Oran is our town: Experiencing Camus’s ‘Plague’ during our own

camus_plague_penguin_coverMany people who are reading this novel for the first time at the present moment, with a new kind of plague sweeping the world, are surprised by how well Albert Camus’s 1947 work reflects our experience. I was. But a little reflection showed me another angle on it. If you can look for differences between things—between the present and the past, for instance—you can also look for similarities, and those aren’t hard to discover in this case. Maybe, in fact, we should expect to find that others have lived through what we’re living through. Infectious diseases have marched back and forth across the planet throughout recorded history, and they’ve usually worked in similar ways, appearing like unprovoked and seemingly unconquerable invaders, who lay waste for a while before being repulsed, only to return a little later. With the global spread of the SARS-CoV-2 virus, we’re living through history turned back upon itself, for epidemics and pandemics, you might say, used to be endemic; the biggest difference may be that our current pestilence has so far descended upon us only once. Continue reading

A note on the lack of comparisons for the pandemic

From “Casualties,” the print-magazine title for a review by Peter Schjeldahl in the 12/02/19 New Yorker of a PS1 art exhibition called “Theater of Operations: The Gulf Wars, 1991–2011”:

When will we stop obsessing about our gimmickry of communication and just communicate as best we can? Inexplicably, to me, the show’s catalogue features a reprint of the French philosopher Jean Baudrillard’s flashy, repellently foolish essay of 1991, “The Gulf War Did Not Take Place,” which sashays past the actuality of blasted lives for fancies of postmodernist exposition. According to Baudrillard, “simulacra” have come to displace realities in human understanding. No, they haven’t. But the callousness of his essay may symptomize the condition, shared by all, of feeling overwhelmed by today’s volume and speed of information.

I agree with Schjeldahl and like the directness of his rejoinder to Baudrillard. However, there may have been a portion of Baudrillard in the often-heard, or at least often-cited, response from people who watched replays of airplanes flying into the World Trade Center, that it was like watching a movie. Notably, I’ve seen no such remarks about the coronavirus pandemic. I have seen commentaries, which I haven’t taken the time to read, about the odd allure of photographs showing our oddly depopulated streets and plazas. Maybe the commentaries include comparisons like that. It certainly seems possible for someone to think of The Omega Man (1971), which featured Charlton Heston, or I Am Legend (2007), with Will Smith—both were based on the same 1954 book about a pandemic—or, no doubt, a number of other visual entertainments when we look at such images. On the other hand, maybe people have gotten more sensible or callous or knowing, or maybe we’re in a period where reality keeps biting us harder than our entertainments can. I think it’s more likely, though, that the effects of the current pandemic have crept up on us instead of bursting upon us out of the blue, and that we’re accommodating to it bit by bit: however much things have changed, and however quickly, nothing out there in the world beyond our windows has yet caught us entirely off guard and left us grasping for comparisons. Instead, though this is little better, we keep telling ourselves how unprecedented it all is.

It can happen here: How a new epidemic might come to America

Left, George Young as Dr. Victor Cannerts in a poster for Containment; right, Dr. Li Wenliang.

Left, George Young as Dr. Victor Cannerts in a poster for Containment; right, Dr. Li Wenliang. (Images: The CW via IMDb; The New York Times, original source not given.)

Republished, with revisions, from an original post here.

Imagine that a recent immigrant—illegal, it later turns out—staggers into a hospital in your city with what seems like a bad cold and consults with a doctor before vanishing, and the doctor, after showing symptoms almost immediately, dies soon after, of what proves to be a highly lethal and hitherto unknown virus. It’s hard to say how things would go from this point, but your city could find itself facing what Atlanta faces in a single-season TV drama from a few years back—the quarantine of the hospital and an entire section of the city. Continue reading

However you label it, ‘Years and Years’ is fascinating


What’s happening now? Members of the Lyons family try to catch up. (Image: via HBO.)

Other than saying that Years and Years is a relatively new show on HBO, co-produced with the BBC, it’s hard to know what to call it. For now, I’ll just call it a near-future drama.

The first episode—which aired in the U.S. at the end of June, though I saw it only a couple of days ago—takes us neatly, in its opening section, from something like the present to a few years in the future. It places in the foreground an extended family in England (most of them live in Manchester), which gets most of the screen time as their characters and relationships are carefully built up, but the episode always keeps in view a background of local, national, and international developments: Continue reading

The moon landing and me

Lately it’s become common to remark on the togetherness effect of humankind’s first moon landing. A good example comes from today’s Axios AM newsletter:

Yesterday’s 50th anniversary…was a fleeting chance…for the country to rally around something that was exciting and important, brought us together, and ultimately produced the biggest single historic moment ever.…

I’m pausing to honor this moment because they’re so rare, outside the Olympics. The last truly unifying national moment was the tragedy of 9/11.

But Apollo 11 and the later moon landings and the entire sequence from the first Mercury flight to the last liftoff from the lunar surface were not universally welcomed. Continue reading

Passing glances: How to link to a book, what Hedy Lamarr did in the war, on discovering Dawn Powell’s diaries

Henrik Ibsen, during a period in which he kept a scorpion in a glass on his desk (somehow it seems perfect that Ibsen would keep a scorpion on his desk), noticed that the insect would sometimes become agitated. If he dropped a small piece of fruit in the glass, the scorpion would sting it and then settle down. The conclusion, drawn either by Ibsen in a journal or by the biographer who reported this, was that an occasional discharge of venom helps restore one’s equanimity, or something to that effect. Allow me to try it here.

In reading Charles McGrath’s article on Anthony Powell in the 11/12/18 New Yorker, I came across a fine sentence, Continue reading

What’s it all about, Charlie? Making sense of ‘Black Mirror: Bandersnatch’


Decisions: it’s what’s for breakfast. (Screencap via Netflix)

Much of what we’ve seen in previous releases of Black Mirror, an anthology series offered by Netflix, is supposed to make us uncomfortable and does. In “Nosedive,” the eagerness of the central character to participate in a social-ranking system that seems destined to slap her down becomes more and more distressing to watch. In “Metalhead,” our anxiety grows as we watch a woman trying to evade what seems at first to be a very persistent robotic guard dog, which eventually seems more like one of the bringers of an apocalypse. We tune in to these episodes to see what fresh horror—or, far less often, what fresh delight—creator Charlie Brooker and his executive producer, Annabel Jones, can envision for our technological future. In the show’s latest iteration, an interactive movie called Black Mirror: Bandersnatch (I’ll call it BM:B for short), we get a lot of the discomfort we expect, but this time the story takes place in the past, and some of our uneasiness may be unintentional—though I doubt it. Continue reading

Passing glances: Amazon, coincidences, and war

In a private forum on the Authors Guild website, a contributor recently posted a link to a New York Times opinion piece bearing the provocative headline “New York Should Say No to Amazon.” The op-ed began by reminding readers, “This week, word leaked that Amazon may be close to finalizing a deal to set up a major operation in Long Island City, Queens” (the link is in the original), and it went on to subject Amazon itself as well as its possible New York expansion to withering criticism. The forum contributor said he had previously favored the deal but now wasn’t so sure, and he asked for other responses. Because the moves, literal and otherwise, of major tech companies are a pressing concern in New York and elsewhere, I’m reposting here the response I wrote for the forum: Continue reading

Reading notes: On Sam Mendes and long-form TV

The 9/24/18 issue of The New Yorker contains an excellent profile of director Sam Mendes by John Lahr, called “Showman” in the printed edition. It reports this, which I had never noticed:

Much to his union’s chagrin, Mendes refuses to benefit from the hard-fought battle for “possessory credit”—you won’t find “A film by Sam Mendes” in the credits for any of his movies. A film, he said, “is written by someone else, shot by someone else. It’s not all me. It’s because of me.”

That comes off as a little less modest than Mendes may have thought, but it’s hard to judge how it sounded when he said it. In any case, it’s clear that he doesn’t think a film comes to exist solely because of him.

Something else that struck me was this: Continue reading

Memory and humility: Two notes on Brett Kavanaugh

One: During the confirmation hearings for the nomination of Judge Brett Kavanaugh to the Supreme Court, disagreements arose over what would seem to be basic facts, such as whether Kavanaugh assaulted Christine Blasey Ford at a party or whether Kavanaugh even attended a party where Ford was present. One thing that’s important to keep in mind while wrestling with questions of what really happened and what it means is that memory can be an unreliable witness. Continue reading