I highly doubt that I’m the first person to make this observation, but before COVID-19 our culture —a wealthy, western one — had no conception of what disease was. Of course, anyone could give you the fundamentals of germ theory- one would hope, but I mean that no one really knew what an epidemic entailed. The closest thing, and something I’m sure more than a few of us heard from younger siblings, was that this was a little bit like a zombie apocalypse. But that’s a genre which, even before the beginning of the pandemic was bashed over the head in undead-killing fashion until nothing was left but a pulpy, decaying mass of immortal franchises and blockbusters with budgets on par with the GDP of a small country. Their cultural relevance was on the backburner.
Because such dangers of the natural world no longer even made an impression in the media we consumed, let alone our daily lives, we were deluded into a false sense of security; a belief that we were untouchable. We had become so detached from the natural world that plague and famine were, to a developed nation like the United States, notions firmly confined to the realms of a past seeming exponentially distant, and the fictitious worlds equally far in their impossibility. To draw on a relevant passage in a fictitious world with things to say about our own Thomas Pynchon’s Gravity’s Rainbow, “No more need to suffer passively under ‘outside forces’… that you had dispensed with God. But you had taken on a greater, more harmful illusion. The illusion of control.” The longer the stretch of time between calamities, the thicker that “illusion of control” becomes.
The west, and more specifically the United States, was the most powerful entity our world had ever known, and through a century of domination, found itself complacently resting on its hill of economic, military, and cultural superiority, and had this sort of manic oil-fueled coke-dream that it was now God, or that the market it protects was God. But the crash came hard during what was the last-ditch effort to maintain the high (the Trump administration), and the United States, having the highest death rate in the world for COVID-19 cases evinced its mortality all too well.
Allow me to turn now from an empire to its subjects —specifically to those attending Oberlin college during the 2020-21 academic year. One of the attempts to shape reality that Pynchon referenced which has nestled itself rather nicely in my brain at least, is the idea of what the prototypical college experience should look like. Naturally, this sort of thing varies from person to person, but when I received my acceptance letter two Decembers ago, what I dreamt of most was community. Finally, after a life of midwestern suburbs and complacency, I could meet people like me, people interested in activism and progressive politics who I could know and love for the rest of my life. But as things began to come undone roughly three months after that, when schools began to close, and my April campus visit had to be cancelled, the prospects for a “normal” college experience grew dimmer and dimmer.
Luckily enough, in spite of the world reinstating its dominance on our unsuspecting anthill of a civilization, I have been able to meet some people I quite like here. I’ve garnered new experiences, have work and courses I enjoy, and have managed to take a wobbly first step into adult life.
However, I cannot help but feel that I am missing something, that some essence of what this should be is missing. There are a million things that would be happening now if we weren’t suffering a pandemic now, but I think they can be summed in one comprehensive word: “Life”. Bodies are not near each other, not touching. There are no crowds, no communal efforts, and of course most interactions are filtered through a screen.
Of course, you (the fellow Oberlin student reading this) don’t need to be told these things, and if you’re an upperclassman, I’m sure this feeling of loss is even more poignant. You know what this should be, you’ve lived it, and I’m sure dearly miss it. I wish I could find some words of consolation, but the truth is that what we are living now is normal. There will always be disease, the world will always find a way to put us presumptuous primates in our place. And if this year it is covid, then in 40 years it will be the climate’s boiling us in our own emissions. This is not our college, our country, our world, but everything belongs to the sick and twisted thing watching at the beginning of time and waiting at its end.
This may sound grim but if there is one law to the universe, it is that of constant and inevitable change. It must be enjoyed or inured to, and along the way we must attempt to love one another, if we wish to do either. I think the kindness of the people I’ve met here, the attempts at suring up what has cracked, of reassembling a world that is not better, but functioning, that is a good start. There will always be covids, and solar flares, and daily catastrophes apocalyptic in their own small way. The illusion of control is shattered, and the great artifice of nations will be crushed under mountains. We are at the mercy of an indifferent universe.
If this sounds like a call for complacency, let me assure you that it is anything but. Because love must be nurtured, must be sacrificed for eternally, and we are indebted to those who made us what we are, we are duty bound to give all that we can for one another, and that means fighting for each other’s continued existence. That is the one thing in this life that we can control.
And if that is what my college experience can be, not during this year of privation, but for the next three, and for every year to come after, for every student that attends Oberlin, it will not matter what changes.