The Body, Unignorable

March 16, 2020 § Leave a comment

As I write this Italy is reporting its deadliest day since the beginning of the coronavirus. 368 people are dead, and I am reading A.E. Van Vogt’s Slan, Larry Niven’s Ringworld, and Margaret Atwood’s Oryx and Crake for a module called “Altered Humans – Longevity.” When I envisioned this week on my schedule, I was primarily drawn to Ringworld and Slan, bold dreams of what is possible with the human body in the hands of science fiction. Now, I’m preoccupied solely by survival.

For that, only Atwood will do.

Despite its fixation on the form, in much of altered-human science fiction the body is not the body. The body is potential, the body is possibility, the body is the “before.” These texts look at the body in a way that is already looking beyond it. Not so, Oryx and Crake. In the process of having to explain his form to genetically engineered children, the protagonist Jimmy/Snowman explicates the body as is. He doesn’t have too much skin, he has wrinkles from aging. His facial hair he explains as “feathers.” A wonderful example of this fixating-on-but-not-seeing the body happens in text, when Snowman and Crake are teenagers. In a future with an abundance of edgy content online, they are exposed to the body at its most extreme. They watch executions, suicides, and every kind of sex act with regularity. They see the bodies, but they don’t. Then one day a trafficked young girl, Oryx, makes eye contact with the camera, and therefore the viewers. In Oryx’s gaze, the reality of the actual bodies beneath the entertainment seeps into Snowman in a way that never leaves him. He later is able to understand these spectacles anew: “…the body had its own cultural forms. It had its own art. Executions were its tragedies. Pornography, its romance.”

This is our Oryx moment.

The body has become blatant, unignorable. We are now hyperaware of our hands and our faces. We are aware of how carelessly and often we touch. We notice the coughs of others. We assess those we care about by their bodies’ vulnerability. We do not let ourselves touch our grandparents. We do not let ourselves touch our immunocompromised friends.

We know now how much we want to touch those we cannot.

We know now there are people we cannot help but touch, though we should not.

Oryx and Crake ends the way we are beginning: “Conspiracy theories proliferated…don’t-travel advisories were issued in the first week, handshaking was discouraged. In the same week there was a run on latex gloves and nose cone filters.” Next, England closes its ports and airports, and all hospitals are closed. The population is advised not to exit the cities. The sick are told to stay home, drink fluids, and call a hotline. While I hope we can bypass the ending fate of the world Atwood creates, there is one social consequence hinted at in the text that I believe this awareness of one another shields us against: “He’d grown up in walled spaces, and then he had become one. He had shut things out.”

Social media is alight with people rejecting this “shutting out.” There are pictures of children visiting their parents and grandparents, just to stand by a closed window and talk on the phone. A man forbidden from seeing his wife in her nursing home stood on the lawn outside holding a sign declaring his love for her. There are no shortages of complaints about how students have reacted to university closings: gathering in the streets and open spaces in exactly the way they are not supposed to. Confined to their homes, the quarantined sing from their balconies.

This is the pandemic for people who have read Edgar Allen Poe’s “The Red Death” and decided to go in the opposite direction.

I hope this virus is short-lived. I hope this awareness and appreciation for one another is not.


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