Robert Rauschenberg, Mother of God, 1950

I cycled through a number of possible introductions to this essay, but all of them can be summed up by the following: oof, my friends are not doing well.

Scrolling through Facebook has been nightmarish for a few months. In February I witnessed my first doxxing related to COVID-19. Multiple people have publicly and meticulously calculated the probability that they will die. Someone else sabotaged their employment in a fit of fear, bankrupting themselves almost immediately. Others are breaking quarantine to date, disregarding the lives that hang in the balance so they can maybe feel something.

In short, a lot of people want to die, and some are deliberately acting in order to accomplish that. The hopelessness of being fundamentally unprepared, underserved and underpaid is so great that nihilist accelerationism simply seems easier.

In coping with the current pandemic, I think cues can be taken from the response to the atomic bomb through the 1940s. I shared this post when it went around Facebook at the beginning of the quarantine in March:

“How are we to live in an atomic age [or a coronavirus epidemic]?’ I am tempted to reply: ‘Why, as you would have lived in the sixteenth century when the plague visited London almost every year, or as you would have lived in a Viking age when raiders from Scandinavia might land and cut your throat any night; or indeed, as you are already living in an age of cancer, an age of syphilis, an age of paralysis, an age of air raids, an age of railway accidents, an age of motor accidents.’

“In other words, do not let us begin by exaggerating the novelty of our situation. Believe me, dear sir or madam, you and all whom you love were already sentenced to death before the atomic bomb was invented: and quite a high percentage of us were going to die in unpleasant ways. We had, indeed, one very great advantage over our ancestors—anaesthetics; but we have that still. It is perfectly ridiculous to go about whimpering and drawing long faces because the scientists have added one more chance of painful and premature death to a world which already bristled with such chances and in which death itself was not a chance at all, but a certainty.

“This is the first point to be made: and the first action to be taken is to pull ourselves together. If we are all going to be destroyed by an atomic bomb, let that bomb when it comes find us doing sensible and human things—praying, working, teaching, reading, listening to music, bathing the children, playing tennis, chatting to our friends over a pint and a game of darts—not huddled together like frightened sheep and thinking about bombs. They may break our bodies (a microbe can do that) but they need not dominate our minds.”

C.S. Lewis, “On Living in an Atomic Age” (1948) in Present Concerns. (via Daniel Coutz)

And while the last paragraph is not entirely solid advice for a city under lockdown, the point it makes is still valid – don’t let the virus take you in spirit before it takes you in body. You can poison yourself on an idea, but it doesn’t do you any good to succumb to it ahead of schedule.

The coping mechanisms that have been common in my cohort are really responses to witnessing death on a previously unimaginable scale. My generation has 9/11 as the only comparable event, and 9/11 is more mythos, a nexus of distant ideas – the nebulous War on Terror, the meaningless slander of free speech politics – as opposed to the bloody, pulpy stuff of dying en masse from acute illness. The bomb, and with it the threat of total annihilation, is the closest event in modern history that parallels our current experience.

Writer Gil Elliot conceptualized the victims of mass deaths as a nation unto themselves, purporting the following in his Twentieth Century Book of the Dead in 1972:

“We know as much about the nation of the dead as we might have known about any living nation fifty years ago when the techniques of social measurement were still at an early stage. The population is around one hundred million. A proper census has not yet been possible but the latest estimate based on samples of the population suggests a figure of a hundred and ten million. That’s about the size of it. A large modern nation. Its’s very much a twentieth-century nation, as cosmopolitan in its origins as the United States. The people have always been mixed, but the real growth began in 1914. Between then and the early 1920s the population reached twenty million, and steady growth over the next twenty years brought it to almost forty million by the outbreak of the Second World War. In the early 1940s the population more than doubled, with annual increases reaching peaks of 10/12 million. Since 1945 the growth-rate has declined below any previous levels since the late 1920s. The has been accompanied by a gigantic increase in the capacity for expansion.”

As Elliot notes, while the deaths leveled off after the the bombing of Japan and the ensuing deterrence of mutually assured destruction, the ability to create death rates of such a size has utterly skyrocketed. America is no longer the only country sitting on a nuclear armament that could end the world. So here we are, 100 seconds to midnight on the doomsday clock, stewing in the potentiality of death.

The pandemic puts us in a similar position. The great fear of COVID-19 is that so many millions of deaths are preventable, but they occur anyway for lack of testing, lack of hospital beds, lack of ventilators, lack of investment by the elite to alleviate infrastructural strains, lack of security amongst the working class, and truly, the financial instability of the majority of the population that is required for capitalism to work. In this way, COVID-19 is a manmade tragedy just as much the bomb. The virus itself is a natural fluke, inasmuch as the atom’s ability to split is. The violent neglect and negligence perpetrated by those perched on top of the societal heap is not.

The cat can’t be put back in the bag now. Like the bomb, the fabric of our world has fundamentally changed now that the virus is in play as a global threat. We will live with that threat for the rest of our lives. The question is whether we do it with dignity, or succumb to the death impulse as if we never had a chance at life to begin with.