Laughing at the Microbe

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Covid-19 will most likely prove one of those demarcating events in history that will be prefixed with “pre” and “post.” Until then, these are without doubt days of blind trust. No one is quite sure what is going on, but doubt is not a popular public disposition. With sorrow for those who have suffered due to the virus, is it too early to chuckle at pandemic absurdities?

A friend told me recently, “It’s okay to laugh at our tragicomic world. That’s how the Anglo-American mind best deals with absurdity. The French scoff; the Spanish weep; the Russians brood; the Irish sing; the Italians fight. We chuckle.” And so, with a healthy, Anglo-American, Catholic chuckle, let us turn to a tiny poem of titanic import by Hilaire Belloc, entitled “The Microbe.”

The Microbe is so very small
You cannot make him out at all,
But many sanguine people hope
To see him through a microscope.
His jointed tongue that lies beneath
A hundred curious rows of teeth;
His seven tufted tails with lots
Of lovely pink and purple spots,
On each of which a pattern stands,
Composed of forty separate bands;
His eyebrows of a tender green;
All these have never yet been seen—
But Scientists, who ought to know,
Assure us that they must be so…
Oh! let us never, never doubt
What nobody is sure about!

Never, ever doubt Mr. Belloc’s clairvoyance for our calamities—from Islamic extremism to the New Paganism, and now Covidism.

 

Socrates said somewhere that the humor associated with the ridiculous denotes self-ignorance. I’m not a virologist; neither am I a humorist. But I think I do have a sense of humor. If this virus is bringing anything out in its more ridiculous manifestations, it is the ignorance people have of who they are and what life is all about. As Belloc’s poem amusingly captures, these are days of doubt, of profound self-ignorance. It is no wonder, then, that so much of our newly adopted behaviors seem ridiculous.

G. K. Chesterton weighs in with his bulky brilliance on what’s wrong with the world—and it’s us. “Man is an exception,” Chesterton writes, “whatever else he is. If he is not the image of God, then he is a disease of the dust. If it is not true that a divine being fell, then we can only say that one of the animals went entirely off its head.”

Let’s not go off our heads and allow this disease to make diseases out of us.

Are the orders, the closures, the distancing, the isolating, and the hysteria all for the sake of the right thing? Is the focus on the value of life, or the fear of death? To be, or not to be? No one is sure—yet the question remains. Uncertainty is airborne, just like the microbe. Blessed are they that have not seen yet believe. Covid-19 has brought out something like faith in an invisible earthly entity even as it shuttered the churches. Man seems to have found wisdom in the fear of the microbe instead of the Lord.

Again, from Chesterton: “Death, disease, insanity, are merely material accidents, like a toothache or a twisted ankle. That these brutal forces always besiege and often capture the citadel does not prove that they are the citadel.”

The reactions to the current microbial crisis are augmented by a growing doubt concerning the meaning of life itself. Human society is not necessarily built upon health. “The most dangerous thing in the world,” says Chesterton, “is to be alive; one is always in danger of one’s life.” But that doesn’t mean we should live in fear of losing our lives. It’s ridiculous to live that way, and Catholics should respond with a chuckle.

It may be ridiculous—even funny, in some ways—but humor is, by some theories, the recognition of incongruity. For all the uncertainty, there is certainly a good deal of contagious incongruity going around. The coronavirus might make its survivors both stronger and stranger. Or perhaps just more estranged.

You thought cellphones were atomizing? Try adding a mask to that picture, as well as personal space lines painted on the floor like traffic lines and the abolition of the handshake. How much further can we go? (W.H.O. knows.) In the meantime, never doubt the limits of man’s unsurety.

The microbe has shown us that we are becoming a people of the government, by the government, and for the government in the misunderstanding that big government will somehow keep us from perishing from the earth. Though all of this is an error of materialism, based on over-reliance, secularism, and spiritual and intellectual social distancing, the funny thing is that there is a type of materialism that we must all live with and be sick with together, according to G.K.C., if we are to thrive as a culture:

No one has even begun to understand comradeship who does not accept with it a certain hearty eagerness in eating, drinking, or smoking, an uproarious materialism which to many women appears only hoggish. You may call the thing an orgy or a sacrament; it is certainly an essential. It is at root a resistance to the superciliousness of the individual. Nay, its very swaggering and howling are humble. In the heart of its rowdiness there is a sort of mad modesty; a desire to melt the separate soul into the mass of unpretentious masculinity. It is a clamorous confession of the weakness of all flesh. No man must be superior to the things that are common to men. This sort of equality must be bodily and gross and comic. Not only are we all in the same boat, but we are all seasick.

All things should be taken with a sense of humor, which is to say, with common sense. Humor is a basis for sanity as it provides relief and balance. It keeps us healthy. The populace is refreshed more readily by arrant absurdities than academic analyses. Chestertonian hat-chases in the wind bestow the hilarious and humbling reminder that though man is the steward of nature, he is subject to it at the same time. This  is one of the deftest jokes of humanity. And one of the deepest jokes of humanity is death, as Mr. Chesterton reminds us in his poem “The Skeleton.”

Surely, friends, I might have guessed
Death was but the good King’s jest,
It was hid so carefully.

As we all know, there’s no getting out of this alive. Scientists will not find the meaning of life under their microscopes, and we should face death without a metaphorical mask so our smile can be seen. There are certainly things in life that we should never doubt even though nobody is sure about them—and we should also not be afraid that we will never be sure. Some things, like life and death, are meant to be mysteries.

We’re all sick. We’re all dying. And that’s alright. It’s even amusing. We should be prudent, of course, in these dangerous days and be a good neighbor to all. At the same time, though, let’s not forget this: it’s not a sin to laugh, knowing that the microbe will not laugh last. The last word, however, goes to Mr. Belloc:

Physicians of the Utmost Fame
Were called at once; but when they came
They answered, as they took their Fees,
“There is no cure for this disease.”

Sean Fitzpatrick

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Sean Fitzpatrick is a senior contributor to Crisis. He's graduate of Thomas Aquinas College and the Headmaster of Gregory the Great Academy. He lives in Scranton, Penn. with his wife and family of four.

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