One COVID to Rule Them All
I meant to write this post yesterday, but I got distracted on social media... And, well, I had a paper to read for an exam I am participating in this afternoon. And there was fiddle to practice, although I haven’t always been doing as well with learning the tunes since our class went over to Zoom. I wanted to watch another episode of Buffy the Vampire Slayer, but I got caught up redesigning the stickers for my Telegram chat...
Somehow the hours just dribbled away, and before I knew it, it was time for bed.
I have excuses. Of course I have excuses. I was tired thanks to teaching my Tolkien class. I had spent two days looking for slides of monsters (spiders, dragons, and feonds, oh, my!). It is stressful teaching on Zoom, even with the practice I have had. I wanted to think more carefully about how to set up the argument for this post. I...
Dribble, dribble, dribble, dribble.
The days since March 21 when Illinois went on lockdown have been dribbling by. The first week, it was ordinary. We were in break between Winter and Spring terms, so I was not planning on being on campus during that week anyway. But then the university extended break for another week so that we could prepare to teach our courses online. That was exciting, getting the Zoom rooms set up for discussion and office hours, learning how to use share screen, prepping slides for my lectures so that the students would have something to look at other than me. I am recording all of our meetings so that there is a backup in case their internet goes down. In many ways, this makes teaching the discussions more satisfying than doing them in person: I get videos! Which, of course, I cannot publish outside of the university system.
I shouldn’t complain. I can’t complain. There is nothing to complain about. We are locked down for our own good. To protect the most vulnerable in our communities. To “flatten the curve” so our emergency services don’t get overwhelmed. To stay safe.
It doesn’t feel safe.
It feels like the world has gone insane. Lost its will to live. Lost hope.
It feels like we have come under the power of the One Ring.
Remember what Gandalf said about why it would be dangerous for him to take the Ring? When Frodo offered it to him, he recoiled:
Do not tempt me! For I do not wish to become like the Dark Lord himself. Yet the way of the Ring to my heart is by pity, pity for weakness and the desire of strength to do good. Do not tempt me! I dare not take it, not even to keep it safe, unused. The wish to wield it would be too great for my strength. I shall have such need of it. Great perils lie before me.*But why shouldn’t Gandalf take the Ring? Why shouldn’t he take it and use it for good? I can hear the arguments now.
“Aren’t you pro-life? Don’t you believe in keeping people safe? Look, here are the numbers to prove that it is safer keeping people locked down. How long should the lockdown be? As long as it takes to make people safe.”
“I’m older, in the higher risk group. Do you want me to get sick? It sounds to me like you want me to die, that you don’t care about me at all.”
“The corona virus is far worse than the flu. Haven’t you been following the statistics? People are dying at much higher rates than normal. We are only a few weeks away from a real disaster.”
The fear in such statements is palpable. “Be afraid, be very afraid. People are dying. You don’t want people to die, do you?” And on, and on, and on, in a relentless stream of articles posted online from the university, on social media, likely in the mainstream media except I don’t watch that.
I honestly did not expect to find being locked down this hard. I have routines. I have schedules. I am an introvert, for goodness’ sake! I have my daily exercises, my fiddle tunes to practice, my lists and lists and lists of things to do. I have classes to prepare, papers to grade, blogposts and essays to write. Look! I spent last week setting up my own Telegram channel! And the week before that writing an essay on why academia is so bad for the arts. And the week before that reading about the evils of usury. And the week before that...
It all dribbles into nothing. What’s the point? Last week I was supposed to be giving a paper at a conference in Michigan. Last month I was supposed to be competing at a fencing tournament in St. Louis. I had deadlines for talks that I was expecting to give this summer. All cancelled, as if, I don’t know, they were never that important in the first place. Certainly not “essential” in any physical way.
In case you were wondering, this post isn’t about me. It is about what I have noticed in my own lack of motivation for keeping to schedules that I have maintained for years, decades even. And about what this lack of motivation says about what is happening to our whole civilization during this lockdown, as more and more people lose their livelihoods, their educations, their dreams.
You hear it in the excuses that people are making. “I’m sorry, it’s the virus” has become a universal solvent. Have a deadline coming up that you don’t feel like making? All you have to say is, “It’s the virus,” and you’re off the hook. Haven’t answered your emails in a week? No worries: “It’s the virus.” Nobody can expect you to work during this time, can they? I mean, “It’s the virus”! “The Virus”! “THE VIRUS”!
You don’t need to be unemployed to feel the effects of The Virus on your willpower. My colleagues in academia are energetically convening Zoom meetings to talk about The Virus, making the most out of the crisis by applying for research funding to study its effects. But our students are suffering. They miss their friends. They are starting to talk about having no future. They don’t know what the point of finishing their degrees is anymore. Just think what is it like to have already lost your job.
I read something yesterday, I think it was even a MSM site, about how suicides are going up thanks to the lockdown. Nobody cares about the people who are dying behind closed doors, too terrified to go for a walk lest their neighbors catch them coughing without a mask. (“It was just a tickle in my throat! Truly!”) Nobody cares about the people living alone with nothing to do but watch Netflix—fake adventures about non-existent people beating monsters that exist only in CGI. They’ll be fine, right? Right? As long as they stay safe.
Consider again how Tolkien said the Ring would have worked if Gandalf had claimed it:
Gandalf as Ring-Lord would have been far worse than Sauron. He would have remained ‘righteous’, but self-righteous. He would have continued to rule and order things for ‘good’, and the benefit of his subjects according to his wisdom (which was and would have remained great). [In the margin:] Thus while Sauron multiplied [illegible word] evil, he left ‘good’ clearly distinguishable from it. Gandalf would have made good detestable and seem evil.**“Stay safe.” Our Gandalf-Ringlords mean well. They only want to protect us. Keep us from harm. But their exercise of power is no less evil than Sauron’s—more so, in fact. They have taken our sociability and our desire to care for our neighbors and turned it into a prison. They have taken our resourcefulness in the face of emergency and pretended that this means we need no economy to return to. They have twisted everything good about being civilized and made it detestable—and then shamed us for not turning ourselves into their slaves. Because, just like Sauron, they do not desire our happiness, only the utter domination of our wills.
The priests at St. John Cantius have mentioned that the governor of Illinois may allow us to start attending Mass again in person—with, of course, proper precautions against The Virus. But the virus that has infected our souls is going to take more than a vaccine to eradicate.
What will it take to recover our willingness to get out there and live?
For further meditations on the effects of The Virus, see The Lady and the Logos. To ward off the effects of The Virus, join the dragons in my Dragon Common Room!
*The Lord of the Rings, bk. I, chap. 2.
**Letter 246: From a letter to Mrs Eileen Elgar (drafts), September 1963, ed. Humphrey Carpenter
H/t Matt McNasty for the Joy sticker! COVID Ring meme by me, using i.imgflip.com.