The Virus in the Age of Madness
The Virus in an age of madness is a short book (long essay) by Bernard-Henri Levy published by Yale University press. – There are people who hate this book because of its message – which is an uncomfortable one – basically, he thinks the world has gone into a collective psychosis in its response to Covid 19. As is often the case Levy is verbose and sometimes complex – his prose runs away with him, but often he is telling and perceptive. This book makes a lot of good points and asks some great questions. However I don’t think he comes up with any real answers. For that, I would suggest he needs to turn to Christ! But a fascinating book – well worth reading and thinking about. Not be dismissed just because it does not suit your politics/philosophy! It is a fascinating book asking big questions about what is important in life, who do we trust and what kind of world we want to live in.
For your benefit here are some highlights from my Kindle version.
It is the epidemic of fear, not only of Covid-19, that has descended upon the world.Yellow highlight | Location: 59
ISIS declared Europe a risk zone for its fighters, who promptly disappeared to wipe their noses on eucalyptus Kleenex in the depths of some cave in Syria or Iraq, while plotting to stir up trouble in “safer” areas such as Egypt, Yemen, Indonesia, Afghanistan, and the Sahel.Yellow highlight | Location: 62
By mid-April, according to Agence France-Presse, twelve people had died from the virus in Nigeria, whereas eighteen had been killed by security forces for violating the lockdown.2 Only a few months earlier, I had been reporting on Christian villages wiped out by Fulani jihadists in the north-central part of the country.Location: 75
Was it a Reign of Terror, akin to the one born after 1789, with its explosion of fake news, conspiracies, frantic flights, and, soon enough, dark uprisings born of hopelessness? Or perhaps it was the opposite? A reassuring sign that the world had changed, that at last life has been made sacred, that from now on, when we come to a choice between life and economics, life will win out? Or perhaps it was the opposite of that opposite: a collective panic, aggravated by news channels and social networks that, by reporting to us, day after day, the numbers of those who had died, were still in critical condition, or had recovered, herded us into a parallel universe in which nothing else, anywhere, was news—and, in so doing, drove us quite literally mad. After all, that is how Chinese water torture works—the sound of the drop, repeated endlessly, becomes a fearsome dragon. How would we react if the traffic safety authorities decided to install giant loudspeakers at one-mile intervals to inform us of the day’s highway fatalities?
We experienced real moments of civic spirit, solidarity, and mutual assistance. And we should be eternally grateful to have finally become aware not only of the existence, but also of the eminent dignity, of an entire population of invisible people (caregivers, cashiers, farmers, freight haulers, garbage collectors, delivery workers) who suddenly became visible. Location: 155
The Folly of Absolutising Doctors.
But to make physicians into supermen and superwomen and to endow them with extraordinary powers requires a leap that can be taken only with the help of several misconceptions. First, doctors do not always possess more information than we do, and there is something a little absurd in the blind confidence we place in them. Location: 171
“community” of scholars is no more communitarian than any other, that it is riven with fault lines, divergent sensibilities and interests, petty jealousies, esoteric disputes, and, of course, fundamental differences. Location: 194
The emperor has no clothes, even if he is a physician. Especially if he is a physician. The renowned doctor, the big shot, however formidable and learned he may be, is naked under his white coat. And in that he reconnects with and shares the fate of the rest of humanity.Location: 199
But everyone also knows that there is a doctrine of hygienics that goes something like this: health becomes an obsession; all social and political problems are reduced to infections that must be treated; and the will to cure becomes the paradigm of political action. And no one is ignorant of the fact that the effects of that doctrine can be horribly perverse. Location: 246
Environmentalism and Marxism and Anti -Semitism
There was another thing that I found increasingly difficult to bear as we settled into the crisis. And that was the rapt remarks I heard, both in conversations among friends and in print, on the theme: “I saw a deer crossing the Champs-Elysées; a hummingbird was at my window; the sky has never been so blue, nor nature so pure, nor New York so beautiful, as during the time of the coronavirus.”| Location: 307
This is the old Marxist refrain of the final crisis of capitalism in her morning-after guise of collapsology, or one of the children’s diseases of socialism updated as disasterism. I know this all too well, having been born and raised in it! It is disastrous, indeed. And obscene. Location: 369
The virus was designed by Israel as a biological weapon, according to Paul Nehlen, white supremacist and failed congressional candidate. From the Nation of Islam’s “research group,” we heard that Israel had developed the virus for political assassinations. A Swiss Holocaust denier claimed that George Soros was spreading the virus through his biological laboratories in Wuhan. Location: 390
A Question of Balance
In other words, it was important not to be intimidated by the ultimately false opposition between “life” and “the economy,” but to compare the cost, in lives, of the spread of the virus with the cost of the self-induced coma triggered in a planet that was transformed suddenly into a laboratory for a radical political experiment. Location: 499
And what about the reflex of no longer shaking hands, which seemed to take hold without too much regret? Shaking hands was a fine gesture of civility. It was a sign of republican solidarity promoted by the American Revolution, the spirit of democracy, the Quakers, and so on. If the new practice were to endure, if people decided they liked it, if the exception became the rule in an era when mutual distrust needed no help in spreading, if Anthony Fauci proved to be right when he told the Wall Street Journal, “I don’t think we ever should have to shake hands again, to be honest with you,” would we not lose something dear and cherished? Location: 600
The fact that few seemed shocked, at least in France, that books were not considered basic necessities. Nourishment for the mind and the soul.
The closing or suspension of activity at churches and synagogues, bastions of civilization, and at museums, parks, and other sites of lay meditation in which humanity satisfies its uncountable, noncommercializable spiritual needs. The sight of a sovereign Pope, heir to John Paul II’s “Be not afraid” and a veteran practitioner of the eminently Catholic ritual of the blessing of the sick and afflicted in the slums of Buenos Aires, distancing himself from the flock, communicating only through the internet, ordering that fonts of holy water be emptied, and performing the stations of the cross in the courtyard of the basilica facing an empty St. Peter’s Square. Location: 617
Unthinkable, the disturbingly beautiful image I have retained from childhood of General de Gaulle visiting Tahiti two years before his return to power in 1958. His limousine is blocked by a procession of lepers. He gets out, shakes their hands, holds a child in his arms, hugs the organizer of the strange demonstration, says nothing, and continues on his way. Burials, reduced at the peak of the pandemic to their simplest form. Nearly forgotten, the beautiful phrase about ashes to ashes, dust to dust, and unto dust thou shalt return. Whisked away, the moment of the coffin being lowered into the ground, without which many of us cannot really say goodbye to a loved one.Location: 646
infringement of liberty?
Delivering into the hands of corporations, not to mention governments, a trove of data that everyone knows can be put to bad uses? More frightening still will be this: living in a perpetual state of alert and suspicion, monitoring our Bluetooth devices, tracking our suspicious contacts, frantically demanding the name—yes, name, you don’t kid around with health!—of the stranger you passed this morning, the one with the shady look, the face that was not quite right, and who the app tells us may have infected us. Location: 676
The Brave New World – New Normal
The life that we are being urged to save by staying home and resisting the temptation of reopening. That life is a bare one. A life drained and depleted, as in the work of Italian philosopher Giorgio Agamben. A life terrified of itself, gone to ground in its Kafkaesque burrow, which has become a penal colony. A life that, in return for an assurance of survival, was ready to give up all the rest—prayer, honoring the dead, freedoms, balconies and windows from which our neighbors, once they had finished applauding the caregivers, could spy on us. A life in which one accepts, with enthusiasm or resignation, the transformation of the welfare state into the surveillance state, with health replacing security, a life in which one consents to this slippery slope: no longer the old social contract (where you cede a bit of your individual will to gain the general will) but a new life contract (where you abdicate a little, or a lot, of your core freedoms, in return for an antivirus guarantee, an “immunity passport,” a “risk-free certificate,” or a new kind of get-out-of-jail-free card, one that lets you transfer to another cell). In Europe, it’s a done deal. Jean-Jacques Rousseau’s social contract is being slowly but surely replaced by a life contract inspired by Jeremy Bentham’s utilitarianism and the “panopticon” of his surveillance state. In America, the change is on its way. Will we see Barack Obama’s dream of universal healthcare overshadowed by the “army of tracers” announced by Governor Cuomo or by the Labradors trained to sniff out the coronavirus in humans?8 In the process, a profound break has been made with what all the wisdom of the world, notably but by no means exclusively Jewish, has striven to say: that a life is not a life if it is merely life. Location: 715
But are we really sure that the changes will disappear with the pandemic? Are we not dealing with strong trends in our societies, as announced by a multitude of early warning signs, Location: 722
What I do know is that the world after is knocking at our door and that this may be how it looks. And, if that is the case and if, to find our road forward, we must, like Giono’s hero, Angelo, go from house to house and fly from roof to roof, well, then, I know that we will have to muster our courage and go for real life, where we laugh, cry, and perhaps fall ill—but at least we will have fallen as democracy’s cavalry.Location: 733
The cushy solidarity in which we are being wrapped, the upwelling of brotherhood on a Robinson Crusoe foundation of no consumption—“fewer consumer goods, more common good,” go out and talk to the trees, let the light in, listen to each other—was a con. Location: 744
Forgetting the Poor
And as for the plan to push the pause button so as to allow the planet to breathe; as for cutting off globalization’s power supply, which, according to some ecologists, the new electricity fairy was about to bring about with a wave of her ionic, renewable wand; as for bracketing and suspending the laws of the world as it was before, about which we were being lectured nonstop and for which Covid-19 would act as the circuit breaker—well, bravo! It was working! But not in the way we were told it would! Certainly not in the direction of greater equality!… Location: 755
Famine was on the way. Back in my beloved Bangladesh, four in ten people had only enough food to last them three days, and the global number of people facing food crises is set to double from 135 million in 2019 to 265 million this year unless immediate humanitarian action is forthcoming. But, alas, we were well on our way to forgetting the world. It had been bothering us for ages. “
I tried a simple experiment. I went back over a week’s worth of news. No special week. Just one particular week, and it does not matter which one because it was an ordinary week. And I discovered that, according to the mirror that it held up to us, not a thing had happened that week except for the virus. The migrants had disappeared. Global warming no longer existed. Deforestation of the Amazon, the “lung of the planet,” went on as before, but no one worried about it. The war in Yemen had not happened. The one in Syria was a mirage. A Nuremberg-style investigation into Syrian torture practices opened in Germany, where the henchmen of Bashar al-Assad were being tried in absentia for crimes against humanity. But it was the observance of the social-distancing measures in Baden-Württemberg that captured all the attention.Location: 779
Xi Jinping, recycling the recipes of Deng Xiaoping (the color of the cat doesn’t matter as long as it catches the mouse), was also taking advantage of the situation to speed up the “settlement” of the Uighur question and, in Hong Kong, to arrest opponents, persecute the free press, and lay down a “national security law” that drove the last nail into the coffin of democracy. But we only had eyes for the masks, gels, and tests that China was offering to Europe. Location: 804
The most powerful of those enemies of freedom, Mr. Xi of China, was on the front line. While we were waging our war on the virus, he was waging another war, a real one, with the title of being the world’s leading power as the prize. Chinese communism has a lot to answer for. By masking the outbreak for long weeks, manipulating statistics, intimidating whistle-blowing physicians, and imprisoning citizen journalists who posted articles on GitHub about the disastrous state of hospitals in Wuhan, the Chinese authorities helped an infection in a pangolin market mutate into a pandemic. But they engaged in the only three battles that count for a Maoist. The battle for control of names (certainly not SARS-CoV-2, which was initially proposed but sounded too much like SARS 2003—that is, too Chinese). The battle for control of the story (doing everything to persuade the World Health Organization, which is subservient to the regime, to confirm that the alarm was sounded from Beijing, not from Taiwan).3 And finally, the battle whose avatars are the “wolf warriors” of China’s armed diplomacy to signal to those who have not yet caught on that the globalization of the twenty-first century will be Chinese or will not happen at all. (Some of those signals: violation of Formosa’s airspace, multiplication of incidents in the East China Sea, and seizure of strategic islands and maritime zones disputed by Japan, Vietnam, the Philippines, and Brunei.) With, in addition, the tactical cunning of inventing the model response (confinement) and waiting for the adversary to adopt it before reversing course and forging ahead again. Location: 848
Better Chinese money than a locked-down West that can see the world only in terms of corridors of contamination; a West that has a holy terror of anything that transits, expatriates, moves, and circulates; a West that speaks only of bringing its industries, talents, and capital back home. Live Chinese or die.| Location: 866
We want the world back!
But mundus also signifies what is neat and clean. Immaculate and without stain. Aseptic. Sanitized. Disinfected. In Greek, the word is cosmos. In French and English, cosmetic. And it is the name of another world, one unconcerned about and forgetful of its accursed and appalling side, which it is our human task to confront. It is the name of a too beautiful world in which we are asked to hide the misery, the evil, the Medusas that we would prefer not to see. In that world, which is as old as the other world but has just had its image restored by the coronavirus, people who travel by plane to report on what is happening in the Gulf of Bengal are endangering the planet. Internationalists who travel to regions of the world where the grim reaper eclipses all other names and places are sticking their noses where they don’t belong and should come home.
And, upon their return, what do the travelers find? A world over which reign ventilation technicians, the supervisors-in-chief of the state of emergency, death-agony assistants. A world where, instead of the one that hurts too much, we have hydroalcoholic sanitizing gels, balconies from which we compliment ourselves, dogs to walk twice a day while carrying one’s Covid-19 certificate, and cities purged of their crowds like an operating room purged of its nosocomial infections. A world of dog-masters—that is, masters who are dogs and train a race of beings that has the right only to bark when reminded that it is made up of people, to whine when it catches a virus, and to yap when Corona, our king, arrives to give us its lesson, using carrots and sticks. The world is made for us to huddle up in, says King Corona. It is made to lie down in. And if sleep is slow in coming, one must count sheep, or one’s money, if one has any, or one’s viruses. Life isn’t beautiful yet? Location: 879
Can’t we get everything we need with a couple of clicks—basic necessities but also, ultimately, sex, imagination, death? Remember the other meaning of mundus . . . clean, neat, tidy, and, as we say in French, net. That is the lesson of the virus. That is the reason for my anger. And that is why it was important to resist the wind of madness blowing over the world.
It is a fascinating book – almost prophetic. But I wonder if anyone is listening? For me Covid 19 is God’s megaphone to humanity. It’s time to wake up and realise that we are not God and that we are not in control. But I suspect in our hubris we will not listen – we would rather go mad.