Like soap punctures the fatty envelope around its own RNA strand, coronavirus punctures our human envelopes of comfort and forces rethinking, in so many ways. One is metaphor (x “is” y) and simile (x is “like or as” y), which guides us – for better or worse – in comparing unlike things, and thus helps us rewire our thoughts to see and understand what we couldn’t before. In John Milton’s awesome epic poem Paradise Lost (1667), the angel Raphael – much like Milton himself – chooses metaphor to help humans understand the divine: “Thus measuring things in Heaven by things on Earth,” he tells Adam, “At thy request, and that thou may’st beware / By what is past, to thee I have revealed / What might have else to human race been hid” (VI: 892-896). This is the way metaphor works – “measuring things in Heaven by things on Earth” so that the knowledge we’ve gained from our human senses can boost us toward the abstract, just high enough to grasp it and bring it closer to our eyes. And once that abstract thing is in our hands, a good metaphor keeps unfolding layers of meaning for us to turn over, examine, rediscover, relearn and reuse, especially through the knowledge our emotions and experiences build and rebuild in our flesh and bones.*
Following Susan Sontag and Eula Biss, just to name two, I’m not breaking new ground in noticing that metaphor, especially of illness, crisis, or disease, structures thinking. But let’s dig into how. As our current president and Dr.Fauci and Gov. Cuomo refer to “our war against the disease” and call us “a nation at war,” many people ask whether “war” is the right metaphor for our confrontation with an invisible biological entity. We can see coffins buried on Hart Island in NYC or bodies stacked in refrigerator trucks, but we can’t see, for lack of tests, the actual spread among our population, who’s got it, who’s had it, who can pass it on or already has; there’s no “enemy” heaving into view over the hill, but rather the possibility of contagion all around, which “social distancing” is designed to ameliorate. Of course, our current president, eager to assume the appearance – but not the reality – of responsibility, is snatching at the cloak of Churchillian respectability that a “wartime” metaphor can confer: alas, now more than ever, this emperor is butt-naked. While it can usefully galvanize action, a “war” metaphor may have negative consequences, too, like enabling a power grab by people who won’t and can’t use their power for good, displacing our fear and anger onto the innocent, and leading us to think we have more control over this virus than we actually do. Thus our way of thinking about this crisis can create, especially in the long term, more problems than it solves, despite the consoling feeling of “getting a grip” that a good metaphor confers.
So what’s a better metaphor? In his book Spillover (2012), the science writer David Quammen amplified and explored biologists’ warnings of “a new virus, maybe a coronavirus, emerging from a wild animal, maybe a bat.” That was ten years ago. Now, of course, those fears have come true. In an online interview with Orion on March 17, 2020 – just as the COVID-19 pandemic was taking hold and lockdowns commenced – Quammen offered concise lessons for the pandemic, and a striking simile:
We are all animals, living together on a single small planet, dependent not just upon one another but also on the ecosystems we inhabit. If this crisis makes us permanently aware of a few points, raises them in our attention and strengthens them in our hearts, it will have some silver lining. Those points are:
- Prepare for the worst, while hoping for the best.
- Zoonotic spillovers will keep coming, as long as we drag wild animals to us and split them open.
- A tropical forest, with its vast diversity of visible creatures and microbes, is like a beautiful old barn: knock it over with a bulldozer and viruses will rise in the air like dust.
- Leave bats, in particular, the hell alone.
The simile in point #3 has perfused ** my mind and heart with exactly the knowledge Quammen states: “we are all animals,” interdependent and enmeshed in systems both sturdy (if left on their own) and amazingly fragile and irreparable (if ruptured, and lost, by human activity.) In this case, as so often with humans and our “measuring of things in heaven by things on earth,” love and memory and loss – the combination of which English can’t describe in a single word, as far as I know – is the vector along which that metaphor and its knowledge travel into me. I grew up on an Alabama farm with an old barn like this, and now, living in Iowa, see them everywhere. Edward Hopper’s painting of an old barn in Vermont (above) lives in my house. Take a look at that painting, and then at Quammen’s simile of the “beautiful old barn” in #3. How does it unfold, in your head and heart, knowledge about not only barns but viruses, and interdependence, and life, and fragility?
For me, my own “beautiful old barn’s” cloud of associations – shelter for cattle and horses and haybales and all the rustling secret life of mice and birds and lizards and a beloved kitten who was my best friend for seventeen years, elegant humble persistence and service through time and space, the traces of work worn into it in floorboards polished by boot-soles and ladders broken and mended again, time hallowing its apparent ordinariness and making it beautiful, all bittersweet with the Edenic sunset glow of childhood in the brain – light up this knowledge in my blood: we humans must rein in our power to create, bringing it into right and humble proportion with our ability to destroy, because although we can make barns, we can never remake old barns, and we can damn sure never remake a tropical forest, because we have no power over the scales of time and biological complexity at work in both. Both barn and forest take years to become what they are, and hours to destroy. And in that destruction – like in Paradise Lost, as Satan wheedles his way through the gate of hell and up to the world, as Adam and Eve argue themselves that surely the Tree of Knowledge can’t be so bad – we release into the world forces of destruction whose nature and results we will be scrambling to deal with for more years that we can know.
Thinking through our current crisis, and sustaining ourselves in the world to come, will depend so much on the language we use and the understanding it can deepen or destroy.
* From the very first line, I’ve been using metaphors and similes, see? How deeply this way of thinking is rooted in us: think about the last time you referred to “time as money,” saved or spent.
** This too is a metaphor: look up the word “perfuse” as opposed to “suffuse” or “infuse” and see how.