APRIL 15, 2020
Some compulsion is leading very intelligent people to claim that they have identified the parables or texts that diagnose our experience of COVID-19 or the history that has led us here. Albert Camus,, writing in the New Yorker, showed us in The Plague that it is our political structures that are really under examination in stories about contagion. Jack London, she says in the same piece, showed us in The Scarlet Plague that it is America’s racism that breeds contagion. Others oscillate between the seaside of The Decameron and the fascist sex-torture parties of Pasolini’s 120 Days of Sodom: in the Los Angeles Review of Books that these texts help us name the opposing options of simplistic optimism or nefarious selfishness that characterize our possible response to the present situation.
Diagnosing despair is one way forward, but why not turn also — or, in fact, more aggressively — towards our parables of care and our literature of affection in disastrous times? Lepore ends her piece with a dramatic blankness, a two sentence paragraph invoking the blankness of the white page. She is more ready to give her reader nothing than she is to delve into literature’s scenes of nursing, organizing, helping, and soothing. In her own piece she offers us Saramago’s Blindness, but even as she mentions the novel’s “one person left with sight”, she chooses not to point out that this character is the “Doctor’s wife” who refuses to abandon her husband — that is, who insists on caring for him — when government officials come to force him into quarantine. To Jill Lepore’s blank, white page, then, I offer you the speckled whiteness of gauze and the imperfect whiteness of the face mask on the nurse or the friend dropping off food.
While Virginia Woolf beautifully contended that literature lacks the language for describing illness (“Novels, one would have thought, would have been devoted to influenza; epic poems to typhoid; odes to pneumonia, lyrics to tooth-ache.”), individuals caring for individuals is something that literature narrates supply. “Take me to him! It will be easier for us to bear it together” Kitty shouts at Levin, urging her husband to bring her at once to his dying brother. Anna Karenina is not a plague story, but Kitty’s scenes giving empathetic and homespun comfort to Nicholas have always stood out to me. Whereas Levin sees in his brother’s death a philosophical problem, Kitty sees a body “emaciated, doubled-up shins, loins, and back” but still able to be comforted by her and made a little more at ease. For the sick and dying there are a range of comforts the can mitigate their suffering, so Kitty sweeps and dusts and washes; Kitty learns about Nicholas’s condition; Kitty clutches Nicholas’s skeletal hand; Kitty perfumes the sick room; Kitty transgresses politesse in the name of care. When Kitty discreetly concocts some kind of healing potion or charm to spread under Nicholas’s blanket, we glimpse a hint at the many forms of creative and caring inventiveness that inform one individual’s ability to offer care to another.
Literary responses to AIDS give us the largest and most recent creative depictions of care during an ongoing global epidemic. Belize, the nurse in Angels in America, is overworked and underappreciated as he takes care of his sick friend Prior, his neurotic friend Louis, and his patient dying of AIDS: the bigot Roy Cohn. Sharing a name with the Central American country, Belize is the play’s person of color being demanded upon from multiple directions, expected to do more work than anyone else. Belize is the play’s primary provider of medicine but also its prime critic of the social injustices of medicine in America. “You’re in a hospital,” Belize tells Cohn, “You don’t have any constitutional rights.” Then, when Belize gives Cohn unsolicited medical advice for surviving AIDS, which Cohn rebukes, barking, “You’re just a fucking nurse. Why should I listen to you over my very qualified, very expensive WASP doctor?”, Belize’s response is: “He’s not queer. I am.” Belize embodies two contradictory truths: in an epidemic, medical knowledge will saves us, and, in an epidemic, medical knowledge is not nearly enough to save us.
Care has to come from many places, people, sources, authorities and actions, and a remarkable characteristic of AIDS-care-writing in Angels in America and beyond is its attention to the care that comes from unexpected, more-than-human forms. Crocuses and daffodils will do some of our care work. Plants, whether you can identify them or not, are protagonists in the literature of healing. The British filmmaker Derek Jarman began histhe same year he was diagnosed with HIV. Then, for two years he . Elderberry protected him from witches; bluebell reminded him that jealous gods and goddesses were watching, so he must be private with his kisses; mayflowers transported him back to love making in the trees of Hampstead Heath. During a period of numbing headaches, forget-me-nots gave Jarman some relief as he recorded that “Egyptian seers” placed the flowers on “the eyes of initiates to bring dreams.” The Antiguan author Jamaica Kincaid also turns to plant life in her writing about AIDS. In My Brother, Kincaid’s memoir about her younger sibling living and dying with AIDS, she relays an anecdote in which Kincaid and her brother walk to the Antiguan botanical gardens. There they identify many plants until they come upon an unknown tree. The tree is not in their book of tropical botany and neither of them can identify it on their own:
It was a tree, only a tree, and it was either just emerging from complete dormancy or it was half-dead, half-alive. My brother and I became obsessed with this tree, its bark, its leaves, its shape; we wondered where it was really from, what sort of tree it was. If it crossed his mind that this tree, coming out of a dormancy, a natural sleep, a temporary death, or just half-dead, bore any resemblance to him right then and there, he did not say, he did not let me know in any way.
The plants in these stories about care are not just distractions or innocent things to tend to. Rather, in these pieces they transport the writers beyond their illnesses, and they help them ponder the taxonomies of life that are imperfect, unable to capture every tree, every virus, every life- and death-giving thing. Plants, too, help us tap into some of our most virulent caring energy. When Kincaid’s mother’s soursop tree becomes infested with parasitic insects that the mother cannot kill with insecticides, she douses the tree with kerosene and sets it alight. Kincaid is not there to see the tree burn, but it exposes to the author that some care is dangerous in its intensity and harmful in its passion.
Care comes in many scales, from the minute and the intimate to the societal and the national (Are there global acts of care?). Literary fiction gives us care between lovers as well as care between societies in transformation. Another essay could focus just on the role of sex in care in works of fiction like the film Beats Per Minute but also works of nonfiction like “How to Have Sex in An Epidemic: One Approach.”
At the societal or the philosophical or the (should I write it?) religious level, though, you find someone like Octavia Butler. “Oh, god, there she goes with her Earthseed shit again,” Allie says near the end of The Parable of the Sower. In the 1993 novel, California has burned. Cities have put up walls, and those walls have been breached by violent, desperate mobs. Lauren Olamina, the novel’s protagonist, responds by fleeing her city to walk north. It’s a march that slowly takes on more and more people, and it’s a march driven by “Earthseed”, a new moral philosophy or religion that Lauren is recording in her journal so that she can build communities around its tenets. One of the Earthseed teachings that Lauren gives her reader is: “Any Change may bear seeds of benefit./Seek them out./Any Change may bear seeds of harm/ Beware.” This is a dramatic contention to make with violent mobs killing people simply trying to feed and protect their children. It is a dramatic contention to make with billions of people under stay-at-home orders and with nearly 100,000 dead world-wide from complications associated with COVID-19. But it is an insight of Butler’s — and, indeed, of many AIDS activists — that we can and must produce more caring societies and politics out of societal collapse.
Lauren’s plan is to build Earthseed communities. Her plan for societal-level care in pandemic times is carrying seeds, planting food, teaching children, discussing philosophy: “We read some verses and talked about Earthseed for a while this morning. It was a calming thing to do—.” Earthseed has a mysterious ambition to “take root among the stars”, but as a care practice it is actually rather humble in its ambition: gritty, dirty, thoughtful, caked with soil, looking for results like the kinds that come from broccoli seed.
An enormous amount of social, psychological, economic, and political rebuilding and care-giving is going to have to come in huge abundance in the extended aftermath of COVID-19. Consequently, it seems worthwhile to me that we begin now looking to our most elegant examples of care rather than dwelling in the muck of epidemic and contagion parable no matter how articulate or articulately described. Please, people with enormous talents for studying history and works of art, what forms of care can help us now?