Here’s a little secret about the coronavirus crisis: If you and your loved ones are healthy and financially secure—for now—then some not-so-small part of you might just be enjoying this whole thing. Lazy days at home, ALL CAPS headlines, desolate parking lots, that warm-and-fuzzy-end-of-the-world feeling. The turmoil is thrilling from afar. The internet works just fine. And, let’s be honest, you needed a break from the daily grind.
These pandemic days flow by in waves of exhilaration and stillness. Who knew a trip to the grocery store could be so exciting? Bread-and-milk runs have become surgical raids: Sterilize the grocery cart with a disinfectant wipe, scout out the TP aisle, exchange sideways glances with the could-be infected, grab the essentials, and get the hell out of there. Later, as another news alert interrupts the Netflix stream, the group text explodes: “This is crazy,” everyone says from their respective couches. Few hasten to add that crazy is also sort of fun.
Postapocalyptic stories have long shown the lighter side of disaster. In the 1970s, science-fiction writer Brian Aldiss coined the term “cozy catastrophe” to describe a fictional plot in which a bourgeois protagonist finds pleasure while the world goes to shit. “The essence of cozy catastrophe is that the hero should have a pretty good time (a girl, free suites at the Savoy, automobiles for the taking) while everyone else is dying off,” Aldiss wrote. He was writing in reference to the postapocalyptic landscapes of John Wyndham, author of The Day of the Triffids, a bio-disaster novel in which, as Aldiss saw it, the narrator not only survives but thrives. In an essay at Tor, Jo Walton outlines the characteristics of the subgenre: “In the classic cozy catastrophe, the catastrophe doesn’t take long and isn’t lingered over, the people who survive are always middle class, and have rarely lost anyone significant to them. The working classes are wiped out in a way that removes guilt. The survivors wander around an empty city, usually London, regretting the lost world of restaurants and symphony orchestras.” Just the other day, a friend said to me, wistfully, “Man, I miss eating at restaurants.” He’d gone a whole week without ordering an appetizer.
Interpreted broadly, fantasies of cozy catastrophe proliferate in modern film and fiction. Think of Shaun of the Dead’s motley crew holed up in the Winchester pub. Or the roving group of actors and musicians who embrace pastoral pleasures in Emily St. Mandel’s bestselling novel Station Eleven. Or the apocalyptic fun-and-games of Will Forte’s Fox comedy series The Last Man on Earth. When society crumbles, there’s time enough at last to do whatever your heart desires.
Of course, the coronavirus catastrophe is far from cozy or fun or exciting for those who are most directly affected. For small-business owners, truck drivers, hospital workers, and the tens of thousands of very sick people gasping for breath in ICU beds, the coronavirus isn’t a spectacle or an inconvenience. It’s a life-altering tragedy. The severity of the current crisis makes it all the more fascinating that—from the safer side of windows and screens—millions of Americans can’t help but relish the chaos and the calm. Whence the satisfaction?
For one thing, staying at home and doing nothing has been the new American dream for quite some time. In a sense, we’ve been social distancing for decades. Robert Putnam’s Bowling Alone, published in 2000, is the authoritative study of the country’s long-eroding social bonds. Atop a thick bedrock of sociological statistics, he argued that leisure time has been “individualized” and warped by private consumption. (And that was before the iPhone.) What was enlightening 20 years ago now seems obvious. Five depressing seasons of Black Mirror assault us with what we already know—that technology has and will continue to isolate us. The funny thing is, we love it.
In a recent stand-up set, Norm Macdonald cynically stumbles through this dimension of the coronavirus crisis: “It comes at a good time when we’re all quarantined. We know how to live like that, right? We got our magic phones and computers and everything. I don’t need no fucking people. The last step between us and happiness is people.” Macdonald’s bit echoes a quintessential Larry David joke about the joy of being canceled on: “If somebody cancels on me, that’s a celebration! You don’t have to make up an excuse, it doesn’t matter. Just say you’re canceling, and I’ll go, ‘Fantastic! I’m staying at home, I’m watching TV, thank you!’” Today, Americans in dozens of states are making the same joke. “Shelter in place? Work from home? No problem! That’s what I wanted to do anyway.” The unsurprising truth is that most people would rather be cozy than culpable. Idleness has become a moral imperative.
The catastrophe part is more complicated. On the one hand, “some men just want to watch the world burn.” Arguably, to some extent, we all do. You don’t need a PhD in psychology to observe that human beings are fascinated by war, death, and calamity. Like disaster movies and combat sports and blood-soaked videogames, the coronavirus crisis scratches a deep-seated, rarely acknowledged itch. The difference from spectator entertainments, of course, is that people are actually dying in the real world. When news agencies ditch the big (and sometimes misleading) numbers and instead tell human stories of affliction, the detached fascination of mediated images turns to sober appreciation of the suffering of others. Catastrophes, like train wrecks, are something to watch, whereas Joseph Stalin’s oft-quoted formulation—“the death of one man is a tragedy, the death of millions is a statistic”—pinpoints the moment when we prefer to look away.
Less forebodingly, there’s a political element to our enchantment with catastrophe. Every MAGA Trumper and Bernie Bro agrees, albeit for very different reasons, that American society is fundamentally broken. People are exhausted, overworked, and world-weary. Like draft day for a suffering sports team, our response to the pandemic represents a rebuild opportunity, and many commentators—see: a recent piece at Politico featuring the predictions of 34 “big thinkers”—are casting the aftershocks of coronavirus as potentially chaotic good. Best of all, like John Lennon’s revolution from bed but with a Slack-connected laptop, Americans can overturn the system while wearing their PJs. A different kind of change is in the air. (So are contagious respiratory droplets; please, stay at home.)
In spite of our physical isolation, there’s something nice about everyone paying attention to the same thing for once. Typically fractured into dozens of “national conversations,” American public discourse is now rallied against a common, nonhuman enemy. It’s the most coherent that our gossip and smalltalk has been in years. And the feeling of being in the midst of a real historical event is exhilarating. You’ll tell your grandkids with pride, “I was there. I lived it. It was terrible.” That you ate frozen pizzas for six weeks straight won’t be mentioned.
In today’s United States, a country seemingly in search of a mission statement, people yearn for excitement and meaning. Whatever its tragic costs, the coronavirus crisis offers both. At the same time, Americans are too-often lazy, technology-addicted homebodies. The crisis capitalizes on this paradox as well. It shows us what we are: virus-carrying creatures in a scary, mundane world, craving at once more safety and more danger.
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