一种cross much of the west, March is a milestone both surreal and distressing: a full year of life in Covid-19’s shadow. Twelve months ago, we couldn’t imagine what we were about to experience; now we can’t process what we’ve endured.
This was a year of seemingly irresolvable contradictions. Our grief was collective, yet rituals of communal mourning were denied us. We hymned the “global effort” to produce a vaccine, then recoiled into vaccine nationalism the moment that effort bore fruit. Even as Zoom held us together, Covid denial and conspiracy theories in the family WhatsApp tore us apart.
On one thing, 至少, we were all in agreement: we wanted to be free. The problem was that we couldn’t agree on what that freedom looked like, or who should enjoy it. Even as new horizons of collective action and mutual support seemed possible, the urge to do whatever we wanted, free from the inconvenience of consequences, took hold with renewed force. Set against the freedom from infection was the freedom to endanger others by leaving lockdown; the freedom to do away with masks and sow airborne death in the supermarket; the right, via “unmuzzled” speech across high-profile platforms, to spread dangerous, divisive fictions. When finally the halls of US government were stormed and occupied, it wasn’t civil rights activists or eco-warriors posing for a selfie in the chamber, it was a loose conglomeration of angry and often baffled conspiracy theorists, splinter Republicans and Nazis, freely subverting the democracy they claimed to defend.
I’d spent 2018 和 2019 exploring the challenges and contradictions of personal and collective freedom in what would become my third novel, Come Join Our Disease, which I completed in March 2020. The novel follows Maya, a homeless woman “rehabilitated” through a programme of traumatising work, exhausting wellness-based self-improvement, and the hollow affirmation of daily Instagram posts charting her “transformation”. Trapped between the hell of exclusion and the exhausting labour of belonging, Maya comes to feel that only one freedom is available to her: the liberation of letting herself go completely. Occupying an abandoned industrial building with a group of other women, she embraces a lifestyle that is part dirty protest and part mystical experience, giving herself over to rot, sloth and decay, and exhorting others to join her.
My growing feeling, both through writing the book and then watching the pandemic lay waste to the myth of inviolable individuality, is that those of us whose daily reality is shaped by capitalism’s latest and most virulent strain find ourselves caught between duelling and equally intolerable experiences. On the one hand, we long for a better world. 在另一, we fear that an evolved world will hold no place for us. We are torn, always, between unbearable individuation and unfathomable collectivity. In the middle, exposed in all its stark inadequacy yet still doggedly holding us back, is our great doomed project: the self.
To see at work the contradictory impulses and injunctions we’re daily expected to reconcile, you might begin by immersing yourself, as Maya does, in our collective online existence. 这里, through a kaleidoscope of inspirational Instagram quotes, revolutionary praxis, artfully prepared food and effortless-seeming yoga poses, profound contradictions are reconfigured as a series of seductive adjacencies. The language of rebellion and anarchy merges seamlessly with the language of self-help. We are encouraged to challenge power, punch up, resist. And yet at the same time we are exhorted to grow and glow, strive, achieve, become. The result is an excruciating double bind. Only through a more robust sense of self, we believe, can we muster the rebellious energy by which the unjust world around us might be changed. And yet, deep down, we know the truth: that our unjust world depends for its survival on the very project of selfhood in which we’re all so desperately over-invested.
Many of these tensions collide most spectacularly in the world of wellness, where disciplines such as yoga and meditation, which once took as their goal the dissolution of the self, are pressed into the service of a bolstered ego and enhanced productivity. In this telling, freedom, like the equally mythologised idea of “happiness”, is no longer a collective goal but a small and fiercely defended box of personal space, accessed through a crushing regimen of self-improvement, in which we are free to be our best imaginable selves.
But if our conception of a free future is simply a series of tiny, personalised utopias, all we will create is a world in which only the strongest and most fully evolved selves assume dominance. A world, in short, very much like the one we have now – bloated, unbalanced, cruelly competitive, fundamentally unjust, and wholly unfit for the challenges and realities it has wrought.
In the course of Come Join Our Disease, Maya comes to embrace a worldview in which liberation is not about what we gain, but what we are willing to abandon. Far from the freedom to “be ourselves”, true freedom in this sense would mean an end to ever needing to be ourselves again. This is why, when faced with even the possibility of a better, more just, more liberated world, we claim to long for it, only to reactively stifle its emergence. It’s because we know that real freedom would entail nothing less than the erasure of all the boundaries and signifiers by which we have defined and comforted ourselves; that it would, in effect, destroy us.
When we speak of Covid’s tragic legacy, we necessarily focus on the incomprehensible death toll, the long emotional and economic shadow, the coming era of vaccine inequality. But there is also, I think, an existential legacy, one which we will come to regard as its own uniquely wounding loss. Briefly, a series of alternatives became visible to us. But having seen them, we rejected them, and returned to what we knew: the habits, rituals and trappings by which we distinguish ourselves. Last spring, the freshness of the lockdown air struck us like a revelation. By summer we were back in our cars, flocking to beaches we despoiled with trash and human shit, dreaming of the day we could not only drive but fly cheaply.
As whole areas of work and remuneration were eroded, we spoke briefly and hearteningly about the need for a universal basic income, a fairer system, an economy based on something other than numbing work fuelled by takeaway coffees. Now the Labour party tells us that “the only way to deliver social justice and equality is through a strong partnership with businesses”. Where once 20,000 deaths was the metric by which we might measure our success, now it might just become the annual toll we’re willing to accept, the price for our refusal to change.
The state of transcendental decay Maya reaches in the novel is extreme, but what she finds as she unravels is the very thing so few of us can bear to accept: that what we live amid, however repugnant, is our own creation – a manifestation of all our baser instincts, selfish fears and long-evaded inner work. If we want, finally, to change it, then we will have no choice but to change ourselves. That process of change will not be blissful. At the end of it, we will not be beaming and aglow. We will be wrecked, raw, and staring with sudden and awful clarity at the swamp of emotional and physical filth in which we wallow. Somewhere in all of us is the very totemic figure we loudly claim to loathe: the lockdown-breaking Covid sceptic, the bloviating opinion columnist or gaseous radio host, the self-satisfied centrist or sneering ideologue, the diarrhoeic polluter, the bigoted, raging, punitive cop. Until we excise them from ourselves, we’ll continue to create them in the world. The more privilege we embody, the greater our power to inflict on others the things we harbour within, and the messier the process will be. Because what is privilege, 真的, if not the continual distortion of the world to reflect our comfort?
This is not to say that we should entirely replace a project of structural critique and opposition with a project of inward exploration. Nor is it to say that abuses of power should go unchallenged, that corruption should not be called out, or that for some of us the work of rebuilding self-esteem and personal resilience is not vital. It is simply to say that at some point we are going to have to accept an ugly, inconvenient but necessary truth: that the price of the life each of us wants is a world we are all collectively able to live in, and so sustaining a world we can all safely inhabit may very well depend on dismantling the individual life we desire.
Ordinarily, in the time that follows a book’s completion, the characters seem to wander further from view, until one day they vanish completely. But Maya feels closer to me than ever, and what felt speculative at the time of writing now feels painfully real. In the world to come we will have to choose our apocalypse. Either we will annihilate, finally, the sense of ourselves we cling to, or we will redouble our faith in it, feed it, build it until it dwarfs all else, and then watch, hopelessly, as it destroys the world we live in.