I know a lot of writers—scholars, playwrights, journalists, and poets. All of them describe our time as an Age of Distraction. At one point, I imagined writing a short play that represented the phenomenon. Two bank robbers are working to crack a safe. But every time they get close to sussing out the combination, they are distracted by other thoughts. Eventually the police arrive. They can’t recall why they were sent.
I did not write the play. I couldn’t concentrate on it.
Part of that was the sense that it didn’t matter. If I was going to write, it should be about something more important; something that more directly engaged the catastrophe in which we find ourselves. So I am drawn to angry screeds, satiric political verse, sad (and short) reflective pieces. Some of those I actually finish (especially if doable in a day). Some have been published. They, and time, come in precarious bits.
We live our lives in precarious bits. Even when personally comfortable in our homes and whatever perimeters and parameters we’ve established for travel “outside”—and “outside” has an entirely different meaning than it used to—we are more or less encased in our ensconced. Perhaps because we live so much through online “connectivity,” we discuss our minds (and hearts) as CPUs. People have only so much “bandwidth.” We give and receive data, some days more than others. At times, we lose connectivity altogether.
And so we become, inevitably, species of automata. The “outside world”—that is, the world outside our doors and windows—is wide and wild, as some used to think of the American West. Or the jungle in Vietnam. Distracted by images of Vietnam, I imagine our homes as firebases. Again, life within perimeters and parameters. We seek real-time intelligence. Positivity is not a state of mind but the state of a state. Less is more. We think about the adequacy of our strategy and our gear. We have become untrained survivalists. No wonder that imagining safe cracking does not contribute to feeling safe. No wonder we are distracted.
Beyond the perimeter, there is the mountain. The mountain of the dead. And we know that it gets larger every day. In a couple of months, it will be twice as large as it is now. A mountain of genocidal scale.
I have been teaching the Holocaust for over forty years, so inevitably death camp death tolls enter in. In the world, the number is Treblinka’s—about 900,000. We are a few months shy of Auschwitz, about 1.3 million. In the United States, 200,000 dead are close to Chelmno or Sobibor.
But rather than expressing the terror, such numbers keep it at historical distance. The nightmare becomes real when we imagine the mountain closing in. Even toppling over. Even breaking through our perimeters and parameters. Even breaking through our doors and windows. No wonder we are distracted.
But this is no tsunami or volcanic eruption or other “natural disaster.” The virus may be “novel,” but not the situation. Metaphors shift again. Now we are children held captive and dependent in an abusive, even murderously abusive, family. Our parents have abandoned us to fate and our own initiative. It is what it is. There is no sign that they care whether we and the others die. Indeed, it often appears that they would like us to die. It is what it is. No wonder that the most paranoid conspiracy theorists are obsessed with doomed, disposable children. Psychosis notwithstanding, they are onto something.
And now a volcano does want to erupt. The lava of imagination is hot with fantasies of vengeance that no one wants to say out loud. Day-to-day-to-day-to-day outrage within relative helplessness may be the most distracting thing of all. We live in a valley between the enlarging mountain and the barely contained volcano.