April 17: The city of Chicago and the campus have been closed down for about a month. The library, most businesses and restaurants, and the building where I have my office are inaccessible. The parks are off limits. Summer travel is canceled. I stay at home. It’s not the end of the world, but it is an interruption of many of the things in the world that I rely on to make my life interesting, pleasant and meaningful: I mean meeting my classes, holding office hours, going to talks and conferences, traveling, having coffee with people, cooking for friends. It will be months before I can do any of those things again. With all those things suspended, and the word “social” now locked into partnership with its near-antonym “distancing” (not to mention the symptoms of unstopping decline into Caligula-like government by caprice), this house is my refuge.
I am grateful to have a house in which to be confined for the duration with four people particularly dear to me. But all five of us have, or should have, lives and connections outside the narrow family circle: we thrive on the friendships, rivalries, news, contacts, that each brings back at the end of the day like ants returning to the nest. Email and videoconferencing don’t substitute for this shuttling away and back—not least because whatever pseudo-sociality we can now enjoy with the outside world is done in the presence of the whole family.
It would be worse without the telephone and the internet, but now, like those who lived through disasters of the past, we are finding out what we are made of. We are thrown back on our own resources. Our resources fortunately include, along with sacks of rice, cans of beans, and boxes of ramen, a few thousand books, to say nothing of other paper goods, and if the electricity fails and the Internet goes off, I can always light a candle and read Boethius, Montaigne, Li Qingzhao and Ring Lardner.
The moment I have said this, someone will complain that I’m speaking from a position of privilege. But books are cheap: most of mine were picked up used for a few dollars. The skill to choose them and the desire to read them weren’t acquired all in one place: some of that came to me for free, as a family heirloom, and some of it was handed on by teachers salaried on my behalf by non-profit institutions, public and private. I’m grateful for those lessons, for the shaping of the reading self that I underwent in those pre-social-isolation days. They were preparing me for this.
But let’s suppose the basement floods or the house burns, and the reader is left with nothing to read. If anyone asks what the humanities are good for, here’s my answer: the humanities are the arts that teach you how to have a meeting with yourself when even Zoom stops working.
Suspension: the Stoics, echoed by the phenomenologists, called it “epokhē.” It’s what happens when the object of your intention is taken away and you’re left with the pure structure of intending. Life feels more like that every day.