“[D]eeply concerned both by the alarming levels of spread and severity” of the novel coronavirus and its disease, COVID-19, “and by the alarming levels of inaction” of governments and their agencies, the World Health Organisation, on Wednesday 11th March 2020, “made the assessment that COVID-19 can be characterized as a pandemic”:
“Pandemic is not a word to use lightly or carelessly. It is a word that, if misused, can cause unreasonable fear, or unjustified acceptance that the fight is over, leading to unnecessary suffering and death.”
The television confirmed our dystopia. The same day, Harvey Weinstein was at last sentenced to 23 years in prison; after rapping to Sir Mix-a-lot’s ‘Baby Got Back’, ex-Governor of Alaska Sarah Palin removes her pink-blue bear’s head to reveal herself as the Masked Singer; and, following this and Tom Hanks’s confirmation of viral infection, Donald Trump misread his teleprompted address of flat-out coronavirus lies, appropriately, in the manner of a shortsighted zombie.
I also spoke with a final-year medicine student, whose graduation and start-date, he tells me, is likely to be rushed through as the NHS tries to cope with the explosion of demand that’s about to be unleashed. As inevitable nationwide government-imposed isolation looms – following Italy’s shutdown on 8th of March – my mind turns to the words of Dr. Wendy Beth Hyman (Oberlin): “We don’t choose what natural disasters, epidemiological emergencies, stock market crashes, tyrannical regimes, or wars our generations face. We only get to choose how we react.”
On the 8th November 2015, I recorded my feelings about approaching the halfway point of my PhD project. That I was supposed to have reached 50% completion was, at the time, terrifying. I had only a vague sense of the entirety of the dissertation: some kind of fusion of the history and philosophy of mathematics; the connection between mathematics and the imagination; how maths is specifically incarnated in the works of David Foster Wallace – see the equations and Cantorian tennis philosophy in Infinite Jest and the discussion of the limits and convergences of series in ‘Good Old Neon’ – as well as in those by his influences and contemporaries, specifically Don DeLillo’s Ratner’s Star (1976), Thomas Pynchon’s The Crying of Lot 49 (1966) and Gravity’s Rainbow (1973), Jorge Luis Borges’s ‘The Library of Babel’ (1941), ‘The Aleph’ (1949), ‘The Zahir’ (1949; 1974), and ‘The Book of Sand’ (1975), David Markson’s Wittgenstein’s Mistress (1988).
At that point, though, I still thought I was writing a ‘single-author’ thesis on Wallace. That was my Icarus-fated funding pitch and I was still irrationally tied to it. The research would not behave that way though and the thing was quickly bursting at the seams. So was I, actually, but I buried my head in the sand – taking on way too much paid employment that, even still, made me way too little on which to live and work. It was through great supervision that I realised the beast it was becoming, and that I needed to tame it. I’d find the solution much later. Structure, structure, structure. Form, form, form. I misunderstood those vital ideas as something old and stale, something unbecoming of creativity. And I wondered why the dissertation wasn’t working… At that point, at least, I was aware that I needed to change tack and, rather than continuing to type out massive quotes and a handful of half-baked pseudo-profundities, I had to spend my energies organizing, reorganizing, synthesizing what I’d thus far collected. This is what gave me headaches, late at night, after an exhausting minimum-wage shift, holed up in the shared office, in the dark, alone. Notes were spilling out everywhere, covering the desk, daring to be ordered, mocking me for failing.
A year later I’d be on a research trip to the Harry Ransom Center at the University of Texas at Austin, plunging through the archives of Wallace and DeLillo (and even coming across an abandoned music theatre project by one Thomas Ruggles Pynchon). That trip would clarify a few things, not least what it means to live in a freeway motel on a rather sketchy side of town. It’d also leave me with a paralyzing amount of data. I needed to be brutal. Cut without mercy. But then, what was left but a scattering of half-thoughts – crazy string-and-pin networks on a board? The whole globe-trotting aspect, while very exciting and adventurous, was part of the necessary humbling: feeling small in the face of the work, which in itself was tiny in comparison to all the work that would not, could not, be done. In the face of dramatic loss of life, this feeling has returned with a vengeance.
That I couldn’t make that trip today, with the U.S. cancelling all travel to and from the U.K. (as Trump eventually conceded that his golf courses at Doonbeg and Turnberry are essentially, fundamentally in Europe). Instead, I am holed up in Scottish containment: a rare, zen-pause in which to read and write.