COVID and Kitsch: On Robert Zaretsky’s “Victories Never Last”

September 11, 2022   •   By Dan Turello

Victories Never Last: Reading and Caregiving in a Time of Plague

Robert Zaretsky

DURING THE EARLY DAYS of the pandemic, when COVID-19 was new, shrouded in mystery, yet ominous, I remember seeing what a friend of a friend had posted on Facebook. He was a doctor, a Médecins Sans Frontières type, surely a do-gooder with plenty of altruism and love for humanity. This post, however, was one of those gonzo show-off posts that didn’t land well. He wasn’t worried, he claimed, and neither should we be, for once you have witnessed Ebola liquifying a patient’s internal organs, leprosy slowly maiming their limbs, and elephantiasis disfiguring the human form beyond recognition, why on earth would you be concerned over a touch of cough?

Gonzo and annoying as it may have been, and as inappropriate and inaccurate as it was, there was a kernel of truth hidden amidst the bravado. On the world-historical stage, as deadly as it has been, COVID-19 has been remarkably nontheatrical. It’s not flashy, it doesn’t have much panache, and it’s not usually fast or disfiguring. As Robert Zaretsky says, “unlike other pestilential diseases like smallpox, cholera, and bubonic plague, this virus did not manifest itself in visible and violent ways.” COVID-19 has a tough time competing with its louder and more attention-demanding viral and bacterial siblings. Many early social media memes captured this idea. Among them, one was the picture of a twentysomething in sweatpants reclining on a sofa. “Your grandparents were called to war,” read the caption. “You’re being asked to sit on the couch. You can do this.”

Robert Zaretsky’s Victories Never Last: Reading and Caregiving in a Time of Plague places COVID-19 on the world-historical stage. I don’t have much doubt COVID-19 will in fact be remembered as a plague that changed the direction of history. It has already done so — economically, socially, geopolitically. Nonetheless, a perusal of Zaretsky’s chapter titles reminds us that it has a great deal of historical competition: “Thucydides and the Great Plague of Athens” (Chapter One), “Marcus Aurelius and the Antonine Plague (Two), “Michel de Montaigne and the Bubonic Plague” (Three), “Daniel Defoe and the Great Plague of London” (Four), “Albert Camus and la peste brune” (Five). With the exception of Camus, whose plague was symbolic of fascism and Nazism spreading through Europe, the rest of the plagues Zaretsky recounts were actual public health crises that impacted major urban centers.

COVID-19 doesn’t get its own chapter. Instead, it is woven throughout, an unfolding story told through Zaretsky’s first-person account of his adventures volunteering in an unidentified nursing home, somewhere in the proximity of his Houston residence. Relieved from the duties of in-class teaching, Zaretsky spent three hours a day volunteering. Because the nursing home’s cafeteria had been closed, much of his work involved delivering food trays to residents and helping them feed themselves. Up to a third of the patients in the facility, he informs us, suffered from some form of dementia. If ever there was tedious, unglamorous work to be done, this surely was it.

The anecdotes of nursing home residents scattered through the narrative give the book punctuation and tempo. We learn, for example, that “one of the books on Mrs. A’s bed was that Bible for Texas progressives, Molly Ivins’s Bushwhacked.” Ivins had passed away in 2007, and Zaretsky tells Mrs. A that he misses her, with which she agrees. Only a few minutes later, however, Zaretsky realizes Mrs. A was speaking not of Ivins but of a TV character, and Zaretsky leaves the room, chastened by his initial lack of perception. As human and amusing as these anecdotes are, I found it challenging to become invested in some of the characters Zaretsky talks about. Part of the reason is that, because of concerns over privacy, Zaretsky cannot give us the full names of the nursing home’s residents, designating them instead with letters of the alphabet. Fictitious names would have worked better perhaps.

Stylistic choices aside, part of the reason I had trouble connecting may have more to do with the nature of nursing homes in the United States. I have similar trouble with the stories I hear when I am visiting my mother in her residential community in Pennsylvania. She lives in an apartment, as do her neighbors. Of course I know my mother’s life history, but when she introduces me to other residents, I witness them in the context of the nondescript aesthetic features of a Lancaster, Pennsylvania. residential community, with its manicured lawns and impersonal pop art on the walls, a place that could resemble hundreds of others around the country, where the personal stories of residents are delimited by the walls of two-bedroom apartments — or, in Zaretsky’s case, the even smaller dimensions of a shared room in an assisted living facility. Here, severed from the communities in which they worked and raised families, and from the organic configurations of their homes and neighborhoods, their ability to express individuality is limited to a book or two on their nightstand. Their sometimes epic personal histories have to compete with the political talk shows on their neighbor’s television set. 

In the midst of this care work, Zaretsky wanders the vaults of history and philosophy. “For more than forty years as a reader and writer, student and teacher,” he says, “I have thought that literature and life are deeply bound to one another.” This is philosophy not as a technical academic discipline, but rather as a search for ways to live.

Good philosophers these days know that theodicies and investigations into the so-called “problem of evil” tend to be a losing proposition. Zaretsky doesn’t wander in this direction, avoiding any temptation to offer grand metaphysical explanations and focusing instead on how to remain personally vigilant. While featured in only one chapter, Albert Camus, about whom Zaretsky had already written two book-length studies, serves as a frame, providing the title of the book and the philosophical parameters within which it unfolds. “[Y]our victories will never be lasting” says Jean Tarrou to Dr. Rieux in The Plague. But that is no reason not to keep on fighting. Like Rieux and Tarrou, Zaretsky sets out to be vigilant and attentive, first and foremost in how he responds to the suffering around him.

As a matter of method, Zaretsky favors the messiness of literature over the rigor of philosophy, as did British novelist and philosopher Iris Murdoch, another admirer of Camus’s oeuvre, who thought stories added to the “density of our lives.” Life borders on the absurd, thought many of the existentialists, including Camus. Yet it is not without meaning, which we are ultimately responsible for creating. “I spent the first Saturday of April at the residence dressed as the Easter Bunny” recalls Zaretsky amidst an otherwise earnest historical overview of Marcus Aurelius. Clad in “a thick polyester rug,” he recalls hopping down the hallways bringing laughter to residents and frightening at least one of them — a blind woman who couldn’t fully grasp what all the commotion was about. In the midst of this Easter Bunny extravaganza, looking out through the narrow holes of his sweat-infused attire, Zaretsky notices a television broadcasting President Trump speaking from the Rose Garden, claiming, among other things that “there will be a lot of death.”   

Thankfully, COVID-19 and other ills did not spell death for all of the residents, at least not yet.  A Jewish philosopher dressed as the Easter Bunny could provide only limited respite from an insidious epidemic, a wildly out-of-touch president, and a decentralized Texas state system that was woefully unprepared to navigate policy nuances. Nonetheless, Zaretsky concludes his account with the hope-inspiring story of Mrs. M., a former music teacher who was finally able to reunite with her children. On hearing that Mrs. M. had been able to spend time with her kids again and to entertain them by playing show tunes on a piano, Zaretsky recalls bursting into tears. It is here, in the very last paragraph of the book, that he introduces an idea that made my head spin: “Pure kitsch, I keep telling myself.” But Zaretsky is okay with this, so long as it is recognized as kitsch. He refers to Milan Kundera, who, in The Unbearable Lightness of Being, had suggested that “No matter how we scorn it, kitsch is an integral part of the human condition.”

It’s a pregnant ending, full of possibilities. The idea of kitsch has its origins in aesthetics and art history. It denotes cheap imitations, low-quality reproductions, tacky aesthetics. The Venetian Resort in Vegas is kitsch. So are Chinese replicas of Murano glass  in Venice itself. But it’s not this limited meaning of the word that Zaretsky seems to be deploying. “Kitsch causes two tears to flow in quick succession” says Kundera. “The first tear says: How nice to see children running on the grass! The second tear says: How nice to be moved, together with all mankind, by children running on the grass! The brotherhood of man on earth will be possible only on a base of kitsch.” Tacky sentimentalism? Along with Kundera, Zaretsky seems to suggest that so long as we are aware of it, this kind of sentiment can serve as the basis for a shared humanity.

I remain intrigued, though, by the intersection of the aesthetic and the metaphysical. Is kitsch all we have left once we have departed from the grand schemes of history? Is sentimental attachment what remains when we give up on the more difficult questions of life and death? Kitsch is a modern phenomenon — it emerged in the late 1800s and goes hand in hand with industrialization and the possibility of mass reproduction of artifacts. There are no discernible elements of kitsch, at least in the aesthetic sense, in Zaretsky’s accounts of Thucydides and Marcus Aurelius, Montaigne and Camus. Why does kitsch emerge, as it does, as an explanatory category in the context of a Texas nursing home?

Kundera had elaborated on the metaphysical dimension of kitsch. Kitsch, he says, “is the absolute denial of shit, in both the literal and the figurative senses of the word; kitsch excludes everything from its purview which is essentially unacceptable in human existence.” This represents a convergence of both aesthetic and metaphysical elements — aesthetic, because kitsch art is unidimensional and lacks profundity; metaphysical, because the thinness of kitsch aesthetics ultimately cordons off the shit of the world, the suffering, the epic, the tragedy, in favor of the cameo moment.

I remember my own Italian grandmother’s transition from heroic to kitsch. Heroic: in her seventies, in the courtyard of her thick-walled farmhouse, nonna would skin a local rabbit on a Saturday afternoon, cook it on Saturday evening, serve it for lunch on Sunday, then pick up the head and suck on its cooked brains, savoring the aromatic meat, while drooling grease and saliva. Kitsch: a few years later, her memory ravaged by age, nonna sat meekly by my uncle and aunt’s pool, retelling the sappy stories she had read that morning in an Italian women’s weekly.

I can appreciate both, but the latter represents a narrowing of experience, a fading of memory, a lack of texture. This is the sense in which I understand Zaretsky’s portrayal of Mrs. M., the former music teacher whose reunion with her children brings tears to his eyes. It’s beautiful, in a kitsch kind of way, yet it’s thin, in contrast to the potential density of experience alluded to by Iris Murdoch, and to which Zaretsky also aspires. It could be so much more, and we get hints of that “so much more” in the moments leading up to it, in the image of a hunched-over Mrs. M., speedily wheeling herself down the hallways of the nursing home, a red scarf seemingly leaving a trail behind her. This, in fact, is the image I savor, of a more timeless Mrs. M. whose powerful aura is strong enough to push back on the whitewashed walls of the nursing home.

What is it that accounts for the feeling of kitsch in the final scene of Zaretsky’s narrative? COVID-19 has been a magnifying glass — a stress test of sorts, placing societies under the microscope, highlighting their fault lines, revealing their weaknesses: China’s unapologetic preference for authoritarian, surveillance-based solutions, the US population’s vulnerability to ill-founded conspiracy theories and disinformation, and its widespread preference for libertarianism, even when it endangers vulnerable lives. The pervasiveness of kitsch, I think, is just one more trait highlighted by the pandemic. It is a function of our time and place, of American modernity, and with it the preference for geographical rootlessness, the mass reproduction of architectural structures as well as of the arguably more innocuous smaller artifacts, the narrowing of memories, and the dislocation of personal histories, especially those of middle-class senior citizens. All of these elements take center stage in the retirement facility described by Zaretsky.

While appreciating his awareness of kitsch, I read Zaretsky’s work, as I do that of Kundera, whom he references, as a valiant, often heroic effort to push back on kitsch — the all-encompassing, nonaware, totalitarian-leaning variety. Thanks to the wonders of the scientific method, it took less than two years to come up with a vaccine for COVID-19. But the scientific method hasn’t been the only byproduct of modernity. A vaccine for kitsch is harder to come by, and requires, among other elements, the kind of determined, lifelong effort to remain vigilant, engaged, and open to new experiences that give life “density.”

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Dan Turello is a writer and cultural historian based in Washington, DC, and the creator of the Alternative DC Portraits Project.