I’m ten, maybe eleven, so it must be the late nineteen-eighties. It’s school holidays and my grandmother is driving my sister and I over to Rickett’s Point, to fossick in rockpools and numb our toes in the chill of Port Phillip Bay. It’s not the weather for the beach, but Nanna looks up at clear patch of sky and says, reassuringly, ‘There’s enough blue to make a sailor’s jacket’.
Nanna was born in the last few months of the worldwide Spanish Flu pandemic. As I write this, just over eighty people have died in Australia of COVID-19. When acknowledging this number it has become a reflex to add that ‘every one of those deaths is a tragedy’. But we don’t say this as a prelude to dwelling on those tragedies. We do not speak the names of the dead (often enough we cannot), do not speak of the rasping sterility of final hours and days in intensive care.
Instead, ‘each of these deaths is a tragedy’ is an indulgence paid to absolve the sin of speaking mathematics to grief. ‘See things in context,’ we’re urged. More people die of the seasonal flu, of car accidents, of heart disease. The ‘and you accept all that’ is unspoken, but heard. Every death is a tragedy, yet all deaths, somehow, are background noise. As the philosopher Samuel Scheffler once observed, there are no urgent summits of world leaders, no global panic, over the fact that everyone now living is eventually going to die.
Even so, it is still striking how many people have gone on air and into print to argue against the current restrictions, in the name of avoiding ‘even worse’ outcomes caused by economic loss. The IPA’s Gideon Rozner stands in Melbourne’s Bank Place to half-beg, half-bully us to ‘begin to end the lockdown’ immediately. He speaks of people missing out on ‘the dignity of work’, of an emerging ‘police state’. ‘Australians are not meant to live like this,’ he tells us; he does not speak of the dead.
Reading some of these calls to reopen it’s hard not to think of Orson Welles’ Harry Lime in The Third Man, atop Vienna’s Riesenrad observation wheel:
Look down there. Tell me. Would you really feel any pity if one of those dots stopped moving forever? If I offered you twenty thousand pounds for every dot that stopped, would you really, old man, tell me to keep my money, or would you calculate how many dots you could afford to spare? Free of income tax, old man. Free of income tax—the only way you can save money nowadays.
Yet while they may not all be fans of income tax, I believe these commentators honestly do pity the spinning dots. They are not arguing for an open-slather approach that would lead us straight to Lombardy or Manhattan. Their impatience speaks less of direct greed and more of fear. Not fear of sickness, but of the unmooring of sedimented certainties.
The longer this goes on, the more the things we’d need to do to stop ‘the cure being worse than the disease’ start to become thinkable. Pieties of surpluses and fiscal restraint are already shredded; best to risk a few lives now before things get even further out of hand. Take us back to ‘normal,’ before the old language of the ‘dignity of work’ loses its remaining power over those unexposed to the indignities of white-knuckling through insecure work and the whims of markets and landlords year after year.
It is easy to look at these commentators as if they simply inhabit a different moral universe from those of us who think the lives of our parents and grandparents and total strangers matter more than the All Ords and our sacred liberty to drink in pubs. But the deeper worry is that we share their very human impatience—with sickness, with death, with the inconvenient gravity of loss. We may, with Auden, stop all the clocks, but time won’t let itself be put off so easily. As Raimond Gaita put it, ‘life asserts itself imperiously and with no shame’.
Mourning rituals, particularly the older ones, try to tame that resurgence, to force time to fit the enormity of what it has taken from us. ‘Ritual cuts off what is too long and extends what is too short,’ said the Confucian philosopher Xunzi. ‘It subtracts from what is excessive and adds to what is insufficient. It achieves proper form for love and respect.’
Such mourners lock themselves away from the world, to suppress, out of love, that irresistibility of life. That is the curious thing about this strange time of hibernation: we are living in a kind of mourning right now, but for deaths we hope to prevent. Masks and gloves, our widow’s weeds for deaths foregone.
It’s a cold, blustery Saturday afternoon in April, the roads are unnaturally quiet, and I am driving to a hospital to say goodbye to Nanna. It’s not COVID-19, so I will be able to sit with her for a while, though I know she won’t be awake. I look up at a break in the clouds and the words fall out, unbidden: ‘there’s enough blue’.
In memory of Joyce Stokes, 1920-2020.
Patrick Stokes is a philosophy academic, writer, and broadcaster. His next book is Digital Death: A Philosophy of Online Immortality (Bloomsbury, 2020).