A LOUDER DESPERATION
On this quarantine Saturday, I am listening to Bill Withers, reading Arundhati Roy and thinking of Adrienne Rich’s poem “Prospective Immigrants Please Note.”
Roy writes in the Financial Times that “The Pandemic is a Portal” (April 3, 2020). She describes the horrible scenes in India days after their Prime Minister declared a lockdown. “The tragedy is immediate, real, epic and unfolding before our eyes. But it isn’t new. It is the wreckage of a train that has been careening down the track for years.”
And a few years ago she said: “People spend so much time mocking Trump or waiting for him to be impeached. And the danger with that kind of obsession with a single person is that you don’t see the system that produced him.”
This “system” is the “train that has been careening down the track for years,” which has been Roy’s consistent obsession. The oppressions we see and feel are not only particular outrages but the efflorescence of an underlying infection.
This is not like a giant asteroid randomly hitting the earth. This crisis, which is only picking up intensity and is nowhere near it’s peak, is a sign. It is a symptom that leaves us in search of a diagnosis.
Someone will make the argument to the contrary that this is indeed more like a random asteroid or like the Stock Market Crash of 1929. It’s a one-off; a unique and unrepeatable phenomenon. It could not have been predicted or prepared for. The argument will be that it does not pose any fundamental questions at all, merely questions of protocol, supply, and distribution.
Roy’s point is different (and she’s not alone in thinking this): the pandemic is a portal. She writes in the Financial Times essay: “Historically, pandemics have forced humans to break with the past and imagine their world anew. This one is no different. It is a portal, a gateway between one world and the next. We can choose to walk through it, dragging the carcasses of our prejudice and hatred, our avarice, our data banks, and dead ideas, our dead rivers, and smoky skies behind us. Or we can walk through lightly, with little luggage, ready to imagine another world. And ready to fight for it.”
Adrienne Rich, in her classic poem, envisioned our choice somewhat differently:
Either you will go through this door or you will not go through . . . The door itself makes no promises. It is only a door.
Post-pandemic, we will debate whether this crisis necessitates a transition or is merely a temporary breakdown. It is a question familiar to anyone who has had similar crises in their life. Is this a breakdown or a break-through?
Roy’s point is that the next transition is definite, and the question we face is how we negotiate it. We will go through it, dragging as much baggage as we can salvage from our contemporary impasse. Or will we do the relinquishment needed to pass through lightly. (“making it up as we go along” Pema Chodron said. See my Quarantine Essay #11).
“The whole globe is shook up, so what are you going to do when things fall apart? You’re either going to become more fundamentalist and try to hold things together, or you’re going to forsake the old ambitions and goals and live life as an experiment making it up as you go along.” – Pema Chodron (1997)
Rich is confronting us with the choice of whether we shall go through it at all, choosing whether to “risk” a transition or to “die bravely” this side of it.
The singer-songwriter Bill Withers died this week. Yesterday (with lots of time on my quarantine hands), I rewatched a 2009 documentary about his life titled “Still Bill.” It’s a delightful film, and it portrays him as a warm and wise human being. There are easily a dozen memorable quotes that I will want to remember. One of my favorites was about Thoreau:
“The mass of men lead lives of quiet desperation. I would like to know how it feels for my desperation to get louder.”
We were already in a desperate situation before this pandemic. Like Wily Coyote overrunning a cliff, I believe we have been hanging in midair awaiting the fall. The pandemic has now accelerated our descent. However, our problem is not only the presence of the pandemic but the absence of solid ground under our feet. The silent desperation of so many is sealing our fate.
“I would like to know how it feels for my desperation to get louder.”
To Adrienne Rich, this would be entering through the door and risking “remembering your name” (the revelation of who you are). To Arundhati Roy, this transition would require a relinquishment of “our prejudice and hatred, our avarice, our data banks, and dead ideas, our dead rivers and smoky skies behind us” so that we might imagine another world “and ready to fight for it.”
Today is the anniversary of Dr. King’s assassination fifty-two years ago. He died imagining another world and fighting for it.
This pandemic is presenting us with an opportunity. Let’s not miss it.
Raise your voice. Make your desperation louder.
Ric Hudgens, April 4, 2020, Chicago, IL