Murray Siskind, a character in Don DeLillo’s novel White Noise, once remarks that human beings form crowds as a “shield against their own dying” because “to become a crowd is to keep out death. To break off from the crowd is to risk death as an individual, to face dying alone. Crowds came for this reason above all others. They were there to be a crowd.” In the form of violent mobs, crowds can commit some of humanity’s worst excesses—Siskind, a professor of Hitler Studies, a discipline he created to feed his obsession with death, is talking about the crowds who came to hear Hitler speak: they assembled in the name of death, in order to ward off their own fears of death. But, although a crowd can be dangerous, there is also a deep evolutionary need to gather in crowds—a need that serves a much healthier function. Human beings often congregate as a way to feel safe and protected. We’ve all heard the cliché safety in numbers. Feeling safe in a crowd stems from our own evolutionary need for community. After all, what is a church but a place to congregate and ask those biggest existential questions and perhaps address our greatest fears? For DeLillo, assembling in a crowd is both protection from and an expression of our fear of death. As Cornel Bonca argues in his essay “Don DeLillo’s White Noise: The Natural Language of the Species,” the “white noise” of DeLillo’s novel, which was heavily influenced by the Ernest Becker classic The Denial of Death, is the way in which modern humans express and cope with the fear of death: “Because for DeLillo, while white noise certainly registers the ways in which Americans evade their death fear, it can also be heard—provided we learn to listen properly—as a moving and quite beautiful expression of that death fear.”
Later in the novel, an existential “situation” occurs, a vague catastrophic “airborne toxic event,” as DeLillo calls it, which disrupts society and possibly exposes the protagonist, Jack Gladney, to something that could kill him, depending on a number of factors, including his age, genetics and medical and psychological history. The technician who tests him tells him, “You are the sum total of your data. No man escapes that.”
Whenever a threat reminds us that we are mortal, one of our most primal instincts is to huddle together. After my father died, as distraught as I was, I experienced some of the warmest and most comforting moments among my family members. I felt a similar warmth in America just after 9/11. For a little while, these events change us. People become more open with each other. Petty arguments dissolve as we sit around eating, drinking and talking together. It is a momentary reprieve. A long sigh.
One of the ironies of the current global situation confronting humanity is our inability to huddle together in the safety of a crowd. In fact, we have been instructed to do just the opposite. Social distancing. Self-isolation. Self-quarantine. All these terms pose a primal threat to us psychologically and exacerbate our fears. The last thing one wants to do is be faced with an existential threat alone (whether that threat is the virus itself or the social panic that is emptying grocery stores of toilet paper, food, etc.). And yet, despite that, even if we must physically isolate ourselves at this moment, I am getting the feeling that we almost needed a moment like this, almost wanted it. This is not to discount the seriousness of this threat nor the tragic fate of those who have died. But, at times, I can’t help but feel that—although we didn’t know it—we were looking for a reason to unite. Covid-19 just happened to arrive in time, when we all needed to breathe (though, ironically, breathing itself is now a risk).
The other day, when my university decided to cancel classes, and I was about to leave work for who knows how long, I went down a flight of stairs from my office to say goodbye to a friend in his. “Doesn’t the vibe just seem good right now?” he said. Earlier, I had been conversing and joking with some colleagues I see every day, but rarely even say hello to.
Like DeLillo’s airborne toxic event, the threat of the pandemic is real but vague for most of us—as all existential threats are, until they aren’t. But, in another way, our reaction to this event suggests something deeper than just our fear and our desire to protect the vulnerable. Worn down by politics, social media spats and unfulfilling work, it may also be an expression of our exasperation with what we might call the virus of modern life.
This past Friday night, as a means of social distancing, my girlfriend and I stayed in and drank wine. On Twitter, I came across YouTube clips of Italians on lockdown singing in their neighborhoods. Maybe it was the wine, but I became obsessed with these videos. One clip showed a neighborhood in Rome at dusk, with all these families—children, parents, grandparents— standing on the balconies of yellow and pink buildings, waving to each other and singing a popular Italian song. Another video, published by the Guardian, showed a montage of people in different neighborhoods. One clip showed a dark, empty, lamplit street in Siena, where the sole voice of a man reverberated in a popular ballad, in which he was soon joined by all his neighbors.
Sometimes it takes an existential threat to find the beauty again. I felt overwhelmed watching these videos—but the feeling I had wasn’t sadness or anxiety. Just as I felt neither of those things when I walked into my classes on Wednesday for the last time and explained to my students that the university was shutting down and told them to stay safe. It wasn’t happiness, either. It was something I hadn’t felt towards my fellow humans for a long time. I wouldn’t call it distancing. I might call it love.