America on the Brink   /   Fall 2020   /    Essays

Breathing Lesson

The miraculous human face—disrupted by the ubiquitous mask.

Talbot Brewer

Graffito of mother and child in gas masks; INSADCO Photography/Alamy Stock Photo.

It’s the middle of 2020. The world we’ve known, the life we’ve lived, the shops and theaters and restaurants where we’ve gathered for amusement and delight—all of them, shuttered, canceled. I do not know what end times look like. But if I try to picture them, I see people locked in their homes, venturing out only for necessities, giving each other a wide berth, hiding their faces from each other, afraid of one another’s breath or touch, anxiously tracking news of an invisible killer as it compasses the planet, town by town, home by home. That is, I see the middle of 2020.

The depredations of the coronavirus may well have been greatly exaggerated in some quarters, for political convenience or gain. But while the numbers and their significance are open for debate, there’s no doubting that when the virus hits full-force, it’s the stuff of nightmares. Your lungs fill with fluid. You gasp for air but can’t get your fill. You drown on dry land.

It’s worth pausing over the potency of the symbolic register within which this disease does its undoing. Otherwise we might not see how a lately bustling world has been “vexed to nightmare” by an invisible virus, one whose toll—while undoubtedly severe—does not match the most serious pandemics of the past. Taking a breath is the first thing we do when we are born. A delay of even a few minutes is enough to send parents into panic and put the newborn’s life in acute danger. That first breath, once taken, inaugurates the rhythmic rise and fall that will recur roughly 21,600 times per day for the duration of our lives. The breath and the heartbeat—the two pulsing cadences that are with us as long as we are, the ones whose end will be our end. Breath is the more measured of the two, and also the more pronounced, especially under exertion. It is our second umbilical cord, tying us as primally to our second mother, nature, as the first tied us to the womb. It might fairly be called the music of our life—the soham or hamsa that anchors our deepest meditations on the bottomlessly astonishing fact that there is something rather than nothing, and that we are a living and breathing part of this something.

In the experience of breath, we find the ur-source of our ideas of the peculiar form taken by our kind of being—call it human being. From the Greek terms pneuma and psyche, both of which referred initially to breath, we inherit, by a series of metaphoric leaps and etymological twists, our ideas of mind and soul. From the Latin spirare—which, again, begins life as a plain old word for breathing—we inherit our idea of spirit, and, by a second metaphoric pirouette, of religious and artistic inspiration. Breath, then, is the humble bodily function through which we are able to picture, and hence to purposefully nurture, our most exalted capacities—the capacity for religious awakening, or for artistic genius. We awaken to God, if we do, or hear the voice of the muse, if we are lucky enough to be addressed by it, in a movement of mind that put our forebears in mind of breathing.

Our utter dependence on breath, whose demands we are literally unable to refuse for more than a minute or two without being overridden by our own bodies, suggests that what is most vital in us is not made of meat or bone, but of some more subtle and diaphanous stuff—of thin air, maybe. Given these symbolic resonances, the thought of death by suffocation holds special horror. It suggests the snuffing out of the spirit, hence of that which we are perennially tempted to imagine capable of surviving when the flesh expires. Death by the hangman, death by drowning—these are the pictures on the tarot cards we’re always hoping not to draw. We have been drawing them by the scores in 2020, this most unusual and disturbing of years.

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