I am reading a poem called Piers Plowman with my undergraduates this semester. It is an apocalyptic dream vision from the fourteenth century. The author, William Langland, lived through the Black Death, which ripped through Eurasia and killed one in three people in England. More than once, Langland refers to the present with the phrase “since the time of the pestilence.” Plague divides before and after.
We are in a fourteenth-century time warp, living through another pandemic originating in Asia and laying waste to Europe. Although this plague is less deadly than the Black Death, it has globalization on its side. The Black Death took ten years to reach Europe; coronavirus took two months. The Black Death took six centuries to reach the west coast of North America; coronavirus took…two months. Time accelerates. Our connections to each other are killing us.
In graduate school, reading scholarship on fourteenth-century England, I learned how the plague shattered political and social institutions, leaving a generation to cobble together some compromise between what was remembered and what was desired. I learned how plagues shape time. Now I feel it.
Time is standing still, and time is moving very quickly. One month ago, the university where I teach was still holding classes in person, and my family was preparing to fly from Boston to San Francisco to visit my brothers-in-law. It feels like an eternity ago. One month ago from the day on which I am writing this, the United States recorded sixty total cases of COVID-19. There were ten times that number of cases in Massachusetts alone, yesterday. When you read this, there will have been many more. Time accelerates. Augustine of Hippo, the fourth-century Christian theologian, describes the all-encompassing feeling of the present moment in his Confessions: “But how is the future diminished or consumed, when it does not yet exist? Or how does the past increase, when it no longer exists?” It’s like that.
On March 15, I tweeted:
ah yes, the 3 major periods of world history:
1) beginnings to 1945
2) 1946 to early 2020
3) the past two days
The tweet (a joke, of course) struck a chord, racking up likes and retweets from everyone stuck at home. World War II and coronavirus partition time. March 15 feels like an eternity ago, decades and decades in COVID-19 years.
I’m writing this while my eight-month-old daughter sleeps. (Massachusetts daycares are closed until May by order of the governor; my partner, a medical resident, works long hours at the hospital.) Around the country, parents are “working remotely” while their children nap. My class continues via videoconference; my committee work continues via videoconference; my advising work continues via videoconference. My students are scattered across multiple time zones, with variable access to the internet and home situations which may, for all I know, preclude the time I would normally expect them to devote to classwork. An email from the dean’s office this morning reminds me to “stick with the originally scheduled days and times for [my] classes” and to hold “regular virtual office hours.”
Coronavirus has fragmented time and space. Different jurisdictions live in different COVID-19 timelines. “Where New York is today, you will be in three to four weeks,” New York Governor Andrew Cuomo warned other US cities last week. “We are your future.” Italy was our future, until it was our past. Our future is uncertain, and it is grimly certain. More remote areas are either already regional epicenters for coronavirus, like my hometown on the North Fork of Long Island, or they are fearfully awaiting their first known cases. Wealthy city people fleeing to their second homes in the country bring coronavirus with them. The death count increases exponentially day by day, but we must wait two weeks to find out whether social distancing and travel advisories are having their intended effect. The news is always two weeks too late.
I have the sensation of no longer occupying the same time and space as my wife’s grandparents, who live two miles away from us. I can hear in their voices on the phone that they worry it will never be safe for them to hold their great-grandchildren again. Our parents and friends have become digital faces that my daughter cannot recognize.
In a superficial sense, coronavirus has also united world time. Everyone is living or dying in the same COVID-19 time zone. Everyone is trapped in the same news cycle, the same incubation period. The virus has created a global community bound together by the cyclicity of contagion. To have contained coronavirus, as China appears to have done in March, is also to be preparing for the possibility of the second wave.
Different jurisdictions experience the virus through the prism of different histories. I am angry about all the political decisions that are killing us—and not just recent ones. We are in a time warp back to May 2018, when President Trump fired the top official charged with leading the response to a pandemic. The gutting of public resources in this country, which Republicans always silently accomplish, and Democrats never effectively oppose, and the media always frame as partisan wrangling, is killing us. I am angry about all the political decisions that were already killing us before COVID-19. I am angry that so many of us were not angry before now, before Trump, before the crash, before the war in Iraq. I am angry with myself for not doing more, for my belatedness.
Like other Christians of his time, Langland believed that God sent the plague to punish sinful humanity. This was a disabling belief. Langland’s orthodox acceptance of the doctrine of original sin means that Piers Plowman must be a deeply pessimistic poem. Yet plague also gives the human characters of Piers Plowman scope to try to improve things. Because the past could not be recovered, the future had to be reimagined. Langland represents one refoundation of society after another. Strangely, they all fail in the same way, by disintegrating into the present unacceptable reality. Piers Plowman gets caught in its own cyclicity. Nevertheless, Langland seems to suggest, honor and justice lie in the renewed attempt.
“I am about to repeat a psalm that I know. Before I begin, my attention encompasses the whole, but once I have begun, as much of it as becomes past while I speak is still stretched out in my memory. The span of my action is divided between my memory, which contains what I have repeated, and my expectation, which contains what I am about to repeat. Yet my attention is continually present with me, and through it what was future is carried over so that it becomes past.”
I spend every day at home with my daughter. Her needs and interests don’t change much from day to day, and therefore every day has the same structure. Bottle, bottle, nap, bottle, nap, bottle, bottle; diaper changes, a stroll around the block, some practice sitting up, snacking on solid foods, reading a book. Her first memories will be of a post-COVID world. The semester’s events take place, via videoconference, at the originally scheduled days and times; or they don’t. Everyone I know shares the sense that we are living through a historic moment, but it doesn’t feel heroic. Instead, plague has brought home to me again the fragility of our institutions as well as the opportunism of so many of our employers and politicians. The reactionary forces of austerity are so much better prepared to seize this day than any utopian political project that would articulate an alternative to austerity and then make it happen. Against that realization, I derive hope from my family, from fourteenth-century literature, from my students, and from colleagues and friends who are channeling their indignation into the time-consuming work of building something better.
Eric Weiskott is Associate Professor of English at Boston College and co-editor of the Yearbook of Langland Studies