I live in Oakland. That is to say, I used to live in Oakland, but now I live in a 13×15-foot room with a tiny attached bathroom and a galley-style kitchen so narrow that most cupboards cannot hold a dinner-plate laid flat. Since March 17th, we have been under a “shelter in place” order, in response to the Covid-19 pandemic, an attempt to slow the transmission of this virus. Most days, I sit before my laptop at a small folding table in one corner of my apartment, and try to work. My experience of the city has been reduced to the landscape of rooftops outside my third-story window, a city perpetually on the quietest of Sundays, simultaneously pleasant and melancholy.
I walk to the store, only once or twice a week, only as often as I really need to. These strolls should be pleasant. The Spring has been mild, there are flowers everywhere. It rains, on and off, but I have rain boots, and an umbrella. Little pleasure comes from these trips, however. The face mask that I wear, now a requirement in Alameda County, has become its own media, a filtration that distorts experience. It pushes away the smell of the jasmine. It blocks the earthy scent of petrichor. It contains the hot moisture of my exhales, so that even outdoors, I am indoors still.
Sometimes, when nobody is near, when I can stand it no longer, I pull the mask away, enough to let slip in the atmosphere outside. Air — simple, basic air — becomes joyful. Every scent is more precious to me than the most expensive liquor. Am I risking my life to take such a gulp? Do I have any choice, if I wish to still feel human?
Silence is everywhere. It is not so much a dead quiet than a sparseness to the soundscape that is, paradoxically, loud. This quietude is exactly the quality I look for in a vacation, but in the urbanity of Oakland, it is dissonant. What should be calm disturbs.
These store journeys highlight how difficult it is to grasp this pandemic in practical terms. I am not sick. I do not know anybody who is sick. The words “at least, not yet” may be easily appended to either statement. The world outside feels like a waking dream, but the signs of distress do not line up with the severity of the crisis. At the nearby supermarket, products like toilet paper, frozen vegetables, and cake mixes all disappear, while the produce section overflows with peppers, citrus, Hawaiian pineapple. I cannot find my favorite brand of dish soap, but a nearby gourmet market still has genuine Parmesan, freshly grated. According to the news reports on my smartphone, there are not enough Covid-19 tests to go around for even one state let alone all fifty, and yet my butcher has every kind of meat imaginable, from USDA Prime steaks, to fresh steelhead trout from the waters of Washington State. We live in an apocalypse authored by the Mad Hatter.
A city in isolation, a Spring from behind a cloth mask, a crisis but with charcuterie. How is it possible to judge anything in such a world? Any traditional measure of crisis that we have collectively imagined, whether through works of scholarship or in the hyperbole of a Hollywood zombie romp, is inadequate to our time. Mad Max did not have goat cheese.
My social media feeds are filled with representations of creative expression. Others post pictures of the new art they are making, the new sourdough breads they are baking, the “round-to-it” projects they are finally tackling. Against these models, I have little to offer besides daily meal preparations, or the occasional forward progress of dissertation revisions. But these worlds, too, are missing a dimension. They are flat, just like the laptop screen upon which I view them.
As a historian, it is tempting to bring my scholarship to bear, to address the crisis head on. The virus becomes the one and only topic, rendering all other interests esoteric and, by implication, irrelevant. My thoughts turn into a perverse game of Mad Libs: “While the world suffers from Covid-19, who cares about BLANK?” I have escaped the disease, sure, yet still it claims me. It colonizes my mind.
Not that many options lay before me. A classic stereotype of the scholar is a lone figure in a quiet corner, typing away. Covid-19 clearly demonstrates the contrasting reality. I am dependent upon countless others, on librarians and archivists, on people who often remain invisible and whose names I rarely know. Because of the virus, I am without them. I have never felt more grateful to them. I have never felt more lost.
This, more than anything, is what frightens me. I am relatively young, relatively healthy. If I contract Covid-19, I feel my odds of survival are good. That thought may be hubris, but I need it to survive, as much as I need my face mask, my religious washing of hands, and my careful social distancing. The longer the virus continues, however, the more our world begins to resemble one without history, a world in which our collective grasp of events is only the result of the best efforts of a short-staffed media and our own imperfect attempts to reason with limited information.
One of my academic advisors once described the power of the past with the brontosaurus metaphor. It goes like this: we exist like this famously long-necked, big-bodied dinosaur, our reason and senses at the head. We can move our head any number of ways in response to the world we see, and think of this as broad agency. Yet, behind us, we carry that big body of our past, its bulk weighing us down, slowing our movements, putting limits on our choice of direction. The body cannot go everywhere our head wants it to, at least not easily.
In this long moment of pandemic, we are no less burdened by our past, but we are more and more cut off from exploring and understanding it. We — by which I mean I, but also fellow historians all over — are without most of our books, without our ability to mine the archives, limited by what we have carried with us into our places of shelter. We are hindered in our ability to contribute.
Witness a world fed by smartphone news app push notices, by social media gossip, by the personal speculations that we use to fill in the gaps where facts are lacking. Witness the world as it would look without history and historians.
How will historians adapt? How can we? And why do I feel that the burden of finding a solution is directly on my shoulders, even as I know that feeling is absurd? It is as if Covid-19, across the social distance we need to fight it, is at war with my capacity to reason, is at war with my grasp of depth and scale. If the world outside my window now resembles the two-dimensional space of an Edward Hopper canvas, it is of little surprise that my grasp of proportion has been utterly ripped away. On the glowing screen of my laptop, in whatever writing project I can muster up the courage to face, I type one word after another, at no great speed, hoping that these sentences become paths, that two dimensions will, with time, once more become three.
— Alexander Benjamin Craghead, PhD candidate, Architecture; Acting Instructor, Program in American Studies; UC Berkeley