This shaking keeps me steady. I should know.
What falls away is always. And is near.
I wake to sleep, and take my waking slow.
I learn by going where I have to go.
Theodore Roethke, The Waking
This brief essay is about our current pandemic, and how we might think about our predicament almost two years into a world-historical event that has left hardly a corner of the planet untouched. But even after all this time, it is difficult to find a center, a perspective, from which to start. Do I write as a teacher in the middle of negotiating relationships with mostly-remote students, searching for ways to find connections that are deeper, more personal, and more mutually vulnerable than technological distancing would permit? Or else do I proceed as a philosopher and bioethicist, desperately wanting to communicate not only with my colleagues, but also with non-specialists, with more general readers—with anyone who might benefit from a few reflections in words that are neither baroque nor abstract nor mired in technical obscurantism? In what I call my pandemic-era writing cycle, I have begun to cautiously move in the latter direction. Yet something else has continued to disturb me: the need to think out loud about what it was like to experience this pandemic, to think about what this experience meant, to wonder about its impacts on us as individual persons and as collectives of persons—and especially, to consider what our current experiences, attitudes, and valuations might mean for where we go next.
While much has been written about what the pandemic means to us collectively and individually, I think that much more remains unsaid. When I began thinking about how to frame yet another pandemic-centered narrative, I wanted to do so in a way that would distinguish it from so many other reflections that engage with its politics, biomedicine, social justice, and personal tragedies. What I was not expecting was to be simultaneously drawn into Emily St. John Mandel’s stunningly prescient 2014 pandemic novel, Station Eleven, a story about another deadly virus, this one fictional, and then, again rather unexpectedly, back into one of the philosophical obsessions of my youth--existentialist philosophy. So in this space I want to consider our current predicament by attending to how these seemingly-disparate sources speak to each other—and to us.
So what then is the purpose of this essay? I suppose if I am entirely honest, it is an admission that I am still struggling with my predicament—with our predicaments—and that this an attempt to move from a kind of often-wordless hopelessness to the possibility of new, perhaps less intelligible and less epistemically stable, narratives. We are certainly not the first generations to come up against the destruction of so much that we took for granted, and even of sense and intelligibility itself (although it is easy to myopically take our predicament as uniquely tragic). In the years after the devastation of World War I, toward the end of “The Waste Land”, T. S. Eliot wrote, “These fragments I have shored against my ruins” (Eliot 1922). It seems significant that as this final section of the poem begins, the central voice falls away, only to introduce others (other voices? other echoes?) such as nursery rhymes, Dante, Tennyson, and others. These are the fragments, then, that are being shored up, collected, recalled from the ravages of war that ripped apart civilizations, their art, their values, their assumptions about how life ought to proceed--and whose aftermath continually threatened to swallow them even after the initial storm had passed. What is left, these fragments—of words, of memory, of things that mattered so much, and those that mattered less—is all that we have. While the brute fact of our postdiluvian existence, whether due to war or to a pandemic, does not seem to care either about these fragments, or our need to save them, we must somehow go on, hopefully creating fewer of the pious “museums of civilization” of Station Eleven, and more of its improvisational “traveling symphonies”—seeking less a coherent narrative of what we were, and more a trauma-haunted, fragmented story about the uncertain and damaged present. The next few sections will explore what a fictional pandemic might have to say to our own; why we just might be the absurd heroes we were looking for, and how, after all, our ruins might yet recreate a strange and necessary story. Let’s begin.
II. I Remember Damage
Station Eleven, which has now been made into a limited television series worthy of the original material, tells the story of a civilization-ending “Georgia Flu” that kills as rapidly as it spreads, in a brief time decimating ninety-nine percent of the global population (Mandel 2014). The few remaining humans are scattered throughout the continents, and, in the absence of twenty-first century luxuries such as reliable electricity, running water, and transportation, have regressed to what might be called a neo-dark age, an agrarian, or for some nomadic, existence. Amid this mostly-uninhabited emptiness, the Traveling Symphony, a troupe of actors and musicians, perform Shakespeare for the communities scattered between the Great Lakes—a group whose motto is “Survival is Insufficient” (Mandel 2014). Alternately coming into focus and retreating into the background of the story is a strange graphic novel written by a woman in the “before times,” entitled “Station Eleven.” Read by a very few but mythologized by an ever-expanding post-pandemic cult, it might offer glimpses of perhaps a meta-narrative of trauma and survival, perhaps of some hidden meaning, or perhaps of nothing but the writer’s misinterpreted, and very personal, despair. In the HBO adaptation of the novel, phrases from this graphic novel are repeated by several characters almost as an incantation: “I remember damage. Then escape. Then adrift in a stranger’s galaxy for a long time”.
Damage. The characters of Station Eleven have either borne witness to the destruction of the world, or were born afterwards, and this destruction was but a story they no longer wished to hear. While the elders attempted to preserve what was lost—the pre-pandemic physical objects thought to be of value—in devout monstrosities, such as the “the museum of civilization,” the “post-pan” (demic) generations, in so many ways, did not share this nostalgia and reverence about the human-made detritus scattered about the increasingly non-human-centered world. The flu has left about one percent of humanity alive. Apart from the mass death and its attendant traumas, what is left to be said of human accomplishments, values, things, loves? Not much. Just damage. And scars.
Escape. Is it possible to escape the inescapable—to find one’s way out from that which has no exit? Or, at the very least, to find an explanation of why the inescapable has taken place? The characters in Station Eleven come to different conclusions about the possibility of escape—some choose a life that is almost entirely backward-looking; some join cults; others turn to art. In almost all cases, they search for reasons for their circumstances, and for justifications for their particular ways of surviving. But as Camus noted, despite our yearning for an explanation for why we happen to be where we are and what our being here means, no such answer is forthcoming—or at least not one that we could grasp (Camus 1955). If we think that such an answer to our lostness might provide the means of some kind of escape, then we are trapped in a space of hopeless yearning that Camus calls “the absurd.” If all of our ruins--our beliefs, thoughts, physical remnants of a lost world—cannot be “shored up” in any meaningful way, are we all Camus’ Sisyphus, absurdly rolling our pitiless boulders (our need for meaning, explanation, a future that makes some sense) in a world in which we are stuck, with no escape hatch. And so in The Myth of Sisyphus, Camus tells us, clearly, what he takes to be the only truly moral issue to emerge out of this damaged, absurd stuckness: “There is only one really serious philosophical question…and that is suicide” (Camus 1955). Is this, then, the only escape we might have?
But this is not a paper about suicide—or existentialism, really. It is, however, an attempt to grapple with the moral, psychological, epistemic, and other ruins of pandemic-born trauma in the face of which, just like characters in Station Eleven, just like Sisyphus, just like Eliot’s narrator, we can still make choices. Trauma not only can reveal life’s inescapable absurdities, but can equally remind us of what, and who, matters—and why. One reading of Station Eleven might suggest that The Traveling Symphony’s existence and persistence amid the ruins makes a case for an aesthetic engagement with life that can tentatively begin to bridge the schism of the “before” with the “now” with an opaque, but not impossible, future. This “escape” that is not suicide is a conscious choice made by survivors in an increasingly absurd world, our world—a choice of meaning-making while facing the post-Anthropocene. Perhaps only the choice to shore up the ruins—and to do it in a way that neither erases the past, nor devalues the present—can sustain us. After all, survival really is insufficient.
III. Adrift in a Stranger’s Galaxy
But what does “survival” mean for us in the middle of this very real pandemic? In its midst, are we not all “adrift” in what seems like an absurd “stranger’s galaxy,” detached from whatever made sense in what increasingly seems like a parallel universe, another life? Perhaps one of the reasons that this is all so devastating is that the traumas of the schism between our “before” and our “after” do not quite line up, and no coherent life narratives have yet taken hold to connect the various shards and ruins together into a more coherent lifeworld.
As I have noted elsewhere, trauma spares very few. Individually and as communities, human beings are experiencing life-changing accidents, illnesses, wars, genocides, and yes, epidemics and pandemics (Gotlib 2021). And thus to suggest that these kinds of existential traumas are entirely new might be only true for the lucky few. Yet somehow, this pandemic feels different to us. Here I must note that by “us,” I mean the more privileged populations of the Global North who seem particularly shocked by the external and internal damage of the pandemic era. And this fact of being otherwise privileged matters: On the one hand, this pandemic is truly global not just in its usual impact on the disadvantaged Global South, but in its direct and unprecedented effects on the otherwise privileged Global North, not allowing it to retreat to the relative safety of remote observation of disaster. Too many of us are not often conscious of the unsettling truths that millions have endured both natural and man-made horrors that are historically, socially, culturally, and geographically “over there” or “back then.” To more disadvantaged people, a pandemic such as ours may not seem so existentially devastating—they, or their predecessors, might have seen something like it, or something worse, before. Thus, some of the trauma, for those historically more able to view such world-historical events as somewhat abstract, or more geographically distant, phenomena, comes from the disappearance of this forcefield of privilege.
On the other, being forced to face this new kind of damage—the fear, isolation, anxiety, and hopelessness—seems not to follow the literary and popular cultural master narratives of the more privileged populations about how the apocalypse might unfold. Indeed, we are not escaping from zombie hordes; we are not fighting heroically for earth’s survival; we are not the clever protagonists finding ingenious ways to survive in an unsurvivable universe. Instead, we are trying to find ever-elusive COVID-19 tests; to keep our families safe from the virus’ virulence; to cancel trips; and, most devastatingly, to keep as far as possible from other human beings. Our pandemic, our damage —our escape—mostly leads to our own rooms, from which--those of us who are lucky enough to do so--we peer out suspiciously at a newly-dangerous world. Thus, in important ways, we are quite unlike those survivors of the Georgia Flu: we are neither as heroic, nor as isolated, nor at the end of civilization as we know it. Yet I think that our smaller-scale predicament, our lesser sorrows, place us in the same broken universe where direction is lost, where the future is opaque at best, and where many narratives that are constitutive of ourselves, and of the world, begin with “in the before times.”
And so we are adrift in an unfamiliar galaxy that is both phenomenologically strange and epistemically uncertain. Gone is our sense of safety and of life’s relative predictability and narrative logic, taking with them our usual ways of understanding the world, and our place in it. We are somewhere—but deeply uncertain as to where, exactly. This strange new placelessness, for many of us, underwrites the creation of a new kind of trauma--a totalizing force that unmakes our world, leaving us with a kind of world-loss (Gotlib 2020). By world-loss, I do not just mean a loss of certain cultural practices or relationships or livelihoods or economic security—although all of these matter. What I mean is the loss of a sense of what to do next; the loss of envisioning a life that is not merely narratively coherent, but (relatively) practically and structurally sound --and a break in the connection of our past with whatever this present might be, let alone with a future. A loss, in other words, of a lifeworld, and of the narratives that grant it meaning. We are, in Ami Harbin’s words, “disoriented” in a frightening and alien space that for all of its alien-ness, has not opened new frontiers but foreclosed many of the old ones (Harbin 2016). We are thus left with broken stories that lack any further direction, motivation, or a way that demarcates a possible “after.” Is there just the boulder? Are there just the ruins? Is there just damage?
IV. The Surd and What Comes After
In what is perhaps an unexpected move, given my generally pessimistic outlook, I want to conclude by suggesting that the ruins are not the end of the story. But let’s start at the nadir.
In Aftermath, Susan Brison argues that “trauma […] introduces a ‘surd’—a nonsensical entry—into the series of events in one’s life, making it seem impossible to carry on…” (Brison 2002a, 103). She is right, I think. A traumatic experience—whether it is a single event, a seemingly unending pandemic and its collective and individual tragedies—can often stand as a barrier, a break between everything that was and everything that is no longer. The sense of absurdity of human life in general that Camus examined is contained within this break, this moment, or process, of collapse of one’s understanding of the world, and one’s place in it. It is indeed a surd, a ruin, contradiction of the known—and after a surd, anything can follow.
Yet what follows matters. Samuel Beckett, in The Unnamable, tells us that, despite every trauma-born surd, despite life’s absurdity itself, we must persist: “You must go on. I can’t go on. I’ll go on.” (Beckett 1965; Brison, 2002b). But what does this mean, given the destruction of so much, and the opacity of any way forward? I suggest that we start with the hard part—the kinds of options that most likely will not work.
Wishing ourselves out of trauma through magical thinking offers neither escape nor a chance to honestly appraise the reality of our predicament. Whether this means repeating the mantra of the need to “get back to normal” or telling others to “get over it already and be positive,” or declaring that one is simply “done with the pandemic,” these methods amount to nothing more than semantics, or else outright denial. As the social critic Barbara Ehrenreich argues in Bright-Sided (2009), the “reckless optimism” sold as “positive thinking” in the United States and elsewhere, is just a lie, packaged in gaudy wrapping:
[W]e cannot levitate ourselves into that blessed condition by wishing it. We need to brace ourselves for a struggle against terrifying obstacles, both of our own making and imposed by the natural world (Ehrenreich 2009).
What also does not work are static stories that rely on ready-made emplotments--stories that assume that everything will, eventually, be all right, where “all right” means “just as it was before.” Or, in the language of Station Eleven, what does not work are “museums of civilization,” whose central purpose seem to be to freeze time at the moment of disaster so that what is deemed truly valuable from the fallen kingdom survives. The narratives of this fallen world tell of a kind of anthropocentric, technological paradise to which we must, eventually, return. But ought we? It seems to be folly at best to mistake a place of memory of a civilization for the one true thing—the last, and only worthy signpost of human existence —beyond which we must choose either imitation, or the abyss. Narratives are never usually told, or heard, the same way twice. Perhaps the same is true of civilizations.
One of the central questions posed by the novel is this: Is the value of our civilization wholly defined by our technological gadgets, by our commutes to offices, by the speed at which we can produce, and receive products and services, by the relative predictability and reliability of our daily lives? And if those things change, or disappear, or if they lie in ruins beyond all recognition, do we sink with the weight of the meaninglessness that remains, letting the trauma of the loss direct whatever follows? Not exactly. As Station Eleven suggests, it is not this technology that sustains a human civilization--it is actually the human beings themselves: their lives, their deaths, and this commitments to each other. Cities and small towns can (slowly) recover. New ways of doing things—indeed, of being in the world—can emerge. And a traveling troupe of actors can bring some joy, hope, and connection to those who have endured. We can go on.
In other words, the persistence of what we were, or believed that we were, is insufficient: it is not by our museums and venerations of the relics of the past, but by our dedication to whatever we can create anew, no matter how difficult, strange, and unfamiliar this new world might be. Or, as Susan Brison notes, we need “to be able to rewrite the past in different ways, leading up to an infinite variety of unforeseeable futures” (Brison 2002a, 103). So what more is called for?
I suppose that one way of rephrasing this question is to ask how we persist meaningfully, despite the trauma, despite the damage. One way is to affirm our fate, finding meaning by persisting within its many absurdities—or, to put it more simply, to embrace our lives as a choice to go on. Consider Camus’ call to embrace this often absurd, alienating life by living it as robustly and as consciously as we can. In other words, not to try to escape, but to revolt (in the sense of pushing against the absurd given), to live with, and despite, our absurd fate—the rock, COVID-19, the Georgia Flu—by fully, lucidly embracing its absurdity. And as these trauma-haunted, absurd lives too often seem like repeating cycles of suggestion, alienation, and injustice, we might just be like Sisyphus, who, every time the rock inevitably rolls back downhill, resumes his solitary walk to retrieve it. This, Camus tells us, “is the hour of consciousness. At each of those moments when he leaves the heights and gradually sinks towards the lairs of the gods, he is superior to his fate. He is stronger than his rock” (Camus 1955, 121). We are both powerless and powerful in our grasp of our predicament: we live in full awareness of our fate, fully aware of the impossibility of an escape, but we do not find ourselves in a stranger’s galaxy—we embrace our predicament right here, and consciously, lucidly, face our fate.
Another way to conceive of meaningfully going on is to embrace the fact that even in an absurd universe, we are not alone, and that persisting, if it is to be more than mere survival in an alien galaxy, has to be mitigated and informed by how we do so. As Hilde Lindemann would argue, how we hold each other in our personhood—that is, how we maintain or construct each other’s identity through actions and stories—must be central in determining the kinds of futures we might create for each other (Lindemann 2014). Yet how does one hold others when one’s certainty about one’s own fate in a global pandemic is shattered--how does one shift from a space of fear and self-concern, and, at times, complacency that comes from having given up on a better world? How, in order to get to Lindemann’s acts of “holding,” do we resist the pull to do just the opposite?
In The Plague, Camus’ response to the Nazi occupation of France, similar questions pervade the novel. The external invasion, the plague, pulls us away from any tendencies to resist, from any desire to hold others, from any resistance to despair. But it is through Dr. Rieux’s struggle against the plague that Camus tells us that the answer begins with three things: solidarity, love, and internal resistance to all that which pulls us in the opposite direction. “Each of us has the plague within him; no one, no one on earth is free from it,” Camus tells us (Camus 2021). And Dr. Rieux reminds us of the necessary moral vigilance that is necessary in the middle of a maelstrom:
There’s no question of heroism in all this. It’s a matter of common decency. That’s an idea which may make some people smile, but the only means of fighting a plague is—common decency[…]I don’t know what it means for other people. But in my case I know that it consists in doing my job (Camus 2021).
It turns out that we—all of us—must do our jobs, despite the desire to give in, to leave the rock, to escape. By “doing our jobs,” Camus does not merely mean that we must show up at our offices as scheduled. But it does mean this: acting with the kind of common decency that allows others to see you as a beacon in a storm, as someone who will uphold another’s humanity in the worst of circumstances, and someone who will not retreat into a private world of personal despair when their presence is what is required. This might mean, in the post-pandemic world or Station Eleven, to do exactly what the Traveling Symphony does: creating art as a way of both living within the absurd, and to make it more bearable for others. Like Dr. Rieux, they are doing their job by allowing their audiences to feel like they belong to something bigger than themselves, that they are not floating in an alien galaxy, alone. They are reminding others, and themselves, that to engage with art is to be human.
So what would our version of a "traveling symphony" look like? Maybe we might already know. I recall that in the early days of the pandemic, many of us realized three things: that we were no longer able to be with each other in the many ways that we took for granted; that many—especially the essential and medical workers—were making our required isolation possible and were in this, and in many other ways, heroic; and that we had to do something to both try to reconnect with each other, and to show our appreciation to all whose works granted us the privilege of being distanced. Like the Traveling Symphony of Station Eleven, we had to improvise: And thus we banged pots and pans in appreciation of the sacrifices of those brave others. We sang for them, brought them meals, sent them messages through social media. In an effort to keep us all connected to our pre-pandemic selves, museums offered virtual "tours" of their collections; jazz clubs and symphony halls broadcast performances that nobody could attend yet everyone could experience; places of worship held online services; specialists in everything from public health to baking hosted online teaching and discussion groups; neighbors blocked off streets for something resembling block parties; we gathered in parks and shared what we could from a safe distance. In other words, like a traveling troupe with not many resources, we improvised, creating shared spaces that were simply focused on being there for, and with, each other, whether through art or through other endeavors. All this, I suggest, was less about preservation of what was, and more a connection with what--or who—is. “We are still here,” we declared, in whatever way we could. And yet now, with the pandemic seemingly past its nightmarish peak, we find ourselves in that liminal place that lacks the urgency of those early pandemic connections without the security and familiarity of “the before.” Perhaps what we need is another “traveling symphony,” but to be honest, I am not sure where it would originate, or what form it might take.
Civilizations do collapse; pandemics do take away so much of what matters the most. And sometimes, all of this happens in our lifetimes, our era, our corner of the universe. How do we cope? There is a phrase that is repeated by some in the novel’s adaptation: “There is no before”—there is nothing before the pandemic, or at least nothing that matters any longer. I suggest that the characters who say this do so in order to compartmentalize their traumas by cutting themselves off from a frightening, or an unknown and unwanted, past. But others in the story know better—as should we. There was a before—we live today amid its ruins—and there will be an after built from all that we might restore, change, rebuild. Our befores are thus connected, however tenuously, to our nows, and perhaps, if we engage with each other decently, tenaciously, and yes, lovingly, even to our afters.
We will all remember damage that we cannot escape. We will all have scars. But what matters, I think, is that we do in fact shore up our fragments through the persistent holding of each other: as valued persons; as beings engaging in the basic decencies of caring and being cared for, despite the agony and the absurdity of our circumstances; as performers and audiences and witnesses to the formation of new communities, holding each other through the grace of art. Because trauma is not just about the loss of hope—it can be, if we choose, a surd beyond which anything is possible.
Beckett, Samuel. The Unnamable. New York: Grove Press, 1965.
Brison, Susan. Aftermath: Violence and the Remaking of a Self. Oxford: Princeton University Press. 2002a.
Brison, Susan. “Violence and the Remaking of a Self.” The Chronicle of Higher Education, January 18, 2002b. Accessed February 4, 2022. https://www.chronicle.com/article/violence-and-the-remaking-of-a-self/
Camus, Albert. The Myth of Sisyphus and Other Essays, New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1955.
Camus, Albert. The Plague, New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 2021.
Ehrenreich, Barbara. Bright-sided: How Positive Thinking is Undermined America. Metropolitan Books, 2009.
Eliot, T.S., The Waste Land. 1922. https://www.poetryfoundation.org/poems/47311/the-waste-land
Gotlib, Anna. “Trauma unmakes the world of the self. Can stories repair it?” Aeon/Psyche, November 23, 2020. https://psyche.co/ideas/trauma-unmakes-the-world-of-the-self-can-stories-repair-it
Gotlib, Anna. “Letting Go of Familiar Narratives as Tragic Optimism in the Era of COVID-19.” The Journal of Medical Humanities 42, no. 1 (2021): 81-101. doi:10.1007/s10912-021-09680-8
Harbin, Ami. Disorientation and Moral Life. New York: Oxford University Press, 2016.
Lindemann, Hilde. Holding and Letting Go: The Social Practice of Personal Identities. New York, NY: Oxford University Press, 2014.
Mandel, Emily St. John. Station Eleven, United States: Harper Collins Canada, 2014.
Roethke, Theodore. The Waking. Poems 1933-1953. New York: Doubleday & Company, 1953.
 In the novel, the quote is: “I stood looking over my damaged home and tried to forget the sweetness of life on Earth.” In this paper, I use a combination of references from the novel and its adaptation.