Navigate to Arts & Letters section

Paul Berman’s Crisis Notebook, II

A collection of pandemic and political jottings from Tablet’s ‘Modern Times’ column

by
Paul Berman
October 15, 2020
ROBERTO SCHMIDT/AFP via Getty Images
ROBERTO SCHMIDT/AFP via Getty Images
ROBERTO SCHMIDT/AFP via Getty Images
ROBERTO SCHMIDT/AFP via Getty Images

Editor’s Note: Paul Berman has been keeping a notebook on the multiple crises in the United States, and Tablet has published tiny passages from it since the onset, back in March. The editors assembled a first compilation of the passages at the end of April, when the pandemic was at one of its high points, and the murder of George Floyd was still in the future.

Here is a second compilation. It corresponds to further stages of the pandemic, the outbreak of anti-racist protests, the intertwining of pandemic and street marches, the arrival of the political season, and the blossoming of peculiar states of mind––which has all along been the main theme of these jottings.

The Micro-Essay

The micro-essay is the appropriate literary form for the quarantine and the protracted crisis, and that is because, of all literary forms, the micro-essay is the best-suited to the mental state of semi-sleep. A micro-essay may resemble a poem, but it is not a poem. It does not pretend to the intensities and concision that even prose-poetry requires, and it does not attend to the formal demands and patterns even of free verse. A poem can only be written in a triple-state of mind, the unconscious, the conscious, and the rhythmic.

But a micro-essay can dispense with the conscious part, and, as for rhythms, they can come and go. Therefore a micro-essay can be written in a stupor. Nor does a micro-essay have to make sense. It begins and ends with a rapidity that leaves logic behind. A full-scale essay makes a case for something, along the lines of “If A, then B.” Or it recounts a story: “A, then B.” But in a micro-essay, there is no time for B, therefore no point to “then.”

Thoughts do not advance in a micro-essay. They flicker. Sometimes they flicker in a way that resembles the last consciousness of the day, before the glide into the rivers of dream. Or they flicker in a way that resembles the lead-up to the anxieties that count as wakefulness. So, OK. Wasn’t I lost in the memories of love? But I can no longer remember, and I must stir, and there are things to do.

Late April: A Suicide

News comes through the family grapevine that somebody’s fellow musician in an amateur orchestra in New York, who was an emergency-room doctor, has committed suicide. Then comes the story in the press. The doctor was a youngish woman, well-regarded. Her father is quoted saying that she had never suffered from mental illness, and this is easy to believe. Suicide has always been a problem among soldiers, and sometimes among police officers, and it makes sense that even the liveliest and most musical and enthusiastic of emergency-room doctors might turn out, at moments like ours, to be vulnerable to the same syndrome.

The hero of Camus’ The Plague, Dr. Rieux, hints at such possibilities. But, as Dr. Rieux halfway explains to his mother, he copes with the emotional pressure by recognizing that he must deal with the epidemic in an abstract way—not as something crushing the life out of one human being after another, which would be too much for him to witness day and night, but as a statistical matter. Soldiers, the police, and medical people should perhaps be lectured on this point—on the utility, psychologically speaking, of abstraction. But there is a problem in the argument. Abstraction, which is true from one perspective, is false, from another perspective. Mortality rates, seen abstractly, are a relative matter; and, seen concretely, an absolute matter. Bearable; and maybe not.

A Clothes Horse

Style is in the ensemble, and not in the details. I know this because, when I gaze at the scene out my window, I cannot discern any details at all belonging to someone on the other side of the avenue, six lanes away and four stories down. And yet, if there is a style to someone’s look, it will announce itself. Right now a faraway someone is waiting for the light in what appears to be a short leather jacket and a moderately short leather-like skirt and calf-high boots—and, whatever the lesser accoutrements may be, the coordinated tones and lines of the larger outfit make an indisputable impression.

I wonder where this very elegant person could possibly be going. The fashion shops are closed, and likewise the restaurants. Parties are forbidden. Intimate considerations must have driven her to her place at the intersection. Or practical considerations. Those clothes of hers cannot have been cheap, yet neither are they suited for every purpose and season. The weather was too cold for those clothes a couple of weeks ago, and will be too warm tomorrow. I imagine that somebody with an outfit like hers can only think, when she examines her closet: it is now or never. So she did the logical thing, and it is now, even if she is alone on the sidewalk, and there is not really any place to go, and the white surgical mask on her face is slightly, though not entirely, ruining the general impression.

Utopianism

The mass lockdown, which appears to have brought events to an end, will turn out to be the single most abrupt moment of technological change in all of history—or so it seems to me, as I sit in isolation on the roof of my home, connected to the universe via computer. The arrival of the railroad took some 40 years to achieve. Automobiles, a novelty in the late 19th century, began clogging the streets in the years after 1913. But the triumph of the digital—the transformation of digital technologies from a marginal aspect of everyday life to the central aspect—will have taken place in a matter of months in 2020. When the pandemic is thought to have been defeated and the word finally goes out for normal life to resume, the normal that resumes will be unrecognizable.

Business offices will have no more reason to exist, and likewise the business districts of cities, and, for that matter, why should cities go on existing? Will it be because people like to go to concerts? Concerts will be Zoom-cast by musicians, sitting in their separate homes.

And, at this point in my ruminations, suddenly I stand up. The arrival of the pandemic had the effect, at first, of crushing my customarily utopian imagination under the weight of every dreadful thing. But look what has happened! The pandemic has not gone away, and yet something in my spirit appears to have recovered. I guess the shock is wearing away.

The Mailman

What will things be like when we emerge from our caves and realize that, over the course of the crisis, the United States has ended up playing a larger role than ever before in world affairs—and, at the same time, a smaller role?

On the sidewalk, I pass someone under a face-mask, who I think is the mailman, without his characteristic hat. He salutes me. Yet, it has got to be him. Evidently I, too, am recognizable, under my mask. I salute back. The salutations are oddly emotional. The mailman has been stuffing my mailbox for many years and knows everything about me that can perhaps be gleaned from bills, checks, bank notices, junkmail, and magazines. I, on the other hand, know very little about him, not even his name. Nevertheless we have consulted with one another many times over tiny questions of mail delivery, and we have worked out a private modus operandi for magazines from Mexico, a difficult matter for some reason, which requires me to sign a monthly green slip. And, in mastering the complexities, we have established a sympathy. We are the brotherhood of reasonable persons.

His salutation on the sidewalk means: “Ah, Apartment Six, you have survived!” My salutation means: “Ah, Mr. Mailman, I am relieved to see that you are out and about!” I believe that in future times, if there are future times, he and I will always remember this salutation.

The Counterman

I return to a lunch-counter where I used to order sandwiches or soup two or three times a week, and, through the open window, I see one of the countermen. “You are alive!” he says. Nowadays the place confines itself to take-out orders, served at arm’s length through the window. The prices turn out to be egregiously high. The counterman spreads his hands to say, “Take it or leave it.” The place does have to survive. I order enough of this and that for several days’ worth of lunch. On the way home, the paper bag breaks, which is doubly annoying, considering what I have just paid. But the contents are intact, and, when I am finally able to unpack them, I am surprised to discover how piquant, how exotic—how peppery, how electric!—how soothing and savory—how pleasingly familiar—are those old and almost-forgotten lunchtime odors from pre-crisis times. And how deprived I have been, aromatically speaking!

Presences and Abscences

Presences make themselves known instantly; absences, gradually.

Bickering

Months into the crisis, I notice that friends of mine on the board of a little magazine have fallen to bickering nastily with one another, and even I have managed very subtly to liken someone to Stalin. Another friend runs a different magazine, to which I try to make helpful suggestions from time to time, except that, this time, one of my helpful suggestions has led to still another brawl among contributors and acquaintances, this time touching on the Spanish Civil War, with verbal projectiles of the 1930s sailing through the air. Then again, I notice that, at yet another magazine, I have ended up in a difficult argument, this time about the origins of the coronavirus.

I detect a pattern. Are you a magazine editor? Do you and I know each other? Blows are about to fall! This may be more than a magazine phenomenon. I dislike intensely the protesters around the United States who carry guns and wave Confederate flags, but I suppose that something in their desire to start a fight ought to be recognizable to me. Then again, I see an interview with Christine Lagarde of the European Central Bank, who explains that war is her greatest fear. Which war? She doesn’t say. The interviewer doesn’t ask. Only, why ask? Some people were already crazy, and now everyone else is going crazy, and plainly, in addition to the one illness, there is a second illness, and it, too, is going around.

News Conferences

The standard grotesque interchange at the White House press conferences—“Sir, do you stick by your view that the moon is cheese?”—“I never said that!”—“I am quoting from your statement on this morning’s broadcast”—“You are loathsome scum who has failed in life!”—has always rested on the predicate that, in spite of everything, the president might grow in office. It is sometimes recalled (for instance, by John F. Harris in Politico) that Franklin D. Roosevelt in 1932 had the look of an amiable boy scout, unqualified to be president. But reality and the White House got to FDR, and he matured. The questions that are thrown at Trump rest on the predicate that he, too, could grow into the office. The questions therefore come in a double register—a straightforward register, posing a simple inquiry (“Have you matured?”), and a snarky register, which assumes that he could never do so (“Show us again, sir, what a disgrace you are”).

But the president’s responses are always the same, and that is because, resting on his own predicate, he wants to show that, regardless of the moon or mass death, he is an object of contempt for the educated elite, hence a martyred hero for everyone else who might be a social victim of the snobs. It is dismaying to observe that, in the time of the plague, these are the White House scenes, and dismaying to observe that, politically speaking, the president has thought his situation through.

Sirens

The sirens produce several voices, whirring, shrieking, whooping, and moaning, sometimes all at once, when multiple ambulances happen to be racing down the avenue. But the moaning voice is the one that lingers in the ear. It sounds like an infant’s wail, or a trumpet with a wah-wah mute, or a nasal-toned oboe, except without any musicality—a sliding tone that does not tell a story, and does not have a beauty, and is not human, and, even so, is somehow plaintive. If the moanings of the sirens face any competition in the streets of Brooklyn, it comes from the ice-cream trucks, which have been declared an “essential” business and are beginning to prowl the neighborhoods, now that warmer weather is creeping upon us. The ice-cream trucks broadcast a variety of irritating xylophone melodies, which are likewise not at all musical, but are intended merely to say, “Come hither, little darlings, for your moment of joy,” and do so again and again, maniacally. Naturally, in the war between the ambulance moanings and the ice-cream xylophones, one roots for the xylophones.

America and the World

What will things be like when we emerge from our caves and realize that, over the course of the crisis, the United States has ended up playing a larger role than ever before in world affairs—and, at the same time, a smaller role? The role is larger because the pandemic has brought about a global triumph of digital technologies that are largely American. And the role has turned out to be smaller because, under the shadow of “America First,” the United States has chosen to renounce any sort of global leadership, certainly in regard to the pandemic. The triumph of the digital has demonstrated that America is still the technologically ingenious country that produced Robert Fulton and his steamboats, and Cyrus McCormack and his harvest reapers, and Edison, and Ford.

But “America First” has shown that, politically speaking, America is no longer the Enlightenment vanguard that it used to be—no longer the country that, in 1775, believed that it was firing Emerson’s “shot heard round the world,” and went on, with victory in World War II, to propose a global order intended to foster the principles that Emerson had in mind. Will America hobble forward, then, on a taller leg, technologically, and an amputated stump, politically—offering marvelous gadgets to all the world, but no particular ideals? (Half of my readers are saying: oof, those ideals were always a fraud, anyway, unlike the gadgets, and good riddance to the Emersonian vanity.)

Space and Time

Confinement in space leads to constriction of feeling. You cannot go out of the house, or can do so only briefly, masked and nervously; and your emotions, too, cannot wander very far. No throbbing heart-pangs for you, no unexpected leaps or rocket-launchings. Camus hints at this in The Plague. In his fictional city under lockdown, children acquire a gravity of understanding. Husbands who previously took their vows lightly become serious about fidelity. Couples discover how mediocre are their relations, and resign themselves to imperfection. Acceptance, not passion, becomes the dominant sentiment.

Camus does not say why this is. I think it is because intimate emotions require a landscape of time, reaching into the past and into the future and the infinite future. But if you cannot leave the house, apart from a quick race to the grocery store, neither can you imagine a future. Next month does not exist, and next year is unthinkable, and the distant future is not even a concept. And so, you are prevented from thinking the only thought that will release your emotions, which is this: “What I am feeling right now, I will feel forever.” Psychologists who advise us to embrace the here-and-now have never understood that here-and-now is too tiny a cage for a heart that pounds. Nothing but eternity will do. So we cannot leave the house, or venture beyond the block; and hearts do not pound.

The Silvery Harbor

Late afternoon, the grandeur that is New York harbor is lifeless, or nearly so. A square yellow ship chugs into view, bobs in the water, chugs onward, and leaves the waves in peace. Absolute emptiness is the sky. Clouds float sea-borne atop clouds, with no helicopters buzzing by to annoy them, and no distant jet airliners. The entire spectacle has the tint of a silver serving tray in need of polishing, a single silvery hue streaked with blue and black. Across the harbor, the upright skyscrapers radiate the same silvery variations, shiny and grungy. In ancient times, the forests, too, must have been silvery on certain afternoons. The immense and empty harbor must have shimmered at itself, monochromatically.

An Insurrection

In the midst of the eerie months of quiet and sirens, the protracted mass loneliness, the silent and socially-distanced lines at supermarkets, the agitated eyes above somber face-masks, the descent into melancholy—an insurrection! No need for me to go outside and take a look. The insurrection comes to me. Enormous crowds parade beneath my windows chanting, “No justice! No peace!” The next day I do take a look. A far bigger crowd has gathered at Barclays Center, young Brooklyn in several of its variations, high school pals, earnest hipsters, a sadsack delegation of the Revolutionary Internationalist Youth, roommates carrying their touchingly hand-drawn placards, “White Silence is White Violence.” The enormous crowd advances up Flatbush Avenue. Again no need for me to have gone. A splinter march comes parading one more time beneath my windows.

The nighttime spectacle, as seen from my roof, is consistently alarming. Faraway is the rumble of chanting crowds, whose words may be “George! Floyd,!” though I cannot be sure. Overhead the police helicopters bomb the city with noise. On the avenue motorcyclists scream back at the helicopters by gunning their engines. The sirens again: sirens of combat this time, and not only of medical emergency. Rage on the streets, and rage in the skies. And, like the police van that you can see in videos insanely ramming a crowd, rage is plowing ahead into the morbid silence that until now has ruled the universe.

A Brooklyn Boulevard

A still larger march parades beneath my windows, an immense crowd spread across the broad street, thirty minutes of marching protesters, average age twenty-five, more white than otherwise, but finally of every hue, and nearly everyone masked, in recognition that multiple catastrophes are upon us. A large number of people have composed their own placards—“Black Lives Matter”—with hand-lettering that is visually unimpressive and plaintively expressive. Of the chants, the most piercing is, “George! Floyd! I can’t breathe!,” declaimed in angry rhythms. The most insistent is “No justice! No peace!” Here is an anti-police chant which is also a law-and-order chant, if you take “justice” to signify law and order, properly understood.

The chant recognizes the social contract. It is the chant of non-violent civil resistance. And, in that spirit, although the mayor has declared an eight p.m. curfew—although sixty million people have been put under curfew in the United States (according to the Washington Post)—the marching persists. By 9:30 p.m. still another march, smaller, but not tiny, and just as articulate as all the others, is chanting beneath my windows. Around the corner, looters may be taking an axe to society. On my block, rebellion is disciplined.

Conflicts in the Air

Will future historians recall how strange has been the insurrectionary New York atmosphere, how dense the air, the purple clouds halfway sunk into hysteria, the acoustic landscape filled incongruously with chirping birds and shrieking sirens? It is curfew hour, which is the moment when legal protest passes into rebellion. From my rooftop perch, I have half of Brooklyn in panorama, and the rumble of protest marches comes at me from every direction. My neighbors are banging pots and pans on their own rooftops. The police helicopters overhead have put several million people on edge. The sky has short-circuited. Electric bolts zap the clouds. Convoys of police vans go whooping down the avenue toward the bridges and the plaza.

Will future historians recall how strange has been the insurrectionary New York atmosphere, how dense the air, the purple clouds halfway sunk into hysteria, the acoustic landscape filled incongruously with chirping birds and shrieking sirens?

And yet—here is the strangeness—the din of the police and the uprising pauses now and then, and a rural silence reveals itself. It is the silence of the plague. Also, the sunset and the lights shimmer a little too brightly. It is the brilliance of the smogless air. Then the pause comes to an end, the din resumes, the helicopters go whisking about, and it becomes easy to imagine that, with the sky turning dark, that which is noisy and human and that which is silent and nonhuman have entered into struggles of their own.

Beatings

The police in New York have laid it on heavy at times, and it is worth asking how the recipients of some of those clubbings and rougher treatments will end up feeling about it, in years to come. At Tablet, this question turns out to have a personal dimension. One of the younger writers at the magazine is Armin Rosen, who reports that, having inscribed the word PRESS on his bicycle helmet, he nonetheless came under police attack at Cadman Plaza in Brooklyn. The cops clobbered him and took away his bicycle—which chance alone returned to him. Then again, one of Tablet’s older contributors is Jonah Raskin, who, in commenting on the events, recalls that he, too, came under attack from the same police department—in his case, back in 1969 in Manhattan while running wild in the streets in defense of the Black Panther Party. Jonah’s experience was a real thrashing, something dreadful, which I know because I, too, attended that particular demonstration. My luck was better.

But then, at an antiwar demonstration in Washington, D.C., a couple of years later, a burly cop grabbed me by the arm and bounced me across the street on my other elbow, which was no big deal, I guess. I got to my feet feeling woozy, though. The wooziness lingered for a day or two, which was disagreeable. And I notice that, after 49 years, the scar on my elbow, no longer visible to the eye, remains detectable to the touch. No one ever forgets a beating.

Chantings

The slogans in the insurrectionary streets have evolved into call-and-response chants, which have taken on a choral inventiveness, with female voices and male voices consigned to distinct roles. “No justice!” cries a solo voice, which is variably male or female. “No peace!” responds an entire crowd, containing male and female in equal parts. Mass demonstrations used to be more insistently monotone. The harmonic range has expanded. Sometimes the chanting takes on still another tone. “No justice! No peace!” a mass of voices were declaiming a few hours ago, in oddly breathy rhythms—which, when I gazed out the window, turned out to be the husky cry of dozens of bicyclists peddling vigorously and chanting at the same time. And all the while is the din of the police helicopters, an unceasing racket, now louder, now softer. It is unnerving. It gets to be frightening.

President Trump spoke of “vicious dogs” a few days ago, at a moment when he himself was frightened of a possible storming of the White House—the vicious dogs that were going to protect him. The helicopters over Brooklyn are the vicious dogs. These are vistas from Roman mythology, with male and female mortals singing down below, and supernatural canines hovering overhead, baring their teeth.

Is It Over?

I thought it was over. I even imagined that I had seen the last of the marches. A flatbed truck passed under my window, carrying a gospel band with electric bass, electric keyboard, drums, and singers, who boomed out, “Jesus is the answer / for all the world today!” with elegant self-confidence. Behind the truck marched and danced a few hundred people in uniform black T-shirts, waving red penants and proclaiming their affiliation with Brooklyn’s Temple of the Restoration and advertising their own, most revolutionary of slogans, to wit, “The Lord loves what is righteous and just; his constant love fills the earth.”

It was joyful. It was not to be topped. And yet, a few days later still another protest parade comes marching by, the umpty-umpteenth, this time with no music at all, only chants. But the chants have become musical. “Hey HEY! / Ho HO! / racist cops have GOT to go!” is, if you say it to yourself, worthy of Bo Diddley, who invented the rhythms of rock ’n’ roll. And sure enough, among the hundreds of people chanting that rhythm, some of them have broken into a dance. And so, the demonstrations continue. But they evolve. Angry protests blossom into joyous protests. Indignation and happiness begin to parade arm in arm. This may be a sign that, in the streets of Brooklyn, what is righteous and just is, in fact, loved by the Lord.

Handwritten Placards

Three weeks of turmoil, and the placards carried in the marches are still handwritten. These marches are organized, but only barely so. No one appears to be in command, no marshals are enforcing order, no one is mandating the slogans, and no one is printing the placards. It is an anarchist phenomenon, in the positive sense. And, in the most positive of anarchist fashions, nearly everyone seems to observe a self-discipline. You see it in the slogans, not just “Black Lives Matter,” which is the dominant slogan, but “No Justice, No Peace” and onward to the policy proposals, “Defund the Police” and “Abolish the Police” (where the anarchism has maybe gotten out of control, if only as a trill of over-exuberance), with no extraneous slogans at all.

Still, now and then comes a deeper reflection. A man is marching beneath my window holding aloft yet another handwritten placard proclaiming, “‘Matter’ is the Minimum.” It is puzzling. Is this Plotinus, marching in the streets to remind us that abstraction is the maximum? No, it is a demand for social justice. Still, I wonder if something more transcendental isn’t being expressed. I turn to Google, which tells me that “‘Matter’ is the Minimum” has been around for a while. It is associated with athletes. How very odd. I should have run after that man to inquire into his school of philosophy, and its provenance and doctrines. And has the school produced any other works?

A Dinner Party

The noise outside my windows now (rarely an ambulance siren, a low buzz of traffic, an occasional loud radio, occasional screaming from lovers’ quarrels) leads me to conclude that, in my corner of the world, we have entered Phase XXVII of the general crisis, unless it is Phase CCXVIII. The revolution is no longer marching in the streets, nor is the counterrevolution whisking overhead in helicopters. Extreme tension has relaxed into non-extreme tension. It is low-level alarming. It is exhausting. It is pre-storm. I predict that, by tomorrow, it will be depressing. Everybody has got to crash. Someone invited me to a swell dinner party—a very exciting event, considering that not much has been happening, socially speaking. And the host called back the next day to say that, upon consideration, a dinner party is too risky. I was going to send my regrets, anyway. I suppose that all the other guests said no.

Cavaliers & Roundheads

The original headgear battle was the English Civil War, 1642-1651, which pitted Cavaliers against Roundheads. Cavaliers were royalists and aristocrats, and their headgear were broad-brimmed hats festooned with long feathers, worn above long-hair wigs descending in ringlets. All of which expressed their principles and spirit: the panache of men who considered themselves to be independent and free, eager to flaunt their superiority, sufficiently indifferent to their own safety to set helmets aside, and haughtily vain. Roundheads were the opposite. They were plebeians and proto-democrats. Their own headgear consisted of simple helmets, worn above the short hair that accommodates a helmet. Practicality and humility were their principles: the outlook of men who banded together to bring about a more virtuous world, and tried not to be killed, and were indifferent to personal distinction and vanity.

Thus it is in the headgear battle of our own American moment, with Bare-Faces and Masked Faces. Bare-Faces are haughty champions of individual liberty, keener on their own good looks than on practical safety, flaunting their superiority, aristocratically averse to being told what to do. Masked Faces are humble champions of public solidarity and virtue, indifferent to vanity, keen on self-preservation. The differences descend from the English Civil War, given that, in the seventeenth century, England’s Cavaliers emigrated to Virginia and the Southern colonies, and the Roundheads emigrated to Massachusetts and the North. Two centuries later, in America’s Civil War, the Confederacy was Cavalier; the Union, Roundhead. Today it is Republicans versus Democrats.

Fourth of July

It will be a good Fourth of July, in spite of everything. The spirit of liberty and equality has not been crushed; it lives; is eloquent; is a force in history. And the George Floyd uprising has been the largest mass protest against racism in the history of the world. It has been a spontaneous uprising. Yes, some rough moments at the beginning, and maybe a few that continue. But an enormous public has been able to distinguish between authentic protest and criminal outbreaks; and the enormous public has, in that fashion, figured attractively in the protest. Oh, and yes, some of the statue-tumbling has lacked in historical sophistication.

But the main thing has been the Confederates. How refreshing to see those statues go, and, along with them, the horrible flags! A shadow is removed. History is clarified. The horrors existed, and horrors still exist. But the history that is marked by the Fourth of July is the history of democratic rebellion against horrors of every sort—against the British monarchy and British imperialism; against the slave masters here in America; against the legacy of their terrible rule; ultimately against every obstacle that dares stand in the way of the great truth that was announced on the Fourth of July, which, because it remains a truth, remains capable of inspiring massive crowds in the street. For what is “Black Lives Matter,” if not another way of saying, “All men are created equal”?

Delirium

I have awoken from a delirium only to discover that I am in a delirium. The streets and buildings look unchanged. But how can that be? Buildings that were under construction have remained under construction, and yet, several months later, no construction appears to have taken place. Silence has become rarer; the music of the birds, quieter; the roar of the traffic, louder. Where am I, then? At home, and not at home. Time has not completely stopped. But it is not always obvious what day of the week it is. I learn from the Times that Disneyland has re-opened in Florida, after having made a proper effort to be contagion-free, and people are flocking to the place.

I understand those people. Oh, how I wish I could while away an afternoon in Disneyland, admiring the castles and the cartoons! I have been reading José A. Ramos Sucre, the Venezuelan poet, who was a master of the micro-essay, and I see that, in his micro-essays, Ramos Sucre had no difficulty in going anywhere he wanted. He toured the Spanish villages that you see in Cervantes. He wandered the woods with Virgil. This may be better than Disneyland, or, at any rate, nearly as good. In a little park, 6-year-olds are racing by on their scooters, and I, from my spot on a green bench with a book on my lap, am racing around the cosmos with Ramos Sucre.

Anarchism

It has been almost two months, and occasional demonstrations are still marching beneath my windows, or peddling en masse on bicycles. Here are twenty young black people with a baby carriage and somebody pushing a bicycle, advancing up the avenue so timidly as to stay on the sidewalk, led by a woman with an electric bullhorn. “Black lives matter!” she cries, and the twenty marchers respond: “Black lives matter!” The leader cries: “Black people used to live here!” The marchers repeat her cry. It is a puzzling cry. Some black people live hereabouts right now, but did the neighborhood ever use to be a black neighborhood? I am not aware of it. But I appreciate the need for new slogans.

A march of perhaps a hundred people, white and black, carries a banner proclaiming “Abolish Police” and chanting: “No landlords, no cops! / All these things we gotta stop!” But these slogans are not likely to catch on, either. On this particular corner, a large number of the buildings are owned by people who live on a couple of floors, and rent out the other floors to someone else and the storefront to still another person; and no one is likely to want to abolish anyone else. Still, nobody dislikes the demonstrators. The young people parade by, other young people on the sidewalks contemplate the joys of marching and chanting, and the older people and even the landlords are fond of them all, a little warily.

John Lewis, I

It used to be legendary among young radicals that John Lewis’s speech at the March on Washington in 1963 was toned down by the grandees of the civil rights movement—legendary because the story seemed to imply that America’s civil rights revolution could have been a lot more militant than it turned out to be, if only the people at the top had not lost their nerve. But the legend was always dubious. Lewis’s speech was indeed toned down by the grandees—chiefly by the official leader of the march, who was A. Philip Randolph, the venerable Socialist.

Lewis, in the original draft of his speech, was planning on calling the hundreds of thousands of people on the Washington Mall to march through the South the way that William T. Sherman did in 1864—which is to say, he seemed to be calling on the civil rights movement to burn down the South. That was not actually his idea. But Lewis was twenty-three years old, and the memory of Sherman’s March to the Sea was irresistible. Randolph, however, was seventy-four. He ordered young Lewis to mind his elders. Sherman duly failed to appear in the historic speech that Lewis went on to deliver. This seems to me an allegory for all movements of radical reform. It is good to be hot and fiery, like the young John Lewis; and let us say amen whenever Philip Randolph is in command. Have they thought of this in Portland, Ore.?

John Lewis, II

Why did so many Jews support the civil rights movement during its heroic period? The death of John Lewis has got everyone thinking about the March on Washington in 1963, and my own thoughts have wondered about the Jewish faces in the crowd; and the question answers itself. The orator who immediately preceded Martin Luther King, Jr., at the podium was Joachim Prinz, the Newark rabbi and president of the American Jewish Congress—Prinz, who, in his speech, said, “I was the rabbi of the Jewish community in Berlin under the Hitler regime.” In a photo of the front line of the march you can see the face of David Dubinsky of the garment workers’ union—Dubinsky, who, as a teenage revolutionary, was in one czarist prison after another.

The name of Isaiah Minkoff appears on an early flyer for the march, together with the best-known leaders, Martin Luther King, Jr., A. Philip Randolph, Bayard Rustin, James Farmer, Lewis, and a few others. Minkoff coordinated the Jewish communal support. I wonder if those other people knew anything more about him. In the late 1930s, Minkoff directed the Jewish Labor Committee’s underground campaign to rescue people in Europe. Still earlier in life, he was in the Russian Revolution. He was a Menshevik, and for most of a year was jailed by the Bolsheviks. A man of principles and steel. Why support the civil rights movement, then? Why, it was because these people were themselves the oppressed, the imprisoned, and the rebellious.

Thucydides

According to Pericles the Athenian, 431 B.C.E.: “Our constitution is called a democracy because power is in the hands not of a minority but of the whole people. When it is a question of settling private disputes, everyone is equal before the law; when it is a question of putting one person before another in positions of public responsibility, what counts is not membership of a particular class, but the actual ability which the man possesses. No one, so long as he has it in him to be of service to the state, is kept in political obscurity because of poverty. And, just as our political life is free and open, so is our day-to-day life in our relations with each other. We do not get into a state with our next-door neighbor if he enjoys himself in his own way, nor do we give him the kind of black looks which, though they do no real harm, still do hurt people’s feelings. We are free and tolerant in our private lives; but in public affairs we keep to the law. This is because it commands our deep respect. We give our obedience to those whom we put in positions of authority, and we obey the laws themselves, especially those which are for the protection of the oppressed.”

So why did Athens lose the war to Sparta, the oligarchy? Because a plague broke out? And Sparta conspired with Persians? And corrupt populists took over? And democratic revolutions broke out, and went mad?

The Political Conventions

The conventions just now were the strangest I have ever seen, which is saying a lot because, when Dwight Eisenhower and Adlai Stevenson were the candidates, I was a little child, and I watched the conventions on a wooden-box TV, which induced me to watch all of the conventions ever after, except once, when it was George H.W. Bush and Michael Dukakis. But at that moment I happened to be living in Mexico, without TV.

The conventions just now were strange because, in the case of the Republicans, there were no contending factions, nor regional interests to conciliate, nor any of the other elements that normally conspire and compete to produce the party platform. There was no platform at all, which is to say, no party: only a cult for the promotion of Donald Trump. Among the Democrats, by contrast, there were factions and a platform and everything you would expect, except one thing, which happens to be the Democratic thing. The Democratic Party was founded by Andrew Jackson in the 1820s and ’30s for the purpose of fighting the Indian Wars and avoiding the issue of American slavery, but chiefly in order to promote the “laboring classes” against the “moneyed power” and the “corporations.” But at the Democratic convention just now there were—for the first time in almost 200 years—no “laboring classes.” The class struggle was 99% absent. Strange! Stranger yet that “virtual reality” and Zoomishness, which are politically meaningless, somehow captured most of the attention!

Reclusiveness, I

A reclusive friend writes: “In my part of town, the stores have re-opened, except for a sickly-looking few. Window-shoppers have begun to stroll, crowds of people roll in little waves along the pavement, the sidewalk tables of the restaurants spill into the street, and, in those several ways, life resumes, not quite at normal intensity. And I am not really happy about it. Somehow the lockdown agreed with me. The lockdown made normal people feel trapped and imprisoned, but to me it was liberation. To linger at home amid my stockpiled soup-cans, to avoid human contact, to behave as if society had collapsed, and, in that manner, to pass the weeks and the months—all of this lightened the weight of my own oppressions. No longer did I have to push myself to get out in the world. The allure of reclusion that pulls so insistently at me turned out to be indistinguishable from the duties of civic responsibility. Solitude was solidarity. I was a model citizen. So I am sorry to see even a timid re-opening. I console myself by remarking that, for all the undersized crowds on the street, signs of public joy remain a little thin. Only occasionally does a car blare music from a window. The merriment of car-honking has yet to return. Apart from the angry demonstrators who used to chant and sing ensemble as they marched by, not a single person has broken into song on the sidewalk, not for six months now.”

Reclusiveness, II

My reclusive friend wonders: “But what is, finally, the allure of solitude—this allure which, under the quarantine, some people may have begun to feel? Is it merely a revulsion from the world? Or is there a positive attraction to interior mysteries? When I was at Columbia College in Manhattan, the rumor lingered among us students of Thomas Merton, our predecessor from a few generations before, who had tried everything in college life, girls, poetry, Communism. But he was left with an almost physical yearning for an indefinable not-at-hand. He gazed through the open portals of Catholic churches, and his muscles seemed to ache. And the yearning vaulted him, as if by catapult, from his Protestant upbringing into the Church and thence to a monastic cell among the Trappists, or Cistercians of the Strict Observance, whose Observance is not just solitude, but silence. He wrote an oddly garrulous account of these developments, The Seven Storey Mountain. It is a beautiful book.

And yet, from time to time, his account breaks out into Capital Letters—“the supreme Principle of all life, the ultimate Reality, He Who is Pure Being. He Who is Life Itself. He Who, simply, is.”—which, as he acknowledges, makes him seem insane. The muscular ache in his yearnings is warm and human. But it is distressing to watch this man find what he is yearning for—distressing to see how chilly it turns out to be, and less than human: a puzzling complexity for us recluses to ponder.”

Reclusiveness, III

To my reclusive friend: “Oh, it is worse than you say. Merton’s retreat into monastic silence among the Trappists was merely a cheerful 20th-century American twist on a gloomy 17th-century French taste for the morbid. His own predecessor was Rancé, the founder of the order, in France in the 1660s—Rancé, a young priest, the Merton of his time, elegant, learned, and love-torn. Rancé’s lover, Madame de Montbazon, died. And, if the story is true (his biographer, Chateaubriand, declines to guarantee it), Rancé was devastated by the experience of entering her room, only to discover that madame’s head had been chopped off in order to fit her into the only available coffin, which was too short. Rancé may have taken the head, and, in any case, he buried himself in the monastery at La Trappe for the rest of his life, worshipping (it almost seems) death, and advocating it. Rancé wrote: ‘The best that we can do, when we see other people die, is to persuade ourselves that they have taken a step that we will shortly have to take, that they have opened a door and have not at all closed it.’ And the open door is good because, when sufficient numbers of the predestined have passed through it, a new Heaven and a new Earth will arrive! So I wonder, dear friend. The allure of reclusion—isn’t it actually the dank allure of the tomb, flecked with mica glints of millenarian anticipation?”

Reclusiveness, IV

Monkishness was Kerouac’s ideal, except in Zen versions, socially flexible.

Monkishness was Kerouac’s ideal, except in Zen versions, socially flexible.NPS/B. Gilmartin

My friend replies: “Reclusion and love of life may be opposites, but does their opposition have to be absolute? Merton’s monastic retreat went a little far, yes, and the founder of the order was frightening, in the black-cloth 17th-century style. But, hey, we Columbia students of long ago dimly recall that, in the years after Merton betook himself to the monastery, his student scene somehow clung to life, amidst all kinds of drugs and petty crime and sexual hijinks, which is how it goes with wayward youth. And the wayward youth kept up the penchant for mysticism-and-poetry. There was the case of young Jack Kerouac, king of the hitch-hikers, whose tales of the quest for wisdom have everything to do with The Seven Storey Mountain. Monkishness was Kerouac’s ideal, except in Zen versions, socially flexible. He laid out his idea in The Dharma Bums, where a heroic character takes up a hermit’s Zen solitude as a national-parks fire warden, atop a mountain in the middle of nowhere—and, even so, remains a happening cat in the San Francisco poetry excitement. You see? Double lives are doubly rich.”

I reply: “But doesn’t it make you sad to think of Kerouac and his novels? You yourself in your semi-quarantine do not seem to be a happening cat. Nor are you a king of the hitch-hikers, gazing joyously on the Godly forests of America, as Kerouac liked to do, and Merton before him. It’s just you and your bookshelves.”

Shock, II

A distinguished classics scholar has written to tell me how naive I am to express shock at the shocking turns of modern history. The collapse of Communism in 1989, the Sept. 11 attacks, Donald Trump’s rise to power, the novel coronavirus—yes, those have been astounding events. The world goes skidding in unpredicted directions. But it has e’er been so, and I would know this if only I had read Polybius, the ancient historian.

Just now an opportunity arose to do what the scholar has advised. It was on the evening of Sept. 11, a very pleasant evening, a little hazy, ideal for sitting on the roof and contemplating the commemorative twin lightbeams that are sent skyward every year from what used to be the World Trade Center site. On my laptop I found Polybius online in translation. And I plunged into the history of Rome, 3rd century BCE. The history is astounding. Rome’s war against Carthage was going well; the consul Regulus was about to seal the victory; the surrender negotiations went badly; the Carthaginians decided to return to the fight. They introduced elephants into the battle. The elephants won! Regulus was captured. The Romans figured out how to turn the elephants against the Carthaginians. Rome won! Rome conquered the entire known world!

The role of fortune in history: that is Polybius’s theme. He doesn’t seem to mean anything supernatural. He means chance. So I spent the evening studying this, illumined by the faraway blue lightbeams rising above Manhattan.

The first installment of Paul Bermans Crisis Notebook can be found here.

Paul Berman is Tablet’s critic-at-large. He is the author of A Tale of Two Utopias, Terror and Liberalism, Power and the Idealists, and The Flight of the Intellectuals.

Support Our Journalism Today

The Jewish world needs a place like Tablet where varying—even conflicting—viewpoints can exist side by side. Our times demand an engagement with big ideas and not a retreat from them.

Help us do what we do.