The Disorienting Thing Is You Can't Compare This To Anything

On the national level, this defies comparison. On the individual level, we’re undergoing the same processes of social distancing and self-quarantine — but paradoxically, these experiences will be hyper-individualized.

One of the more surreal aspects of this is that everything defies comparison.

There's no one-to-one in living memory in American life: a self-imposed stop to the economy and a soft, country-wide quarantine. There's no fixed point toward which we're supposed to be enduring, except to stay away to reduce the systemic strain of COVID-19 on people and hospitals. What compares?

There's trivia to set off the macro elements of this — that the Supreme Court hadn't canceled arguments since the 1918 flu pandemic, that Disneyland hadn't closed except for 9/11 and mourning JFK's assassination. But the nontrivial, elevator-drop economic statistics that have begun rolling in illustrate the scale of what you can see in front of you. This is not like the last, catastrophic recession; this is total suspension of the economy that is catastrophically different — without comparison — and even looks that way in chart form. And without a comparison, there’s no trajectory, just income disappearing and expenses fixed. It’s like the US economy has turned into a dead amusement park, everything visible but nothing functional.

The lack of macro comparison — and the depthless consideration of where this all leads — also extends into the micro level.

Technically, many of us are already having the same experience: socially distanced, at home, ad infinitum. New York and California have locked down.

The next month will, by definition, be intense: isolated and constrained in space, accentuated by the strain of illness or joblessness or the potential for them. There's really no way this won't be a time etched into everyone's memory for the rest of their lives — where the streets of major cities turn into the almost soundless retreats of daytime walkers. And just as you might be able to map out in memory your childhood bedroom, wherever you are right now and remain, this image and the everyday dynamic in that space will likely live forever.

But, paradoxically, these experiences are hyper-individualized. Can you have a true, collective experience when the central vividness and intensity of the experience (the people, the place) will vary so much between any two homes?

If you've talked over text or phone with people in slightly different circumstances than your own the last week, you can maybe feel some of the little fault lines and frustrations, even in the opening phases. People at home with young children will never know what it's like to live alone during this period, and people who live alone will never know what it's like to be a pair limited by health or age in venturing much of anywhere. The total lack of a quiet, ordered moment free from demand, and the unending stretch of silent hours can't really be alike in shared, cultural memory. It's this weird distillation of the individual experience — the same but incomparable — during a heightened period that we're all living concurrently.

Even in the case of similar elements that might comprise A and B's spring of social distancing, the reality of isolation necessarily prevents comparison between like and like. In Frederick Exley’s A Fan’s Notes — a dark book about sports, alcoholism, and being out of place — when the narrator describes a recurrent dream of his, Exley writes, “John Jay Chapman once said of William James that he seemed always to be stepping out of a sadness to meet one; as, a little startled, most of us seem always to be stepping out of predominant hues, whether of gaiety or equanimity or frolicsomeness or gravity, to meet another.”

The fundamental gap in social isolation is the lack of comparison — the inability to meaningfully step out of our predominant hues and enter into a more complicated understanding. You can attempt this kind of exchange on the phone or in writing, and you can, of course, work to imagine the circumstances of others, physical or emotional. But from within the disorienting, incomparable quasi-quarantine where you can practically feel your mind carving the memories up already, there’s no intellectual distance or fluid act of comparison. There’s only the depthless consideration of the hazy, ever-darkening national situation, and the sharpening personal one.

Which isn't to say that this can't or won't happen ultimately. In a time without much history or memory to work backward and forward from, if anything, the promise of that future comparison, even if it's chaotic, is the destination for endurance. That has formed vaguely in my own mind as a party: a crowd reunited, in too small a space, inside an open business, on a summer night — think that good New York–in-the-movies lighting, black and gold, with something with synths playing. This is nothing I am even likely to carry off, but that’s been floating through my head in idle moments as the fixed, if ephemeral point. ●

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