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"The Pandemic Within, the Pandemic Without", essay excerpt

Friday 3/27/20

People coming out of the woodwork. I will not give it the time or the energy. My focus is on one thing, and one thing only, and that is getting past the blockades and the cliques and the decrees of this industry and reaching the world. Today will be a productive day. I am doing the whole of this essay on Defoe's A Journal of the Plague Year. An excerpt here, from the piece, which is called "The Pandemic Within, the Pandemic Without: Daniel Defoe's A Journal of the Plague Year in the Time of COVID-19." This is good, this is true, and it's unlike what anyone else is saying in print.

I am writing at a high level, and I am writing, it feels, everything. At this point, there is no separation, the multiple files are all open, and I go from the short story to the op-ed to the literary essay to the music piece to the article on Renan to the new pandemic story (well, soon enough on this last one). It is worth, noting, too, the guiding principle of this journal, and that is the truth. The rule here is if it is true, it can be said. And that means about these people, and it means about me, too, and what I do. There has not been a single word of un-truth in the entirety of this record, this being post #593. Anything I say about my work is true, except insofar as I am understating things. The work backs it up. The quality, the quantity, the range, the singularity.

It is not my fault I do what I do at the level I do it. I am not going to pretend it is anything other than what it axiomatically is, what it undeniably is. I am in a situation where an entire industry, because of a blackballing, discrimination, hate, and envy, is going to make sure that no one says a word about that work. What am I supposed to do? The same? Just take that, just die in poverty and anonymity when I can do what I do, when I work harder at this than anyone has worked harder at anything, ever? Why would I do that? What kind of suicide mission would that be? Why would I contribute to what is happening here against me and my work? There is also this truism of life: People can read something they can think it's the greatest work of genius they have ever seen. Hear something, see something. But if other people are not saying it, the person who thinks it is going to be far less likely to say it without others. That's most people. That's almost everyone. That's just how confidence works. One person saying something true is more apt to get someone else to say that thing they think is true, and so forth. The Beatles' early singles were released in late 1963 and early 1964 in America. No one said a word about them. "I Want to Hold Your Hand." Nothing. People heard it. But they heard it in isolation, they heard it without buzz, they heard it without other people saying it was awesome. Then, huge marketing campaign. Everyone starts to say it, because everyone else is. Same people. Same music. But you didn't have to say it alone at that point, and when you don't have to say it alone, you're far more likely to say it.

So yes, I will say what the work is, and no one who looks at these pages, or the work, can say the contrary, because this is real. I am real. That someone is doing this, at this level, is real. The work is real. This mind is real. This ability is real. This is not the Care Bears jamboree. This is a war I am in. And it's a war I'm fighting in large part, too, for my fellow human, millions of my fellow humans, because this work is going to mean something and give something to that fellow human, when the fellow human is aware of it, knows it's there to be sought out, should be sought out.

I have learned that if you say one thing, ever so slightly critical of someone (let alone catching someone dead to rights and absolutely pasting them and exposing their conduct), no matter how true it is, people now are so unbalanced, so unstable, they view it as an attack as if you'd raped and murdered their first born, their parents, and then had a go on them. Truth is not the enemy. The inability to be a critical thinker--or the unwillingness--is the enemy, because it stops the person from knowing their own self, and when you don't know that, you can't know much in this world, and you can't give much, you can't receive much. You are just kind of there, and when you are just kind of there, you want others to pretend everything is perfect, you want cliches, you want to be drenched in a stultifying form of naivete, and when that film is penetrated, you cry "you're a big meanie," or whatever else, often in uncontrolled, vituperative terms of hate and an all-too-telling level of anger, which is the anger that stems from the self, both the rejected self, and the unknown self, and the fear of probing deeply, or looking much at all.

I look. I see the truth. I say the truth. That is the rule of this journal, and it was a rule born of necessity, of a situation I came to, and a situation I was put in. But even if I had not been put in that situation, it would be impossible for me to think that these nearly 600 entries would be better off never having been composed. I think what is happening is important. And I think it is going to mean a great deal when the time comes. Until then, my focus is on getting that time to come. That sounded like a hand job. One knows what I mean.


Daniel Defoe was a man who wrote a lot of fiction that the readers of his time—and many in the centuries since—wanted to believe was something else. He was, through no fault of his own, seen as something of a purveyor of false news, even as a writer who could be a stickler for historical accuracy to the point of fastidiousness. If we happen to be someone who has not read Defoe’s 1719 volume Robinson Crusoe, we’ve doubtless seen film adaptations (or transmutations) or are generally familiar with the castaway marooned on an island and his most heathenistic—and useful—of adjutants in the invaluable Friday.

During Defoe’s lifetime, the scuttlebutt was that all of this was “real” in the sense that it had happened. There was awe and admiration and a certain distance-keeping from this alleged memoir-penning author fellow who had, as many believed, eaten a lot of clams, spent a lot of lonely days with skin cracking in the tropical sun. Just as fourteenth century Italians had encountered Dante on the streets and regarded him as the man who had been to hell and back, so it went with Defoe and Robinson Crusoe’s island.

We are veterans of the fake news scene by now, and yet we are continuously vulnerable to this brand of scourge, often times doing our own version of fearmongering and attention-courting because we lack a fundamental ability to be with ourselves. We have seen it throughout the COVID-19 pandemic, a subject Defoe knew quite a bit about, with a pandemic in his time that was exponentially more deadly.

This would be the Great Plague of London, one of those few forces regarding which one can be literal in saying that it decimated a region, repeatedly. Before the plague had begun in England, the diarist Samuel Pepys would track its approach by monitoring the chatter in the coffee-houses of his regular beat, acquiring the “deets” from travelers, people who had received letters from kith and kin abroad. But when we talk 1665 and the plague, we are mostly talking of London, with the scarlet crosses painted on doors, the guards outside, so that none could leave and none could enter, save the invisible agency of death. Which isn’t to say that visuals were not constant and constantly searing eyeballs—the infamous “plague pits,” with bodies piled atop bodies, rats feasting, would likely have caused Dante, even if he had been to hell and back, to think that Hades in general had a timeshare on earth.

Defoe was five in the year of London’s subsuming blight. He would have seen much, but his uncle, Henry Foe, would have seen more. You generally survived the plague one of two ways: You either possessed enough money that you left the city, hunkered down in your baronial country estate or some such; or you were damn lucky. There are amusing—in a macabre way—exceptions, as with the prisoners of the Tower of London, in essence quarantined via criminality. And while this plague was vastly deadlier than what we are experiencing, themes and patterns overlap.

I watch people all day long take to Facebook and attempt to out-scare each other, as if in a death-battle for attention. They are commonly the same people who fasten themselves to social media to complain about how busy they are. Now, they have time, and it seems that our prevailing human condition has become such that we are incapable of occupying our own minds and thoughts for the briefest intervals of time. We have become adult children who need keys dangling in our faces. People lie with regularity—the lachrymose accounts of going to the Trader Joe’s and wanting to hug a tearful cashier, all of those desperate stabs at look-at-me fiction that are less believable than Dante himself beholding Judas getting chomped in Satan’s mouth. People post endlessly, they brainstorm, aloud, the programs to “binge” on Netflix, and for all of the talk of changing one’s diet and health regimen, staring that novel, revisiting the works of Proust (I’m joking, but this depresses me, so spare me having a laugh), none of that happens. In fact, when people can garner attention for themselves, I believe we are so desperate for that attention that we don’t mind tragedy, suffering, pandemics. It can be another form of the dangling keys. A distraction, from everything we are not, an internal paucity where there is nothing to look at because we’ve left the shelves barren for so long.

The result is a different form of plague, that of mental inertia, which was a sizable enough issue for starters, a legitimate despoiler of our culture and cognitive culture. We ceaselessly externalize everything because we lack for healthy internal lives. COVID-19 can be instructive in this matter, a challenge worth answering to marshal the mental discipline—and also the courage—to venture inward and stay there a spell, apply some critical thinking not just to our prevailing modes of thinking, but also the self. But nah, we seem to say, I’ll post on Facebook 900 times a day and try to get me some likes.

Defoe was a gifted internalizer and paragon of the concomitant honesty required of the effort. He would have had to have been, to create his decidedly fictional character of Robinson Crusoe, who nonetheless embodied so much of our shared conditions, our fears, our need to allay fear the best we can, to get a handle on the un-masterable, realizing we can never fully—or even a little—master it. For such is life. But we might say that the gift of internal-mastering ran in the Defoe family. For our man Uncle Henry—Mr. Foe—was a saddler in the time of the plague, whose very job was oriented around getting you where you needed to be going, so it strikes me as apt that he did the same for his nephew by keeping a diary of all he saw during this tragic time. That diary must have been one potent family heirloom. It was handed down to Daniel, who, in the parlance of our times, had never been unable to un-see what he had seen, saw with new eyes—and saw, too, novelistic possibility.

The plague, as a literary device, had a long incubation period in Daniel Defoe, but the novel he ultimately created and published in spring 1722 was unlike any novel there had been. It was called A Journal of the Plague year, and such was its verisimilitude, that people were unwilling to accept it as fiction.


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