Discussion – Key Debates, Viewpoints & Interviews

Sociological Experiencing and Reflecting – Letter to a Godchild

Issue 45: Pandemic (Im)Possibilities vol. 1 Tue 2 Jun 2020 0

Clemence Fourton, Université Paris-8 Vincennes Saint-Denis, France

Aubervilliers, March 28th 2020

Dear godchild,

As we wade our way through the second week of Covid-19 induced lock-down, I’m trying to tell you what now is like. This is no letter for a child to read, but possibly twenty years from now you will want to know in what circumstances your parents made you. They had been trying to get pregnant with you for a long time before the pandemic; they decided to keep trying as it unraveled, to have something to look forward to.

A pregnancy might well be the best way to thumb one’s nose at the virus, for time is the first thing that the lock-down changed. There is currently no sense of the future, only a sense of the now. Here we are, here we go, in a stasis. Space, of course, changed as well. 1 km is the furthest we are allowed to venture from our home. It is 100 meters in Jerusalem, 0 meters in Wuhan, for we depend on contingent emergency laws. Never has the opposition between home and the rest of the world been so blatant.

What I find most distressing is having to trust a government which, a month ago, we were fighting so hard against. Striking for pensions seems unreal now, but we did, and for a long time. And now we have surrendered our time, our space, our bodies, to their rules, their laws. We have to remain critical, but we have to trust them too, on life or death matters; it’s a gap I find impossible to bridge. I do as I’m told, barely daring to set up a chance encounter with my lover in the tobacconist’s queue. I admire the critical voices which are able to make themselves heard. A French philosopher, musing on a placard he saw a few weeks back, at a march in defence of public hospitals, writes: ‘The government is saving money. We won’t be able to save lives. These were not empty words. Here we are.’ I struggle to do the same. I edit trade-union digital leaflets, for some people have to keep working. Technical tasks I can do. I am daunted by the job of producing an articulate critique of what is going on. Some call for the expropriation of billionaires to fund hospitals – I fully agree, but this fantastic demand seems ill-adapted to the mundane need for hand gel. The best I can do is spotting inconsistencies as to what currently counts as more than possible, as necessary. Keeping libraries open? Unnecessary. Moving the gentrification cranes around? Necessary. Allowing women to have abortions? Unnecessary. Necessity, too, seems contingent these days.

Your grand-godmother is a GP, in the hardest hit part of France. By all accounts, hers included, her work is necessary. She puts on her mask and gloves, and cycles to work, having signed her own circulation permit. On the news, a similarly clothed cashier echoes her words: ‘We have to keep going, people need us’ – her voice breaks – ‘but we don’t know what we bring home at night’. Doctors, nurses, cashiers, aisle managers, garbage collectors, Internet technicians: they keep going. At 8 every night, we stand at our windows, on our balconies, and we clap, as hard as we can, to show support for health workers. We also do it for ourselves, to try and keep the dread at bay. We shout to relieve our heavy chests just for a few seconds. In the dark the clamour rises, heartbreaking, heartening. The stray dogs bark. We close our windows, and get back inside.

Our daily lives are stripped to the bone. We eat and we sleep, we try not to get sick, not to get other people sick, and we scramble on the Internet for bad news and comic relief. My favourite so far – ‘I don’t know about the butterfly theory, but a pangolin in China sure can empty a toilet roll aisle in California’. In the meantime, I try to do some writing, but the stasis eats up most of that possibility too. I play the piano, and as my fingers get nimbler, I cherish the feeling of progress which negates the current state of affairs. It is the Chaconne I sometimes play for you that I’m working on.

I’m sorry, dear child, for this is not a joyful letter. I long for your mother, for her laugh and our parties. Turns out the phone is not quite the same, I miss the physicality of my friend. On the street people dance a weird choreography to avoid each other as they go by. When this is over, you will be growing up in better times, and it will be possible for me to hold you tight.

With much love,

Your godmother.

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