Canary in a Coalmine

by Paul Cantrell

“There are decades where nothing happens; and there are weeks when decades happen.” I don’t know about you, but this past weekend alone felt like it had crammed, packed, and otherwise shoehorned in about a century. I realize that everyone from travel agencies to the old CEO of Blockbuster has likely emailed you at this point with an official statement. I also realize that each of us has been uniquely impacted by these recent events. I profoundly hope that you are OK.

The opening image of Albert Camus’s novel The Plague is of the young Dr. Rieux inadvertently stepping on what he later finds to be a dead rat. The closest I came to this was in my opening a series of early morning emails about a virus that had somehow made its way from a small market in China to Italy, where it was apparently wreaking all manner of havoc.

This was in the early days, the “salad days” as they are called, though in truth it was only just over a week ago. Evidently the virus was called the “coronavirus,” all one word, for reasons unexplained.

Even at this early date, we had the best minds immediately on the case, asking the tough questions. Would this spell disaster for Corona Extra the beer, or would its crack marketing squad seize this moment to flip the branding? Which was the superior virus-themed song parody, “My Sharona” by The Knack or “COVID-19” to the tune of Dexys Midnight Runners’ “Come On Eileen?” Would Steely Dan’s “Hey Nineteen” throw its proverbial hat into the even more proverbial Satyricon? Time would tell the tale.

The switch to calling it COVID-19 was, I imagine, a stroke of rebranding all its own. It accomplished two things. First, identifying it as the 19th iteration of a virus that has been around since the 1970s stripped it of its novelty, its sheer unique unprecedentedness—even though it appears to be very much altogether unprecedented and the formal, full, legal name is actually novel coronavirus.

Second, COVID-19 just sounded more serious, like something out of a James Bond film, sealed and glowing neon green or aubergine violet in a corked glass vial that steamed and frothed upon opening. COVID-19: not to be trifled with. Somewhere, right now, someone is making a song parody to the tune of “Wu-Tang Clan Ain’t Nuttin’ Ta Fuck Wit.”

Perhaps the most immediately jarring aspect of this situation is its uncanniness. Everything feels the same yet different. Outside, spring is springing, birds are chirping, yet the streets are empty. My sister recently referred to this as “the low hum of menace,” from a This American Life episode. (I offered her a chip loaded with hummus. She said I’d misheard her.) The Wall Street Journal likewise refers to the COVID-19 phenomenon as “an invisible-but-present blizzard.”

I find this invisible blizzard image utterly fascinating. Also of interest is the suspicious word “present,” especially when appended by hyphen to the equally intrusive word “but.” I take this in a “The lady doth protest too much, methinks” kind of vein. It insists upon itself, upon its very presence, in a way that things that are, well, present don’t typically have to. It even has the same ring and cadence as Clear and Present Danger, the popular Tom Clancy novel turned Harrison Ford vehicle and, originally, Justice Holmes’s WWI-era justification for suppressing free speech. But again, why present?

Just yesterday, the NIH announced that SARS-CoV-2 (Electric Boogaloo? Too soon?) “which causes COVID-19 . . . was detectable in aerosols for up to three hours.” Now, I’ll be the first to admit that I have no idea what this means. Is this if you put it into an old perfume atomizer, then pump for a light spritz? I’m joking when I was just moments ago criticizing today’s ever prevalent gallows humor, but the tie-in has to do again with visibility, with presence.

“Invisible aerosol virus” are arguably three of the worst words ever strung together in the English language. (This is not a challenge, dear reader; but of course feel free to top it. Could be fun.) However, they also act as a kind of “demonic parody” of a much more familiar, positive, though elusive idea: Hope. I want to talk with you about hope.

Regardless of one’s religious affiliation, St. Paul is still perhaps indisputably the world’s most famous letter writer (and finely named, if I do say so). There is a passage that he wrote which has always stayed with me—sometimes vexing, sometimes comforting, but always inspiring. He wrote it to the Hebrews. He wrote, “Now faith is the substance of things hoped for, the evidence of things not seen” (Heb. 11:1).

St. Thomas Aquinas had a field day with this. By the time Dante Alighieri made it through Inferno and Purgatorio to Paradiso, it was Aquinas whose reading got him through. I mean this literally. You see, Dante in Heaven has to undergo a series of pop quizzes in which he is interrogated on the three theological virtues. It’s less of a Gandalf You shall not pass! moment and more of a Monty Python “Answer me these questions three” one. It is what he must do to be allowed to see the white rose-shaped Empyrean—that is, Heaven.

The first quiz comes from St. Peter on Faith, to which Dante replies, almost by rote, with St. Paul’s above verse. Pressed further, he must explain how faith can be both a substance and an evidence. In the next scene, Saint James grills him on Hope, to which Dante answers, “Hope is the certain expectation of future glory.” Now I’m not going to pick apart these instances, only to point out how much they are invested in and draw their power from the language of vision, of sight.

“Evidence” comes from ex-videre, literally a “seeing out.” The same holds for “expectation,” from ex- + spectare, a kind of “looking out”: a vigil. It is surely no coincidence that Paul—who is, after all, Saul blinded for three days on the road to Damascus—should be so invested in the language of sight. Nor should we ignore one last passage of his, this time to the Romans: “For we are saved by hope: but hope that is seen is not hope: for what a man seeth, why doth he yet hope for? But if we hope for that we see not, then do we with patience wait for it” (Rom. 8:24-25). This is not a riddle or some Zen koan meant to befuddle or perplex. It is meant to inform how we see things, both present and invisible.

While we are on the lookout for invisible blizzard snowflakes and inscrutable aerosol pathogens, let us also be on the lookout for what is truest and best in all of us, all that is decent and virtuous in each of us. For truly that is our best hope. Even in a time of “social distancing” when we are deprived of each other, our best hope still is each other. My faith in humanity is based on the substance and evidence of this hope. Though we are apart in body, we remain united in spirit. Let us keep the vigil well, until we can fully reunite and begin to rebuild. Be kind. Be safe. Be well.

(Also, I am officially, both definitely and indefinitely, out of work as of yesterday, so if you know of any remote writing jobs, do let me know, yes? Thanks.)

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