility.

Image result for images gen kutzusov russian borodino

The ethos of a meaningful death has been recorded in literature since Sir Gawain and the Green Knight. Whether tales of knighthood, battlefield valor, Biblical heroism or simply the fabulist tales of theatrical death, death was illuminated as the event of one's life, not just its unceremonious end. The life of Jesus Christ was of little importance compared to his death.

Death for most of us is an eventuality to be put off at all costs.  There is no such thing as a meaningful death, one which is an integral part of life, but an unpleasant finality, an end to things as they were, nothing more.

Of course any loss of life is regrettable, and of course defenses against the virus have to be put in place in the same manner as Kutuzov did at Borodino against the French.  The reactions of one force against the invasion of another will always be the same – bastions, avant-gardes, arriere-gardes, Maginot lines, barbed wire, and fortressed battlements – but the spirit of the troops - in this case we Americans - is different.

It is not surprising that fear and panic best describe our reaction to the Corona virus.  We will scrub, distance, mask, and shutter ourselves - in fact we will do anything and everything to keep the virus and the death it brings at bay.

While the idea of a meaningful death is long lost in history; and while the reactions to death and dying are more limited, secular, and practical; it is still surprising that given the very distinct possibility of death from Corona, there is not more spiritual reflection.  Priests and ministers are calling for social responsibility, communitarian duty, and doing the right thing; but say little about preparing for the death that awaits many.  So not only are we clinging desperately to life but are reluctant to consider or confront death.

It took Ivan Ilyich, the main character of Tolstoy’s story of the same name, a long while to realize that it was time to forget pettiness and narrow, temporal concerns and to turn to dying, death, and beyond.  Only at the moment of his death does he realize that the life he is leaving behind means nothing – not family, friends, community, or profession.  Ilyich was not so much afraid of dying, but unprepared for it.  How stupid he was, he thinks as his illness progresses, to overvalue the present and devalue the future.

The Death of Ivan Ilych and Other Stories (Penguin Classics) by ...

It is perhaps too much to ask the young to reflect on life and death as Ivan Ilyich does; but not the old.

Corona is not The Big One, not an existential event nor one which signals The End of Days; but reaction to it suggests just how ill-prepared we are for it – not hospital beds, respirators, and protective masks, but a spiritual safe space from which to think about death, dying, and a possible spiritual future.

Given the existential perspective that any world crisis or pandemic affords, the 6’ social distancing, the masks,  jumpy outings to the supermarket, and most importantly the demurral at the coming of Easter, the most important event of the Christian calendar signifying rebirth and spiritual life, seem desperate and vain.

Most of us, once the epidemic crisis is over, will look back with some shame on our scurry-for-the-burrow mentality, our quick-to-escape antisocial behavior, and turning our backs on meaning. 

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