“No wonder I’m a bit under par
For you’re so near and yet so far.”(Cole Porter, “So Near And Yet So Far”)
Lately, coronavirus-induced thoughts have been contaminating all of my other thoughts. This is not good for my other thoughts, and so, to protect them, I have made the difficult decision to quarantine, for the foreseeable future, all my coronavirus-related thoughts here on this site, which I have created expressly for this purpose.
These measures may seem harsh, but I firmly believe that the exigencies of the current moment required that I take bold and decisive action. Moreover, the reader is asked to bear in mind that these measures only seem harsh because the metaphor of quarantining is so grim. If the reader prefers, they may instead imagine this website, not as a quarantine facility, but rather as a “holding environment,” in D. W. Winnicott’s phrase: a protective, nurturing enclosure in which said thoughts may flourish and be themselves without fear of repression or censure.
All right then? Good.
The phrase “So near and yet so far” captures something of the peculiar quality of this global disaster. On the one hand, the coronavirus has permeated almost every facet of daily life. On the other hand, unlike other emergencies I have experienced, there is no scent of smoke in the air, no sound of a SWAT team entering the building. I’m just sitting in my living room as usual. It looks more or less as it always does, except perhaps a bit tidier, because I’ve had more time to clean recently, and there’s some banana bread on the table, because I’ve had more time to bake. It’s also very quiet, except for the sound of a bird singing outside. I notice birdsong a lot more these days. Perhaps that’s because it’s spring, or perhaps because I’m spending more time in the yard, or perhaps because, with the ambient hum of human activity turned down, my ear now picks out the notes more easily.
The coronavirus feels like it is both everywhere and nowhere; it’s the dissonance between those two feelings that the phrase “so near and yet so far” captures. COVID-19’S effects are pervasive and violent; but the virus itself is imperceptible. Moreover, its ravages take place behind closed doors. The most visible sign of the coronavirus’s impact on daily life are not its symptoms but the masks we wear to prevent its spread. Meanwhile, the coronavirus’s toll, its permutations and possible trajectories, is relentlessly, endlessly telegraphed to us via every imaginable medium.
The dissonance between my lived experience and the reality of the disaster is so jarring as to almost feel like a form of gaslighting. It’s a global pandemic but I’ve never felt more like a monad. It’s an emergency, but emergencies require immediate action, rapid response; this emergency requires sewing. It’s a disaster, but disasters are usually sudden; this disaster is dilated, like a car-crash unfolding in slow motion. To be experiencing this pandemic at a remove is obviously a privilege; but there’s also something deeply disconcerting to feel one’s sympathetic nervous system gearing up in response to a threat that is only perceived indirectly: that is, to a threat that feels so near and so far at the same time.
“So Near and Yet So Far” is also the name of a song that Cole Porter wrote for the 1941 Fred Astaire and Rita Hayworth film, You’ll Never Get Rich. (That’s right, I’m now transitioning from coronavirus to a 1940s song and dance number). The song has nothing to do with anything I was just discussing; but I like the way the lyrics “No wonder I’m a bit under par / For you’re so near and yet so far” capture the idea that the perceptual dissonance caused by an object that seems close and distant at the same time is in itself psychologically unsettling.
Astaire and Hayworth dance to the song in a striking number in which Hayworth at first demurs in response to Astaire’s advances and then—in what is apparently a unique instance in Astaire’s career—leads a now-reluctant and standoffish Astaire into the choreography (see Priscilla Peña Ovalle’s discussion of the choreography in Dance and the Hollywood Latina Race, Sex, and Stardom (Rutgers, 2011), 84-86).
You should watch it; it’s absolutely gorgeous, and also a brilliant choreographic expression of ambivalent or resistant attachment, about which more in my next post.