On October 6, 2020, the Swedish Academy announced the year’s Nobel prizes in Physics and, two days later, in Literature. The selection committees may as well have collaborated, so tuned were they to the pulse of a uniquely awful year. Louise Glück, poet of “isolation, betrayal . . . and death” (NYT 10/8/2020), won for Literature, and physicist Roger Penrose shared the prize with Reinhard Genzel and Andrea Ghez for the discovery of a black hole at the center of the Milky Way. A poet of “dark themes” and a cosmic entity massive enough to swallow entire stars? In 2020, the Swedish Academy got it right.
That spring young people across America, also tuned to the spirit of the times, stood at their windows and howled like wolves. “We started . . . because a virus took our community from us,” said the organizer of the St. Louis howl. “We may have to remain closed off, but every night at 8 we can come together and let everyone know we still have each other.” In 2020, Donald Trump gave me other reasons to howl. Between the pandemic and the maneuvers of a would-be despot, the year ripped me raw. Black holes. Betrayal. Death. The world I thought I knew was unraveling.
A novelist rescued me.
In 1982, William Gibson coined the term cyberspace to describe the strange “where” in which this then-new thing called the Internet was playing itself out. He defined the now-ubiquitous word as “a consensual hallucination.” Until that point, I understood a hallucination as concerning one person’s altered mental state. A consensual hallucination could only mean a shared alternate reality: a dream, as it were, dreamed simultaneously by two or more people. Gibson’s cyberspace is an idea: serious, consequential and without physical dimension.
So is the United States. In the Declaration of Independence, Jefferson asserted that “governments are instituted among Men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed.” By that measure, our Republic is a consensual hallucination: an idea that, like all ideas, is fragile. Withdraw the consent of the governed, and, poof, the idea—the dream— vanishes.
Donald Trump tried his best. He broke no laws by refusing to concede in his bid for a second term. But by urging followers to withhold consent and reject the outcome of a free and fair election, he assaulted democracy itself. His former national security advisor even recommended martial law and a re-vote.
Despots have no use for consensus. But neither, 2020 showed us, does nature. Up to a point, our species has shielded itself from nature’s harshness with, for instance, fire in early times and hydroelectric dams today. Still, technology has it limits. As of this writing, the virus is killing two people per hour in Los Angeles County. Does anyone think saying “Hey, let’s wait a minute and talk this over” would save even one of them?
But for an accident of birth—our living in the 21st century, not the 14th or early 20th —Covid-19 would be killing us in numbers approaching the ratios of the bubonic plague, which culled one-third of the population of Europe. Only(!) 1.8 million people have died thus far from the virus. Compare that to 50 million during the 1918 Flu Pandemic. Nature doesn’t care, has no capacity to care. The definitive (and briefest) poem on the subject has to be Stephen Crane’s “A Man Said to the Universe”:
A man said to the universe:
“Sir, I exist!”
“However,” replied the universe,
“The fact has not created in me
A sense of obligation.”
Just so—and no less so for us than for our earliest ancestors. Of course, we knew all along of nature’s indifference. For those who needed reminding, myself included, 2020 delivered a pandemic.
Psychologists say it’s a bad idea to dig holes, bury our traumas, and move on as if the world never changed. In that direction, they caution, lies post-traumatic stress disorder, which, if left untreated, can hobble us for a lifetime. So I look back, trying to understand without being traumatized all over again. What of 2020 could I possibly want to carry forward?
Oddly enough, a children’s song, “Row Row Row Your Boat.” In ways that matter, life is but a dream. In fact, two consensual dreams: The first, that we’ve tamed nature. We have not. We enjoy good health and material comforts to the extent our technology holds. But let the electrical grid fail or a virus rage beyond our ability to respond, and it’s into the abyss for us. We’re right back to hoarding food (or toilet paper) and living in caves.
The second dream is that we humans naturally come together to form entities called governments. We do not. In a process as old as the species, we meet, we talk, and through consensus we anoint leaders or elect assemblies to govern us. This process takes compromise. That we came together once in 1776 to invent an idea called the United States is no reason to suppose that the process is over. It continues. When it’s assumed, not constructed daily through the difficult work of consensus-building, what looks so solid and mighty ultimately proves fragile.
Fragility is an odd gift to take from 2020—the sense that I am, we all are, at risk notwithstanding the wonders of the age and our mighty but oh-too porous nation. Yet we find hope even in the blackest of holes. Physicists tell us that in the act of colliding, black holes can emit flashes of light. That’s good, flashes in the dark. I think Nobel laureate Louise Glück must have seen several and heard music. In “The Wild Iris,” she writes, “[W]hatever returns from oblivion returns to find a voice.”
Memo to self for the new year: Find a voice. Perhaps that’s what those kids were doing back in April, howling in defiance of the darkness. Surely, it’s time for me to join them, to embrace fragility even as I howl and reassert the human. When it’s dark out, 2020 taught me, sing as though your life depended on it: Aeeeeoooow!
Someone’s bound to respond.
Copyright © 2020 Leonard Rosen
(Photo: Lake Powell, Moonrise, by Steve Bennett)
Leonard Rosen is essayist and an award-winning novelist whose work has been translated into nine languages. After teaching high-school English in Baltimore City for several years, Len pursued a graduate degree in literary studies. He now lives in the Boston area where he has contributed radio commentaries to Boston’s NPR station, written best-selling textbooks on writing, and taught writing at Harvard University. His “deeply compelling” Henri Poincaré novels, The Tenth Witness and All Cry Chaos, follow the investigations of an Interpol agent “who reads like a literary figure in a thriller,” according to critics. The Kortelisy Escape, Len’s third novel, grew out of a fascination with stage magic.