Those who witness extreme social collapse at first hand seldom describe any deep revelation about the truths of human existence. What they do mention, if asked, is their surprise at how easy it is to die.
— Uncivilisation: The Dark Mountain Manifesto
Kent: Is this the promised end?
Edgar: Or image of that horror?
— King Lear, V.iii.264-5
Listen to an audio version of this essay on the Notes From Underground podcast:
She did – and eight months later, she’s doing well – but this week, as the unfolding reality of the Coronavirus pandemic has spread itself across all our lives, I’ve found myself thinking back to those days in the hospital. Because there is a particular quality to this pandemic, a particular encounter to which it is bringing us. It’s not the whole story, but it’s a big part of it: what we’re going through right now is a collective encounter with parental mortality on a planetary scale.
Just imagine, if you can bear it, how things would be right now if the group this virus mainly took was children under the age of ten. Or if, like HIV in Africa, it scythed through the middle generation, taking healthy adults in their 30s and 40s, leaving the kids to be raised by the grandparents. Compared to the visceral panic we would be living through, if either of those were the case, the panic we are actually witnessing looks like what it partly is – a live-action role play for the bored citizens of the late capitalist West, hoarding supplies of toilet roll, taking ‘shelfies’ of emptied supermarket aisles and posting them on Instagram.
I don’t want to diminish the real fears that are at large. There are people I love who have been through bad pneumonia in recent years, or whose immune systems are whacked for other reasons, who are right in the firing line of this virus. Do all the sensible things you are being told to do. Look out for those who are most vulnerable, whether to the virus itself or to the falling dominoes of what we call an economy. And then, somewhere in the middle of all this, make time to feel the strangeness of the moment we are in – this sudden, forced interruption of business-as-usual – and the collective encounter that it calls us to.
If you study Shakespeare, you soon learn that what marks a comedy from a tragedy is not how many laughs it raises, but how the story ends. A comedy ends with young people getting married; a tragedy ends with young people dying. Since getting married implies having children, comedy is a successful completion of the intergenerational cycle, while tragedy is the interruption of the intergenerational cycle. At some level, you’re dealing with the deepest fear and the deepest satisfaction of any human community: are our kids going to have kids and keep the show on the road? What makes this such rich material for storytelling is that the price is so damned high, and so nearly universal.
I remember being a kid and the sheer force of wanting to grow up! I used to think this had to do with all that’s mad about the ways we corral children into schools, and no doubt there’s something in that, but now what strikes me is that this was the force that Dylan Thomas wrote of: ‘The force that through the green fuse drives the flower / Drives my green age.’ Something absolutely primal pushing us up, pushing up through us, towards adulthood. And somewhere along the way, it hits you that the price of your growing is your parents’ ageing, their journey towards death. The marriage that seals the comedy might be overseen by the parents, they may seem to be in command, but it augurs the end of their time as ‘the parents’, the handing on of that role and the entry into old age.
It happens in lurching steps, the encounter with parental mortality. Many years may go by after that first loss of innocence that comes with knowing the price of your growing up, but for most of us there will be an event that brings the knowledge home. It stops being a fact that you can see out of the corner of your eye, and you are confronted with this reality, the tangle of thoughts and feelings it tows behind it, the mundane practicalities and the deep pulls on the heartstrings. And in the middle of it all, there is a lurching shift in the balance of power between the generations: these people who cared for you in your earliest vulnerability, with whom – if you’re lucky – you achieved some kind of adult relationship, are now pitched into vulnerability themselves. They will need you to care for them, now or soon, and sooner or later, they will be gone.
Shakespeare takes the pathos of this power shift to its extreme with King Lear, where the old king is pitched into vulnerability and madness. Yet this pathos is not what makes the play a tragedy: what makes it a tragedy is the ending, in which Lear lives to see the death of his faithful daughter. The journey into age and death can involve great sadness, but a parent dying ahead of their children does not disorder the world in the way that a child dying ahead of their parents seems to do.
Those of us who have parents over a certain age already live with the knowledge that there is a non-trivial likelihood of their dying in any given year. We know the journey they are on. I remember the spring my mum turned seventy, scrambling up Arthur’s Seat together, thinking to myself, we won’t be doing this in ten years’ time. Still, for a long while, this knowledge can hang out there at the edge of the field of vision. Every day, there are falls, diagnoses, ambulances rushing to hospital; events that bring this knowledge home to thousands of families, that call us out of ordinary time and into the strange moment of our vulnerability, of our participation in the great mystery of living and dying. But it doesn’t happen to us all at the same time, not usually. Not until now.
The first death from the virus in Britain happened two weeks ago at the Royal Berkshire Hospital. I think of the maze of its corridors that we got to know over those 11 days last July.
I get a message from Lloyd, who walked the first few miles with us from Reading that morning but left to catch a train home before we came to the hill where the accident happened.
‘Until this week,’ he writes, ‘I don’t think the younger half of us really believed that the older half would ever be gone.’
‘Until this week,’ he writes, ‘I don’t think the younger half of us really believed that the older half would ever be gone.’ That has changed, quite suddenly, he suggests; and with the tangle of feelings which the change drags up, there comes a release of energy. ‘It has to do with letting go of the idea that we all need to wait until mummy and daddy have finished talking. It’s the release that most people experience more naturally when they go through mourning the actual death of a parent.’
There’s something obscene, isn’t there, about admitting that the death of a parent can bring release? It brings other things too, and it comes wrapped in grief, but it’s best to own the shadowed complexity of all this. And the release is foreshadowed in this sudden, disorienting shift in the balance of power between the generations.
In Italy, they are running out of coffins. Beloved old ones are buried or cremated without ceremony. Elsewhere, we wait and watch the numbers, knowing the likelihood that such a crisis will reach us soon.
There is so much that we don’t know yet. It is so easy to fill the gaps with the stories we are used to telling. We’re too close to this event to tell its story yet, but we can notice things about it and feel the places where it roots down into truths that were always there. We can tell the kinds of stories that don’t try to fill the gaps, that leave room for the mystery, that set a place at the table for the stranger. How do we open our hearts and make ourselves hospitable, when we have to close our doors and keep our distance from each other’s bodies? To name the strangeness of what is called for, that in itself can be a start.
The price of life is so damned high. It always was, but maybe we forgot this for a while, numbed to all the cycles we belong to and depend on. Whatever it is, this moment, and whatever stories will be told of it, let us find in its dark soil a seed of anamnesis, ‘unforgetting’, from which the next world can begin.
This essay is also available as a special edition of the Notes From Underground podcast.