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The most urban creature I know has become a mountaineer of dazzling seriousness. Another friend, a co-eater, is now an avid house cook. Both report lasting changes in the outlook, which are accompanied by the change in habit. Both are one of the milder cases of personal evolution over the past 18 months.
For the more radical, there is a whole journalistic genre. How do we spoil you with our lack of lock on: cities, the defensiveness of tourism, or socialization ever worth the candle, the wisdom of formal schooling for children, the usefulness of economic growth, the concept of work short, the desirability of seeing people’s faces, whether sex was so enjoyable anyway, and the prospect of ‘returning’ to the everyday nadir in humanity’s fate, 2019.
Most of these are wet but harmless introspection. One member of the trade, Matthew Yglesias, is right that journalism increasingly reflects ‘the 99th percentile of neuroticism’. The rest to impose the restraint as a disguised gift to the species, however, is tasteless. Somewhere a cruel satirist writes a play called O! What a wonderful evening clock rule.
Either way, the pressure is on those with a platform to share their own lockdown revelation. And at this point I have to put out some empty bags. It’s more of a confession than a rubric, I know, but I stand before you an unchanging man.
To be clear, the pandemic itself is out of the question. No one can or should come out of the world-historical shock without a greater sense of transience of life. It is the lock-up, the pause in ‘busy’, that takes on more meaning than it can hold. What started as two high jinks about banana bread has become a sour revaluation of modernity by the main winners: the learned, the urban, the mobile.
It is in fact disturbing non-U to say that I enter the world after the confinement without a new angle on life. But there it is. I go out as much as I did before, thank you. I’m going to travel as much as the friction of new rules allows. If some urbanites desire an Arcadian life, I encourage them to find it in the obvious places instead of bending cities to their liking. To the extent that I have changed at all, it is in the direction of more speed and lust: to pass some of my forties in an Asian megacity is now a goal, as it never has been.
Undoubtedly, my failure to have a Damascene exclusion reveals an impoverished imagination. But then, which side is stuck more on his cattle here? What is striking about the great odysseys of the soul I keep reading is their fame. Metropolitans have always been inclined to credible nature worship. Families have always been prone to urban flight. Mid-life ennui has always been dressed as a fault with the outside world. What is new is the respect that such attitudes have gained over the past year and a half. In other words, the restraint did not change these people more than it changed me. It only made existing impulses worthy.
If it was just roasting, we could put it down to taste. But there is an anti-modern vein underneath well-meaning it must be watched like a hawk. Last year I met a living adult, born long after the dawn of science, who ‘in my heart’ believed that the virus is the nature that ‘sends a message’ about our way of life. This kind of mystical hokum is what a friend – as unchanged as I have been since 2020 – calls ‘obesity of the mind’. This is what happens when a surplus of education meets a surplus of recreation. Once it is unbearable, it is dangerous.
A fellow columnist, Matthew Parris, quotes an incorruptible report of the closure by a Times reader: “middle-class people hiding and working-class people bringing things”. No wonder some in the first tribe romanticize the definition of an essential evil. I think of Robert Duvall in Apocalypse now. “One day,” he says comfortingly to his men, “this war will end.”
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