In the June 29th issue of the New Yorker, there’s a hybrid book review/personal essay by David Denby about re-reading Crime and Punishment. I read that in high school a million years ago and had forgotten that it ends with Raskolnikov in prison in Siberia, dreaming of a plague. Denby quotes:
Entire settlements, entire cities and nations would be infected and go mad. Everyone became anxious and no one understood anyone else, each thought the truth was contained in himself alone, and suffered looking at others, beat his breast, wept and wrung his hands. They did not know whom or how to judge, could not agree on what to regard as evil, what as good. They did not know whom to accuse, whom to vindicate.
Well, obviously that resonates strongly for Denby in 2020, writing more than a hundred days into our own plague with apocalyptic tendencies. But he is astute enough to say that the deepest parallels are not in fever-dreams but in Dostoevsky’s depiction of St Petersburg. This is the sort of city that fired the deeply pessimistic European imaginations of the founders of my own discipline, sociology. The city is rootless and purposeless, filled with people who have been displaced from the middle classes, whose claims on living space and work are precarious and tenuous. They turn their experience of loss into jealousy and anxiety about other people, fueled by gossip. At the risk of sounding like a B+ student in Lit Hum 101, it’s no surprise that the central murder victim in Crime and Punishment is a pawnbroker – her work is to take away even the little fragments that her neighbours have managed to hold onto. And of course, there’s sickness in St Petersburg – cholera and water-borne diseases, in this case.
Reading Denby’s essay reminded me how much of Dostoevsky’s novel is about things that are taken away. And because this series of blog entries or whatever they are is about living through covid, I started thinking about what it’s like to live through a period when things are taken away.
I should be clear that I don’t mean just things that have been taken away from me as an individual. My office at work, plans for travel, some face to face interactions – in my world these are not trivial matters, but they aren’t terrible ones either. It’s more that I’ve spent the last hundred-plus days watching things go away and seeing bitterness rise up in the spaces left behind.
School went away. Summer camp went away. Public space went away. Private retail space went away. And the jobs and security and order that these things created went away too. For a few months, there was no rush hour on the main thoroughfare where I live, and even now if I’m out on my balcony on a weekend, as I am today, I sense pauses of five, ten or even fifteen seconds of no traffic at all.
Some of it has come part of the way back, through cautious and hold-your-breath re-openings, but the anxiety and confusion of Raskolnikov’s fever dream has come with them. (And for the record “cautious” and “hold-your-breath” is exactly how I think re-openings should happen, so this is not a complaint). Seventy thousand new cases in the US today. Images which would not be out of place in the hallucinatory sequences of bleak Russian novels have gone viral (as they say) – respectable burghers with guns driving off the rabble, outbreaks of crazy prophecy in the market square or Costco, and leaders entranced by a world-denying millenarian vision of political triumph that requires the sacrifice of an uncountable number of people.
But I digress. In my lifeworld bubble in Edmonton, I sometimes experience things-going-away as strangely tranquil, renunciatory without the pain. Many of the compulsions that kept me disciplined have fallen off the cliff – professional obligations to write more and teach more and get more grants and go to more meetings, the drive to self-improvement that was enacted through technologies of betterment like group lessons and civic commitments and academic rituals formal and informal, with attendant FOMO – it all just went away. I see people one at a time if I see them at all; I’m writing and preparing lectures for the fall, but no one is really paying attention to what I’m doing. I’m not having a crisis of meaning or identity because I still think my work is worth doing, but I’m conscious that nobody’s watching. I’m staying home because there’s not really anything else to do. It all went away.
This is not exactly relaxing or soothing. It’s more like being a bit dazed, but still awake and observant. Cressida Heyes, in her 2020 book Anesthetics of Existence, describes what she calls anesthetic time – periods when the normative movement of life towards the future is stilled, and individuals inhabit a sort of non-linear drift through time, often associated with syncope or depressant intoxication (although, as I am discovering, it’s possible to be fully conscious and sober and still a bit anesthetized by pandemic time). As something to be on the inside of, renunciatory calm beats pandemic anxiety or pandemic rage.
Since I became aware of how it feels when everything-went-away, I’ve had the lyrics of a Gillian Welch song. Everything is Free, running through my head. It’s a dreamy lyric about someone for whom the structures of world and work have just … gone:
Everything is free now
That’s what they say
Everything I ever done
Gonna give it away …
The singer isn’t descending into quietude – she’s “gonna do it anyway/Even if it doesn’t pay”. She “never minded working hard”, but for now, she “doesn’t need to run around/[She] just stay[s] home”. “Free” takes two meanings – her work is free, because she gives it away, but it’s also free in the sense that life has, somehow, become unstructured.
I looked up the history of this song, and because I always want to believe that people I admire think exactly like me, I was a bit disappointed to learn that it was about the impact of the first internet streaming services in the 1990s on artists, rather than about my own existential oddness. But it still stays with me – drifting along inside my head, a strangely calm counterpoint to Raskolnikov’s fevered dream of the plague.