Thursday, May 28, 2020

'The Touch of the Unknown'

“The element of contagion, which plays so large a part in an epidemic, has the effect of making people separate from each other. The safest thing is to keep away from everyone else, for anyone may already have the infection on him.”

Familiar advice we’ve heard repeatedly for months. While on my afternoon walk, I find myself involuntarily eying fellow walkers and our cousins, the increasingly evident joggers, cyclists and stroller-pushers, not to mention cats and dogs, which is ridiculous even by my standards. When I sit on a bench in the courtyard of a nearby church, I feel a nagging urge not to touch it except with the pertinent portion of my anatomy. At the pharmacy I pause before entering my PIN on the keypad and savor the irony – fear of contagion at the place where I purchase medications to keep me reasonably healthy and alive. I had a dream the other night in which an old friend whom I haven’t seen in twenty-five years appeared, and I debated whether to shake his hand. Even in dreams I weigh courtesy and affection against fear of contagion.    

The passage at the top appears in Elias Canetti’s Masse und Macht, published in 1960 and translated by Carol Stewart in 1962 as Crowds and Power. The three-page chapter “Epidemics” (pp. 272-275, Seabury Press) you’ll find in the section titled “The Survivor.” Canetti opens by quoting five paragraphs from The History of the Peloponnesian War, in which Thucydides recounts the epidemic that ravaged Athens beginning in 430 B.C. “Tersely and accurately,” Canetti says, “it covers every essential aspect of the phenomenon,” before resuming his own observations:

“Some flee from the town and disperse to their estates; others shut themselves up in their houses and allow no-one in. Each man shuns every other; his last hope is to keep his distance. The prospect of life, and life itself, is expressed in terms of distance from the sick. Those who catch the infection end by forming a dead mass; those who have so far escaped it keep away from everyone, even their closest relatives, their parents, husbands or wives and children. It is strange to see how the hope of survival isolates them, each becoming a single individual confronting the crowd of victims.”

I’ve never thought of the dead as a “crowd,” though they certainly outnumber us, the living, and sooner or later we will join them, thus enlarging the crowd. The precautions we are asked to take – for ourselves, for others -- demand little of us beyond common sense. Keep in mind that Canetti titles this section of his book “The Survivor”:

“But in the midst of universal disaster, when everyone attacked by the disease is given up for lost, the most astounding thing happens: a few, a very few, recover. The feelings of such people can be imagined. Not only have they survived, but they also feel themselves to be invulnerable, and thus they can afford sympathy for the sick and dying by whom they are surrounded. ‘Such people,’ says Thucydides, `were so elated at the time of their recovery that they fondly imagined that they could never die of any other disease in the future.’”

Epidemics are a small portion of Canetti’s principal themes, but those themes seem central to our ongoing situation. Here are the opening sentences of Crowds and Power:

“There is nothing that man fears more than the touch of the unknown. He wants to see what is reaching toward him, and to be able to recognize or at least classify it. Man always tends to avoid physical contact with anything strange. . . . All the distances which men create round themselves are dictated by this fear.”

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