We’re based in Chicago, where things are getting eerie.
Yesterday evening the governor and mayor held a press-conference advising the residents of Illinois to avoid large gatherings and suggesting private businesses encourage staff to work from home. Our studios are underneath the O’Hare flight path and there seem to be fewer planes in the sky than usual.
After the press conference my wife and I went grocery shopping. The air was heavy and still under that newly subdued sky. We talked about how we’re probably going to get this virus, because she’s a special needs teacher in a public school here. Covid-19 is moving through the schools in the neighborhood where she teaches, and even though she’s been teaching her students about hygiene, it’s not reasonable to expect her autistic and cognitively-challenged students to wear face masks or gloves or follow the WHO standards for hand washing — these are jarring and off-putting requests for most of us neuro-typical folks in the U.S., and we have much more agency in the world than her students do. We talked about the logistics for getting food and supplies if we go into quarantine. It’s all speculative, of course. We haven’t lived through a plague before. No one we know has. Here in the U.S., we’ve been lucky that way. On the way to the store we saw fewer people on the sidewalks than usual. The line at the liquor store, on the other hand, was longer than usual.
It reminded me of the beginning of The Decameron.
Reading this excerpt felt cathartic. Not hopeful, exactly, but confrontational — though viruses probably aren’t intimidated by our human prose. It was like reading a kind of prophecy. It’s not unusual for us to reach for books when we feel lost or confused, and that feeling certainly prepares us to find wisdom in the pages of those books. When we’re lonely, everyone we meet might seem like a potential companion; and when you need advice, everything you read can sound like a proverb. This morning, that 100-year-old translation of a 667-year-old account of a 672-year-old plague episode felt like it was written just for me. Just for us. There must be a name for this feeling: Horoscopes can can bring it on. And fortune cookies. But it is a peculiar trick of literature that it can sit, musty and moldering, until we need it; then all its must falls away and it feels immediate and contemporary again. Maybe great literature is just a kind of horoscope.
Except it’s not. What makes this reflection on 14th-century Florentines in the grip of doubt and fear isn’t that it’s prophetic. If it feels prophetic, it’s because the author remembers so clearly what it felt like to experience that doubt and fear. He remembers what people did and why. And now that we seem to be on the verge of experiencing the same things, we see how this moment he reported on so vividly is now our moment. Good literature doesn’t tell us our future. It tells us our present.
Maybe we don’t need to know the future now. We just need to know that we are not alone. And we aren’t alone.