Sunday, March 29, 2020

'The Pulling Up of One’s Very Roots'

From a reader in Washington, D.C. who is a few years older than me:

“Lazy days. I take long, early-morning walks with my wife, making sure to keep a safe distance from other early risers, mostly dog walkers and joggers. If we see someone approaching us down the street, we cross to the other side.”

All of this is suddenly familiar to millions of us. It’s remarkable how quickly we have adapted to a strange new reality. Eight children under ten live on our stubby cul-de-sac, which normally serves as their playground. Backing from our driveways, one adult or another always hollers “Car!” Now the street is empty and silent except for the guys mowing lawns. Since my last day in the office, March 17, I’ve been in my car twice – a blessing, as I hate driving. My friend continues:     

“The rest of the day is taken up reading, cleaning closets, watching movies or a silly but amusing French serial called Call My Agent! on Netflix, emailing friends and following the stock market more closely than I ordinarily do. Yesterday, we had a ‘happy hour’ with another couple using Zoom. We no longer go to the market; all our food is delivered. I still don’t know anyone who’s caught the virus, though I know people who know people who have. Just a matter of time, I fear.”

I know one person who was infected, a faculty member who contracted the virus in Egypt. I’m told he has recovered. The new regime, I suspect, is easier on those of us who are older. Young people are restless, which is perfectly normal. I have no difficulty sticking close to the routine my reader outlines above. During the workweek I’m on the computer in my library/office much of the day, writing and editing. This has been an easier transition than I expected. For a break in the afternoon I clean up after the dog in the backyard and pull a few weeds. My wife is also working at home, as are my younger sons, both following their customary classes remotely. I can’t honestly call this “isolation.” In fact, it’s pleasant, paring away unnecessary distractions. But I can see how our new lives, prolonged and carried to extremes, might prove unhealthy. In her chapter titled “Digression” in Hope Abandoned (trans. Max Hayward, 1974), Nadezhda Mandelstam warns:

“Self-isolation means trying to put a stop to history and leads to atrophy—accompanies, as we have seen, by the pulling up of one’s very roots. Self-isolation, like egomania, is destructive not only of the individual but of the nation as a whole. It is significant that total absorption in one’s own self is a sure sign of mental illness—something to which whole nations may succumb just as well as individual members of them. Egomania is closely linked with license, loss of memory, and the withering away of one’s roots.”

Mandelstam means the pathological self-isolation in which the individual removes himself from the bigger culture, his tradition, his inherited past.

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