You would think that now that the world has come to a halt, I would find more time to write. But, quite to the contrary, I’ve been having trouble reading, let alone writing. It’s near impossible for my mind not to wander off after a few pages; the lizard part of my brain deems it much more important to ceaselessly track the increasing number of COVID cases than it is to contemplate the labyrinthine work of Kafka.
I certainly haven’t made it easy for myself with my choice of reading material; Kafka’s work oozes with the paranoid, hypochondriac anxiety that I’ve had far too much of in the past days. I’m halfway through The Burrow, which describes the psychological torture that a burrowing animal endures, knowing that no matter how carefully concieved and constructed their home is, the looming dangers of the outside are always on the verge of seeping through the cracks. As I wash my hands for the fourteenth time in a day, I can’t help but picture the burrowing creature slamming their furry head against the earth to form the walls of their tunnel.
The global mandate of social distancing has forced me to confront the substance of my own burrow: a bed pushed up into a corner by the window, a decaying office chair, a faux mahogany desk, an electric guitar, and a shelf of unopened books. What exactly is it that I’m building a bulwark against? What sort of den have I made myself? What subterranean creatures do I think might burst through my floorboards? It seems the unopened books may give the biggest clue.
The indictment Kafka makes seems clear. These constructed signifiers of the life I’ve attempted to design have themselves become a prison. I should leave behind these impositions of modernity and search for the authentic, unstructured life. As the burrowing creature notes at one point, it seems happier to live in an open field of danger than it is to become pathologically fixated on certain particular dangers.
And yet to take The Burrow as a cautionary tale would seem inappropriate in these times. I live not in a burrow but in a warren, populated by multitudes. Every person I pass on the street opens up the inside of their home to me; a careless gesture on my part could shatter the life they have constructed. Thus, to be a hypochondriac is to be noble, and to take hold of life’s pleasures or dangers is to betray the warren. Perhaps that is the true horror of postmodernity: in being connected to everyone and everything, we become responsible for everyone and everything. The pursuit of an authentic life in the liberal tradition is no longer possible, if it were ever possible at all.
Of course, I don’t yet know how this story ends. From its trajectory, I would venture to guess that the last pages will feature the compacted earthen walls collapsing so that the outside rushes ruthlessly inward. I hope that my instincts are wrong. I’ll keep you updated.