Thinking about “the Self” (ish) in the Time of Pandemic

By Lisa Russ SpaarSeptember 8, 2020

Thinking about “the Self” (ish) in the Time of Pandemic
In her important book about love, language, and the individual, Eros the Bittersweet, philosopher, classicist, and poet Anne Carson speaks about the ways in which a discreet person, invaded and disrupted by erotic desire, is “provoke[d] to notice the self and its limits. From a vantage point, which we might call self-consciousness,” she points out, “all at once a self never known before, which now strikes you as the true one, is coming into focus.”

It makes sense to extrapolate that any other major intruding force — illness, war, religious conversion, holocaust, economic collapse — can challenge the selves we’ve come to recognize and depend upon, calling upon us to re-conjure, take stock, renegotiate, and even grieve or bid good riddance to these prior notions of ourselves.

The current pandemic has certainly upended and disordered everyone and forced us, willingly or unwillingly, to re-think who we are. The deranging isolation and uncertainty of the global contagion have invaded, in an Eros-like manner, the core of even the most seemingly coherent and self-possessed persons, exposing systemic inequities in our culture, flipping traditional roles in an almost Saturnalian way, and compelling many of us to confront (and expand or contract) our perception of our “selves” (their limits, their possibilities) in sometimes unsettling but also positive ways.

The behavioral manifestations of people moved even just slightly off-kilter by the pandemic’s dangers and erasure of a foreseeable horizon (and who isn’t feeling this anxiety and impatience — from politicians, business persons, and activists to students, lovers, and parents-to-be?) can be as quirky and relatively benign as hoarding things one can’t live without while quarantining: cases of industrial-sized jars of Fluffernutter, for example, in the case of one writer and her partner (an inexhaustible supply of the marshmallow concoction that might be used as spackle or tile grout in some as yet unimaginable future) or, in my case, a 136-ounce jug of Sriracha sauce. Two such jugs, actually.

For those lucky enough not to be infected by the virus but merely holed up, hitched to a computer at the kitchen table working from home, or laid off and taking up a sudden mania for reruns of The Housewives of New Jersey, barefoot running, jigsaw puzzles, or racing motorcycles down country roads at unrecommended speeds, the current plague has certainly changed patterns of behaviors if not deeply entrenched conditions of “the self.” Others, however, seem more existentially affected as they move from Zoom to Zoom meeting in a haze of pseudo-dementia. An ordinarily pleasant and patient person is now querulous and judgmental. A hothead begins practicing Buddhist meditation with an online group. A workaholic retires. A Wall Street trader resumes writing poems. A self-centered individual takes up an altruistic cause. Someone begins an Instagram diary. Another takes up crafting cocktails; another gives up drinking. A mania for making sourdough bread and kombucha mother takes hold. And so on.

Other odd and potentially more serious out-of-character actions presumably inspired by pandemic-induced anxieties include impulsive decisions to actually change one’s appearance, the undergoing of radical elective surgeries (nose and boob jobs, for instance) or, more mildly, going gray or growing a beard big enough to have its own zip code. The distancing of the pandemic has certainly italicized the use of virtual modalities in many lives, inspiring an array of ways of connecting with and presenting one’s self to the public. How do I look to others? What virtues should I signal? Could I be perceived as guilty? Not guilty enough? Should I perform my shame? My righteousness? My outrage? My caring or not caring or not caring about the right things? Can students learn in this remote environment? On Instagram, TikTok, Zoom, Facebook: Who am I? More gravely, whether on-line or off, who am I if the economy tanks, I’m evicted, or I can’t get the health/child/elder-care I need — circumstances hardly unique to the pandemic but certainly exacerbated by it?

It’s too soon to make any generalizations about the ways the existential questions and conditions at the heart of selfhood are being agitated by the global pandemic and might alter — on personal and on cultural levels — what it means to be a human being in possession of a self — a self accountable to one’s own moral compass but also to the systemic injustices and inequalities that have been with us for centuries, despite however privately pleased or displeased, comfortable or uncomfortable we have been with those former selves. The brutal intrusion of this plague into our lives invites an opportunity to consider who we are and why we are who we are, and who we might become. The self may be, as some believe, merely a conspiracy of somatic chemicals and neurons. Or it might be simply the product of demographic and other environmental factors. Others see the self as something intrinsic, akin to what some might call a soul. Many wonder if the self — a consistent, integrated sense of personhood over time — really, in fact, exists at all. But however vexed or fluid one may feel about the concept of selfhood, this current global travesty challenges us to re-think the breadth and depth of our humanity. As Carson says of her lover stricken by Eros, “divided [by the adulteration or disordering of the self by desire], we learn where our selves end and the world begins.” It is time to think consciously and proactively about our selves in relation to the world. And as Americans, especially, who have historically prized our inalienable rights, agency, privacy, and individual freedoms, this pandemic offers a challenge to our selfishness; it issues a call to think about the common good.


Lisa Russ Spaar is the author and editor of over ten books and anthologies of poetry, most recently More Truly and More Strange: 100 Contemporary American Self-Portrait Poems (Persea Books).

LARB Contributor

Lisa Russ Spaar is a contemporary American poet, professor, and essayist. She is currently a professor of English and creative writing at the University of Virginia and the director of the Area Program in Poetry Writing. She is the author of numerous books of poetry, including Vanitas, Rough: Poems, and Satin Cash: Poems. Her most recent book is Madrigalia: New & Selected Poems (Persea, 2021), and her debut novel, Paradise Close, was published by Persea in May 2022. Her poem “Temple Gaudete,” published in IMAGE Journal, won a 2016 Pushcart Prize.


Did you know LARB is a reader-supported nonprofit?

LARB publishes daily without a paywall as part of our mission to make rigorous, incisive, and engaging writing on every aspect of literature, culture, and the arts freely accessible to the public. Help us continue this work with your tax-deductible donation today!