Sometime as I was scrolling in my usual languid way through the internet yesterday, I happened to see one or two brief clips of Contagion—that now rather old movie starring Gwyneth Paltrow and Matt Damon…is this what she’s referring to in the opening of goop when she realized she had to have some other calling than making out with him on screen? I’m not willing to watch the movie to find out, but maybe everything really does come full circle…
Well, shoot, I’ve already interrupted myself, where was I?
Utopia is not a real thing, as literally everyone sensible has always been able to see, but I would like to plead that Dystopia need not be a real thing either.
The WHO has declared coronavirus to be a pandemic, and now whole countries are shutting themselves down and I, I have dug out my old lovely, beloved children’s book called One Grain Of Rice to try to explain the math of the thing to myself, but also maybe to some of my children, if they care to listen. That is such a clever book. It’s a nice visual to try to explain something that seems, at this point in the counting, unusual and perhaps even ridiculous.
So, we all have to stay home in order to accomplish “social distancing,” but guess what doesn’t need to happen—literally every apocalyptic, dystopic move.
I have avoided actually seeing these movies—or reading these books—on principle. When everything in a society melts down, it is usually more hidden and a lot uglier than any screen could actually capture. I expect, for instance, that when we really get to know what it has been like in the Wuhan province in China for the last many months, we will be more horrified even than we know to be now, and we already know it’s bad. There’s never a good enough soundtrack or screencast to even begin to get to the heart of it.
Now that I’ve said that, I can see that everyone will disagree with me, but I don’t really like movies and never feel the way I’m meant to when I watch them, so perhaps I ought not universalize my experience. Like, when I went to see Titanic, I was not moved at all. I thought it was trite and foolish and probably nothing like the actual sinking of that poor ship.
I would like to say something outrageous before I get back to the coronavirus—and a little bit judgmental, so prepare yourself: I think that making movies is the way that Americans construct social, cultural, and theological meaning for themselves. No one will know what the coronavirus has really been like until the movie is made, and then it will pass quietly into cultural memory. But I will be unwilling to see the movie, or, if I do, will absolutely hate it, and so will still be shut out of the cultural household of faith, the heretic bleating from the doorway, not able to actually go out of the door, but not able to go inside either.But also, I think all these movies have shaped the way a lot of us expect this to go down, and it’s just not going to be like that. Gwyneth runs goop now. I haven’t heard anything about Matt Damon for a while. Memes are the currency of the moment, along with internet incubated social scolding and some tiny amounts of hysteria. We’re all going to stay home from stuff, be irritated by the disruption of our lives, perhaps lose some money which will be painful and upsetting, some of us will die, and then we will wake up one morning and the internet will not tell us that it’s all over now, because some new trouble will have superseded the old one before we can even catch our collective breath.
I say we, but I guess I’m just talking about myself. Our school is already online. The only thing I really need to go out for is milk and loo paper (just like everyone else). I am not an independent contractor whose job has already been canceled. I am not an NBA player. I am not at risk myself for death because of underlying chronic illness. But I know a lot of people who are (at risk, not NBA players) and have already adopted anxiety about them, and so would be happy to adjust my life if it helps everyone…
Which just shows that we have not yet accomplished total societal breakdown. The social order that we do still have is actually robust enough to deal with a crisis of this kind. There are ways for people to both “pull together” and “socially distance” at the same time so that the fewest possible number of people will die from this wretched illness. We don’t all need to rush into the streets with our enormous guns weeping and crying and stealing from each other and blowing each other up. Aliens will probably not choose this moment to arrive and take over. Probably it will be terrible for some, and not as bad for others, and then there will be something else to think about after a while.
When the movie comes out, we will replace those impressions with our own, and then someone will write a memoir, and World War Three will trend briefly on twitter. That’s the way it goes now. Someday, of course, Jesus will come back, and humanity will look up in the sky, seeing his glory, and shudder. But I, I will look up, as I have already been commanded to do, and be as impressed as it’s possible for me to be.