I gaze at the vista outside my study window and absorb the splendor of spring. We have been sheltering in place for eight weeks now. I trace the lush horizon marked by swaying trees and the tender green of the leaves on that one tree that sheds its leaves every Fall. No sign here of any illness, not at least through this portal. Catastrophe it seems can appear in such idyllic form.
Little did I anticipate in the midst of working on a book on catastrophic form, that the world would be engulfed by a deadly viral swarm. As I wrote pages on literary depictions of drought and deluge, and reflected on literary forms that embody nuclear and climate catastrophes, the world around me was quickly overwhelmed by a viral invasion of planetary proportion. One struggles to remember a previous catastrophe that shuttered the entire world and simultaneously exposed the fragility of our planetary-scale entanglement with non-human forces. Seismographers have remarked that they can hear the planet’s natural quavering much more clearly, now that the anthropogenic hiss has quietened somewhat with the global lockdown. Pandemics, epidemiologists tell us, will reappear in other forms the more we disturb natural habitats.
We are not talking of an imagined future of science fiction here, but a cataclysmic capsizing of human life-worlds in real time. How equipped is the good old realist novel to capture such catastrophe? What is at stake in contemplating our own unprecedented geological agency in agitating the earth and rewriting its fate for millions of years to come? Can one defeat a malevolent virus that is part of our genetic and evolutionary history, a spiky spec of RNA, an entity that is neither dead nor living? Such phenomena fundamentally scramble modern philosophical ideas of human agency, autonomy, interiority, freedom, subjectivity and object-worlds that have been so foundational to the novel form these past two hundred years. Questions such as these no longer have the luxury of being posed in a quiet and contemplative mode. They erupt and agitate in a rash of anxiety, fear, anger and grief. They spill out of the pages of a monograph and spiral into a collective anguish.
I turn to the Portuguese Nobel Laureate, José Saramago’s novel’s Blindness, and find uncanny resonances with our crisis. Saramago’s novel features a deadly epidemic in which an entire community succumbs to blindness. A blinding white light shatters their vision, much like that of the armed anti-lockdown, anti-science protesters here. The sole civilian survivor with her sight intact is an ophthalmologist’s wife who shepherds a group into quarantine under the vigilant eye of a few remaining military personnel who live in fear of the epidemic. The sick masses strain to hold on to their professional identities. Their jobs are long gone and their blindness has already condemned them to a point of no return. Their professional monikers mock their disintegrating selves. Chaos and violence descend on this blighted place. The eye doctor’s wife sets out to buy food for those quarantined. She steps over corpses as she descends a flight of stairs to enter the grocery store.
I stop reading for just a while and turn to an interview with the author that appeared in The Guardian a decade ago. “I don’t see a veneer of civilization,” says Saramago, “but society as it is. With hunger, war, exploitation, we’re already in Hell. With the collective catastrophe of blindness everything surfaces.”