Discussing the movement from the Old Regime to the French Revolution, Alexis de Tocqueville noted that France in 1789 was the most literary of all the nations of Europe. Men of letters neither held political authority, nor, as in England, were they involved in business. Yet, unlike German philosophers, they were nevertheless preoccupied with things relating to government. Steeped in the spirit of equality, they wanted to reconstruct society in the light of their reason, and they were fond of abstract theories.
Never has the French mania for elaborating general ideas to transform society manifested itself so much as during the Covid-19 pandemic. No sooner had the government mandated a lockdown on March 17 than newspapers and magazines filled up with social projects as varied as they were unworkable, and whose main characteristic was that they resembled projects that we had long ago discarded. The world to come apparently would be the receptacle for all the utopias left behind from the world before. Everything would have to change because of the virus—except, it seems, the whims of transformative spirits, who voiced their long-held obsessions and their wish that the old world be jettisoned at all costs.
The neo-Marxists saw Covid-19 as confirmation of their theories about the end of capitalism, while the national-sovereignty types welcomed the return of borders and the end of immigration. The catastrophists, somewhat vexed that the coronavirus had stolen their thunder, proclaimed, in the words of Nicolas Hulot, former ecology minister in the government of Emmanuel Macron, that we were experiencing “Nature’s ultimatum,” of which he had appointed himself a kind of ambassador. Meantime, Greta Thunberg, the child star, from whom we had heard nothing for two months, trotted out her song and dance about the end of the world. And let’s not forget our anti-growth countrymen, who demanded that we stop making airplanes and cars and close down oil wells and freeways, so as to return—as Yves Cochet, another former minister of ecology, put it—to the horse and carriage. In the place of Renault, Ford, Peugeot, and Toyota, let us have stud farms to produce our means of transportation! In a word, we were favored with a parade of all the usual hobbyhorses, and none of the promised innovative thinking.
A French actor, Vincent Lindon, somewhat on the left, suggested a new tax on the wealthiest called the “Jean Valjean tax,” referencing the character from Victor Hugo’s Les Misérables, and economist Thomas Piketty called for the establishment of individual carbon certificates to penalize those whose CO2 consumption exceeded the authorized limits. So the world to come would bring higher taxes—a French obsession—and more rules. Then we had the trendy petition that appeared in Le Monde on May 6, signed by 200 personalities, including scientists, artists, and film and music stars, among them Kate Blanchett, Robert de Niro, Madonna, and, representing France, Juliette Binoche and Isabelle Adjani, all pleading with governments not to return to normal after the pandemic but to have done with the consumerism destroying the planet. We’re talking about celebrities who travel worldwide, often in private jets, demanding that ordinary folks tighten their belts. The indecency of such a proposition seems not to have struck the signatories.
Such a catalogue of definitive solutions is worth pondering. People are suffering, and our green utopians are rubbing their hands together, wishing for still more blood, sweat, and tears in order to subject the universe to their whims.
One thing has changed for sure: our relationship with others, who have become potential sources of infection. We won’t for a while have the same experience as we did, pre-pandemic, of crowds and gatherings. Mixing promiscuously with thousands of strangers will be a touchy thing. Please put a wall around yourself. Don’t touch me, don’t get close to me, you could make me sick. Every pedestrian could carry his share of deadly emissions. The pleasure of strolling amid multitudes, of attending a concert or a game, of going to a cafe or bar and laughing and drinking, shoulder to shoulder; the pleasure of being an optical glutton, hungry for new faces—all that was yesterday. Today, the other is potentially my enemy, just as I am his; we have lost the innocence of contact for the sake of six feet of separation.
As for taking public transportation, in normal times, in the big cities, at rush hour, this was already unpleasant: women had to be on guard against gropers, unpleasant odors circulated, and pickpockets threatened to steal your wallet. Now, we can add the risk of Covid-19. A sneeze, a discreet cough, a hand touching a polluted surface, and you could find yourself exposed to contagion. What will the restaurant experience be like if we must eat in separate cubicles, separated by plexiglass barriers, as if seated in a prison’s visiting area? What subterfuges will have to be deployed to transform this culinary quarantine into a feast of shared feeling and conversation?
Thirty years ago, AIDS imposed a vital constraint: to protect oneself from infection, one had to become aware of bodily fluids. Saliva was shown to be above suspicion, and condoms made it possible to come together without spreading the disease, an elementary precaution that saved millions of lives. But with Covid-19, things are different: the virus transmits primarily through exhalations. For the Greeks, “pneuma” was the divine breath that engendered life, the primordial respiration that later became the Holy Spirit for Christians. Now, breath’s warm moisture is potentially dangerous. Could anything be more suited to kill passion? Will someone develop an eroticism of distance, a “corona sutra,” with positions recommended by medical experts? Will we experience a famine of the flesh and screen-induced orgasm, as in Roger Vadim’s Barbarella, the lame 1968 movie in which the heroine, played by Jane Fonda, makes love with her partner by taking a special pill and merely holding hands?
Certain cultures accommodate themselves more readily to avoidance of contact. In Asia, for instance, people bow while holding hands; by the art of living together densely among tens of millions, they have developed an instinct of numbers. These rivers of humanity, in their ebbs and their flows, have a certain meaning, a logic, and almost a delicacy. In America, where manners differ depending on what ethnic or religious group you encounter, I have found that people sometimes greet you in order better to avoid you. Someone will smile at you, not to invite conversation but to ask that you keep your distance. The close French embrace is not welcome and may be received as a cultural anomaly—even as a form of harassment. As for the American hug, it is usually not a demonstrative one like the South American abrazos, but something far more restrained.
For the French, on the other hand, what is the point of a life in which no one touches, no one takes another in his arms—a life without spontaneous warmth? We live in an urban civilization in Europe, and the art of the city is par excellence the art of theater, of being part of the spectacle and of appreciating the spectacle offered by others. To look at and evaluate one another constitutes an essential aspect of public life. Observing passers-by from café terraces is a European pastime. And on this vast stage where all ethnic groups are concentrated, human beings of all types and all ages play their parts in a drama that is always the same and always different. Its energy fascinates and exhausts us. The crowd surprises even itself by the parts that compose it. What will become of this enchanted urban life if we must wear masks, muzzles of fabric, and surgical gloves? We are summoned to a comprehensive reeducation: away, for example, with the bad French habit of standing close to others, impatiently, when waiting in lines! A cold geometry prevails over the dance of atoms. And what if you did not wear a mask, still showing your face? In the mid-twentieth century, the naked body was unveiled. Now it covers itself up. Thirty years ago the condom; now, the mask, gloves, visor, lab coat, cap, and—soon, perhaps—a deep-sea diver’s outfit. Not a good time for the blossoming of the senses. And the digitizing of human relations will not fix anything.
We can now say it without being taken for nostalgic: yes, things were better before—that is, several months ago. We enjoyed a freedom and a nonchalance that we did not appreciate. We have lost that carefree existence.
We face an economic downturn, of course: it is terrible everywhere, bringing with it unemployment, a return of poverty, and even possible famines in parts of Africa and Latin America. This collapse is having a seismic impact on sectors that were already struggling, including airlines and the automobile industry, whose transformations the pandemic will accelerate. We’re about to experience a sped-up version of economist Joseph Schumpeter’s much-cited principle of creative destruction.
Even more than the economic upheaval, though, new constraints on relationships restrict our enjoyment of life. The planet has shrunk so far as to make the distances that separate us from one another negligible. The net is now being drawn in, however, so as to produce a feeling of claustrophobia—almost of incarceration. Born in a swarming wet market, where beasts and human beings intermingled, Covid-19 appears as a metaphor of human hyper-density. It commands us to separate to survive. Will we have to consider emptying our great, saturated cities, always on the edge of asphyxiation? The problem is less that of substituting the bicycle for the car as that of reversing the congestion of streets and boulevards. Already Venice and Barcelona are considering establishing quotas on tourists. Is it now time, as with the caves of Lascaux, to distribute visiting permits?
There is something paradoxical in what is happening: the earth is become immense again. Lockdown was the shrinking of space and the stretching out of time. The de-confinement will be the inverse: distances will grow exponentially. To take a train and especially a plane will be a challenging undertaking. To travel to southern France or to cross the Atlantic will be uncommon adventures, since local populations are not inclined to welcome potentially contagious visitors. During the lockdown, Parisians were no longer welcome in other parts of their own country. What is nearby has become distant, and what is distant is now inaccessible. All that was marvelous is now shown to be dangerous—and what was banal now appears as marvelous. To share a coffee, dine with friends, host a party would be like dancing above an abyss. In 2020, Eros and Thanatos kiss on the mouth, masked.
It will take considerable talent to continue to stay on good terms with our fellow human beings, to transform prohibition into challenge. Fashion and flirtation will make masks their own and turn them into means of seduction, as at Carnival. New Covid-19 dances are in preparation, and humanity is reinventing itself in distress, and with humor. We might well prefer the elegance of controlled risk to a paralyzing anxiety. Someday—in a year, perhaps, with a vaccine?—we will emerge from convalescence. A return to normal will be the summit of luxury. The trial will have revealed to us just how happy we were without knowing it, just how extraordinary was our ordinary condition. It will also have revealed to us that we are more resilient than we thought.
Already certain tormented minds are preparing for the next pandemic. To imagine catastrophes is the pastime of a whole category of disaster-hungry minds. There is no doubt that this crisis, once overcome, will be followed by others—digital attacks, terrorist assaults, climatic phenomena, or financial crashes that spread with astonishing speed. As always, there will be the risk, well-known in military strategy, that we prepare only for the last war: in 1940, the Maginot Line was conceived by brilliant officers of the French general staff, who were right about everything—except the times, seeing Hitler’s coming assault through the eyes of August 1914.
It is not only in the weak signals of daily life that we should look for the beginnings of a coming upheaval but also in fiction, science fiction, and film that we must try to discern the next “black swans,” those surprise events that bring disastrous consequences. It is in the screenplays of writers or producers that we often uncover the portents of future bad news because they deliberately embrace the certainty of chaos and imaginatively bring out its possibilities. Whatever their talent or the quality of their imagination, their anticipated scenarios should be seen as aids to knowledge. During the Cold War, strategists such as Herman Kahn elaborated scenarios of nuclear war, in order to “think the unthinkable” and prepare for a possible conflagration. Today, the Pentagon employs special-effects experts to “save” soldiers in battlefield simulations, but also writers, whose job it is to produce scenarios of possible mishaps. Several years before the 9/11 attacks, Hollywood had imagined them in several productions. And fantasy author Dean Koontz had written a novel that described a pandemic eerily similar to the one we are experiencing now. The future may already have been written somewhere in a book that we have not read or a B-movie that will be revived one day, after the tragedy. The simulation of disasters by those responsible for public safety in the areas of nuclear power, health, and industry is a means of identifying risks to help neutralize them.
But here again prudence is called for, since those fond of worst-case scenarios risk being deluded by a fantasy of omnipotence. For them, to anticipate is to conjure up a terrible fate and to leave no stone unturned in finding ways to prevent it. It’s one thing to teach the science of catastrophes as a matter of responses and countermeasures to major misfortunes, but another to believe that we have the power to domesticate all misfortune through foresight. We will learn from our mistakes, improve our hospital emergency services, increase the salaries of care-givers who have saved thousands of lives during the outbreak, and continue to de-code this virus in order better to fight it—even as we await the next one.
We are always surprised, even by what we have anticipated: we do not expect to be crushed by death, illness, and mourning, though we have seen them coming. “Everything has been foreseen, except what is going to happen,” said a French politician of the last century. Whatever happens, we are never done with history’s uncertainty. And it may be that, in the months ahead, history has a good surprise in store for us.
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