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Love in the Time of Contagion

Laura Kipnis’ new book takes on the complexities of companionship in the COVID age

by
David Mikics
February 14, 2022
Denis Doyle/Getty Image
A couple chat with neighbors from their window in Madrid on April 4, 2020Denis Doyle/Getty Image
Denis Doyle/Getty Image
A couple chat with neighbors from their window in Madrid on April 4, 2020Denis Doyle/Getty Image

“Love is a venereal disease,” deadpanned William Burroughs. If you think that flesh-rotting illness is a suitable image for romantic coupledom, you’ll enjoy Laura Kipnis’ new book, Love in the Time of Contagion, a dispatch on the dark night of the soul that was love under COVID lockdown. Kipnis’ life with her long-term boyfriend makes up a part of the book, along with the strife-filled stories of other couples. She also ponders topics like #MeToo, alcoholism, adultery, and social media (another disease).

Kipnis’ tour of our two-year slough of despond is sprinkled with agreeable black humor, as she peers into that state of infinite dullness, being trapped with the one you love. At least we’re not alone, we told ourselves during lockdown, while at the same time fantasizing about the solitary bliss of the desert island castaway or lighthouse keeper.

Along with disease, imprisonment is Kipnis’ other reigning trope: Coupling, let’s face it, means being shackled to another person. Remember those performance artists, a man and a woman, who stayed handcuffed to each other for a year? They were merely literalizing what we all already knew, according to Kipnis. Lockdown, by turning romantic dyads into two-person prison cells, just showed us the brutal truth. I’ve got you under my skin, deep in the heart of me. If only I could rip that heart out, but for mysterious reasons, I just can’t make myself do it.

All this sounds extremely grim, but Love in the Time of Contagion is shot through with Kipnis’ ample comic talent. As a satirist and commiserator she has few equals these days. Kipnis hilariously describes her pandemic reading: Ionesco’s Amedée, about a playwright and his wife, Madeleine, a switchboard operator, and the corpse that has remained stuck in their apartment for the last 20 years. At the play’s end the husband, Amedée, floats helplessly into the sky like a hot-air balloon, proclaiming his love. Kipnis wonders,

“Had you, like Amedée, sought a mate whose groundedness would ground you too, only to find with the passing of years and receding of libidos that their endless practicality had become stultifying and soul-killing? Had you, like Madeleine, entrusted your well-being to a partner who feels and feels, with feelings as big as the Ritz or Freud’s entire Standard Edition, which had its enticements in more tranquil times but under this endless fucking confinement was starting to grate on your last nerve?”

Kipnis imagines that the romantic world is two people in isolation: There is a total absence of children from her book. She discusses one couple’s life for a dozen pages, and then offhandedly mentions that the husband was afraid that if he left his wife he would never see his kids again. Kipnis says nothing about these children, as if they played no part in the story. But families with kids had a different, arguably better pandemic than those without them, despite the bureaucratic madness that chain-locked playgrounds and (still, in New York) slaps masks on toddlers.

A couple at their window during lockdown in Rome, March 23, 2020

A couple at their window during lockdown in Rome, March 23, 2020Marco Di Lauro/Getty Imagesx

Without kids around to cushion the grown-ups’ tantrums, a couple’s shared mania can escalate drastically. Children play with eager purpose, tugging us away from the morbid adult swamp that Kipnis evokes: “The endless intractable little habits and compulsions, the hamster wheel of ancient calcified wounds and grudges—it’s almost like there’s some buried streak of deadness at the core of every living human psyche, getting a head start on the mortality thing.” Well, yes. But then some kid whooshes past on her scooter, and everything seems just fine. 

Since Kipnis lives in New York City, world capital of COVID hysteria, she has many bizarre tales to tell. “A friend’s partner insisted on washing the lettuce with soap for a solid year,” she writes—fear of disease provided a convenient cover for the psychic violence that worms its way into romance. “What’s a rational precaution, what’s an irrational bulwark against the unknown, and what’s a thin excuse for payback? Wouldn’t lettuce washed with soap taste like a reprimand disguised as a salad? Like your contempt for me on a plate?”

With the light touch of the expert essayist, Kipnis draws theory into her skein. She discusses a passel of psychoanalysts, including the reputed weirdo Wilhelm Stekel, whom Freud’s disciples called “morally insane,” and the always underrated Karen Horney. When she talks psychoanalysis she has an aphoristic flair, influenced by Adam Phillips, whom she quotes, but with a more acute sense of humor.

Kipnis makes terrific practical use of psychoanalysis. “Jung can be a dingbat,” she admits, but he is profound when he shows how the more complex or labyrinthine member of a couple entraps the more straightforward one. This is the way Kipnis sees her relationship with her long-term boyfriend, who takes to drinking heavily during the pandemic. He is the labyrinthine soul, she the simpler one (so she says, at least). Kipnis is brilliant on how intoxication allows you, for a while, to deny who you are, which is naturally appealing during a lengthy quarantine, when you are stuck with yourself. (Another option was porn, with its encroachment into every recess of the psyche.) The boyfriend makes the case for his drinking, Kipnis argues back, and both come off as grown-ups, aware of their shortcomings, attempting to be kind, and tamping down the control freak within. I’d give them another 10 years, easy.

Some of Kipnis’ previous books were polemics, like Against Love (the title says it all) and Unwanted Advances, a warning against the unjust prosecutions of the Title IX regime championed by our current president. Unlike those books, Love in the Time of Contagion has no ax to grind. Kipnis is as caught up and confused as the people she writes about, but she has thought more about what it all means, and she makes her insights deeply entertaining.

Kipnis details a disturbing number of apocalyptic fantasies. Some of her interviewees believe that COVID means the world is coming to an end soon. Usually climate change is given this role, but the doom-eager are always looking for new material. One of Kipnis’ paranoid pals can’t stop thinking, while having sex, “’What if this is the last time?’” This made me recall the movie Last Night, in which the world really is ending: People start looking up anyone they’ve ever almost had sex with, so they can actually do it before they die. When they make love, it is tender and realer than ever, in contrast with Kipnis’ informant, who is hollowed out by anxiety.

At times Kipnis herself seems to subscribe to fantastic deathly thinking. Obsessive cleaning and reorganizing, Kipnis’ pandemic pastimes, gave her a small sense of control, she says, blunting the awareness that “in reality any of us could be struck down at any moment by an invisible yet omnipowerful adversary”—as if COVID were the Black Plague, randomly killing a third of Europe, rather than a disease endangering particular groups, none of which Kipnis belongs to (the elderly, the obese, those with chronic medical conditions). Our nervous cleaning and social distancing ward off a stubborn reality. Death is the real adversary slowly creeping up on the middle-aged, and it will not be vanquished by hand-washing and mask-wearing. Young people had a healthier attitude: For them COVID was just a set of boring restrictions, not a metaphysical joust with mortality.

COVID restrictions appeal to those eager to police the lives of others. After two years, we are still being punished by bureaucrats and their progressive enablers, fanatics clinging to a meaningless clampdown. Whether it means demanding outdoor mask-wearing, forbidding kids from talking during school lunch, or requiring that people get tested before entering a shul or church, this is repression for its own sake. These forms of insanity are three-pronged, satisfying one’s desire for social control, proving one’s own virtue, and providing a magical prophylactic against death.

The Olympian scientific authorities in charge of the anti-COVID campaign seem to get a free pass in Kipnis’ book. But it’s now clear that they were either flying blind or actively mendacious, and so prone to random, draconian rule-making. Our eagerness to obey their every unexplained dictate, and to persecute anyone who questioned The Science, says a lot about our inner fears, and about the secret fascist who lurks in everyone.

Other forms of panic sprouted during the COVID era testify to our fear of contagion, with the most popular contaminating sources being whiteness and maleness. Late-stage #MeToo, Kipnis points out, encourages women to think of themselves as tender-minded in the Victorian sense, apt to “take to the fainting couch” at the mere thought of an exposed penis. As she puts it, “The conservative elements of #MeToo—the H.R. department jeu d’esprit—have pretty much hijacked whatever was once grassroots and profound. Employers deploy it to seize more power over workers’ lives than nineteenth-century factory owners ever dreamed of.” (That goes for BLM, too, though Kipnis doesn’t say so.) When the media started to run short of monstrous male predators, a way had to be found to “keep the momentum going,” and so bad jokes suddenly became career-ending sins. “Are jokes an x-ray of the soul and clear souls now required to remain employed?” Kipnis asks.

A couple look out of their window during the second day of lockdown, Paris, March 18, 2020

A couple look out of their window during the second day of lockdown, Paris, March 18, 2020Omar Havana/Getty Images

The pandemic has revealed risk aversion as the American religion, at least among the upper-income set. The Marxist philosopher and NKVD agent Alexandre Kojève, Leo Strauss’ frequent sparring partner, used to say that the bourgeoisie’s ruling passion was the fear of violent death. Now the urban bourgeoisie fears death by contagion, wafting its way from the unvaccinated masses who don’t act or vote the way they’re supposed to. These other people might be on a completely different wavelength, a fact that deeply threatens the bourgeois self—so insistent that received media opinion must be true, or else its psychic firmament will crumble.

Another revelation from the past two years—and here Kipnis is at her best as a cultural reporter—is the absurd overproduction of personal conflict among the millennial crowd. Kipnis tells us about a former student, here called Zelda, a Black lesbian who spends her days and nights busily spiderwebbed within Twitter, Instagram, and Finstagram (“fake Instagram,” in case you didn’t know—I didn’t—an account that doesn’t use your real name but everyone knows who you are anyway).

Zelda and her pals have raised ganging up on each other to a fine art. They cannily block and unblock one another and take screenshots of embarrassing tweets before they’re deleted, in order to stockpile damning evidence against the guilty tweeter. Persecution is their thrill, as they ferret out and magnify trivial misdemeanors, and use them to ignite social conflagrations.

Though Kipnis treats them gently, with a tact born of genuine curiosity, Zelda and her friends seem like very unpleasant people, or maybe they just seem young. To a creaky, middle-aged grouch like Kipnis or myself, their dizzying round robin is just a silly waste of time and energy. Why the urge to inflict and receive wounds? Don’t we have enough of that already? The answer might be that people in this milieu—urban, left-leaning millennials—find the online world, with all its backstabbing and self-doubt, oddly comforting, because it lets them give up on the more daunting project of self-education. Instead of trying to figure out who you are, you can be defined by the people around you, who are constantly poking through everything you ever said or did.

Such gameplaying carries real dangers: Intimacy and treachery go hand in hand. The scenario seems borrowed from the annals of counterespionage, or maybe some overly fraught Henry James novel like The Awkward Age, but without the arch, artful satisfactions. Classic high school-style bullying had winners and losers. But now everyone is a victim, and young people’s insecurities are traded on with avidity, as if they were the energy of life itself.

Kipnis’ coda rescues the reader from the social media whirligig. She gives us a cento of brief answers to the questionnaire she sent out asking about love during COVID. Her informants are varied, musing, and even at times wise. “We’ve seen some shit during our time together, so we’ve had practice at gently coaxing one another off the ledge,” one says. And then there’s this, which Kipnis ends with: “Maybe love is banal, but banal is what’s needed sometimes.”

David Mikics is the author, most recently, of Stanley Kubrick (Yale Jewish Lives). He lives in Brooklyn and Houston, where he is John and Rebecca Moores Professor of English at the University of Houston.

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