What We Are Capable Of

As the pandemic reshapes our lives, we read, bake, sew and hope

We have been in lockdown for over a month now, and what have we learned? We now know that when fewer than 600 people die in New York City, it’s — if not a good day — a little pinprick of light at the end of the tunnel.

We have become resilient. We know that we can continue to produce Public Seminar from our homes; and that we can teach our students on Zoom, organized as if they were contestants on the classic television game show, Hollywood Squares. We are accustomed to new forms of uncertainty: for example, that when the authorities told us that the general public didn’t need face masks, it was not a lie, but not the truth either.

Now that it is impossible to hoard surgical masks because even hospitals have barely been able to purchase them in weeks, the authorities have reversed their story. In many places, it is now the law to wear something over our noses and mouths whenever we leave home. One of the most visible hobbies on social media (other than baking) is making cloth masks. Nancy Pelosi was last seen by this author wearing a jaunty bandanna, Sundance Kid-style, that she could easily pull up should Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy come within six feet.

And some of us are reading. A lot. A friend of mine re-read The Diary of Anne Frank and pointed out to a group of us meeting online that things were not so bad. Some of us are in pandemic reading clubs. Mine has already discussed Albert Camus, The Plague; next, we are reading Katherine Anne Porter’s Pale Horse, Pale Rider; and I’m pushing for Thomas Mann’s The Magic Mountain next.

Speaking of books — have you ever wondered where New York Times bestselling books originate? Nowadays, they are as likely to be made on social media as they are to emerge from MFA programs. Join Alexa Mauzy, as she sits down with superstar literary agent Byrd Leavell, who has helped bring books into the world written (sort of) by presidential candidate Andrew Yang, frat-bro Tucker Max — and Donald Trump. Leavell, who would rather we forget about some of these cultural contributions, “has mastered the art of selling books to people who don’t read books.” But we haven’t forgotten that you, our reader, also care deeply about art and that we need art in this challenging moment in history. So we close our section on culture with an excerpt from philosopher Simon Critchley’s book-length meditation on David Bowie. Things are hard now. “But when I listen to Bowie’s songs,” Critchley writes, “I hear an extraordinary hope for transformation. And I don’t think I am alone in this.”

Bowie promised us “a world of unknown pleasures and sparkling intelligence,” Critchley reminds us, a place we just aren’t living in the now. Our present is an unsettled place, as Pawel Knut writes, offering both security and limbo. For some of us, the pandemic meant gradually withdrawing to our homes. For others, it meant going into motion, taking a flight to get home, and racing the virus to get to a safe place. “A few hours before the departure of the last plane evacuating Polish citizens from New York,” Knut writes about him and his wife racing against time, “someone gave up their seats and so we managed to leave at the very last minute.” Next, Daniel Schillinger reflects on what Thucydides can teach us about the pandemic, and John Stoehr takes a hard look at Michigan residents protesting the stay at home orders, people who distrust authority so much that they can’t—or won’t—see the bodies piling up around them.

It’s hard to separate politics from the pandemic, but the pandemic not only has a politics of its own, but it will also surely shape elections around the world. Like John Stoehr, political scientist Sidney Tarrow examines the Michigan anti-lockdown protesters and the presidential tweets that championed their cause. Donald Trump, the author of those tweets, “is no ordinary politician,” Tarrow writes: “he sees himself as the leader of a movement – not of a government or even of a party.” Trump is counting on that movement to power him to another four years in the White House, a campaign that amplified, Robert Wright reminds us, by ex-White House advisor and Breitbart publisher Steve Bannon.

We end by bringing you two interviews with prize-winning authors. Valeria Luiselli, the author of The Archive of Lost Children (2019), discusses how writing grounded a life in motion. “The decision to devote my life to writing is something that sprung from a life of constant mobility,” Luiselli told interviewer Vanessa Chan, “I had to find some kind of axis around which to organize the chaos of my experience.” And Saidya Hartman discusses Wayward Lives, an “intimate examination,” as interviewer Yannise Jean writes, “of the lives of  `ordinary’ and `wayward’ Black women in the early twentieth century.”

These lives should remind us that there will be no such thing as a normal life to return to after the pandemic, much as we might long for whatever we recall as a normal life. Until then, we will keep on learning about what we are capable of, and who we are— to each other and to ourselves.