The Year the COVID Broke

In The Day the Dam Broke, James Thurber recalls the panic of 1913 when the populace of Columbus Ohio became unaccountably and mistakenly persuaded that the dam had collapsed. His description of the disordered flight from town is perfect: although they were “as safe as kittens under a cookstove…some of the most dignified, staid, cynical, and clear-thinking men in town abandoned their wives, stenographers, homes, and offices and ran east” when “a loud mumble gradually crystallized into the dread word ‘dam.’”

As is so often the case with stories of his youth, Thurber’s grandfather is the star: 

“Grandfather especially rose to magnificent heights which can never lose their splendor for me, even though his reactions to the flood were based upon a profound misconception; namely, that Nathan Bedford Forrest’s cavalry was the menace we were called upon to face. The only possible means of escape for us was to flee the house, a step which grandfather sternly forbade, brandishing his old army sabre in his hand. “Let the sons — ——- come!” he roared. Meanwhile hundreds of people were streaming by our house in wild panic, screaming “Go east! Go east!” We had to stun grandfather with the ironing board. Impeded as we were by the inert form of the old gentleman — he was taller than six feet and weighed almost a hundred and seventy pounds — we were passed, in the first half-mile, by practically everybody else in the city. Had grandfather not come to, at the corner of Parsons Avenue and Town Street, we would unquestionably have been overtaken and engulfed by the roaring waters — that is, if there had been any roaring waters.

“When grandfather regained full consciousness…he turned upon the retreating mob like a vengeful prophet and exhorted the men to form ranks and stand off the Rebel dogs, but at length he, too, got the idea that the dam had broken and, roaring “Go east!” in his powerful voice, he caught up in one arm a small child and in the other a slight clerkish man of perhaps forty-two and we slowly began to gain on those ahead of us.”

Thurber closes his history with the following observations: 

“The next day, the city went about its business as if nothing had happened, but there was no joking. It was two years or more before you dared treat the breaking of the dam lightly.”

How much time will pass before the coronavirus response may be treated lightly? If we ever dare, Thurber has given us the recipe for his brand of humor—“emotional chaos remembered in tranquility”—and the ingredients are already at hand. 

My father-in-law took the photograph above at Whole Foods at the same time the mayor of Landerneau, France, mindful of first and permanent things, publicly defended a gathering of some 3,500 people dressed and painted to resemble Smurfs, on the grounds that “We must not stop living.” Now it could be argued that the Whole Foods gentleman had not stopped living, that in fact, full scuba gear afforded him a style of living  safer, but every bit as singular and exciting as that of the blue-besmeared French, but let’s put that aside. The Centers for Disease Control have long anticipated a pandemic, but who foresaw scuba gear and smurfs?

Elsewhere we have elderly people brawling over toilet paper, police chasing down joggers, state governors enrolling stool pigeons of social distancing infractions, endless admonitions from our sanctimonious and fundamentalist literati, conspiracy theorists no less certain than the latter, and doctors blinking with visible pleasure at occupying the political stage. Surely there is something here of which a latter-day Thurber may make use?

Among the most sensible articles I have seen on the topic is Jeffrey Polet’s Counting the Cost of Overreaction, in which he recommends Aristotle’s principle of prohairesis and the calm balancing of competing goods, in this instance, health, commerce, and liberty. He’s entirely right and yet there is something mad about softly suggesting reason to madmen.

Tragedy will come, but when it does, we’re as likely as not to be tipsy with hysteria or frivolity—diver or smurf—and yet dangerously certain of our plans,  powers, and convictions. Our society is so rich and technologically competent that we forget our absurdity, fragility, and contingency. Perhaps the strong medicine of laughter would remind us of our limitations, and acknowledgment of our limitations would allow us to heed counsel like that of Polet, or of Aristotle. 

So I invoke the wits of COVID-19: look around you, gather from this rich harvest, and take a few notes from Thurber, Rabelais, Chesterton, and Mencken. Give us your best shot, and “Let the sons — ——- come!”

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