Leonard Quart | Letter From New York: Escaping the apocalyptic through memory

Letter From New York

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NEW YORK — I'm 80 1/2, and I hobble rather than walk, all the while dreaming that I could easily glide through the city streets as I once did without having to rest on a bench every block or two. But my infirmity, however constricting, seems minor given the apocalyptic moment we all inhabit. If I believed in a divinity I would say the coronavirus (COVID-19) is a punishment for the way human beings have desecrated the environment and embraced or passively accepted authoritarian and repressive governments that are built on racist sentiments.

In a time when there are rare glimmers of light in the public world, I feel there is little point providing examples of how destructively and at times murderously we govern ourselves. But one recent example of tribal ferocity sums up how many countries work out their racial animosities. The 2020 Delhi riots were a series of violent incidents that began in the Jaffrabad area of North East Delhi on the night of Feb. 23 and caused the wanton destruction of property and the deaths of 53 people, most of whom were Muslim. All of it encouraged by Prime Minister Modi's anti-Muslim, Hindu nationalist Party BJP, which has recently been feted by President Trump.

Given that we are the only ones responsible for the kind of world we reside in, we exist as Camus wrote in his great novel "The Plague" about a North African city facing a pestilence: "Each of us had to be content to live for the day, alone under the vast indifference of the sky."

Consequently, living in the U.S. as an epidemic has struck becomes even more difficult when you have a dangerously bumbling president who has no use for medical facts and likes to spin feel-good fantasies about the disease. Trump has denied the 3.4 per cent official global death rate for coronavirus because he has a "hunch" it's lower. He also offered medical advice which contradicted health experts by suggesting there could be hundreds of thousands of people who would recover from the virus "just by sitting around," and added that some people would be able to go to work even if they are infected. He even spoke openly of preferring that the passengers on a cruise ship exposed to the virus be left aboard so that they don't add to the total number of infections in the U.S. Nothing dark or flawed is allowed to sully his "perfect" regime, so he evades the reality of the virus with magical thinking and empty words. Nevertheless, that only works for the gullible or his true believers.


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Anyone who honestly reflects on the nature of our collective life today knows that our future will involve facing a variety of plagues from floods to tornadoes to earthquakes. At this point in my life my only political response to the horrors we confront are the columns and essays I write. I know it's insufficient, but I don't have the physical capacity to march or even sit through lengthy meetings any longer. As a result I shift my thoughts to a range of personal memories that I often conjure up.

I can invoke many richly textured images of my Bronx boyhood, and can retrospectively analyze the sociology of the neighborhood. But the harder I struggle to remember my inner life during those years, the less I feel I can convey it with the emotional coherence it deserves. The external world of streets, shops, and people continues to remain vivid, but the internal world is still a jumble of feelings that I don't always have a handle on.

On the other hand when recalling my college years both my internal and external worlds are alive to me. City College had, with a few striking exceptions, mediocre professors, but the intellectual atmosphere that enveloped us was marked by a volatile and intense discussion of ideas. We were smart but not sophisticated, and much of what we thought was profound was half-baked. But we were always passionate about books and ideas and never blas . Whatever feelings of failure and inadequacy I experienced then, the roiling, communal feelings of my college world transcended them and have given me memories I often resurrect.

One last set of memories that have an idyllic glow were our family's years in London. We had problems with housing and the dark, damp winters, and some of my teaching experiences lacked meaning, but the immersion in another city and with a whole new group of people was generally a happy one. My wife and I loved exploring a variety of city neighborhoods, architecture, parks and museums, and in the evenings there was a lot of heady talk with our new friends.

I probably have made London's parks greener, its pubs cozier, and its theater more luminous in memory than it ever was. But those memories are comforting, especially when I contemplate an immediate future of Trumps, Johnsons, Putins (or their replacements), a worldwide pandemic and the terrors of global warming — a level of suffering that the next generation will likely have to endure.

Leonard Quart is a regular Eagle contributor.


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