No painting encapsulates the sensation of horror and loss quite like Edvard Munch’s The Scream. The face is so jarring in its sterility, so undoubtedly loud in its declaration, that the entirety of the surrounding landscape is warped by it. Those apparitions in the corner, either as an ominous warning or an unknown onlooker, the disparity between their upright posture and the madness brought out by the kneeling and careening individual in focus. How could we not see what he sees? How could we not commiserate?
Munch’s story is one of illness as well. Often homebound, he relied on tutoring from his aunt and his fellows at school. His mother and his sister both died in close succession to tuberculosis. If we are defined by our responses to suffering in performance, what pyschology calls “sublimation”, then Munch’s was of imitating his feelings on paper and canvas. The benefit of painting is in its ambiguity, and therefore its universality. Any photograph begs for context, while a painting is a multi-layered interpretation. We are allowed to see the painting in a way that photography forbids.
As I write this, the United States is experiencing on average 3,200 deaths per day. The total deaths have surpassed 300,000, the combination of which makes our country one of the highest for fatalities per capita. The irony is that, in the direst moment – with more death, and with a better understanding of how non-pharmaceutical interventions work with this particular virus – less is being done. Like the apparitions watching Munch’s scream, Americans seem irrationally good at ignoring suffering. In trying to come to terms with the decisions of my own nation this year, one cannot help but reach for that black comedy of phrases: “The show must go on”. It is a jingle for a commercial, selling a product few of us readily understand.
Citizens are placed in the unenviable position of wondering what patriotic duty and sacrifice look like when faced with a pandemic? Without a central guiding principle, without some federal leadership, Americans had to come to terms with either going to work in order to keep the economy moving, or quarantining to avoid the spread. As I drove by several restaurants in the week leading up to Christmas, I noticed that they were just as crowded as in pre-pandemic days. Was this fatigue? Was this patriotism?
The end result is that well-worn phrase of having one’s cake and eating it too. If we have learned anything from 2020, it is the belief that one can have it all, and all of the time. Donald Trump had the pleasure of announcing himself the victor, claiming the election was rigged in various places, and he had the backing of the Republican representatives who felt little harm in appealing to the former president’s feelings before jettisoning him into deep space. With millions out of work and behind on student-loan payments, rent, and utilities, we sent piecemeal stimulus packages that were just as likely to end up in Amazon stock. We seem willing to understand the term “society” only if we are confident we have a high place in it.
At all times this year, I played around with those concepts by Satan in Paradise Lost.
Me miserable! Which way shall I fly
Infinite wrath and infinite despair?
Which way I fly is hell; myself am hell;
And in the lowest deep a lower deep,
Still threat’ning to devour me, opens wide,
To which the hell I suffer seems a heaven.
If there is anything to learn from the horrid state of humanity’s past, one begins to agree with Satan that there is no bottom, that one malady can seem a balm to the pitiful states we can descend into. Heroic donations by the richest of us like Jack Dorsey or MacKenzie Scott are an appealing band-aid on what feels like a permanent wound. That wound concerns a growing resentment from our people of institutions themselves, on expertise, on the good nature that the world used to pride Americans on having. Satan’s plight concerns the no-solution of rebelling against the Christian God. If this is what perfection is, and it leads to the kind of sterility that promises no better agency to those who serve, and yet to rebel leads to Pandemonium, an abyssal land of cynicism and discord, what else?
There are particular moments in the year 2020 where we can place blame and learn. The amount of time our country went without a COVID-19 test likely allowed the virus to pursue invisibly a path into our suburban and rural districts to achieve substantial levels of community spread. It would be a failure of this post to wax philosophically without some empirical evidence of times where a failure had a causal effect on where we stand today. Another one is this: despite the public’s willingness in the majority to construct universal healthcare in the wake of a global health crisis, it seems no more likely under president Joe Biden than in Donald Trump. Despite spiking premium payments, a corporate culling of medical staff during a pandemic, and full ICU beds, we seem no closer to the obvious solution.
In March, teachers leapt at the chance to create solutions for continuing face-to-face teaching in a safe and sustainable manner. Perhaps there could be morning and afternoon sessions to keep in-person numbers down? Perhaps classes could be held outside to mitigate the poor air quality of dilapidated buildings? Perhaps, in keeping with scientific evidence, clear emphasis could have been given to younger children in person, while older students took on independent study. A broader curriculum for adolescents could have encouraged creativity in the face of a crisis, while also freeing their hands to help the family in employment and childcare.
Very little of these suggestions were taken up. For our supposedly democratic systems at the top, there is no trickle down to the workplace, and many administrators (under guidance from their state education agencies) dictated learning management software that required hours of time invested in front of screens in order to validate attendance records and provide proof for budgetary concerns. It was either that experience, or the promise of thousands of students indoors, performing the same educational ritual that promised headaches both literal and figurative. Football was still played in the deep south, as well as many other extracurriculars that warranted a second glance. Shockingly, no second glance surfaced.
All told, we willingly traded the pleasure of our youth for the pain and suffering of our elderly.
And now, 1 in 1,000 Americans have died, which is much higher than other developed, and even some developing, nations.
In some informal way, a cost-benefit analysis was made that suggested the death of our elderly was a bitter pill to swallow in order to safeguard our economy, as if these binaries existed only and as if no other outcome besides death or a slight headache existed either.
The pandemic felt like low tide revealing the bodies buried in the sand next to old tires. Like Dante as he descends each circle:
I start to see new torments everywhereDante’s Inferno, Canto VI, 4-6
and new tormented souls, wherever I range
or turn myself, wherever I may stare.
One horror led to another. Attempts at silencing scientists and health care workers on the frontline or off. A president who instituted a self-imposed exile to play golf post-election. Motorcycle rallies that handed off the disease like a relay to the midwest. COVID parties. Layoffs of employees at universities, institutions of supposed progressive minds who performed the draconian work of a CEO. GoFundMe campaigns for coffee shop employees. Crowded food banks, a rise in hunger.
Is this the worst year ever? No, TIME has it wrong. That may fall to some time in our past before penicillin. But, in a century filled with plenty, with iPads and quantitative easing, it reeks of disappointment. More and more the most fundamental problems in society returned and through the coronavirus we were able to reformulate these questions. Why is wealth inequality allowed to remain at such high levels? Why is poverty still an accepted definition? Why are our “essential” workers paid below subsistence? If the gig economy is growing, where is the infrastructure to protect its employees? The list goes on.
And as there are failed attempts to mitigate virus spread, people considered the implications to other long term problems like climate change. Fires in the Northwest and storms in the Southeast reminded us that our reliance on fossil fuels continues to be a problem. A brief moment of clarity (literally) arose in our cities in March and April, as car emissions reduced dramatically, and the ideas of cities without parking lot sprawl crept into our vocabulary. Yet the time was short-lived. That is the phrase of 2020: short-lived.
What could have happened gave way to what did happen. And that schism will haunt Americans from 2020 hence. Unless we find some way to internalize these hard-earned lessons soon, these ideas will turn to mist.
I find myself grateful for the opportunities calamity provided. One of the strange side effects of the pandemic was in how it ushered me into reading literature from before the 20th century. Paradise Lost, Dante’s Inferno, and Moby-Dick were some of the best reading experiences of my life. With the promise of early 2021 to be largely the same, I am looking forward to those authors who dealt with suffering far sooner, and with a greater sophistication, than I have.
Why I felt this way may have been the distress I found in the verisimilitude in all the writing I had read and all the shows I had seen and all the movies I had taken in at this time. Little of the contemporary could contain just what I felt to be the gravity of the situation. I needed arcane language.
To write this now carries with it a degree of shame, because no amount of suffering was necessary to buy this time. I feel dreadfully for those at the front of the line in this health crisis. It could not have come at a simultaneously better and worse time. Better for the science, and worse for the politics. When it was becoming more and more difficult to agree on anything, a political polarization widening since at least the war in Iraq and Afghanistan, and exacerbated by the economic recession of 2008, America’s fingernails grated on the cliff edge for some semblance of grace and collaboration. What we got instead was a pandemic. I do not know to what extent the promise of a new president will bring, and I praise Joe Biden for his desire to bring the nation together, but I doubt he will succeed.
Still, the consolation of a brighter future provides us just as my nourishment from the fruits of our past. In Melville’s final chapters, in the pitiful confrontation against the whale, each character faces his own mortality. Stubb, holding onto the wreckage of the sinking Pequod, wrestled out his final wishes of a cherished past with Flask next to him:
“A most mouldy and over salted death, though;—cherries! cherries! cherries! Oh, Flask, for one red cherry ere we die!”Moby-Dick; Or the Whale
That desperation to die on one’s own terms is the Freudian death wish. “Cherries?” Flask responds. “I only wish that we were where they grow.” One can feel, in the repeated “w” sounds used alliteratively, that they are sinking already, overwhelmed by the grandiosity of the event in the very language they use.
The greatest failure in our predicament of 2020 may have been our unwillingness to give our elderly the chance to die “on their own terms”. Pictured above, the banality of our iPads pervades all social spaces. Most perniciously, it was used en masse in hospitals for the old to say goodbye. How horrid for anyone to die unnaturally. How still more horrid to die alone with silicon as the medium of passage. In ancient mythology it was the black waters of Lethe. Now the dignity and profoundness of old world languages gave way to bytes and data. It was (and still is) a dehumanizing translation.
All of this to say that we may yet see a pandemic literature arise out of these times, a pandemic analysis. For me to write off 2020, like all others, cannot possibly say all that could be said of this moment; yet to not record some feeling of this moment brings with it the possibility of losing it forever. So despite these words not providing it justice, no words would be worse. The big questions that remain in the fallout are the same as Munch’s: what will be our sublimation? How will we cope? If we cannot hope for smarter public policy, let us consider inspired art.
All we have now is a timeline of our thoughts. For those readers who see this moment in some far flung future, know that rather than listen to someone, anyone, and avert America’s ship to better shores, we took the monster head on as stubbornly as we always have. Rather than listening to history, we sought again to recreate it in our characteristically bombastic way.
Whatever our thoughts were about history and its supposed end, we are continually reminded that we are still part of it. For all our technological gain, we must admit that generations hence will look back on our slow approval of a vaccine generated and tested within days of creation as a mistake worthy of philistines. While we wept for our brethren, they will scoff. Why did they not seem to care, or provide the basic amenities for safety and utility? The truth was that many of us cared, but we were placed in a world where we enabled foolishness and where the planets of technology, science, and human behavior simply could not align. With better equipped minds, 2020 could have been different.
But now we know at the end of it all that 2020 wasn’t. That is the one consolation of history.