Coronavirus: The Symbolism of Epidemics (transcript)

(This post is the transcript for a Youtube video published March 19th and reflects the situation at the time. Link to video at the end of article.) During the past few weeks we have seen major disruptions in our lives. Everything is cancelled. Everyone is hunkered down due to the coronavirus outbreak.  Because part of the pattern of disease, especially infectious disease, is a breakdown of normal order, we are seeing the consequences play out at all levels of reality. Of course, it is a breakdown of the body as people get sick and some die, but it is also a breakdown of society as things get shut down such as schools, places of work, and even churches.. Fragmentation and isolation is happening at all levels, from the quarantine of people and families, to the shutdown of travel and the closing of borders.  Ultimately the breakdown is also happening to meaning, and so we are plagued with uncertainty and confusion. People are faced with an incapacity to differentiate between what is true and what is mere rumor or panic. We do not know what is reasonable and what is excessive. The measurements and predictions, that is the planning we usually deploy in our daily lives, falls apart as we face something unprecedented in our experience. We have seen a lot of crazy things, from the talks of bat soup to the hoarding of toilet paper, yet all of it makes sense when we see this event in a basic pattern.  So then  let us examine the symbolism of plagues and epidemics by using our current crisis as an example of the basic structure. We also hope to make sense of the very strange examples of epidemics in the Bible and shine a bit of light in this moment of uncertainty. The Basic Questions In order to make sense of what is happening on a social level, we need to understand what is at stake in terms of narrative and in terms of cultural struggle. The disease is of course real, but we don’t really know what it is. We know what it is scientifically, but we don’t know what it means for us. Because it is happening now, because we do not have the hindsight or external view of the overall disease, we cannot fully understand the dangers and ramifications of this situation. We cannot seem to slice between the dangers of the disease itself versus the dangers and ramifications of overreacting to the disease.  We are torn because we know that an excess on either side can cause massive damage to our fragile systems. Like all breakdowns of meaning, the questions which will arise will be the most basic: Questions of integrity, identity, the relationship between inside and outside, the limits we set between the two, and the solidity or flexibility of those limits.  In terms of the most basic human issues the questions of: Who we are, What we should do, and How we should relate to others, are perhaps paramount.  Humans have two basic modes of being.  There is what we could call a connected or eccentric mode. This is a movement towards the outside: adventure, openness, diversity, flexibility. It is the love of change and of novelty. It is the building of bridges. We find in this “connected mode” all the buzzwords we have been hearing from one side of the culture war.   The other mode of being is what we could call the separation or concentric mode. It is a move towards the inside,  the return to our roots and identity. It is the celebration and participation in our unique qualities, and it also requires differentiation from the outside.  Here we discover notions like nation, family, and religious identity. It can even find its manifestation in the building of walls. We find in the “separate mode” all the buzzwords we hear from the other side of the culture war.  Now what is at stake in this epidemic on the front line of culture, is not the disease itself, but it is ultimately a fight between two modes of being. You see, it is very difficult to limit these modes from manifesting themselves simultaneously at all levels of reality. So as all of this progresses, we will see very strange swings in discourse, and wee will see strange contradictions played out. Positions will flip from one side to the other, and then find themselves smashed against one another to the increase of confusion.  The same person who just a few weeks or two ago was screeching about not being racist and, how banning strangers from coming in is unacceptable, is the same today who is telling you to socially isolate yourself. The problem is that if we are going to engage these different modes of being, it is difficult if not impossible to avoid having them permeate from one level of reality to the next. Just the other day I watched my own prime-minister — the post-national, infinite openness, diversity is our strength Justin Trudeau — close down the border. Inside and Outside Now the dirty secret of an infectious disease is that it always comes from the outside.  It doesn’t matter at what level you see it.  If you are always alone, you will not get an infectious disease. You might get some other illness, but not an infectious one.  You always get an infection from someone else. It might be from a visitor, or from a stranger in a public place, but this is universally the case.  If one imagines the normal hierarchy of your being, one finds the source of your identity in your center. This center would be a form of communion which binds the elements of your being, but it is also that which binds you to your family, to your people, to your nation. The pattern is repeated at every level from which it is examined. As you move out from that center of identity, you discover different levels of “not you”. First you find friends, then acquaintances, strangers, ultimately even enemies. You can go further out and even identify animals on the very border of humanity. In a traditional world, one will also find monsters and ultimately chaos and death at the edge of the world.  Therefore, just as on the “edge” of the person we find animal flesh and the occurrence of death, so too infectious diseases find their origin from various levels on the outside: a visitor, a stranger or ultimately an animal.  In the case of the Coronavirus, it is not surprising that, like all other plagues, it comes from somewhere else like China, and that in China it is identified as coming from animals. For the Chinese as well it comes from the outside.  Many infectious diseases are identified with animals or vermin, such as the rats and fleas of the black death, the swine flu, aviary flu, etc.  HIV itself was rumored to have come about through some intercourse with monkeys or apes.  Of course some people will say that, “there is no proof” or that, “these are just stories”. Such statements completely miss the point however. Stories help us to understand what something is, they spark our intuition and reveal to us an identity even if we cannot know if these stories are factual or not.  If someone had posited that AIDS started with someone driving their car on a Monday, that would not stick in our memory because it makes no narrative sense within the context of what we understand a disease to be. No one would believe it.  With the present story of bat soup, it is not so relevant to know if this is the factual origin or not. We simply have to trust authorities on that end. But this story can help us see the basic pattern of an infectious disease. The bat is especially noteworthy in this case. Indeed, bats are some of the few monsters left in the world.  Most monsters have been relegated to the imagination with the advent of modern science. Despite this, there are still some creatures that seem to inhabit an in-between space and give off a “monstrous” vibe. Among these creatures are whales, duck billed platypuses, and even bats.   Bats still appear to us as strange curiosities on the edge and in-between categories.  Modes of Being Since the end of WWII as a reaction to the Axis powers and their values, the western world has emphasized what we can call a connected mode of being. We see this in the United Nations, and in the concept of a Global Village.  Our culture is defined by cosmopolitan internationalism in trade and culture as well as in multicultural nation states operating with high levels of mass-immigration.   This story of the acceptance of the “other” has been almost religious in its tone.  Therefore as an epidemic is forcing us to isolate ourselves, the pain of changing the narrative is palpable.  The truth is that in a normal world, we must always find a balance between the connected and separated modes of being. One can imagine this as a form of breathing in and breathing out. We cannot live in total abandon of our identities as this will ultimately lead to breakdown, chaos and even disease.  For example, I have often been astounded at the naivete of people who insist that xenophobia is inherently evil, or who want to equate xenophobia with a form of racism.  This is a sign of blindness to patterns. We all practice xenophobia. We do this by telling our kids to beware of strangers with candy, by locking the doors of our house and our cars, and by not chewing pieces of gum found under the table. We are xenophobic by just having national borders and armies. For the same reason you would not walk carelessly in a dark room, it is also normal to have a healthy caution towards those  things we do not know.  The problem is rather a question of balance. We cannot, and do not want to completely isolate ourselves from others.  Isolation would cause a form of asphyxiation and incestuous self-reference. Yet, it is also imperative to notice that if you pull too hard on one side, you also increase the risks of an excessive side-effect.  We see this in the case of immune systems. If you are too cautious about foreign germ, or if you use too many disinfectants and are not in a normal contact with germs, you can develop allergies. Your immune system, not used to being in contact with strange things, will begin to interpret all foreign bodies as a threat.  All of this also happens on a social level. A recluse living in a gated community will ultimately fear all strangers and tend to see them as an immediate threat to their cohesion. As we enter a different mode of being because of the disease, such as this mode of isolation and protection, it is almost impossible to avoid the pattern playing out at all levels of society.  As you avoid coming close to other people and avoid public places, this inevitably means that borders will close, that more encompassing levels of organization will mirror what you are called to do on a personal level.  If not so long ago, those on the “connected” spectrum of society were accusing the US president of being a racist for stopping flights from China, it is already the case that such cries have stopped and the protectionist separation mode will take over everyone. It should be easy to notice how there is an analogy between the disease itself and what it causes in a society.  Just as the infectious disease breaks down your body and its functions. and isolates us from others through things like quarantine, the disease does the same in society as a whole. We have breakdown and fragmentation as well as a falling back on those basic identities such as family and self.  As we enter the separate mode of being, the shortcomings and fragility of an excessively connected mode will become more and more apparent.  We have created a world so far reaching and so dependent on the interrelation of distant parts, that as we fall back on ourselves, the entire system will appear as if it might breakdown.  The emphasis on an inter-related specialization at all levels of society, connected by exchange and transportation, has made the entire system simultaneously extremely efficient and frighteningly fragile.  If the connections break down, we will experience an accelerating fragmentation that will resemble the decomposition that occurs when the functions of a body break down in death.  This will appear more clear as the isolation takes its toll.  Symbolism Happens In order to understand epidemics and infections, we also need to understand purity. Looking at how such things appear in Scripture will therefore be a most useful tool.  As we approach this however, we have a small problem.  For at least a century, we’ve seen the rise of a pernicious narrative regarding scripture and its purity laws.  We are often told by scholars that the scriptural laws about things like handwashing and the mixing of different materials or animals, are merely examples of a primitive and clumsy attempt at hygiene..  Such a position is an understanding of the world that is completely upside down.   Purity, with both its advantages and disadvantages, appears at all levels of reality.  You wash your hands to get rid of all that is foreign from them, but acts of purity also plays out at a social level. Imagine that the Russians assign spies and agents to sow discord in your country by spreading rumors or to “influence your elections” through a variety of manipulations. If that is the case, you want to identify those foreign influences, and root them out to prevent them from infecting your country.  The same can happen at any level of reality. If you discover that a person is sick with an infectious disease, you will want to isolate yourself from them.  It is not just a question of hygiene but one of borders. The pattern appears when you are saying goodbye to your guests at the end of an evening. It even applies to the simple act of distinguishing between any categories at all. It is an act of purity to differentiate a raven from a writing desk.  Understanding how purity is a basic pattern of reality will help us identify it when it happens, and it will also help in preventing us from letting it manifest itself in an unwieldy and unconscious manner.  An inability to see patterns is what brought about the maddening spectacle we have seen in the United States in the last few years, where the same people who scream about Russian interference in the US election simultaneously advocate for open borders and non-citizen vote.   Because people are so unconscious and because it is inevitable that infection comes from the outside, as the mode of being changes from connectivity to separateness there is a great risk of various things which might occur.  Firstly there is a risk of great excess .  There is also a risk of scapegoating or  demonizing which might bubble up in an unconscious manner. Finally there is also a danger of using this state of fragmentation and breakdown of intermediary groups like workplaces, community groups, churches and businesses, as a basis for creating an even greater and more-encompassing system of control.  The Crown Virus and Golden Hemorrhoids One of the most fascinating aspects of the recent virus, is of course its name.  The Corona, or Crown virus seems like a strange appellation. One can point to the mechanical origin of the term of course, and observe the aura or crown-like physical protrusions on the exterior of the virus itself..  However, there is also an explanation related to meaning. I have often pointed out that there is a relationship between death and glory, and how even the word “crown” has the same origin as the word “horn”.  There is an obvious similarity to  animal horns, which are dead protrusions at the top of the head and used as weapons, and the crown of a human king.   One is death, and the other is glory, but more profoundly we discover how these two concepts are linked together.  In the narrative found in Christianity, death is the consequence of the loss of glory.  This occured when Adam fell in the garden and his garments of glory became garments of skin.  It was then that his nakedness of innocence became a nakedness of shame. Ultimately in the story of Christ we see how death and glory are reunited on the cross.  In general, the manner in which infectious disease breaks down levels of structure and identity, with its relationship to the strange, the outside, and to animality, is found throughout the Bible. In the book of Samuel, the Philistines, who are the great enemy of Israel, home of the famous giant Goliath, steal the Ark of the Covenant and bring it into the temple of Dagon.  The bringing in of that holy, sacred, and forign object from Israel seems quite sacrilegious when it is placed within the temple of the Philistine god.  The Ark shatters the statue of Dagon, but it also causes the God of Israel to plague the Philistines with an epidemic.  The word used to translate this disease has different renderings.  It has been called hemorrhoids, or tumors in the hidden places.  It is not inaccurate to say they developed these fleshy outgrowths “where the sun don’t shine”.  At the same time there was also a plague of rats or mice.   Already one can see all the elements I have discussed lining up.  The disease comes from the outside, by the Ark of  the Covenant coming to a foreign land.  This plague is an excess of flesh and is related to animals, like rats.  It is not difficult  to see an analogy between this story and the bubonic plagues of the late Middle-Ages and early modern period.  Just like the current outbreak, the Medieval plagues also came from China.  In strange consonance with the Biblical story, they were  caused by rats and manifested themselves as large bubos or swelling of the lymph nodes mostly in the groin or armpits.  It is not even necessary to postulate that these are the same disease to notice that symbolism happens.    In order to get rid of the plague, the Philistines had to return the Ark to the Israelites,but they also had to do something else.   They had to make golden versions of the hemorrhoids and of the rats and offer them up to God.  At first glance this appears as the strangest thing in the world.  It is however important to understand what is going on.  We find here the same pattern as the Bronze serpent which Moses made in the desert.  The glory of the Ark had become death to the Philistines, and now in order to flip this back, they had to make golden versions of their disease.  They had to make ornaments, something not unlike a crown, out of them. By giving them to God, they were lifting up an aspect of the disease in order to heal them from the plague.  Of course in terms of patterns, we still do that today. A vaccine or an antidote also manifests this pattern, where an aspect of a disease is understood and used meaningfully. Lifted up taken then as a supplement, the vaccine or antidote can make one immune from the disease or poison.    There is another important plague in the Bible which can help us understand the pattern as well.  In his story, there is a moment where King David wants to know how many warriors he can muster to attack his enemies.  In order to find that out, he orders a census of the population.  This is seen as a great sin in the story.  Biblical scholars will argue over the technical reason why this is such a sin, but in terms of the symbolic structure, we can see how David wanted to account for everything with the purpose of attacking his foreign enemy. This is difficult for some people to understand, but the desire to account for everything is an overreach of the system, it is order trying to contain everything without leaving a chaotic margin, or buffer on the edge.  In the Biblical Law, you always have to leave a remainder for the foreigner, the corners of the field for example.  We see an example of this in Revelations 11, where the Angel gives St-John a measuring rod and tells him to go measure the temple, but warns him to not measure the outer court, “for it has been given to the Gentiles”.  It is easy to see that David has tried to completely contain all of his people in order to protect himself from the foreigner.  You can see it as someone who has kept his house completely clean and germ free for years.The result for David is that he is given three choices of a punishment:
  1.       Three years of famine.
  2.       3 months of falling at the sword of his enemy
  3.       3 days of pestilence. 
That man who tried to prevent all contact with germs for years has made himself weaker than before to disease by lack of exposure on the margin.  David chose the pestilence, but one can see, with this rhythm of three, how the three punishments are analogically the same, related to death, but at different scales of reality.   Interpreting The Strangeness Hopefully now some of the stranger aspects of what is currently happening are more clear. Why are we hoarding toilet paper? Of course we can point to mechanical reasons. Toilet paper is bulky, and so when you see it piled up on someone’s cart, you notice and then think of getting some yourself. Then as people see the stocks go down, they hoard it in a panicked mode.  But there is also a reason related to meaning.  As we fall into separation and protection mode, we intuitively know that the bathroom is the basic place where we define what is alive and dead, what is us, and what is not us.  This is true even though we may know that there is no significant scientific relationship between the virus and the bathroom.  It is the most basic place where one reaffirms one’s identity through an act of elimination and cleaning.   Thisis why the question of bathrooms also became so important in the transgender debates, because it was about identity and about delimiting or smudging clear categories. Hopefully now some of the stranger aspects of what is currently happening are more clear.  Understanding this symbolism can help us to keep a clear head, as people flip-flop in their narrative.  As they go from “don’t be racist” to “isolate yourself from everyone”, we need to see clearly what is happening to prevent unnecessary panic and unnecessary naivete.  With a clear sight we can perhaps navigate with a balanced perception of what is going on around us.  So I wish you all a calm and productive quarantine for those who are doing that.  As we are in the midst of Great Lent, this isolation can be an opportunity for prayer and fasting, and for avoiding the noise and learning to trust God for what is to come.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *