Questioning the Quantified Life   /   Summer 2020   /    Notes And Comments

Lockdown Nostalgia

Nostalgia idealizes, romanticizes its objects; it falsifies memory.

S.D. Chrostowska

Social distancing in Japan; Shutterstock.

Back to normal? So soon? Am I the only one to reminisce with nostalgia about the time of the lockdown? It is, to be sure, a nostalgia by anticipation, not yet a full-blown case.

Disclaimer: I take stock of the present from Canada, where precautions and advisories have been rife, but restrictions of daily life mild as compared with their counterparts in Spain, France, Italy, India, New Zealand, or aboard cruise ships stranded at sea, Narrenschiff bound for no paradise. Above the 49th parallel, we practice physical distancing and stay home. Like you, we are apprehensive, vulnerable, and responsible. When we dare to take walks (privileged, without curfew), we have virtually nowhere to go. Cafés, nightclubs, and cinemas remain shuttered, playgrounds cordoned off with security tape, and national parks closed until further notice. Our economy is suffering. Our wheezy culture is reeling from the blow. They, too, have corona. We are far from agreeing on a de-confinement plan. The return to normalcy will be long, and we might even change our mind along the way.

The language of “outbreak,” “lockdown,” “downturn,” “shutdown,” “standstill,” “tailspin,” and “meltdown” will be engraved in our memories of this time. The dangers of the current dispensation are almost too great to wrap our heads around. They bear reciting: spikes in domestic violence and sexual and child abuse; lack of care for the sick, the disabled, and the elderly; penury; hunger and famine; paranoia and depression; radicalization and extremism; suicide; xenophobia and hate crime. For their victims, huis clos means suffering and acute stress. While agoraphobics and claustrophiles may welcome the house arrest, claustrophobics dread every minute of it. Those with preexisting hypochondria, well prepared for stringent sanitary measures, report being comforted by seclusion, but are no closer to being cured. As for those severely ill with the virus, not one “star-rover,” Jack London’s eponymous hero reliving his past lives while in solitary confinement, will be found among them. To speak nothing of the trauma among medical staff attending to them.

How could we possibly miss such horrible circumstances and the state of exception to which they gave rise? Can it really be we will experience a bittersweet longing for them, a “nostalgia for the negative”? Nostalgia idealizes, romanticizes its objects; it falsifies memory. Seized by it, we see the old days as being better than the present and call past times happy that were anything but. Anxiety and survivor’s guilt might obscure from us the small pleasures of life under lockdown. Surely it is a miserable, self-centered joy that thrives in the middle of so much pain and death. At best, this is a season of boredom, distraction, and idleness. As always, there is plenty of room for sex, as Eros argues with Thanatos in the perverse human psyche. But is there a mood for love in the time of corona? The answer is of course.

Putting to one side major milestones and events (births, betrothals, marriages, birthdays, graduations), which continue to leave behind good memories, there is the fabric of the everyday. What in it would we miss? The solidarity, local and international, in fighting the pandemic. The creativity sprouting from cracks in a daily routine. It is spring, yet it is not to spring alone that we can attribute the new art, literature, films, music, and theatre. Quiz nights in the window, anyone? Concerts on the balcony? A Decameron-challenge, telling a story a day to pass the time? Home improvement and bricolage? Human making has rarely been so resourceful. Despite the flood of anxiety, the limitation of our means obliges us to look around, rummage through drawers and cupboards, and make worlds out of nothing much. In times like these, we share a need for entertainment. As consumers of culture, we may find ourselves absorbed in what we would normally take in exhausted or chilling out.

Chances are you have been having strange dreams lately. “Lockdown dreams,” they were dubbed. Turning in, we retire to our private cinemas, tune in for nightly screenings without using up any bandwidth. We are streaming on two separate channels right now: over our neural web as well as the Internet. For some, even, vivid dreams combined with economic deceleration become an opportunity to think utopian thoughts. The world of the pandemic era presents itself in suspended animation or as undergoing a domino effect. A few detestable aspects of our past could be wiped out forever. We may soon come to miss being at leisure to imagine a better future on a (nearly) clean slate.

If you have followed instinct and tradition by fleeing the city for the country, you might now be closer to nature than you bargained for. But also to those of us who stayed put, our closed neighborhood is our oyster. With the streets deserted, traffic down, the merest patch of wasteland hemmed in by concrete is “open for business.” A smaller outdoors awaits us. Have you noticed that the birds sing more assertively lately? That the air is purer? The night sky darker? Seeing the environment regenerate keeps away thoughts of climate catastrophe, even with time on our hands to think.

Adapting to imposed isolation is not easy. For some, adjustment came late; for others, never. Working from home and juggling more tasks in one day than we used to, we may not notice those personal benefits, the accumulation of little things, until afterwards. We could become better parents, more attentive spouses, more adventurous lovers, without realizing it. Just being with members of our family, for instance, can outweigh the extra time and energy investment. It is quality time as long as we spend it together in harmony. The crisis has us feeling more needed. It has made us more giving and consciously interdependent, building mutual aid networks and strengthening existing bonds. Phoning, Skyping, Zooming, and WhatsApping, we may have finally reconnected with friends far and wide. Perhaps the situation has made a revolution in our priorities. As all manner of activities ground to a halt, some may have turned out to be superfluous. Masters of our own house, we might be more productive. Finally, we might be enjoying the quiet, if not the suspense.

We could be growing accustomed to the indirect effects of COVID-19 without welcoming them per se as the new normal. While certain changes are for the better, most, when they are not indifferent, are for the worse. The damage done to our civil rights and liberties goes without saying. Not so the positive balance of slowing down. An erratic schedule or laziness may be wrecking our hard-won discipline. Getting more sleep than strictly necessary is sustainable only in the short run. The pressure to wear a mask in public, which some predict is here to stay, makes not just governments uneasy. Its silver lining, good political hygiene at street protests, is certainly not visible to everyone.

I find myself comparing this spring to the one 17 years ago, during the Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome (SARS) outbreak that claimed 44 lives in Toronto. As now, we were encouraged to self-quarantine and cover our faces. Yet when I look back, I do not recall being afraid, only feeling freer and more grounded. Yes, I was young then, technically poor, and a student. But the breath of fresh air came from life having suddenly relented, relaxed its hold.

We are witnessing a temporary lull in ongoing trends. Wuhan, the first hit by the virus, already celebrated its “liberation.” We all know how that party ends: in a desperate “return to normal.” All those affected look forward to travel restrictions being lifted, but not to redoubled austerity, brazen autocratic rule, and enhanced biopolitical control. As America reopens, anyone who went through hell will breathe a sigh of relief. After the lockdown, bars will still serve Corona. For some, its name will bring back bittersweet memories.