When Rabindranath Tagore died in 1941, crowds gathered outside his ancestral mansion in Calcutta hoping to catch a last glimpse. As soon as the body was brought out of the house, everyone charged toward it at once. Hairs were plucked from his beard, wreaths tossed from buildings on the funeral route. In Satyajit Ray’s documentary of the poet, the corpse is seen floating above a sea of human heads. The roads were so crammed that Tagore’s son Rathindranath could not reach the cremation ghat near the Ganges to light his father’s pyre. The ghat had been cordoned off for a week in preparation for the funeral, but once the fire was lit, people broke in, looking for bones and other remains. The body wasn’t yet burnt, and mourners were scavenging through the ashes, screaming and cursing.
Mrinal Sen was in the crowd outside the funeral. He was new to the city, a student at the Scottish Church College, which had canceled classes after reports of Tagore’s demise. Sen had reached the ghat beforehand to get a good view, but the policemen near the entrance made him stand at a distance. He was waiting for the procession to arrive, he wrote later, when he spotted a young man dressed in white on the other side of the police cordon. “He was standing with a child in his arms, his own, so I thought, wrapped in a milk-white towel. Most probably, he came to cremate the child and was caught in a cruel situation. Why did he not go to another crematorium?”
Over the past month, Jennifer Leiferman, a researcher at the Colorado School of Public Health, has documented a tidal wave of depressive symptoms in the U.S. “The rates we’re seeing are just so much higher than normal,” she says. Leiferman’s team recently found that people in Colorado have, during the pandemic, been nine times more likely to report poor mental health than usual. About 23 percent of Coloradans have symptoms of clinical depression.
As a rough average, during pre-pandemic life, 5 to 7 percent of people met the criteria for a diagnosis of depression. Now, depending how you define the condition, orders of magnitude more people do. Robert Klitzman, a professor of psychiatry at Columbia University, extrapolates from a recent Lancet study in China to estimate that about 50 percent of the U.S. population is experiencing depressive symptoms. “We are witnessing the mental-health implications of massive disease and death,” he says. This has the effect of altering the social norm by which depression and other conditions are defined. Essentially, this throws off the whole definitional rubric.
It is no secret that in contemporary America there are many people who hardly read at all, and then another sizable group who, though they keep up with news, sports and the latest fads in self-care or technology, have little interest in serious fiction, poetry or literary commentary. It would be wrong to say such people hate literature, for one has to care about something to truly hate it. What my classmate in the survey course had precociously recognized was that we were being introduced to a phenomenon both subtler and more sinister than the neglect or ignorance of literature. Our professors had a great deal invested in novels and poems; and it was probably even the case that, at some point, they had loved them. But they had convinced themselves that to justify the “study” of literature it was necessary to immunize themselves against this love, and within the profession the highest status went to those for whom admiration and attachment had most fully morphed into their opposites. Their hatred of literature manifested itself in their embrace of theories and methods that downgraded and instrumentalized literary experience, in their moralistic condemnation of the literary works they judged ideologically unsound, and in their attempt to pass on to their students their suspicion of literature’s most powerful imaginative effects.
Charmed by a digital caricature of ourselves, we’re also distracted from the fact that we’re not doing anything to make the world a better place for humans to flourish. Things like Replika, as well-intentioned as they might be, essentially function as a way to acclimate individuals to our brave new world of social isolation rather than changing the structure which creates the problem in the first place. C. Wright Mills wrote in “The Professional Ideology of Social Pathologists” that there’s a certain class (we might call them the professional managerial class) that defines social change in the most attenuated terms, mostly in terms of adapting individuals to the society that they’ve created for them. Instead of changing society to meet the needs of human nature, they create ad hoc ways (typically products, either technological or psychological) of forcing us to conform to their inhumane culture. Things like Replika are attempts to fine-tune the human personality to passing progressive social fashions of the day.
“Novels want, counterintuitively, to return to us the full weight of the world. They are just the mental prosthesis we use to remind ourselves that reality is always a bit more vast than either our common sense or ideologies would have us believe."
Thomas Aquinas is a most profound ally to the localist cause because Thomas understood the essentiality of a life of attachment and wonder. To marvel in the world we inhabit, to root our ability to marvel in the very soil that nourishes the plant and animal and rational souls, ensures the true deep ecology that gives life to the human person. Once this awe, this marvel, this wonder, is destroyed—which comes with the severing of life from that ladder of mystical being—we fall into the world of lust, objectification, and, ultimately, death. No wonder that the expulsion from Eden ends not in death but in the restoration, the replanting, into a New Eden resulting in life. As Dante said of this New Eden, while paying homage to Thomas, “From those holiest waters I returned / to her reborn, a tree renewed, in bloom / with newborn foliage, immaculate, / eager to rise, now ready for the stars.”
I don't agree with McLaverty-Robinson's conclusions here, but his articulation of Agamben's argument is spot on and important to understand. We have a responsibility to know how our foremost intellectuals, even (especially?) those we disagree with, respond to public crises. And Agamben is always rewarding to think both with/against:
In Medicine as Religion, Agamben argues that science, Christianity and capitalism have long coexisted as major worldviews. This coexistence has been broken by science. Science, or rather the part of it which takes the form of a religion, is now trying to reshape existence in an unheard-of way. The church and capitalism, and people who accept the lockdown, have ceded their own political and religious convictions along with their movement, friendships and loves. Medicine is in the forefront. It is part of the pragmatic rather than dogmatic wing of science. Agamben argues that medicine as a doctrine is “Gnostic-Manichean”. It relies on exaggerated dualisms. It takes on the eschatological task of Christianity, i.e. the salvation of the soul and the existential relationship to death. The resultant practices were formerly episodic. They have now taken over all of social life, and been made compulsory for everyone. Life becomes an “uninterrupted cultic celebration” of the medical faith, i.e. the struggle against the virus. The current crisis is like an indefinitely prolonged day of judgement. This is similar to earlier totalitarian tendencies in Christianity. However, like capitalism, science does not offer redemption. It only prolongs struggle. The current crisis is the culmination of the global civil war which has replaced world wars. It is clear to Agamben that this is cultic because other, greater causes of death are not treated similarly. For example, nobody has tried to legally impose healthy eating to reduce heart disease.
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