Jules Rabin: As Covid spreads, we hunker down

Editor’s note: This commentary is by Jules Rabin, who came to Vermont in 1968 to teach at Goddard College and 10 years later shifted to baking bread in a wood-fired oven. He lives in Plainfield. 

Now is the winter of our discontent … for sure … with November’s gray skies bearing down on us, spitting snow and rain and then relenting and then resuming. We all know these reenactments, ending in endless winter. And added to that now, the shrinking in of almost everything else, under the tightening quarantine.

Because we’re both old, my wife Helen and I have been self-quarantining since mid-March, a matter now of eight months. And now, in the last few weeks, we’re quarantining ever more seriously, as matters have grown frighteningly worse all around our – it has to be said — juvenile country, with the numbers of the sick and dead and dying now skyrocketing. I have to call us that, “juvenile”… the population of a third of a billion Americans that I’m one of … because of how thoughtlessly a great mass of us are dealing with this disease that’s hammering away at us harder and harder. Till death do us part. Even here in once exemplary Vermont, our dear tiny state, which once held a gold star for having the least Covid cases of any in the country, in proportion to population, the daily number of new corona cases has soared from the very low teens daily, where it had held steadily for months, to now in the 80s and 90s. 

So that now … timor mortis conturbat me: Fear of death by Covid and fear of the awful range of Covid-induced sufferings that go with it, including frank suffocation, have together got to me.  

So we, my wife and I — we Sticking-It-Out–Here-At-Homers —  have been tightening our heretofore easy-going quarantine even more, in places where it’s gone slack.  

And now I confess that after these eight months of what I have to call “go-easy quarantine,” with case numbers now rising so fearsomely, the condition of our lives has begun to feel really serious, and grim. In our tight pod of two, man and wife, one of us is 96 years old, the other 80. The weight of such great age makes us 20, 40  — I dunno … 80 times? … more likely to die if the Covid gets into us, than people in the early decades of their lives. And to die miserable, gasping deaths, as I’ve been learning, with all kinds of painful hell breaking loose in our heart-and-lung zones: another kind of I CAN’T BREATHE cry-out in prospect for the many. 

So we here are, taking more care, and venturing out of our house and beyond the surrounding hundreds of acres of mostly uninhabited fields and woods that surround us (lucky us!) — venturing out even less than we did in the six to eight months previous. 

And, I’m not proud to say, leaving our hill just to consult with a doctor or two when something like a suspicious (how suspicious, though, really?) symptom has arisen. That’s me a couple of weeks ago — calling on the doctor to appraise a certain pain in my chest. (The pain was real, but fortunately not relevant.) Helen is more stoical, more private, less woeful than I am. Her outgoings have been limited to bringing soup and Thanksgiving dinner to her sister, who lives a few miles away.

These days I’ve been reading Thomas Mann’s “The Magic Mountain,” published in 1924, a long, slow-moving, deep-reaching, and Germanically thorough-going novel that I read first 70 or so years ago. Dominating – pervading — “The Magic Mountain” happens to be about another wide-ranging disease, tuberculosis, which was notoriously the scourge of the 19th and early 20th centuries, and curiously was celebrated, widely and pathetically, in novels, opera, and the theater of that time, while shuddered at, too, of course. Among great artists of the period, John Keats had tuberculosis and died of it; Lord Byron sort of wished  he had it, and a great roster of 19th-20th century artists did indeed have it and variously died of it, too: Chekhov, Dostoievsky, Charlotte Bronte, Robert Louis Stevenson, Kafka, George Orwell … (Thanks, Wikipedia.) 

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While in that heyday of tuberculosis’s centuries-long history, the disease afflicted and rampaged mainly among the poor, somehow its tragic nature won the hearts and imaginations of numbers of the artists of the day who, to adopt a recent phrase from our time, were embarked on a kind of “death trip”: immersed in melancholy and elaborating on it in their art. 

Apart from the world of the arts, sadness, as my mother’s face steadily showed (she had her beginning in the last decades of the 1800’s) was a reigning emotion of the epoch. So tuberculosis was not only nasty and deadly, it was also tragic in beautiful ways that became the stuff of both great art and boundless kitsch.

In  a curious  essay, “The Making of The Magic Mountain,”  that Mann wrote 30 years after the book’s first publication (1924, Berlin), he advised that  it “be read not once but twice …The way in which the book is composed results in the reader’s getting a deeper enjoyment from the second reading.”

Yes, Thomas, just so. That’s a big order, to again go through those 700 weighty pages, but I’m doing it right now, these days, courtesy of Covid.  

And as you predicted, my enjoyment of the book and my understanding of it too, certainly, are both greater than when I first read it in my 20s. With the passage of 70 years, how could it be otherwise?


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