You will excuse my reticence, but I have struggled for words these last several days. It is striking, frightening, and more than slightly humbling how this pandemic, though hardly unsurpassed in its lethality, has proven to be ineffable, if not unfathomable, to the American people. We mutter about a pause to our country, but this is not a pause: in my experience, we have paused only once, on the lifeless afternoon of September 11th. This is not a pause but a disassembling, a gruelingly sluggish march to our demise. Only the depraved and oblivious would fail to recognize the moribundity of this, to appreciate the funereal atmosphere pervading our inglorious landscape. We are compelled, in the absence of credible—albeit infantile—reassurance, to acknowledge our own weakness, and, what’s more, our own mortality. We have been stripped of our pride, our most malignant hubris, and in the absence of our formerly relentless confidence, we cannot speak realistically. We cannot speak at all.
Surely, we expected incredulous silence from the gullible bourgeoisie who placed their immovable faith in the invincibility of the American system. More surprising, and more telling, is the palpable anxiety among the skeptical and woke who anticipated the catastrophic breakdown of “the system” for years. Their collective inability to interpret this crisis, comprehend its catalysts, and portend its consequences is baffling: in February, they spoke with inflexible authority of the inevitable doom of our capitalistic structure, but in the time of the coronavirus, they are scratching their heads and strumming their lips. I number myself among the perplexed, for I have expressed my confusion, if only feigned confusion, far more frequently than I have voiced solemnity.
Maybe we thought it wouldn’t happen to us. We said, as did our preferred public intellectuals, that the American Empire wasn’t long for this world, that the cathedral would stand for another quarter-century, at the most. We acknowledged its impermanence, as well as the innumerable agonies that its collapse would connote, but the downfall remained at a distance, like the knowledge of our own personal death: we understand that we will someday die, but the knowledge doesn’t overwhelm us because, for the moment, it is abstract. Amusingly, it seems that we accept the inevitability of our own death far more easily than we could have ever accepted America’s eventual demise—and by extension, while those on their deathbed often achieve transcendent clarity, we scream in hopeless protest as we race ever nearer the American climax.
New Hampshirites in particular are incapable of coming to terms with this downswing. We flatter ourselves for our indefatigable independence, as well as our rugged disregard for nature’s violent vicissitudes. Even if our claim to these characteristics weren’t demonstrably false, even the thickest skin will not defend against the coronavirus, and we obeyed without question Governor Sununu’s order to shutter the bars indefinitely. Perhaps our acquiescence, our immediate acquiescence, has depressed us and dulled our illusory edge. You could sense the gloomy tension and embarrassment on Wednesday, the eighteenth of March, forty-eight hours after the legal decision. If you went out and saw another human being, you would blink at each other uneasily, armed with the knowledge of what the other person was thinking, but vulnerable with the exposure of what you were thinking, too. The human mystery was solved: we were all the children of coronavirus.
More ambiguous, at least for me, is what happened on Thursday, Friday, and Saturday. I remember a man yelling at me in the dollar store, warning of the collapse of the petroleum dollar and pointing to “all of the indictments” against powerful people, suspended as a result of this pathogenic frenzy. Little else comes to mind, little to distinguish the first day of official, popular estrangement from the second and the third. Is there still a justifiable reason to demarcate the days, now that we have formally commenced a period or an era, defined by the multiplicity of days? Time no longer flows: it floats, like spongy scum skimming spilled sewage. We languish in prisons of domestication, and while our cages may be spacious, eventually we crash against the bars.
Sunday, I recall. On Sunday, we were notified, maybe even warned, that the National Guard would soon swoop into the “hotspots”, those loosely defined zones of inexorable infection. From the start, I have written in serious fear—not of the virus, but of the authoritative measures that may be taken under the guise of halting the disease. Defining the disease is a dangerous activity in and of itself, but on Sunday, I was more concerned with the military’s planned internal occupation of two of the states on the Pacific coast as well as New York, which is closer to home. While we can be skeptical of the efficacy of a military invasion of New Hampshire, some very credible rumors emerged of a mandatory lockdown in Boston, seventy miles south of the house in which I write this entry. If the fascists were coming, then I needed information, so my associate and I packed up the car and drove down to the Massachusetts border.
We didn’t find anything, no checkpoint manned on the freeway, no sentries patrolling the streets of Methuen. We did spy a couple of pubs that might have served up some decent food, but, as we soon reminded ourselves, everything was closed “until further notice”. Shall these establishments someday reopen their doors and welcome human beings once again? Such is still the plan, but on Sunday, it became hard to believe. It is simple enough to imagine a business coming to an end, but to envision its revival, restoration, or resurrection is entirely different. Will these little restaurants one day celebrate the resumption of social interaction, or what passes for social interaction in the twenty-first century? The day after the governor made his call, I would have answered without any hesitation. Six days, later, well . . . our country appears to be so slightly changed.
Upon returning to New Hampshire, we saw an excess of vehicles packed into the parking lot of an arms dealership. This was a two-story shop in Hooksett, the ground floor offering ammunition and the upper level selling firearms. You wouldn’t have believed the queue of people buying up bullets: there must have been dozens of nervous customers, none of them adhering to the recommendation to stand at least six feet away from people. Firing those rounds may prove tricky, too, as there was an incredible backlog of background checks to be processed before one could buy a gun. Making our way to the exit, we heard one of the clerks say that the previous day of business had been twice as hectic.
Eventually, we reached the parking lot of a movie theater, or what was a movie theater before the coronavirus reduced it to a vestige, to a ghostly reminder of an option that we no longer have. My associate opined that the movie theater, and movie theaters generally, will never reopen. They will be discarded in the “system update”, his preferred term for this ongoing transformation, not only of our country, but of our society. “A lot of kids won’t go to school anymore. ‘Remote learning’ will become a normal thing. And soon you’ll have to explain to the cops why you’re not at home. There will be curfews. There’ll be computer chips in people, too. Just like your pets. But a lot of people won’t really notice the change. Why leave your house when the government will give you whatever it thinks you need?”
At the risk of appearing melodramatic, we may have our answer sooner than we think.