How far is a social distance?
'If we must "return to normality", let us walk in relation.'
Friends make pretense of following to the grave,
But before one is in it, their minds are turned
And making the best of their way back to life
And living people, and things they understand.
(Robert Frost, 'Home Burial')
A short while ago we visited some friends for a meal. This was within the rules in Germany. Wary of infection yet desperate for dialogue, we intended to barbecue – until the rain drove us in. There was heightened conviviality after months of isolation. No handshaking or hugs, to be sure, but once we got going the 1.5 metre rule flew out of the window, leaving any aerosols behind it.
Meanwhile in town it seemed nothing had ever been amiss. Barely a mask in sight, congregations of laughing youngsters, groups of men smoking, queues outside the ice-cream parlours. They must have heard the good tidings: "From the summer, a gradual recovery should get going, making for 4.9% growth in 2021", the German Council of Economic Experts, also known as the "Five Sages", had announced. Does the coronavirus listen much to sages? “The virus is still in our country", says Lothar Wieler, president of the Robert Koch Institute, "and if we give it a chance to spread, it will take it”. Yesterday the German R-rate rose to 2.88. This morning a regional lockdown was re-imposed in the federal state of North Rhine-Westphalia, whose premier, Armin Laschet, has been among the more voluble accelerators of a "return to normality". He wants to succeed Mrs Merkel at the CDU party conference in December.
By December, according to UNICEF, the effects of coronavirus could force another 100 million children in South Asia into poverty. There is relief as we make our way "back to life" (Robert Frost) – but an uncanny sense of obscenity too. The loved ones of some 470,000 victims of the pandemic are in mourning. With so much grief, what space for joy? But was it not ever thus? Or when did the bad old days end? And what of the much-invoked "return to normality"? How do we get there? Is it in the past or future, and how far away?
I decided to consult a map. A friend had phoned and suggested a walk in the forest. After treatment for cancer during the corona crisis he is now in remission, savouring the joys of survival. The map showed me that the road he had proposed cut out of town and swept along the edge of the woods in a series of deepening loops. Among the trees I saw footpaths but, curiously, no breach between road and forest. The mapped loops were like jostling bubbles, or clusters of cells pressing on an organ, or a representation of time in which the insistent past makes inroads into the present, its palpable pressure contained only by a thin membrane. The unity of time, place and social relations is more complex than Special Relativity. An image, a sound, a word, apparently arbitrary, may trigger the involuntary piercing of a membrane that separates us from otherwise remote events.
"Social distancing" for example (since 24 March the WHO has asked us to call the distance "physical"), may return us to various forms of segregative "normality" we have known. Set the clocks to 1960. I remember three separate Churches for the 700 souls in our village. On my first day at primary school I was asked if I supported Rangers or Celtic. Innocent of the consequences, I asked my father. He said Rangers was the correct answer; though unreligious himself, he knew his place was on the Presbyterian side of the West of Scotland sectarian abyss. Catholics and Irish were out of bounds. "Tinkers" (travellers or gypsies) were objects of abuse and, not infrequently, violence. I remember a loved person telling me to take a coin out of my mouth because a "black man" could have touched it. Of course these sectarian and racist chasms were buttressed by conventional class and sexual distancing (the pill had not yet arrived). Children were quite a different species from adults, and women from men. The picture emerges of a kind of karstic social landscape, riven by fissures and sinkholes. Social distancing was rife in 1960. This was normality, therefore largely unaddressed.
It is difficult to describe the widespread sadness reported by people in various kinds of social confinement today. We might however consider it as the result of disrelation under conditions of segregation. Allow me to cite two witnesses with experience of the West of Scotland "karst". According to R.D. Laing, whose major work The Divided Self was published in the year I entered primary school, “What we call ‘normal’ is a product of repression, denial, splitting, projection, introjection and other forms of destructive action on experience.” The philosopher John Macmurray, who published Persons in Relation a year later in 1961, also described a probable cause of confinement sadness. "The personal", he writes, "is constituted by personal relatedness. The unit of the personal is not the "I", but the 'You and I'". The isolated, segregated, or otherwise non-relating personality is therefore a painfully divided and diminished entity.
If we must "return to normality", let us walk in relation. Multi-insular virtual contact has nothing on responsible personal community.
This piece was first published in the July Splinters column.
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