The Theater and the Pandemic
by
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I

In the early days of the Wuhan plague, the Berlin daily newspaper Tagesspiegel warned its readers that the new contagion “spreads out invisibly. It spreads along the streets and train tracks, over the counters and tables, the packaging and surfaces. And it spreads above all about what makes us human: closeness to each other. Confidential conversations, joint efforts on the sports field, tender touches — all of this helps the new coronavirus on its way through the world. Hands, nose, eyes, mouth: for SARS-COV-2, people are open wounds waiting to be infected. Some people simply cannot afford it.” SARS-CoV-2 is hardly unique in this regard, of course, so Geoffrey Luck, writing in Australia’s Quadrant, perceived in such purple prose as a “message of fear, of an unknown and invisible killer,” one “designed to condition the citizens to accept unquestioningly the repressive measures prescribed for them by their betters.”

It has certainly done the trick. People now parrot the language of public health authorities, peppering their common parlance with phrases unheard of three months ago, including “social distancing,” “flatten the curve,” and “community spread.” Pedestrians instinctively cross the road when they see someone approaching a block away, and grocery-goers grumble at fellow shoppers when one-way aisle directional arrows are not scrupulously followed. Masks are ubiquitous, sported by solitary walkers and even drivers alone in their vehicles, while cashiers are now ensconced behind jerry-built plexiglass barriers. Thus has our entire built world become permeated with all the cursed energy of the modern hospital.

Voltaire observed that, traditionally at least, in matters of health “we are all like the most of the ladies of Paris: they live extremely well without knowing what goes into the stew; in the same way we enjoy bodies without knowing what they are composed of.” Before the modern era, before the advent of materialism and the germ theory, we tended to think in more holistic terms. Roy Porter, in his brilliant but sadly posthumously published Flesh in the Age of Reason (2003), discussed how in previous eras “the form of man was the soul, and the soul was the form of the body. In Aristotelian and Galenic thinking, dynamic activity depended on the form; the soul was thus the mover and the end (final cause) of all the actions of living bodies (not just humans).” A “human being was thus represented in traditional biomedicine as a complex, differentiated, but integrated whole,” one in which “humours, complexion and temperament constituted an interactive system, equipped with feedback loops.”

Our entire built world has become permeated with all the cursed energy of the modern hospital.

Disease was, as a consequence, “standardly read not as a random assault from the outside, but as a significant life-event, integral to the sufferer’s whole being, spiritual, moral, and physical, to his or her humoral balance, and to his or her life-course, past, present, and future.” This is seldom the case today, though some do take holistic health or Antoine Béchamp’s terrain theory more seriously than others. It was therefore inevitable, in our materialistic and health-obsessed — though not particularly healthy — society, that the emergence of a serious pandemic would serve to reduce the individual to a collection of open sores, a walking cell-culture dish crawling with pathogens, an inherent danger to oneself and an even greater danger to others.

Media organs seem to positively revel in such imagery. On May 12, the Washington Post breathlessly reported that an “experiment shows human speech generates droplets that linger in the air for more than 8 minutes,” based on a study conducted by researchers at the National Institute of Diabetes and Digestive and Kidney Diseases and the University of Pennsylvania that analyzed how “loud speech can emit thousands of oral fluid droplets per second,” while even “normal speaking also produces thousands of oral fluid droplets with a broad size distribution.” As the law blogger Ann Althouse responded with tongue (I think) firmly in cheek: “How did we ever sit together in restaurants and talk and eat? Saliva was always constantly flying about and getting up our nose and into our mouth and onto our food! It was inexpressibly gross. And now that we know, how can we ever eat anywhere near another person…. How can we talk with anyone other than over the internet? Human life as we have known it is over … but we can’t say that. What would be the point? Life is too unhealthful to be lived?” For my part, I am rather more interested in how we ever arrived at this horrible juncture in human social evolution, wherein even the most basic interactions have been, retroactively and for the foreseeable future, recast as “inexpressibly gross.”

II

Back in 2006, a team led by the director of the Johns Hopkins Center for Health Security considered possible mitigation measures that might be proposed in the face of a highly pathogenic H5N1 avian influenza pandemic. Their article, “Disease Mitigation Measures in the Control of Pandemic Influenza,” published in Biosecurity and Bioterrorism, was prescient to say the least. While assuming, arguendo, a case-fatality ratio equivalent to that of 1918 (roughly 2.5 percent), it was with abundant foresight that the team first warned that

No model, no matter how accurate its epidemiologic assumptions, can illuminate or predict the secondary and tertiary effects of particular disease mitigation measures. Nor, for example, can it assess the potential effects of high absentee rates resulting from home or regional quarantine on the functioning integrity of essential services, such as hospital care or provision of food and electrical service to the community. If particular measures are applied for many weeks or months, the long-term or cumulative second- and third-order effects could be devastating socially and economically. In brief, models can play a contributory role in thinking through possible mitigation measures, but they cannot be more than an ancillary aid in deciding policy.

(It is rather worse, one presumes, to rely on a model like that of Imperial Colleges microsimulation model, variously described as “totally unreliable,” a “buggy mess,” and “the most devastating software mistake of all time, in terms of economic costs and lives lost.” Playing far more than an ancillary role was that notorious model, on which, as David Richards and Konstantin Boudnik lamented in the pages of the Telegraph, “policymakers based their fateful decision to mothball our multi-trillion pound economy and plunge millions of people into poverty and hardship.”)

“Possible measures that have been proposed,” Thomas V. Inglesby, et al., continued in the mitigation article, “include: isolation of sick people in hospital or at home, use of antiviral medications, hand-washing and respiratory etiquette, large-scale or home quarantine of people believed to have been exposed, travel restrictions, prohibition of social gatherings, school closures, maintaining personal distance, and the use of masks.” Yet the team cautioned that

A number of mitigation measures that are now being considered could have a serious impact on the ability of the health system to deliver adequate care and could have potentially adverse consequences for the provision of essential services. Many could result in significant disruption of the social functioning of communities and result in possibly serious economic problems. Such negative consequences might be worth chancing if there were compelling evidence or reason to believe they would seriously diminish the consequences or spread of a pandemic. However, few analyses have been produced that weigh the hoped-for efficacy of such measures against the potential impacts of large-scale or long-term implementation of these measures.

Inglesby’s team, in the end, concluded that “there are no historical observations or scientific studies that support the confinement by quarantine of groups of possibly infected people for extended periods in order to slow the spread of influenza. A World Health Organization (WHO) Writing Group, after reviewing the literature and considering contemporary international experience, concluded that ‘forced isolation and quarantine are ineffective and impractical … The negative consequences of large-scale quarantine are so extreme (forced confinement of sick people with the well; complete restriction of movement of large populations; difficulty in getting critical supplies, medicines, and food to people inside the quarantine zone) that this mitigation measure should be eliminated from serious consideration.’ ”

This position was entirely consistent with what was then perceived medical wisdom. In 2001, Dr. Joseph Barbera of George Washington University and seven coauthors, writing in Journal of the American Medical Association, did not mince words in declaring that “imposition of large-scale quarantine compulsory sequestration of groups of possibly exposed persons or human confinement within certain geographic areas to prevent spread of contagious disease should not be considered a primary public health strategy in most imaginable circumstances.”

Yet this is precisely the course of action we have undertaken — with a few notable exceptions — an approach so extreme, so unprecedented in historical terms, that it required an equally unprecedented level of social manipulation and control. It required people being quite literally frightened out of their wits. It required people being led to the conclusion that life itself is “too unhealthful to be lived.” As Peter Hitchens put it, “the government tried to distil power out of fear,” but “to do so it created too much fear,” and “now millions are scared of going back to normal.”

Getting things back to “normal” in such an environment requires the dismantling of the recently erected mental framework that obliges us to think of our fellow man as an existential threat, an ambulatory reservoir of dangerous pathogens whose very breath represents a clear and present danger. That will require a delicate dance, one which balances the pressing needs of public health, the beleaguered economy, and mass psychology.

Nic Rowan, in these pages, has referred to the “mask masquerade,” a “necessary health performance” not unlike a “morality play.” There is now a performative aspect to mask-wearing and other health measures, regardless of how, as Inglesby, et al,. noted, “studies have shown that the ordinary surgical mask does little to prevent inhalation of small droplets bearing influenza virus,” and that “the pores in the mask become blocked by moisture from breathing, and the air stream simply diverts around the mask.” A 2015 Vietnamese study found that “penetration of the cloth masks by particles was 97 per cent compared to 44 per cent for surgical masks and the rate of influenza-like illness was 2.3 per cent for cloth masks versus 0.2 per cent for surgical masks versus 0.7 per cent in the control group. Cloth masks did worse than surgical masks in terms of protecting health-care workers, and oddly also did worse than usual care.” In Sweden, which has handled the pandemic with a certain amount of panache and aplomb, Johan Carlson of the Folkhälsomyndigheten (Public Health Agency) has flatly asserted that “face masks in public spaces do not provide any greater protection to the population.” But given the widely held and not entirely implausible opinion that a muzzled populace will produce fewer “oral fluid droplets with a broad size distribution” than an unmuzzled one, it seems that the face coverings are here to stay.

Masks, like the curiously rapid acceptance of Remdesivir as the “new standard of care,” are part of the pandemic kabuki act in which we are all now compelled to participate. The ersatz masquerade, the public briefings with their matinées and evening performances (replete with props and special guests), and the weekly “Clap for our Carers” ritual all amount to a form of collective playacting. There are all the elements of a farce, like CNN’s Kaitlan Collins obsessing over mask usage and then instantly ripping off her own after she thought the White House briefing room cameras were turned off. We have plot twists and heel turns, viz. Gov. Andrew Cuomo’s constant invocation of the mantra that “We’re not going to accept a premise that human life is disposable,” followed by his basically perpetrating a genocidal campaign against the residents New York nursing homes, and, after being caught, breezily declaring that “older people, vulnerable people are going to die…. Thats going to happen despite whatever you do.” If we are indeed inhabiting a play, surely one must think of it much as Alexis Soloski described Shepard’s Buried Child — “part comedy, part tragedy, part mystery, part horror show.”

III

This is all putting me in mind of Antonin Artaud (1896–1948) and his essay “Le Théâtre et la Peste” — “Theater and the Plague” — which posited that “the action of the theater, like that of the plague, is redemptive, because it impels us to see ourselves as we are. It makes the mask fall; it uncovers the lie, the apathy, the contemptibility, the two-facedness” of our society. In his essay, Artaud archly advanced the antiquated theory that “if one wished to analyze closely all the facts of plague contagion that history or even memoirs provide us with, it would be difficult to isolate one actually verified instance of contagion by contact.” (Francis Bacon notably rejected the “Vast and Bottomlesse Follies” of Paracelsian physicians and insisted that the plague actually passes by “the Force of Imagination.”)

What Artaud was really getting at, according to Ian Munro, was that for society writ large “the effects of the disease are the disease; the social and psychological chaos that plague inaugurates is as much a direct product of the disease as is the somatic chaos of buboes, fevers, lesions, and death. In his opposition to the reductive compartmentalization of modern scientific medicine and psychology, Artaud refuses to make a separation between body and mind or between the body of a citizen and the body of the city.” In Artaud’s own words, “personally, I regard this microbe only as a smaller — infinitely smaller — material element which appears at some moment in the development of the virus but in no way accounts for the plague” in its fullest sense.

Any pandemic has both a purely medical and a more broadly sociological dimension. The latter, in Artaud’s conception, tends to bring out the carnivalesque, with its relaxation of norms and the dissolution of customary mores, as seen in the Black Death with its danses macabres and “eat, drink, and be merry” hedonism. But Michel Foucault, in Discipline and Punish, while acknowledging how “a whole literary fiction of festival grew up around the plague,” nevertheless stressed the “political dream of the plague, which was exactly its reverse: not the collective festival, but strict divisions; not laws transgressed, but the penetration of regulation into even the smallest details of everyday life.” These days we see a great deal more of the latter than the former, a natural and immediate consequence of the scientific materialism of our age (with doctors increasingly viewed as a new priestly class), the increased role of central governments in our daily lives, and the newfound ability for at least a certain percentage of the (invariably white-collar) workforce to accept a quarantined, locked-down existence made palatable by broadband, Zoom, Shopify, Disney+, Peloton, and so on.

Exacerbating matters, as David Randall rightly pointed out in First Things, is the widespread miseducation of a populace that has been taught from a young age to “dedicate themselves instead to life without limits, and the cant progressive politics of our day,” ignoring Montaigne’s maxim that “the first lessons in which we should steep his [the students] mind must be those that regulate his behavior and his sense, that will teach him to know himself and to die well and live well. Among the liberal arts, let us begin with the art that liberates us.” Our youth have for decades been steeped in “social justice, a mix of Marx and Marcuse, a blend of personal and social ‘transformation,’” which is really what Thomas Carlyle in his Latter-day Pamphlets called “pig-philosophy,” the body of thought that reduces humans to mere creatures of appetite, the universe to an “immeasurable Swine’s-trough,” one in which the highest moral good is the attainment of pig’s-wash and good barley, and the greatest moral evil being the absence thereof. It is little wonder that a society fashioned along those lines would, in the face of a novel contagion, throw up its hands and declare that, when all is said and all is done, life might simply be too unhealthy to be lived.

All the same, we know from Ecclesiastes that “what has been will be again, what has been done will be done again; there is nothing new under the sun.” While some aspects of the present crisis are unprecedented — SARS-CoV-2 itself, the large-scale sequestration of healthy individuals, the almost total reliance by politicians on simulations based on mysterious stochastic models — we can still hold up the mirror of the past and see our present selves reflected. Bocaccio famously described how during the Florentine Black Death outbreak “townsman avoided townsman and that well nigh no neighbour took thought unto other and that kinsfolk seldom or never visited one another and held no converse together save from afar, this tribulation had stricken such terror to the hearts of all, men and women alike, that brother forsook brother, uncle nephew and sister brother and oftentimes wife husband.” William Muggins, writing amidst the plague epidemic of 1603, wondered “where are our solemn meetings and frequent assemblies; men stand far off; the streets and highways mourn: traffic ceaseth,” while Thomas Dekker expressed dismay at the “empty and untrodden walks” and the “still and melancholy streets.” London had become a “vast, silent Charnell-house,” and fear took over the people’s reason. John Taylor, in his 1625 plague pamphlet The Fearful Summer, puzzled over how private letters were all of a sudden considered to be a potential vehicle for plague transmission:

Nor London letters little better sped,
They would not be receiv’d (much less be read)
But cast into the fire and burnt with speed
As if they had been Hereticks indeed.

Dekker thought the concern over infected paper rather amusing, and in The Wonderful Year (1603) advised his reader that “if you read, you may happily laugh; ’tis my desire you should, because mirth is both physical and wholesome against the plague, with which sickness (to tell truth) this book is, (though not sorely), yet somewhat infected.”

When the plague was over, Dekker rejoiced that “in euery street, carts and Coaches make such a thundring as if the world ranne vpon wheels: at everie corner, men, women, and children meete in such shoales, that postes are sette vp of purpose to strengthen the houses, least with iustling one another they should shoulder them downe.” The hustle and bustle of everyday life had returned, and things reverted back to normal.

Much the same will happen for us. Museums, theaters, stadiums, houses of worship — all will begin to reemerge from their states of suspended animation. Diners will, given time, start to patronize those establishments that weathered the storm, even if “human speech generates droplets that linger in the air.” Someday baseball players may even be permitted to hug and spit sunflower seed shells.

As to whether we will collectively conclude, as Benjamin Spencer did in his 1625 tractate Vox Civitatis: or, Londons Complaint against her Children in the Countrie, that “God hath swept my house, so desire to garnish it with virtue, and furnish it with grace,” we may live in hope. As the social, economic, and psychological chaos of our pandemic eclipses the somatic chaos it has inflicted, we will continue to shoulder the physical and moral burdens of the plague, just as so many generations before us have done. Yet all of the theatrics surrounding this pandemic have at least caused a great many masks to drop, revealing our leaders and fellow citizens for who they really are, for better and for worse, something which will be of considerable value going forward.

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