An Elegy to Open Arms
Six elements of alienation
To the maskless provincial, these are the days of vindication. He moves about from field to farm to home, skimmed over by virgin winds. He isn’t without his worries of unsold crop and an unknown tomorrow but unlike the brethren in the city he has the real wealth of the times, the wealth of outdoors.
Trapped in boxer shorts and boxy confines the urban man has as many worries and then some, but has also to endure this view out to a world drained all at once of honks and hawkers, exhaust fumes and bobbing helmets, salary-slaves all starched and seat-belted and sunglassed. The true horror isn’t that these are missing in the street but that none of it is missed, really — a truth plainly felt as being flayed alive.
The city’s heaving, stewing emptiness offers now a better view of the ends of roads, the cul de sacs. Air is rich with oxygen, that great booster of earthlings’ thoughts on otherlings responsible for a world mutated for the worse, for stocks lying in shards and jobs threatened and truths revealed. Death to the genius that supplanted the aptest germ from the gut of a Chinese beast to the metal-bitumen gut of the metropolis. Hell, what an effective supplant it has proved to be.
Death to him and multiculturalism. Taller walls, please, grander ones. Let the people of a place all seem cut out of the same morsel of meat.
Across the length of a fallen man stands a potential infector, an ejector of aerosols, a callous youth harbouring secret dreams of apocalypse or an ignoramus oldie determined to die. In the space spanning any two minds swirls little contaminated clouds and all around one sees carriers not of feelings but of pathogen. Already you sense a shift in the mechanics of human interaction out in the street, with familiar hands left unoffered and the offered ones ungreeted. An arid cough has never rushed so much blood in so many veins and a sneeze has never sounded so like a gunshot. How quitely have we primed our focus to get around words uttered and home in on their perilous source.
To be haptic has been left for ants and the suicidal. Embraces abandoned by deserted squares and park benches retreat, waddling, into the dark hope of bedrooms.
Give an anagram of Coronavirus and you have it: Carnivorous. The virulence of a certain strain of veganism has always been a notch above all viruses’, and in the novel virus it has found a novel friend. Today, goes the argument, it may have been a bat that hosted the microbe but just wait until a worse one finds its way to us through a flesh more popular and palatable. Cattle chew on a collective prayer for this to be the case, offering as it were to be the next ecological reservoir to germs that’d forever deter their eaters.
What the cows tend to forget is they owe their existence to the taste humans developed for them lest their kind remained in the wild as another species. You, beloved, you are there because you can be steak.
But it will matter less and less that the bovine evolution was steered by human consumption as the risk of zoonosis gets magnified in sympathy with the swelling pandemic. First to go would be the wildlife markets and in time the fear will get so feverish it’ll put the kibosh on wet markets of most types. Odd diets will be frowned on ever more intensely. A chinaman munching the mongrel meat would breach the realm of mere fascination and mature into a subject of WHO-approved hatred. You will be judged and booed based on what your dad had for lunch.
You become what you eat. This time, literally.
Name a thing more metaphoric. Across all cultures known the word connotes alienation to solipsism, false-front to camouflage. Even the less noxious semantics flirt with disguise and deflection which arguably are just paler gradations of keeping the world out. And then the variety: the tragic and the comic mask, the mask of the witchdoctor’s, the death mask and the mask of life.
Mask must have been born with man, with the social human, and then again with the salesman.
In a normal world, a medical mask shouldn’t depress you much with the exception of perhaps at an operation theatre where the gear the doctors wear lend half the somberness to the ambiance. Once the last slash is stitched back and the sawbones steps out, one yearns not just for learning the outcome but for that orgasmic relief of watching him with his mask pulled, humanness restored.
Now we are at the cusp of a world where so many faces will have been eclipsed for a sad enough stretch of time by a crescent of cloth that seals off smiles to emphasize the nuanced, tricky pair above — the eyes. We trust eyes. In fact, one should trust only them. Often we do not pay them much notice as we’d be led away by the rather louder works of the phiz muscles kneading the words. Or by the teeth, that flashy troop of attention addicts. Eyes lie the least but their language is also the most cryptic, arcane, hushed. It wasn’t our business to decipher them.
The ubiquity of mask brings with it the change. It’ll be world trained in eye-reading, forever startled by deeper, rawer, blunter truths.
The virus is to medical screening what 9/11 was to security checks. Plans in this space tilt toward the Taiwanese model of constructive paranoia, and in all likelihood preemptive bans are to be imposed on flights from lands that report the faintest emergence of an unlisted bug. Soon at the points of entry you’ll scare yourself leafing through a coffin-thick booklet of health declaration and grieve for the lean gentle questionnaire it replaced. A warmer than normal skin would be deemed as much of an anathema as a dagger hidden in underpants and can preclude you from boarding not just once but for months together.
Clamor for ever mightier emigration filters will rise in pitch and a search of chromosomes with certain predisposition might in time lift the stigma around eugenics and engineered births. A land’s innate resilience to contagion might begin to alter the current order of climatic preferences, supplanting the prevalent, rather naive penchant for the cool and the sunny with what the virus approves of.
Over these crazy long months the screen has sealed its primacy as the means of sensing the word. It’s getting harder to think why some of us can’t be just wherever we are to be what we are. In this altered paradigm of being where breath and death are the lone real things, we’re already made to occupy many an island that barter a virtual handshake for a pixel smile. Here with these flicking bits we wed and part, sing and dance.
Screen is the new sky, chair the road ahead.