By Avijit Pathak
Mar 18, 2020
I am not a doctor. Yet, the spread of coronavirus all over the world makes me reflect; and unlike medical practitioners, health workers and government officials, I begin to enter the domain of sociology and spirituality as I respond to this new challenge confronting humankind. Well, I know that there are limits to my ‘philosophising’ because coronavirus can prove to be fatal; and, as we are warned, we ought to use sanitisers and masks, wash our hands frequently, avoid unnecessary travelling and gathering, observe our bodily symptoms with great care, and consult the doctors, if required. But then, as I see the epidemic of fear spreading from China to Italy, or from India to the US, I feel that the structure of modernity is crumbling. Is it the time to be reflexive, and ask new questions relating to life and death, and order and uncertainty?
Selective: Covid may be life-threatening, but so are malnutrition and air pollution.
Think of it. What social historians, political theorists and philosophers regard as the grand project of modernity is characterised by scientism, techno-narcissism and faith in unlimited progress. As knowledge becomes power — the Baconian urge to manipulate and conquer nature for establishing human supremacy over the world — we begin to lose humility. Instead, with the spectacular narratives of the victories of techno-science, we tend to believe that we are the masters of the world. No wonder, modernity makes us terribly uncomfortable with death. The feeling is that we must live longer and longer; death has to be fought; and even with absolutely medically monitored bodies, we must carry on. Even old people should look like the young, think of sex, and go for regular check-ups; but never should they contemplate on death. Death, for the modernists, is some sort of pathology to be conquered; it is no longer related to the very rhythm of existence. So, as it is thought, if we have succeeded in eradicating plague and smallpox, we can also fight AIDS and cancer. With vaccines and new drugs, we would eventually conquer death, and become immortal! This is the height of modernist arrogance.
Furthermore, modernity seems to be terribly obsessed with order, prediction and certainty. We love to plan our ‘future’ with a belief that we are the real ‘agents’, and with our ‘reason’ and techno-science, we can shape the future. We are uncomfortable with uncertainty; we loathe ambiguities; we want to be precise and mathematical — not poetically mystical. We want to hold the future in our own hands. We consult financial advisers for proper investment, visualise the ‘right’ careers for our children, buy medical insurances, and plan our holidays well in advance.
However, as we see ourselves through the lens of coronavirus, we realise the hollowness of these two foundations of modernity. In a way, this epidemic is also trying to convey something deep and meaningful to us. First, we need to be humble; we are not the masters of the world. Even though we can conquer the moon and invent AI, we exist as minute particles in this infinite universe. Even though through ventilation in the intensive care unit of a mega hospital we can postpone death, it can come anytime. It can always surprise us; it can cause severe blow to our pride that everything is under our control. Through coronavirus, the existence, it seems, is conveying a message — we are not as powerful as we think ourselves to be; it can shatter the self-confidence of even the mighty superpowers like China and the US. Second, it is important to realise that not everything can be predicted and controlled. Death can strike your door anytime with any excuse, be it coronavirus or a road accident. And there is no imaginary safety. We are all vulnerable, and in a ‘risk society’, even the rich are not safe (don’t forget that the wife of the Canadian PM can be affected by coronavirus; and a narcissist like Donald Trump has to think of some sort of medical emergency in the US). In other words, uncertainty is the mystery of existence.
As through the lens of coronavirus, I interrogate the self-perception of modernity, I need not be misunderstood as a pessimist with eternal despair and defeatism. Instead, as I wish to argue, this crisis is also the occasion to redefine the art of living and dying in a more meaningful way. It is in this context that I wish to make three points. First, the art of subtle alertness has to be distinguished from the psychology of chronic fear. Yes, we ought to be alert, and take necessary care and medical guidance; but then, the psychology of fear that the ‘panic industry’ has generated is pathological. In fact, modernity has never conquered fear; it has only intensified it. The more we wish to see ourselves as ‘immortal’, the more we fear death and inherent uncertainty of existence. Hence, we are seeing not mature alertness, but the epidemic of fear which a market-driven society further promotes for a profit-making industry of ‘masks’ and ‘sanitisers’. Second, we need to realise that we cannot live meaningfully and gracefully with obsessive fear of coronavirus. Even if it is not coronavirus, it can be a cardiac attack, or a sudden earthquake: death can happen anytime. To live meaningfully and intensely is not to fear it, but to acknowledge it. No, this is not suicidal; this is the real spirit of life. And third, we need a new politics filled with the spirit of compassion and ecological sensitivity — not merely sanitisers and masks. Well, Covid may be life-threatening. But what about malnutrition, air pollution and climate change? To resist these killers is to strive for a world that prevents the rich from monopolising the resources; this is to educate our children in a way that they begin to value the aesthetics of life — neither greed nor ecologically destructive artificial needs the cult of consumerism manufactures.
And hence, even though I see schools and colleges closed, travels restricted, and WhatsApp messages confirming the new statistics of coronavirus victims, I do not wish to give up my ‘non-modern’ prayers: let life be lived intensely and gracefully with its eternal mystery and uncertainty.
Original Headline: Covid & modernity gone far
Source: The Tribune India