Soraya Roberts | Longreads | April 2020 | 10 minutes (2,540 words)
Your bread is making me sick. I don’t have to eat it. I see it. Everywhere. In every tweet, every photo, every message. It’s spread from all over my social media feed to all over my news feed. Always that round pebbly brown and beige crust. Rustic as fuck. Even if you can’t touch it, smell it, taste it, the starter is the proof. That cement-looking mix with the gas bubbles shoved into those mason jars everyone seems to have. When I see it, all I can think is: Desperation. I think: That bread can’t save you. You will die, maybe even sooner rather than later — despite the bread. Because that bread is made of yeast. And that yeast is alive, just as you are alive. And just as your body does, it reacts to the world unpredictably. So, if it makes you feel better, write down the exact ingredients, the precise measurements, but your recipe can’t account for random events and neither can you. As uncertain as you are that that starter will turn into that bread is as uncertain as you are that your body will survive all of this. Neither is trustworthy.
I get it. I also operate according to the delusion that I can control my body. That I created the way I look. That I deserve all the credit and all the blame. That it has nothing to do with the food industry pushing synthetic shit down my throat or the healthcare system for ignoring that fact, or anything, you know, cultural or political. That the foundation for my well being resides entirely within the four walls of my flesh. It’s the physicality of it, I guess — I inhabit it, which automatically makes it seem as though I have authority over it. But that’s where the body, the reality of it, collides with the reality of a virus. The way you can’t see it; the way it invades you, invisibly. It exposes the human body for what it really is: something that is at all times at the mercy of the unknowable. But when have we not tried to conquer the unknown? It’s human to want to survive, but humans have also created conditions in which what we conceive of as the ingredients we need to survive — the natural world, a peaceful coexistence within it — is opposed to our daily lives.
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“Humans currently find themselves in a kind of alternative world. Put more simply, everyone is out for themselves. They no longer notice all the things that are wrong around them,” says the pale cachectic man with the unfortunate bangs who lives in the cabin in the woods in the German crime series Pagan Peak. “People are constantly trying to wield power over others by exploiting them. Criminals, corrupt politicians, greedy managers, unscrupulous investors. The whole rabble. These people are causing the whole system to collapse. Everything’s falling apart. And what remains?” At this point the man has moved to his doorstep with the eastern European immigrant he is speaking to, both of them looking up at the stars as the snow surrounds them: “The woods. The sky. That remains.” It all sounds very Rousseau-ian (and Herzog-ian), until you realize this same man has spent the entire series killing one person after another — a “greedy manager,” a “corrupt politician,” an influencer, and even, inadvertently, a child — as a means of re-establishing, “order between man and nature.”
It felt uncanny to watch a show I initially knew nothing about hew so closely to the current moment. To watch a story about nature’s dominion over man, man’s belief in his dominion over nature, and death after death after death, as the same narrative unravels around me. Gregor Ansbach, the man exalting the natural world while executing those who populate it, is in tech, because of course he is: he is Jeff Bezos is Jack Dorsey is Mark Zuckerberg, wealthy white tech entrepreneurs convinced they can transcend the limits of the planet. Men whose ambition of immortality extends from their professional legacies to their own physiques. You knew the homemade artisanal bread trend came from Silicon Valley, right? “Ever looking for spiritual leaders to guide them out of moral bankruptcy, and to connect them back to the offline world they had previously abandoned,” Dayna Evans wrote in Eater in 2018, “the disruptors, engineers, and tech bros of Silicon Valley and beyond had found themselves a new prophet.”
But bread is no prophet, and it was never the point. The point is supremacy. If you can fix anything mechanical that comes your way, you can fix anything anatomical that does, right? The body is just a machine, yes? These men flex in confirmation by troubleshooting themselves just as they troubleshoot everything else; self-improvement through intermittent fasting, through silent meditation retreats, through fitness trackers. Having mastered the virtual world, the physical world they rendered redundant is now all they live for — these laymen we turned into Gods for creating proxy lives, have turned “real” life into a luxury only they can afford.
The shift toward more stasis, less action, more inside, less outside, more ordering, less making, has been a long time coming. It’s hard to know how much I have chosen this life of constant internal work — thinking, thinking, thinking — and how much I’m just succumbing to a general cultural gravitation. And yet those afforded the least time to cultivate lofty internal lives are now the ones rescuing everyone else. The doctors, the nurses, the pharmacists, the grocery store clerks, the delivery men and women, the sanitation workers. They are the only ones that we really need; the ones whose pictures have not been painted, whose music has not been composed, whose words have not been written, because of all the other work they have to do. The only work that matters, really. It’s emasculating, to feel like this — to be completely useless in the final analysis. For your only means of helping to be by doing nothing.
At the same time, it’s hard to shake this creeping sense of betrayal. That one’s lifestyle is being pathologized. Those of us who live primarily a life of the mind — the academics, the writers, the coders, the designers, the people who work in their basements and living rooms even outside of a lockdown — have lately been lauded for our proficiency at staying in. But it’s a compliment that drips with denigration. It says your lifestyle suits a once-in-a-lifetime global pandemic…but not much else. The question I keep getting, “How do you live like this?” implies that my life is the symptom of an illness. It does not imply that it is the symptom of an economy in part created by those same techies who originated it, who profit from the rest of us being unstable — working from home, all the time, no guarantees — and who clear the landscape of any other option. To be told that to protect ourselves within this isolation we must do everything we’re in the habit of not doing (standing up, working out, eating well) lays the blame at our feet. To be told this in the exact moment that old habits provide the only solace (dressing for comfort, comfort eating, even comfort watching) keeps us on the back foot. But, then, not budging is also our thing.
The return to old movies and television shows isn’t just because the production of new media is on hold. They are both a reminder of a world — a time — outside the pandemic, though even then it is near impossible not to infect the past with the present (social distancing most notably). We are going back to plague art for a guide, it seems, but we are also going back to other works that appeal to specific feelings provoked by the pandemic. At Vanity Fair, K. Austin Collins wrote about hearing someone sneeze within his general vicinity and then sprinting home to shower before throwing on The Thing, John Carpenter’s 1982 thriller about a research team in Antarctica riddled by an elusive alien infection. Of course, it’s the blood test, the “peak set piece,” he focuses on. “What’s clear is that for everyone on screen, the question of their own blood, and not just that of their compatriots, is a mystery. Their eyes shift from I know I don’t have it to, in the moment of being tested, Do I?” he writes. “The central condition of The Thing isn’t just the isolation or the infection, however. It’s the unknowing. The uncertainty one might have about even their own body.”
That’s it. That’s the thing (hah). The untrustworthiness. The lack of trust in anyone, including yourself. How unsettling. The most unsettling. What’s the point of having agency, of being self-actualized, when your physical self might betray the whole thing? Even despite the face mask and the hand sanitizer and the social distance and the exercise and the salad, so much salad. That very slight discomfort behind my eyes, the sinuses quick to congestion, the minor wheeze when I jog in the afternoons, the almost imperceptible dryness in my throat — is it the pollen in the air? The dry heat from the radiators? Or is it the thing? The thing that I expect to get but not really. The thing that I expect to kill me but not really. But will it? All that fast food I’ve eaten, all that exercise I haven’t done, will it finally catch up with me? What did all those survivors and all those asymptomatic people do? Did they get eight hours of sleep every night? Did they stress less (you know stress immunosuppresses, right)? What choices did they make that their bodies chose life?
“Overwhelmed by choice, by the dim threat of mortality that lurks beneath any wrong choice, people crave rules from outside themselves, and successful heroes to guide them to safety,” writes Michelle Allison in The Atlantic. “If you are free to choose, you can be blamed for anything that happens to you: weight gain, illness, aging — in short, your share in the human condition, including the random whims of luck and your own inescapable mortality.” What she is really talking about is all that bread, all those greens, all that running we never did before. She is talking about tricking God.
I don’t believe in God but that doesn’t mean I’ve escaped Christian morality; it’s baked into our bread (sorry, I’ll stop talking about bread — you first, though). And root vegetables. And hundred-mile Peloton rides. Ever heard of “moral treatment”? It’s the treatment of the mentally ill by manual labor, sanity “through self-discipline.” It reminds me of the people who suddenly start going to church when something bad happens, like they can hedge their bets by paying their dues before Jesus gets wise. Or addicts who think they can wipe themselves clean — of all those cigarettes, all that alcohol, all that sex — by loudly getting healthy. All those people on social media sharing their kale-stuffed recipes as though the virus will give them a pass for good behavior. As Allison wrote, “clean eating rarely, if ever, occurs in secret.” (Comfort eating, on the other hand, exclusively does.) That’s why the scariest Covid-19 stories are the ones about the healthy kids who died anyway, the adults with “no underlying conditions” who were swept away. And still there’s an explanation: They were just unlucky edge cases. There was something about their bodies the family didn’t share. Some reason. Something knowable.
What we do know is devastating enough. Which is that even if we do everything right, we are still at the mercy of an unpredictable virus and a healthcare system that is as capricious. Bureaucracy is a body too, one which, it has become increasingly obvious, is itself disintegrating. Without it to support us, we attempt to keep ourselves in order, in hand, in control. It is a task on a larger scale, perhaps, but one that is not so different from trying to command the recalcitrant yeast in our kitchens. Maybe that’s why I gravitated toward Eliza Hittman’s new indie, Never Rarely Sometimes Always, which navigates the labyrinthine bureaucracy around abortion in America and serendipitously got a wider release because of the pandemic. The film follows a 17-year-old girl on an odyssey from Pennsylvania to New York in the hopes of terminating her pregnancy. When Autumn’s hometown clinic initially confirms she is pregnant, she is told she is 10 weeks along — two-and-a-half months in, plenty of time to abort. Preternaturally resigned, Autumn doesn’t react much beyond a brief wince when the doctor introduces, “the most magical sound you will ever hear,” before the “wow wow wow” sound of the unwanted fetus pulses out of the machine beside her. But she can handle it — “I’m fine, just tired,” she says days later. This is in New York at her Planned Parenthood appointment, right before she is told she is 18 weeks pregnant, not 10. She’s not fine then.
I read April’s response to hearing she is in her second trimester as betrayal, by both the health institution and by her own body. The system she can’t trust is all around her, but also within her; the first deception was by her own body, falling pregnant without her consent. Her devastation is born of the realization that not only can no one else in her life be trusted, she can’t even trust herself.
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“If we cannot escape death,” writes Allison, “maybe we can find a way to be declared innocent and undeserving of it.” But that’s hard to do when the only thing you can really do is nothing. When you can’t manifest the one thing you want in the place that invented manifest destiny. When the entire plan is based on the lie that our bodies are not destabilized by forces as unpredictable as the system in which we find ourselves. Which is the reason we all feel so defeated despite all the vitamins and the pilates and the hand washing. To expect yourself to be responsible for your body, in all its uncertainty, is to underwrite an existence which is at odds with itself. Mortality has no more morality than a virus. Both are unreliable. Both are indifferent. Both affect us as they wish no matter our desires.
Convention dictates that I end this on a hopeful note, but our culture pits hope and death against one another — and death is always the eventuality. Of course, definitely, wash your hands, social distance, of course, of course, but don’t expect a guarantee. And don’t expect that that uncertainty must be tragic. That our bodies can’t ultimately be controlled means that we are fundamentally free from trying. So sure, make bread if it helps you feel better. Or don’t. Just know it’s all the same in the end, and the end is baked into the beginning.
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Soraya Roberts is a culture columnist at Longreads.