A particularly cheerful bank worker once told us to expect a letter in ‘five business sleeps’. The phrase tickled me, but it also seemed quite useful. Children count in sleeps because it lends a degree of agency to waiting. You can’t make the days go faster, but you can always go to sleep.
As I write this, Melbourne has just overtaken Buenos Aires as the most locked-down city on earth. The Victorian Premier, Daniel Andrews, has now announced target dates for when lockdown is finally expected to end. In this house, we are counting down the sleeps. Not the days, which are interminable and indistinguishable, but the sleeps. We are navigating by the gaps between consciousness.
A member of the ‘laptop classes,’ I am insulated from the worst of it. Unlike so many people, including thousands of my colleagues in the higher education sector, I still have a job. Nobody forces me to leave the house and risk infection to pay the bills, and we do not struggle to pay the rent. Our kids may hate remote learning, but they push through. We get by, and remind ourselves that not everyone does.
Yet all of Melbourne seems to be covered in a fine, dusty film of resentment and fatigue. Of late, we’ve also been caught in this strange duplexity about how to feel. Last year’s long lockdown was hideous, but the emotions were straightforward by comparison. All we could do was huddle in the cave together until the danger had passed, and celebrate when it had moved on.
Now, we are being pulled apart, day by day, by the maths. The vaccine rate goes up, but so do the cases. After almost a year without them, each day now brings deaths. We are told to forget ‘donut days’ and look forward to reopening, while simultaneously bracing for a major surge in hospitalisations.
At the start of the pandemic I wrote on this site that we were living in a paradoxical state of mourning for deaths we hoped to prevent. Now it seems we are coming out of mourning just as many of those deaths are about to arrive. In mourning, we try to hold back life’s tidal pull long enough to give the dead their due. As lockdown goes on, that irrepressibility of life gets harder and harder to fight. The gravity of other people gets you in the end; you find yourself lingering longer to chat in the street, or mentally bargaining with the rules.
‘The child,’ said Martin Buber, ‘lives between sleep and sleep (and a large part of waking is still sleep), in the lightning and counter-lightning of encounter.’ Drained of those encounters, our days become ever more dreamlike. There are protesters in high-vis on the West Gate Bridge singing ‘The Horses.’ Another day starts. The protesters are pissing on the Shrine. You wake again, and now you’re on a Zoom call when suddenly there’s an earthquake.
The numbers get worse and get better all at once. Cases suddenly whip upwards like a stingray tail. We are told it is down to people having illegal Grand Final parties. Nobody you know went to a Grand Final party. But then nobody you know has Covid. Yet.
Things get worse, but you’re allowed to travel further. Your city becomes a cluster of Venn diagrams, with reunions crammed into the intersections. You’re somehow excited to drive on Punt Road. You sit in a socially distanced circle with family you haven’t seen in months in a park you haven’t been to in decades. You are doing everything right—masks on, only five fully-vaccinated adults from no more than two households—while over in the rotunda, at least twenty people are singing ‘Happy Birthday.’ The tail whips up again.
The pandemic asked us to put the lives of strangers ahead of our happiness. All the arguments and rancour of the last two years have orbited, one way or another, around that stark demand. We are confronted with the question of just what we can ask of people, and for how long.
Since Kant, most moral philosophers have accepted the principle that ‘ought implies can’. Ethics cannot expect more of people than they are capable of, and it makes no sense to blame someone for not doing things they cannot do. Some other philosophers don’t accept ‘ought implies can’, however, or at least eye it with suspicion. I have always been more sympathetic to this latter camp. ‘This is impossible; now do it’ seems a pretty decent summary of life in a universe in which there is no limit to what is demanded of us, and in which moral failure is one of the very few certainties.
Will the ‘new normal’ be a kind of failure, or a kind of triumph, or both? In any case, it will get here before we’ve worked out how to feel about it. There is only so long you can fight gravity, and only so many sleeps.
Patrick Stokes is a Melbourne-based writer, philosophy academic and producer. His most recent book is Digital Souls: A Philosophy of Online Death (Bloomsbury, 2021).