An Auto-fictive Study of the Sociocultural Influence of Nostalgia/Sentimentality and Despair/Denial on the Development and Acceptance of Linguistic and Metalinguistic Responses to Trauma vis-à-vis the Covid-19 Pandemic of 2020
The terms nostalgia / sentimentality / despair / denial and the development and acceptance of linguistic and metalinguistic responses to trauma in culturally and socioculturally contextualized spaces as modes and manners of managing intangible historical events such as the 2020 Covid-19 pandemic are as specifically connected to one another as the terms nationalism/national identity / privilege / power are connected to totalitarianism / bromides / clichés / propaganda / newspeak / disinformation. The coupling, colliding, combining, and collocating of all these terms as denoting a process of language change can be closely related to the spatiotemporal instance in which and when such intangible historical events are experienced both subjectively and publicly as trauma. Such trauma, this paper will argue, leads to the use of ideological linguistic structures as a way to displace the denial, dissociation, dread, and despair brought upon the traumatized subject, rather than leading to the creation and establishment of new forms of language to identify, express, and confront the psychic devastation, national injury/need for grief/mourning, and personal-identity deconstruction brought on by said trauma, replacing opportunities for individual or social change or resistance or the creation of alternate social orderings. In this study, I intend to focus on the influence of nostalgia and sentimentality as responses to despair and devastation as it regards the development and expression of linguistic and metalinguistic trauma.
Keywords: nostalgia, sentimentality, despair, denial, linguistic, metalinguistic, trauma, cholera, plague, Covid-19, Coronavirus, collocation, pandemic, grief (unexpressed), loss (un-mourned), cliché, fiction, prayer, Queens, Jackson Heights, Elmhurst, New York City.
Autometafictive scholarship of this kind is a genre favored by the emotionally squeamish, the reticent, the shunned, the forsaken, the fearful, liars, lovers, and thieves. Those who prefer—‘prefer’ is perhaps the wrong word, and so is ‘choose’—Those who must live in the head, so to speak, do so as a way to avoid engaging with the body. For as the saying goes, the body keeps the score. We know from the work of neurolinguists and the imaging technology they are now able to use in their study of the brain, namely MRI and PET scans, that different parts of the brain light up on imaging screens at different times for different tasks and functions—even if those tasks and functions are related to the same field. Take, for example, language: vocabulary, the part of the brain involved with learning words (nouns, verbs, adjectives, adverbs, etc.), is located in one part; while grammar, the way those words are used, is located in another; and in yet a third area of the brain (on the other side, actually) resides syntax, the way we arrange words into grammatical strings or chunks of units of meaning and melody (phrases, clauses, sentences). Why the different areas for one field? It is because language is so infinitely complicated that the brain sorts these tasks into areas of relative subsets, which utilize similar working pathways. For example, vocabulary, which is located on the opposite side of the brain from syntax, reveals far less illuminated activity in brain scans because they are units functional largely unto themselves, whereas syntax involves so many different tasks and activities (not only vocabulary and grammar) in order to produce language that it is located closer to the regions of the brain that produce music. Yet even with all that information at our disposal, such technology still can’t tell us who or what is the source of all those functions. And so that persistent romantic question still nags: Who sends the signal to the brain calling forth to perform a certain ‘function’ that illuminates those different lights? Who generates the expressive linguistic impulse that the brain labors so complexly to produce? For whom? For what purpose? To put it another way, the brain is a construction site with contractors and subcontractors and laborers breaking up one large job into discrete tasks at different nodes. But who is the architect? Who is the one that turns on those lights, like so many bright stars in the night sky? (Alas, such questions seem hopelessly romantic or sentimental or nostalgic for a sense of a “self” or “essence” or “soul.”)
The lights in brain scans may be compared to security lights in darkened properties coming startlingly ablaze at night when someone enters the sensor’s zone. The lights tell us a perpetrator is there, but they may not tell us who that startled perpetrator is if that person (or animal) escapes. To extend the metaphor, as we live out our always-complicated days and months and years, we don’t have brain scans to indicate what parts of that ultimately unknowable organ are being activated by this or that perpetrator or (to be less punitive) agent. What information about ourselves could be gained by knowing more about the way our brains function? But we don’t need those external scans, for we have our own internal system, our bodies. Our bodies, better than any brain scan but far less interpretable, not only know what parts of the brain are being activated; they know who is activating them. They know the agent. Intimately. They know us. Our bodies, ourselves. Neither malevolent nor punitive, neither judgmental nor authoritarian, the body—not the brain—nonetheless serves as doctor and lawyer, shaman and exorcist; it is, at once, the light grid and the light source. It is the ledger and the assets, the liabilities and the owner’s equity, it is the account of all revenues and expenses. The body keeps the score.
So somewhere in the autometafictive scholar’s head is an awareness of this predicament. And while the autometafictive scholar may well be hard at work to address this mind-body problem in, say, weekly sessions and settings, he, she, or they will often try to keep those efforts hidden, even going so far as to employ multiple pronouns as a way to shield the writer himself, herself, or themselves. As with much metafiction, such methodologies and the sources attributed therein are often fictive assemblages of faux texts (e.g., Borges’s “Pierre Menard, Author of the Quixote,” Nabokov’s Pale Fire, Maryse Condé’s I, Tituba, Black Witch of Salem, Carmen Maria Machado’s In the Dream House and Her Body and Other Parties). In the case of autometafictive scholarship, they may be more rightly termed autopastiches, assemblages of both faux and real-world documents: quasi-letters, “found” texts, pseudo-interviews, questionable quotes, fraudulent artifacts that threaten the stability of a text like symptoms of an illness threaten the corpus. (N.b. The American term ‘autosamplings’ does not offer the fuller historical context and significance of the term French scholars prefer, autopastiche. This paper will use the latter.) Consider the poet Donald Justice. A note at the end of Justice’s 1973 book Departures indicates that some of the poems in it came “in part, from chance methods.” “Chance methods” are what current autometafictive scholars would consider a form of autopastiche. As one critic described Justice’s methodology: (It is) “an ingenious system of quotation and transformation of lines from other poems.” Jonathan Lethem calls this technique “the beauty of second use.” Bob Dylan calls it “Love and Theft.”
Before the pandemic, I had begun taking steps to lessen the effects of what had been professionally classified as generalized anxiety disorder. It was suggested by certain people that holistic approaches could yield positive results: meditation, exercise, diet, no screens before bedtime, switching from coffee to tea. I began drinking green tea. At first the transition was difficult, due not only to the change in my energy levels and focus, but also to the horrible headaches I experienced. But soon green tea worked not only as well, but better than coffee. The energy was clearer, the somatic effects of coffee, which I hadn’t noticed when I was regularly drinking it, disappeared, and the anxiety backed off to manageable levels. A slight compulsive tendency was lessened as well, with the exception of my green tea. It was pointed out to me that my feelings for green tea were not quite in the same neighborhood, but perhaps in the same borough as cathexis. Because I felt like one could cathect things far more unhealthy than green tea, I considered it a form of self-care and, in February, when I found them on sale at my local supermarket, I stocked up on them, buying eight boxes of 20 bags, only one of which I allowed myself every morning.
On the morning of March 2, 2020, I drank my green tea, dropped my kids off at school, held office conferences in person with students and advisees, dropped in on a few colleagues in their offices, taught my in-person class (which modifier I never would have added to describe my class), and that evening, I attended, along with another writing colleague, the PEN American Literary Awards Ceremony at a sold-out Town Hall, on West 43rd St., in New York City’s Times Square. The event was hosted by Seth Meyers, who joked that it was sold out because writers have such a lonely, isolating job that they would jump at the chance to gather with a large group of people crowded together in one room—even, he added, during a pandemic. I looked at my friend, who was sitting next to me in the front row, our elbows sharing the same armrest, and smiled. After the event, a massive group of attendees repaired to a massive nearby bar and restaurant, where we all crowded toward the bar, waiting a half-hour, four-people deep for service. Drinks finally acquired, we made our way to the long food buffet tables in the warm and stuffy rear of the establishment, where we politely handed each other plates and utensils and talked closely to each other’s faces because it was so loud, and sampled each other’s food and occasionally sampled this or that interesting cocktail.
On March 15, the mayor held a press conference and announced that he was closing all of the schools for the city’s one million students (my children among them) with the hope of reopening them on Monday, April 20. As of that afternoon, five New Yorkers had died from the Coronavirus and 329 had been infected, the mayor said. I told my spouse, a public high school history teacher in NYC, that we and our children (ages three and five) would be able to handle a month of remote learning. That morning I broke my rule and had two bags of green tea.
On March 17, I walked home from my office, during what would normally be rush hour in NYC—Saint Patrick’s Day, 6 PM, on Seventh Ave., between 22nd and 23rd, only a few cars cruised along, some pedestrians, and me. From behind me, a gravel-grinding racket filled the air, a sound that otherwise would have been drowned out by the roar of bumper-to-bumper traffic. Along came a lone skateboarder, a thin young man in tight camouflage jeans and a leather jacket and pink bandana, riding past me on the nearly empty street, playing air guitar and gliding serenely over the asphalt, all while the entire globe was being brought to its knees. In 1975, photojournalist Craig Stecyk, writing in Skateboarder Magazine, wrote a series of articles chronicling the adventures of the Zephyr Competition Skateboarding Team (a.k.a. the Z-Boys) who, during a two-year period of drought and water conservation in Southern California, rode the empty swimming pools of the wealthy as the region dealt with severe water restrictions. As I watched the skateboarder disappear to the north, I thought of Stecyk’s words: “The true skater surveys all that is offered, takes all that is given, goes after the rest and leaves nothing to chance (i)n a society on hold and a planet on self-destruct.”
On March 19, my daily tea bag intake had gone up to three and my anxiety levels had returned to the days when I was drinking coffee. And then, while in a closet reaching up to a high shelf for a new box of tea, I knocked over a box of pasta which fell toward my face, the corner of which struck the center of my left eye. An eye injury is scary anytime. But during a pandemic, it’s terrifying. And my doctor said a virtual exam wasn’t going to cut it. I had to go into the city and have my eyes dilated so she could check the retina. The retina wasn’t torn, thankfully. But I had to limit screen time for the next few days, which made my Zoom training and preparation for the following week’s online educational restructuring a challenge.
That following week my slightly compulsive habits returned to escort my anxiety through the darkened parlor of my shadowy un-scanned brain. And so, with my children now at home all day, our babysitter gone until school reopened, I found an activity that was somewhat comforting—calculating the number of green tea bags against the days remaining until the schools reopened. The mayor had said a little over three weeks; that worked out to be 20 days—and here before me was an unopened box of 20 green tea bags. For an obsessive, such coincidences feel like a cool breeze on a fevered brow. I imagined the day when I would tear open that last tea package. Twenty days from now—a whole new month: April, the season of renewal and hope. The schools reopened, my children back to their routines, life as it had been finally restored. And surely there would be some change, perhaps even improvement from what was going on a whole twenty days earlier. A new awareness of where we had gone wrong, perhaps? New safety guidelines, maybe? Good! I hated germs in a way Monk would empathize with. The counting and calculating seemed like an act of faith, a ritual. It brought comfort because it was concrete, factual. To my mind, faith was not so much belief-despite-proof as much as scientific certainty, like of gravity’s surety, of the inexorability of things. If I leave a full pint of ice cream out on the counter tonight, I have faith that tomorrow it will have melted. Of that I have no doubt. And prior to Corona, my sense of that kind of faith was as solid as the frozen ice cream had been the night before. Fairly soon, however, upon the arrival of the pandemic, my faith in the inexorable certainty of things began to change, change utterly. It wasn’t so much that I thought I would find the ice cream on the counter still frozen the next morning or some other speculative possibility; it was rather that when I went into the kitchen to check the ice cream, it would be gone. Not sucked into some vortex of alternate reality, but plainly stolen, taken from me. Never to return.
Six Degrees of Education
From Journal, March 23, 2020: Things are challenging here in our one-bedroom home with our 4- and 5-yr-olds, getting them set up with the DOE’s technology for their online education while keeping them from jumping off the walls. Doing this while my spouse and I are also doing our own online training and work to move all our teaching completely online, all with only two computers. Doing the math, it’s nearly impossible for all of us to be online at all the times we’re supposed to be, but we’re keeping faith.
From Journal, March 24, 2020: Thank goodness for small miracles—my eye is slowly getting better. I still have weird stray floaters and streaks across my field of vision, but the pain has finally lessened to bearable levels. However, I am personally taken down to near-depression levels at how unable I am to find time to write. Not blocked—worse, far from it! It’s Sartrian: Hell is desperately needing to write, but having neither the time nor the place to do it. (I can feel the impulse pushing itself forward even in the writing of this entry.)
From Journal, April 1, 2020: A memory of Father Antonio Checo of St. Marks Church, Jackson Heights, NY, the priest at my kids’ school, who just died from Covid-19. I had dropped my kids off for school on a bright, crisp autumn morning, and stood outside the church adjacent to their school building. I stood there alone, holding my son’s scooter in one hand, looking into the dark, beautifully lit church. I was thinking of my mother walking me to my own parochial school. Just then Father Checo approached me, asked me if I wanted to go inside and pray. I paused, considering the question. “Or we could just pray here,” he said. Together. I told him some of the things I was thinking about, my mother, her faith—quiet, strong, private—my children and my own childhood. He shared his story about his mother and his faith, and then we stood there. Together. Silently. I used to think of that story as a story about my spiritual development, how an unexpected encounter opened up some things inside me. But now it’s just another pandemic story.
From Journal, April 5, 2020: I feel like there’s so much to consider and reflect upon, and yet I can’t open my psyche to it, the demands of the day being so intense. We are four people in a one-bedroom with two screens and need daily to educate others online and to be educated ourselves online. The terrible lack of life quality to online education is a topic for another time, but for now everything depends on wrangling a 4- and 5-yr-old not only in front of a laptop on a dining room table but opening their minds and spirits toward learning. It’s a complicated system that requires infinitely more resources than we have as a family.
From Journal, April 21, 2020: Jess is baking and has asked the kids to help her but they keep coming into our bedroom where I’m working and interrupting me, almost a dozen times since I started working on this article. I understand their neediness, but it doesn’t make it any easier. I have friends whose children are grown and gone, and friends with kids still under the same roof but old enough to already have their own identities and developmental stages somewhat fairly well laid out; they’re operating with their kids in what I’d describe as “maintenance mode.” Certainly there are difficult challenges for that mode, but it feels quite different from what’s going on with our children at this particular age. Their needs take so much of our focus and energy and time under the best and most normal of circumstances, and this current situation is so far, far beyond normal that I don’t even have a word for it. And, of course, add to that the individual needs our kids have and it gets exponentially more stressful. My son just turned four and my daughter is five and a half, which doesn’t seem like a big difference, but when we’re all on top of each other as we are now, without parks to blow off steam in, it is actually a huge difference and sometimes a negative one. When they’re not stuck in front of their DOE screens, my daughter is super verbal and very assertive about her desires; my son has developed some verbal disfluencies and a stutter since the shutdown—and he’s more passive and needs a very different environment around him to thrive: quiet, slow, deliberate, attentive. It’s the exact opposite of the environment my daughter wants and needs: She likes it when I have NPR on and she likes to read aloud and make up songs and make things and perform little plays, and she wants my son to be a part but then she gets frustrated when he can’t keep up or doesn’t understand her rules, and then they’re at each other’s throats. I know all siblings do this, but it’s setting his progress back, and it’s killing me to witness this. And in fact, since he’s lost his preschool schedule, he’s gotten worse. Jess and I are obviously anxious about it because we want our daughter to thrive and use her imagination and play creatively as screen-free as possible, and we want our son to thrive in his own way and we need to care for him in a focused way, but right now neither of us can do that. We have to be online so much. I barely know how to discuss this aspect of our experience with my colleagues at university. There’s barely been any discussion of it in all the many meetings we’ve had. And while I’m fully aware that, from other perspectives, we’re so lucky to have these jobs and the technology to keep them, it still seems so overwhelming. And now the closure of schools feels so demoralizing. Jess and I take turns taking the kids out early, like 8-ish, which I think helps a lot to offer them a regular daily routine and some activity. We try to find areas of sidewalk that are spacious enough for them to ride their bikes or scoot or kick a ball around (how pathetic that sounds—sidewalks!).
From Journal, April 24, 2002: This morning, I took my kids out early, as usual, to get a little air after breakfast, and my 4-yr-old son’s bike chain came off while he was biking on the sidewalk. He jerked the handlebars sideways and fell over. And despite wearing his helmet, he managed to hit the base of a streetlight with the front of his face. His nose bled and might be broken, and his gums and teeth were bloody, too. I was alone without Jess and freaked out because of all the recent talk about the new inflammatory health risk to children due to Covid. Elmhurst Hospital is only two blocks away, and yet I just didn’t want to bring him there if we didn’t absolutely need to. But his mask was soaked red, and he was scared and screaming, and my daughter also started crying. But mercifully, thankfully, I reached his pediatrician’s office and they did a virtual doctor’s visit to check if his nose is broken and/or if he had a concussion. I had to calm him down enough to do all the things they needed him to do as he stared at my phone. And now we have to watch him for the rest of the day for signs of excessive sleepiness or slurring or lack of balance or vomiting.
From Journal, April 27, 2020: Overheard a man in line outside the supermarket, on his cell phone, in a heated exchange: “Are you fucking shitting me, man—this is worst-case scenario! I don’t give a shit that he’s low-balling us or making a grab. Call him back now and accept his offer. We’ve got to sell.”
From Journal, May 3, 2020: There’s nothing open here but a food store and a liquor store. Parks are closed; and schools, of course, are now closed for the rest of the year. I am so brokenhearted about this. I know that Jess and all her colleagues—as well as my kids’ teachers—have been working their asses off and doing heroic work. And I’m so grateful for their effort. But truth be told, the kids were thriving in their brick and mortar schools in so many ways—intellectually, artistically, socially, culturally, athletically, emotionally—ways that sitting in front of a computer screen cannot even remotely touch (pun intended).
From Journal, May 9, 2020: Things are grim here. The area of Queens I live in is less than a mile away from Elmhurst Hospital (I can see its roof when I step out of my building), and right now we’re the hardest hit, as the Times reports. A 90-year-old woman in our building was taken out of here to Elmhurst Hospital by paramedics two weeks ago. Her son told us yesterday that he never saw her again after that, until they called to say that she’s now in a refrigerated truck outside the hospital. No visits with her body, no funeral allowed. They’ll let him know when the body can be released. He was not only sad when he told us this, but visibly anxious, stuttering, repeating himself, apologizing for having done nothing wrong. He wore a military-grade gas mask and total body coveralls, as he took a few things from her apartment. We stayed at least 15 feet away from him. No pats on the arm, no handshakes, certainly no hugs. My children are now educated about things they might not have needed to learn until later in life; you cannot shield them from anything anymore. They are homeschooled in tragedy. You are always with them, they are always with you. There’s nothing open here but a food store and a liquor store. Parks are closed, and schools, of course, are closed and so are their meager school playgrounds that used to be open to neighborhood children. Each day there’s a line of pale-blue surgical-masked neighbors waiting six feet apart snaking around to the back of the supermarket. The wait to get in can be an hour sometimes, and then once you’re inside, the shelves are empty and people are scrambling to grab the last item of whatever is left. As I left the apartment to go food shopping tonight, my daughter yelled through the closed door, “Daddy, do you have your mask on?”
From Journal, May 12, 2020: Every evening at 7 PM, my family opens our windows and bangs on pots and pans with wooden spoons, hooting and cheering for all the front-line workers who are putting their own and their family’s lives at risk every day. We cheer for these heroes along with our neighbors in this Queens neighborhood, only a few blocks from Elmhurst Hospital, where some of our friends and neighbors work every day and where some of them have gone to die (of the latter I’m thinking especially of Father Antonio Checo of St. Marks Church). This is intensely real for us here. It’s no media plot, it’s no global conspiracy. The refrigerated trucks and mass graves are real and as necessary as the masks we should all be wearing and the distance we should all be keeping. Jess and I teach our two children to respect and be grateful to these front-line heroes, and they are entirely so (their own grandfather was a lieutenant in the fire department and, were he still living, would have been at work through this crisis, too). The kids have drawn those vibrant rainbows that decorate so many windows as a small visual sign to those workers that we appreciate and honor them.
From Journal, June 10, 2020: In the past few months, I’ve had several friends my age share with me stories about increases in sleep trouble, disordered eating, increased drinking, heightened anxiety, depression. For me, the first thing that changed was my sleep: insomnia, crazy dreams, low startle threshold. The anxiety was so intense in March and April that for a while there, when I finally fell asleep, I felt like I was awake, so alert was I to any trouble with my family throughout the night.
“One sign that he hadn’t been writing enough, Garp knew, was when he had too much imagination left over for other things. For example, the onslaught of dreams: Garp now dreamed only of horrors happening to his children.”
—John Irving, The World According to Garp
From Journal, May 19, 2020: My father, Giuseppe Salvatore, would have been 95 years old today. He died just before Sept. 11, 2001. I used to comfort myself by saying that at least he didn’t have to witness the events of that dark day. Now I think, thank Christ he and my mom aren’t around to endure this thing we call the world in 2020. What kind of world do we live in when you’re thankful your loved ones are not alive to see it? And yet, of course, the truth is, every night I say a prayer wishing they were, somehow, still here. I don’t know any rational way to reconcile that. Seems the human heart is at even the best of times always a fearful muddle, built to hold two opposing beliefs at once within its aching chambers. Happy Birthday, my dear good father. May we see each other again someday.
I cross paths with my five-year-old daughter in the hallway outside the bathroom of our one-bedroom apartment.
“Daddy, did you know that the word ‘shit’ is another word for poop?”
Acting nonplussed I reply, “You’re right; that’s true. Where did you learn that word?”
“In a book in the laundry room.”
Suspicious a book was not the origin of her learning, I say “Hey, great. So can you spell it for me?”
She keeps her eyes on me concentrating. “S-H-I-T.”
“So,” I say, “is that a long-vowel-‘I’ or a short-vowel-‘I’?
Her smile weakens slightly as she considers this. “Um, short?”
We high-five each other. She heads back to the living room, I to my bedroom/office-for-the-foreseeable-future. Then I stop and say “Hey, honey. Do you know what ‘bad words’ are?” She says she does and then we have a brief discussion on the topic of appropriate contexts for their use—basically, we decided together that I’m her only appropriate context. At least for the foreseeable future.
“In the grammar school of my hometown, Appleton, Wisconsin, in the early 1880s this was, we pupils in our stiff shirts were suffered at our small desks to learn to write a grammatically correct English sentence. But rule-bound language and defining words were, for me and my family—and I think for many immigrants—always a straightjacket to wrestle out of, to escape from, to shake off, to make a spectacle of . . . My father changed our family name from Weisz to Weiss; mine from Erik to Ehrich. And I, when my time came, changed my own to Harry ‘Handcuff’ Houdini. I realized in that small classroom back in Appleton that language and the rules of grammar were the original pair of ironclad cuffs from which my restless young wrists first sought to slip.”
—Erik Weisz (a.k.a. Harry “Handcuff” Houdini)
Pedagogy of the Possessed
Nearly forty years ago, sociolinguist Dell Hymes wrote that “the United States is a country rich in many things, but poor in knowledge of itself with regard to language.” Since Hymes wrote those words, the state of the country’s language awareness has not only remained impoverished; it has, in its impoverishment, like certain voter blocks, become ignorant of its own ignorance. Embraced it, in fact, celebrated it, produced it, packaged it, sold it, voted for it, elected it, died for it. Yet in this time of such massive historical catastrophes—both national and global, biological and politico-economical—an understanding of linguistic diversity and the need for expanded social and cultural knowledge have become essential for the survival both of our democracy and our planet. Alas, one of the myriad unnamed victims of the Covid-19 pandemic has been the English language. (Here I’m taking a descriptivist position that sees language use as neither correct nor incorrect, but rather effective or ineffective, accepted or stigmatized. This view allows us to understand grammar not as a set of rules to be memorized and produced, but rather as a set of tools, about which we might become more aware and over which we might deliberate with thought and care.) As James Sledd said, “Outside the classroom, there is violence in the street. All over the world, the haves are consciously choosing to ride the haven’ts harder, so that the rich grow richer as the poor sink deeper into poverty. The primal, though perhaps not irremediable, fault is that justice in an unjust society is rendered ever more remote. Meanwhile the masters demand of teachers that they uncomplainingly do what the masters make impossible, but the motives for such teaching must be carefully considered. To teach the standard language as supposedly a means to upward mobility in the mainstream culture is to fight on the wrong side in the class war, to teach students to put their neighbors’ noses out of joint by getting and wasting more than their neighbors can get and waste. It is wiser to teach (language), and to teach its nature, as a tool, a weapon which the dominant have too commonly used for purposes of domination but which the dominated can use for purposes of resistance and of access to the best values of multiple cultures and traditions. If they are ready for abstractions like subjects and predicates, they are ready for the abstractions of race and class.”
“To recognize that we touch one another in language seems particularly difficult in a society that would have us believe that there is no dignity in the experience of passion, that to feel deeply is to be inferior, for within the dualism of Western metaphysical thought, ideas are always more important than language. To heal the splitting of mind and body, we marginalized and oppressed people in an attempt to recover ourselves and our experiences in language. We seek to make a place for intimacy. Unable to find such a place in standard English, we create the ruptured, broken, unruly speech of the vernacular. When I need to say words that do more than simply mirror or address the dominant reality, I speak black vernacular. There, in that location, we make English do what we want it to do. We take the oppressor’s language and turn it against itself. We make our words a counter-hegemonic speech, liberating ourselves in language.”
—bell hooks, Teaching to Transgress: Education as the Practice of Freedom.
In the Time of “In the Time of”
Many consider Camus’s The Plague the ur-text of the pandemic, but if the true test of a literary work’s contagion is its invasion into a culture’s language, then that text would have to be Love in the Time of Cholera, by Gabriel García Márquez. The ubiquity of its titular syntactic construction, most markedly since March 2020, reveals both its durability and its flexibility, and its ability to render any event in a patina of nostalgia and sentimentality. Its linguistic spread is, like the virus it seeks to contain, exacting a psychic toll, providing the linguistic affordances of denial and dissociation.
Unlike The Plague, García Márquez’s 1988 novel is not a story about an epidemic; that’s its backdrop. Rather, the book is primarily about romantic love, long unrequited (fifty-one years, nine months, and four days, to be exact) but faithfully awaited by the romantic hero, Florentino Ariza, and finally consummated with the object of his passion, Fermina Daza. Such subject matter permits a certain sentimentality in its handling. Reviewing the book for The New York Times, Thomas Pynchon remarks its use: “In the postromantic ebb of the ’70s and ’80s, with everybody now so wised up and even growing paranoid about love, once the magical buzzword of a generation, it is a daring step for any writer to decide to work in love’s vernacular, to take it, with all its folly, imprecision and lapses in taste, at all seriously.”
There are, however, more troubling and problematic issues in this novel than “folly” and “lapses in taste”—such as sexual assault and statutory rape—that the book also romanticizes. While waiting over fifty years for Fermina, Florentino has sex with 622 women, including his maid, whom he impregnates and then bribes to name another man as the father of his child, allowing Florentino to avoid responsibility. As well, he has sexual relationship with a 14-year-old of whom the 60-year-old Florentino has been given custody. But all this happens “in the time of cholera,” and so both the book and the romantic language in which it is written would have you feel, as Pynchon does, that this material is “daring” when rendered in “love’s vernacular.” Another aspect of the novel taking place “in the time of cholera” is that it seems, if not to exonerate, then certainly to lessen the blame on Florentino, for the symptoms of the plague are close to those of love: fever, dizziness, nausea, aches, and anguish, as if the victim is possessed and therefore not fully in their right mind. A doctor in the novel, after examining a young man whose mother complains to him that (her son’s) “condition did not resemble the turmoil of love so much as the devastation of cholera,” concludes that “once again” (my emphasis), “the symptoms of love were the same of those of cholera.” Love itself, it seems, might be the more unstable signifier when it occurs “in the time of cholera.”
Urban politics in the time of the plague are also fevered and dizzying and painful. García Márquez’s training as a journalist helps counter some of the novel’s romanticism not only with the realism of sexual misconduct but also of political corruption and racial bias. Cities, characterized by their density, have long been associated with plagues, especially in those areas occupied primarily by the poor and minorities. A doctor in the novel feels “alarmed at the possibility that the plague had entered the old city, for all the cases until that time had occurred in the poor neighborhoods, and almost all of those among the black population.”
We see the same thing happening on Manhattan’s Upper West Side, where wealthy residents pressured the mayor in early fall 2020 to relocate a population of 300 homeless men who had been housed in an apartment building during the Corona lockdown. According to the New York Times: “Covid-19 has disproportionately affected Black and Hispanic populations, which also represent most of the estimated 80,000 people who are homeless in New York.” Racism and elitism in the time of Covid.
The book’s title “Love in the Time of Cholera” is a noun phrase. It lacks a completing verb phrase, which would turn it into an independent clause, a complete sentence, or as composition 101 taught us, a complete thought. It could be the subject of a sentence or the predicate. It could say “We found love in the time of cholera.” Or it could say “Love in the time of cholera produces symptoms that are difficult to distinguish one from the other.” In other words, without a predicate, no comment can be made about the topic. It’s all theme and no rheme. Nonetheless, that singular noun phrase is remarkably suggestive of the promise of a majestic story. Let’s parse these six words: Love is not only the novel’s great theme; it is also its central conflict—as well as the reader’s. For, as Pynchon puts it, Florentino’s at times heinous actions, “we find ourselves, as he earns the suspension of our disbelief, cheering him on, wishing for the success of this stubborn warrior against age and death, and in the name of love.” Next: Cholera, the word not only names the extremely virulent disease that, according to the World Health Organization, can kill within hours if untreated; the disease is also responsible for seven pandemics throughout history and remains a global threat to public health. In the novel, Cholera also functions symbolically as a reminder of Florentino’s long-suffering lovesickness, which creates its own kind of wasting, depleting misery for the sufferer.
Between these two poles, between the highest of human ideals and the lowest of human suffering, is framed the prepositional phrase in the time of. The phrase offers the promise of story, a certain romance, conjuring exploits contained within a frame of history, during which much of what happens will be explained by the sheer fact that it happened during that historical frame. What happens in the time of the plague stays in the time of the plague.
The title is reinforced by its construction. García Márquez’s novel is built for the backward glance of nostalgia and sentimentality. It begins when the characters are very old, and then goes back over fifty years to the time of the cholera epidemic, when passions and fevers were running high. Everything is viewed through that sepia-toned lens. “At nightfall, at the oppressive moment of transition, a storm of carnivorous mosquitoes rose out of the swamps, and a tender breath of human shit, warm and sad, stirred the certainty of death in the depths of one’s soul. And so the very life of the colonial city, which the young Juvenal Urbino tended to idealize in his Parisian melancholy, was an illusion of memory.” History teaches us that how we remember the past affects the way we view our present.
In the time of—linguists call this kind of formulation a collocation, which Steven Pinker defines as a string of words that are remembered as a whole. Pinker goes further and associates collocations with idioms and clichés. The irony is that the brain is designed to love the very thing it is specifically designed to be critical about. That is, the brain loves rhythmic units, putting them into small chunks of meaning. Part of that has to do with the fact that collocations and clichés appear closer to the language modules nearer the music module; there is rhythm to collocations; they’re catchy for the reason that music is catchy. We use them as absentmindedly as we might hum a jingle while we’re tying our shoes. Let’s test the theory: If I say He was killed in the line of ____. What word would finish that sentence? How about The patient told the doctor she was in excruciating ____. If you guessed duty and pain, you hit the nail on the _____. Collocations are easy because our brain has chunked them so many times that they have lost their meaning. (In the United States, in 2020, there are two such competing phrases that are on their way to becoming collocations: the first is Make America Great Again and the second is Black Lives Matter. On their surface, they denote one thing. But what they now connote is something much deeper, ongoing, and evolving.) But try the same test with in the time of. The collocated phrase allows for the speaker or writer to fill in the front and the back. Recently, I was invited to attend a webinar on the topic of Narrative Revival in the Time of Remote Learning. Not bad, I thought. The phrase has certainly knocked the previous reigning champ off its perch: “What we talk about when we talk about Narrative Revival and Remote Learning” doesn’t quite have the same ring to it.
The current ubiquity of the phrase in the time of is remarkable. A search on the Internet since March 2020 yields a result over 1,180,000,000 (compare that with a search for, say, “if the flood of love,” which yields three results). However, if we wanted to dig deeper, we would need a more sophisticated, more powerful tool than Google. We’d need to do corpus linguistic analysis, which is the examination of textual patterns in a selected body of naturally produced texts. Corpus linguistic analysis can uncover unexpected patterns of speech and writing and also confirm or complicate pre-existing intuitions or assumptions, for instance those related to linguistic responses to historical trauma, such as the one we are living through in 2020.
The tool we used for this study is the online Contemporary Corpus of American English (COCA hereafter), which contains over 450 million words. A search of COCA for the “in the time of” collocation reveals that the frequency of in the time of has increased incrementally since the release of the novel (24,000 hits in 1988, the year the book was released, with a yearly increase of roughly 3.52 percent, a statistically significant difference (p > 0.00003) per year, with a dramatic drop in the years immediately following September 11, 2001. A theory for this might be that the events of 9/11, though globally horrific in the immediate aftermath, were not romanticized in the same way, perhaps because the event itself seemed to be ended with the war in Iraq and the death of Saddam Hussein.) However, since March of 2020, the frequency has increased by 89.25 percent. What could account for that rise? Could that number reveal the intense need we have to narrate the events of the Covid-19 experience as though they already had an ending? The research is inconclusive because the research is still ongoing. The researcher confesses here and now that he is afraid to peer more closely at the data, afraid to do the field research, afraid to admit that what seems more important now is finding some way not to deny the trauma but turn toward it.
In writing this autometafictive faux-paper, I realized the subject matter is much more personal than I had ever understood. Distancing myself though a series of fraudulent artifacts and “found” texts and lifted lines did not shield me. Writing about my terrified children, my overworked and at-risk spouse, a dead priest, literary gatherings, all things I’ve cherished and have lost has activated some long-held-back grief, restive and uprising, needing to come forth. Much has been said about how the current leader of the U.S. is not acknowledging or admitting the seriousness of this pandemic; that he’s not acknowledging the deaths, and by not acknowledging the deaths, he’s not acknowledging our nation’s need to mourn those deaths. I agree with that theory. But writing this piece has also made me realize that neither as a nation nor as individuals have we been allowed to grieve and mourn the loss of our old lives. Re-reading that PEN Award scene and thinking about my old office at my university and recalling the warmth of other bodies in crowded cafes hit me with the realization that not only is all of that gone, but the memory of that time and place has been forever altered. Like that poor dead priest, like my university workspace and collegial relationships, like Times Square and social gatherings, our lives have a new memory frame: it’s all pre-pandemic now. Like my parents (both born in the 1920s) used to say, “Oh, I knew that family before the war.” Or “I used to love going to the movies at lunch break before the war.” I understand that need for the collocation now in a way I did not as a young man.
“Grief is a cruel kind of education. You learn how ungentle mourning can be, how full of anger. You learn how glib condolences can feel. You learn how much grief is about language, the failure of language and the grasping for language. . . Grief was the celebration of love, those who could feel real grief were lucky to have loved.”
—Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie
Remembering the pre-pandemic world, it’s as if we were looking at a star, and didn’t see the actual star but rather the shimmer of a thing that is already dead. Not possible any longer. In many ways, it feels like a thing that is not merely forgotten, but something that could never happen again.