Rendered Fat Content


Edvard Munch: Ashes (1895)
"Our fundamental decency some days seems wasted on the wrong people."

The December 28, 2020 issue of The New Yorker features a thirty-five page essay by Lawrence Wright titled The Plague Year. This reporting should be required reading, for it represents a first draft of a history that seems destined to define our times, like John Hersey's 1946 New Yorker piece, which took up the whole issue, exploring how six survivors experienced the atomic bombing of Hiroshima. Hersey co-opted then current reporting norms by focusing not upon the usual abstractions, but upon the human experiences of six so-called survivors who would never recover. Wright takes a similar tack with Our Damned Pandemic, focusing upon the experiences of a few within the dizzying swirl of unfolding current events. A general sense of impotence emerges as actual experts find their perspectives discounted and discarded in favor of fairy tale public pronouncements and innocents falling prey. Following the nuclear bombing of Japan, a whitewashing occurred, largely by tacit agreement. Correspondents long accustomed to minimizing the horrors they'd witnessed under the firm belief that their readers would not appreciate absolute authenticity, easily accepted often unspoken sanctions against submitting genuinely ugly stories describing truly awful events. Those responsible for informing those not witnessing wore rose-colored glasses when reporting. They'd get the numbers right, more or less, but they figured, I suspect, that depicting the depths of the actual depravity involved wouldn't win them many appreciations. In any society, one at least attempts to uphold a baseline of civility, even when—and probably especially when—unthinkable degradation occurs. Wright avoids this convention.

The Muse's sister, an emeritus professor who taught biology and statistics, has been posting daily updates on This Damned Pandemic since last March, today's update number 315 in an uninterrupted stream attempting to explain whatever was happening and extract meaning from those events.
She swats away the conspiracy theories of the day to explain the meaning behind phenomena otherwise obscure. She forfeits longer views because she's describing events unfolding on the ground, always thoughtfully including some uplifting story about human kindness at the end as a much-appreciated chaser for the otherwise predictably toxic content. She's been chronicling the slow motion train wreck. In his New Yorker piece, Wright speeds up the train to illustrate concurrent effects, how a tiny political decision reverberates down into a temporary ICU tent erected in a hospital parking lot and how ignorance tends to exponentially expand to overtake innocence. He produces a depraved self-portrait, but one I easily recognize as an accurate portrayal. He finds more heroes than villains, though the bad guys wield more influence. No surprise in any of his story, just a numbing recognition. I easily see myself in his mirror. I see us all in there.

I'm uncertain if I can accurately describe how depressed I felt after reading Wright's piece. Conventions probably insist that I should not try. One does not cry on any public street corner without inviting unwanted assistance. There's always someone poised to inflict help when another seems to be suffering, but I think that I want to suffer without assistance through this bout, so that the substance of my fresh perspective might more deeply infect me. I've read my share of history, most of it gratefully distanced from me in a past which too easily seems less enlightened than my present. I sense that we would never repeat those sorry mistakes because we've somehow learned from them, but the truth might more accurately insist that we haven't and that we never have. We remain prey to the same damned delusions which damned us then. Social evolution never existed except as an idea never successfully validated. We exist within a perhaps inevitable fog of hubris if only because we're present, not distanced with historical perspective, but in the thick of it with little sense of the eventual significance of our apparently innocent actions. The head bone only ever connects to the neck bone later, we're dissembled within our present, capable of making sense only later. Here, we're stupid, or might just as well be, for reality as it presents itself during extreme events never seems to qualify as even distantly believable fiction. We seem capable of any depravity to avoid what others might harshly judge as an over-reaction, so we tend to grossly underact in response to exceptions. Maybe this describes our human condition.

Our current situation might well be much worse than it seems, for we mostly seem to experience it through comforting memes. ICUs in most every hospital in this country out do Hell in their punishing intensity, for both the staff and their patients, neither constituency having signed up for their experiences. Those admitted did not will COVID-19 upon themselves, even if they innocently or ignorantly willingly attended some super spreader event. They just got caught. That Respiratory Therapist didn't go after her Associate's degree to daily risk her life fighting an unseen and endlessly surprising enemy in eighteen hour shifts seven days each week with no end in sight. Nobody adequately prepares for such events though many manage to rise far above them. A few fail to rise above anything, and one powerful political can inflict the depths of human depravity upon the many. We have little defense beyond what we should have known all along. In 1919, during the Spanish Flu Pandemic, Gunnison Colorado closed itself off from the outside world. It allowed no visitors and maintained an utterly anti-social distance until the contagion passed. That strategy worked. Gunnison survived. Eventually, every major American city enacted enforceable mask ordinances, treating scofflaws as the recklessly endangering criminals they were. They learned not from history but from their own self-inflicted misery. Wright tells the story of his grandmother who, as an eight year old, brought flu home from school, a flu that killed her mother. She lived with that experience throughout her remaining eighty years. We face long futures, too. Always will.

I'm perhaps failing to say here that This Damned Pandemic is Worser than most of us think, certainly worse that I recently thought, and I have been conservatively sequestering since very near the beginning. I some days sense an underlying madness in my response. I see the governor has lifted Code Red Restrictions in anticipation of improving numbers which will very likely not appear in any short run. He'll be reinstating within the month. He figures, I feel certain, that he's successfully balancing a difficult situation. Protests have arisen over plans to inoculate prisoners before regular citizens and our governor seems to be relenting, as if our state does not owe its incarcerated population special protection under the law. Almost nobody in prison was convicted of a capital crime and none deserve to die as a direct result of their punishment, especially as a trade-off so somebody can finally feel free to go skiing again. Some, amazingly, argue otherwise, insisting that we treat our prisoners as of they were chattel rather than rehabilitating citizens. We're still forcing immigrants to choose between death in their homeland or exposure to COVID-19 while enclosed in poorly ventilated cages while awaiting adjudication of their refugee claims. Mass protests foment further unrest, just as if anybody had a handle on this catastrophe. Fuck Me! We all seem to be doomed, passengers on a train heading nowhere again as if HeadingHomeward, an unseen wreck, an excursion many of us will never return from. We remain a fundamentally depraved society, unable to accept who we've become and what we face. Our fundamental decency some days seems wasted on the wrong people.

©2021 by David A. Schmaltz - all rights reserved

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