So, an epidemic.
More deadly, for the time being, than the seasonal flu.
But potentially devastating because its rate of propagation is unknown.
And no scientist, commentator, or leader is yet capable of telling us on what side of the fence we will fall.
But there is one thing that everyone knows.
And that is that this event ratifies, confirms, and fits to a T some of the gloomiest obsessions of our era.
It is that the precautionary guides that are spreading with the virus from one end of the planet to the other are like mirrors in which are reflected our deepest fears—and too often our cowardice.
We had been fearing China and the Chinese: What a joy to be able to turn their imperial Silk Roads into corridors of contamination and no-go tourist areas! What a relief to see them lock themselves up behind a dam against the Pacific that is so much more effective than the rantings of Mr. Trump!
We had been condemning globalization: And lo! The return of our industries, factories, and capital, of which the American president made himself the buffoonish herald, is now trending, appearing simultaneously as the cure, the vaccine, and the expiation for a globalized, borderless disease.
We had been excoriating airplanes. The carbon footprint was becoming the scale on which we weighed our souls, and the number of our miles measured the crimes we had committed against the planet. Well, now, victory to the prophets of that punitive and static ecology! It’s the triumph of a Levi-Straussism for the dimwitted, one that really does hate traveling and explorers in the moralistically shunned tristes tropiques!
Europe is a sieve, Marine Le Pen had thundered. Let’s close our doors to the wretched of this planet, brayed the demagogues and populists, and let’s start with migrants from Turkey. Once again, wish granted. Long live the racists, xenophobes, and nationalists, who are only too happy to see the coronavirus legitimize their suspicion of anything that transits, emigrates, or circulates. Long live Matteo Salvini, who no longer even has to campaign in order to see northern Italy barricade itself as if it were the Alamo. Praise be to the Greek neo-fascists for playing the coast guard and using their iron rods to raise the continent’s drawbridges. And what is Brexit, at bottom, if not a gigantic political and commercial quarantine on a national scale?
We had been hungover from youth worship. No longer. Down with “aged individuals”! Welcome to a society where, far from watching Aeneas carry his father Anchises out of Troy on his shoulders, it won’t take us long, assuming this madness continues, to lock up in their hospices those of our elders who are too fragile to withstand the affection or a glance or a visit.
And this obsessive search for “patient zero,” the one or ones who brought the disease on us: Was it a tourist returning from Afghanistan? A careless humanitarian? An irresponsible businessman who transited through Milan? The truth is that this frenzy is not far, in spirit, from our rekindled taste for man hunting and for the pack mentality. Just a tad further and our media, already busy with this conscientious, hygienic hunt, will come to resemble a petting zoo full of scapegoats.
And the calls for confinement? Entire cities in quarantine? Are we headed for a world where staying at home alone, possibly behind a computer, will be enough to keep us happy? Where commerce among real bodies and souls, trips to the bank or to school, urban life, affection for cities—where all these will soon be vestiges of the past? And, in passing, will the transition deliver the coup de grâce to movie theaters in the age of Netflix, festivals in the YouTube era, and municipal elections when you can vote on Twitter?
Not to mention the ban on shaking hands, which came on so fast. A beautiful gesture of civility and equality so quickly proscribed. A sign of democratic solidarity promoted by the French Revolution and the spirit of ’89, now outlawed and demonized—and this at a time when violence and nihilism lead us to cast stones at the basic services provided by elected officials, to attack the nation’s representatives, and to believe that the war of all against all is very likely to succeed.
Albert Camus took the plague in Oran as the foundation for his metaphysics of fraternity.
Curzio Malaparte used a Naples ravaged by cholera to express his horror for the vermin and carrion of war.
And Jean Giono was able to make his drunken, fever-ridden, diarrhea-plagued Lubéron into the sumptuous backdrop for an impossible love.
We are far from any of that, to say the least.
It is as if the coronavirus were a locus of infection in which both the sad passions and the evil mythologies of our time are fermenting.
This new epidemic may not be any more deadly than others, but it is making huge efforts—with its almost maniacal insistence on chanting the spread of infections and anticipating the pandemic’s passage from “stage 2” to “stage 3”—to make itself seem like the plague of Athens or Venice, as if it were a litmus test for a melancholy, suicidal humanity haunted by a death wish and having found in this virus one last reason for despair.
Hovering over our globalized planet, a planet infected by retreat and withdrawal, is the feeling of Oedipus’ Thebes, in which the triumphant autocracies reach a deal with the tired, relativistic, and paranoid democracies to plunge themselves into another contamination: one that is making each of us into the horseman on the roof of his hate for himself and for others.
Translated from the French by Steven B. Kennedy.
Bernard-Henri Lévy is a philosopher, activist, filmmaker, and author of more than 30 books including The Genius of Judaism, American Vertigo, Barbarism with a Human Face, Who Killed Daniel Pearl?, and The Empire and the Five Kings. His most recent film, Slava Ukraini, will premiere nationwide on May 5, 2023.