What do we do now?
It’s a big question — as a matter of policy, national purpose and social cohesion it’s the big question — made up of a knot of local, individual, practical decisions. What actions can each of us take to stay healthy, connected and sane, to fight the dangerous secondary infections of boredom, selfishness and panic? How are we going to stay busy? How are we going to keep ourselves entertained?
That last one may seem like a trivial problem with an easy solution. Lives and livelihoods are at stake, and there’s still plenty to watch on television. Maybe the lamentations about the closing of restaurants, bars, nightclubs, theaters and museums represent the displacement of deeper fears about the wholesale collapse of civilization. But it’s also true that the suspension of those amusements — of every form of cultural activity that involves the presence of other people — is a grievous loss, and a cause for real grief.
We console ourselves with stopgaps and substitutes. There’s so much music and television to stream. There are stacks of books we never got around to reading, and games of meme-tag to play on social media. There are jokes to make about writing the next “King Lear.”
All those energetic ways of making do may themselves be manifestations of grief — signs that we’re in the bargaining stage, much as those last nights out in early and mid-March were expressions of denial. (Those are the first and third phases in the Kübler-Ross sequence. Did we skip the second one, anger, or are we just so used to being angry all the time that we didn’t notice?)
The loss we are confronting is real and profound, even if it turns out to be temporary. We are undergoing a trauma that we can’t fully comprehend. Denied our favorite sources of fun, we have also been robbed of the resources of meaning and community they represent.
Much discussion of the coronavirus’s impact on the arts has focused on economics, on the dire effects on box-office revenues and business models, and on our roles as workers and consumers. A vibrant marketplace has shut down; industries face devastation.
At the same time, our habits of cultural consumption connect us to an atavistic world of ritual, a way of being that money can never account for. The music fans who would have streamed into Coachella and the cinephiles alighting in Cannes retrace ancient routs and rites of pilgrimage. Bands on tour carry the memory of itinerant troubadours and acrobats caravanning from town to town, performing on makeshift stages in the village square. A movie house is like a house of worship: some congregations insist on silent contemplation, while others favor ecstatic call-and-response prayer.
Theater, the most protean of art forms, and one of the oldest, has an especially complex genome. Susan Sontag once described theater as “this seasoned art, occupied since antiquity with all sorts of local offices — enacting sacred rites, reinforcing communal loyalty, guiding morals, provoking the therapeutic discharge of violent emotions, conferring social status, giving practical instruction, affording entertainment, dignifying celebrations, subverting established authority.” That’s only a partial list, and these “offices” persist, at least as latent possibilities and memory traces, at every performance of “Hamilton” or “Our Town.”
What unites those disparate functions is the way theater, like other public art forms, makes us aware of a boundary that it simultaneously allows us, at least for a moment, to cross. Art is a way of knowing, of seeing and feeling, the borders that separate work from leisure, the sacred from the secular, the ordinary from the exalted, passivity from action, life from death. It makes us witnesses and participants in the crossing of those frontiers, and in doing so makes visible and permeable the boundaries between our individual and communal selves. We are alone in the dark of the theater or the light of the museum, and also together.
For the last few years, motivated by affection rather than expertise, I’ve taught a college course on postwar Italian cinema. One of the things I love about the movies we study — and one of the things that makes them wonderfully resistant to classroom analysis — is how they defy the usual categories. My students and I puzzle over what seem like basic questions of style and genre: comedy or tragedy? Satire or sincerity? Happy ending or sad? Everything is mixed together — humor and pathos, horror and absurdity, Christian piety and pagan revelry, modern manners and primal urges.
Even the most austere filmmakers — Vittorio De Sica in his late-1940s neorealist phase; Michelangelo Antonioni in his early-’60s explorations of alienation — can’t avoid the warmth and noise of communal life. Virtually every classic Italian film includes a chaotic meal, a religious procession or festival, a gaggle of squealing children tumbling through the frame. Solemnity will always be punctured. Solitude exists to be interrupted. Life is intrusive, unruly and beautiful.
My hunch — supported only by the haphazard, dreamy research of looking at pictures, moving and otherwise — has always been that Italian filmmakers like De Sica, Roberto Rossellini and especially Federico Fellini were not only responding to the realities of Italian life in the hectic middle decades of the 20th century. They were also, consciously or not, refracting the influence of centuries of Italian art.
Renaissance and baroque paintings of sacred subjects — last suppers, crucifixions, the torments of saints — bustle with profane life. The holy business at the center of the tableau is nearly upstaged by the flirting, drinking, gambling and fighting happening around the edges. Children and dogs cavort under the furniture. Elders grow distracted and sleepy. Adolescents roll their eyes in boredom. And for the viewer, wandering into the gallery hundreds of years too late for the party, the distinction between art and life dissolves. I know these people. We are these people.
The film scholar Joseph Luzzi, writing about Italian neorealism, describes the role of the social group in these films as “chorality.” The word evokes ancient Greek tragedy, in which the chorus played a central role in the drama. More than simply commenting on the main action, the chorus, at least in the highly speculative theory proposed by Nietzsche, was the true protagonist, linking the plays of Aeschylus, Sophocles and Euripides to even older Dionysian rituals. If the destruction of the hero provides a reminder of the inevitability of death, the voice of the chorus offers the compensatory, comforting lesson that “life is at the bottom of things, despite all the changes of appearances, indestructibly powerful and pleasurable.”
Recently, as communal life in Italy came to an agonized halt, the world caught a glimpse of this chorality in action. Videos of empty streets and locked-down high-rises brought to life by the singing of sequestered neighbors traveled around the internet. Like Italian movies, they mixed sentimentality with occasional silliness, but they also had a haunting, consoling aesthetic power.
Those songs, so potent in their impotence, so inessential and yet so necessary, were reminders of what we stand to lose, and why we can’t stand to lose it. None of us is a hero: We are the chorus in this tragedy. We mourn for art because at the moment we are unable to mourn through art. What we do now is grieve, so that we can survive.