What will we remember from COVID-19?
Housebound, and enjoying a brief respite from the cancer that is killing him, the New Yorker’s longtime art critic Peter Schjeldahl has been pondering Big Questions.
Given his profession, his Big Questions might seem rather different than yours or mine. Among them, this one: “Why does the art of what we term the Old Masters have so much more soulful heft than that of most moderns and nearly all of our contemporaries?”
His answer is simple and profound: “a routine consciousness of mortality.”
Until very recently, as human history goes, life expectancy averages were low—not because adults were routinely keeling over at forty or fifty, but because terrible infant mortality rates were so high. If you got to age five, that is, you might well live to sixty or seventy—even in the middle ages. But families everywhere were marked by death: death of children, death of mothers. Lots of death.
If you did get past your fifth birthday, moreover, life for most would be largely as Thomas Hobbes described it in the state of nature: “poor, nasty, and brutish.” Even kings and queens until well into the modern era lived without hot and cold running water, indoor sanitation, refrigeration, central heating, and air conditioning.
And everyone did without the very basics of effective medicine—analgesics, anaesthesia, antibiotics, and sterile procedures—until just yesterday, historically speaking.
Memento mori—“Remember that you must die”—doesn’t have to be intoned much these days, does it? But how grateful are we for the lives we do live?
Many of us are suffering badly right now for lack of employment and lack of funds. Can we all of us nonetheless give thanks for what is still ours: law and order, compassionate friends and family, a measure of social support, and the promise of recovery in months, rather than years—or never?
Schjeldahl’s peculiar take on things leads him to say that “when we are again free to wander museums[,]…everything in them will be other than what we remember. The objects won’t have altered, but we will have.” We won’t look at a sunset or a still life, let alone a pietà, the same way again.
We will receive the world back again afresh, anew. What we took for granted scant weeks ago we will delight to enjoy again: restaurants, galleries, arenas, friends.
But will we be any better? Schjeldahl points out (and he is the first person I’ve read to point this out—why an art critic, of all people?) that “we may well return to shallow complacency when the present emergency passes. (There’s the baffling precedent of the 1918-19 influenza pandemic, which killed as many as a hundred million people, largely young, and left so little cultural trace.)”
That is the most shocking parenthesis I have encountered in ages. We mentally move from the end of World War I to the decadent dalliances of the Roaring Twenties without pausing for an instant over the worldwide pestilence that killed twice as many people as did the Black Death and five times as many people as did the Great War itself.
Pascal warned us in his Pensées that we devote vast resources to distracting ourselves from the realities of suffering and death. The Buddha, insulated as a youth by his kingly father against such things to keep him from leaving comfortable power for religious inquiry, aims his First Noble Truth right between our eyes: dukkha, the inevitability and universality of suffering and death.
Will we learn to live better the remaining moments of our lives because we have thought for at least a short while about transience and death? Or will we see all of this inconvenience and deprivation and suffering as just so much absurdity to be put behind us as quickly and thoroughly as possible?
The village of St. Andrew’s, New Brunswick, is very small. Fewer than two thousand people live there. Walking its pleasant streets one gorgeous spring day some years ago, I was pleased to hear the happy buzz of kids laughing during recess.
I looked down the road to the school, only to notice what was located immediately beside it, immediately abutting the children’s playground.
Immediately, I was stunned by the juxtaposition. Surely they could have put it somewhere else!
And then I was impressed. St. Andrew’s had gotten it right.