You know the old curse: “May you live in interesting times.”
As the pandemic rages, there seems to be an all-pervasive sense of sadness in the air. Americans are less happy than they’ve been since happiness started to be measured, says New York Times columnist David Brooks.
It isn’t just the one plague. There’s also a sense of dread about the political scene and the disorientation about how America’s overdue reckoning with racism and the legacy of slavery will play out. It seems almost impossible to live one’s life outside of that troika of troubles these days.
It’s not a cloud of doom, certainly, more a feeling of fraughtness. Is the trip to the grocery store a journey to COVID country? Will the 2020 election be a repeat of 2016 despite the polls? What is our proper response to the killing of George Floyd and the rise of Black Lives Matter?
But those are only the obvious sources of where we stand this summer. The existential grip on our senses and our place in the world is more pervasive and melancholy. On a personal level I feel it listening to Bob Dylan’s great new album, “Rough and Rowdy Ways”; reacting to deaths in my old Boston Globe family; reading the books on my nightstand, from Albert Camus’ “The Plague” to Ford Madox Ford’s “The Good Soldier” (which he wanted to call “The Saddest Story”); and, more obviously, watching the nightly news.
Yet none of this is crushing. In some way, it’s even inspiriting. Take "The Plague," speaking of existentialism and the pandemic. Although written in part as a post-war metaphor for the Nazis and their enablers in Vichy France, Camus always meant for it to speak to future generations.
Seems like he got his wish. There are the obvious parallels between the shutdown of the Algerian town of Oran because of a rat-borne virus and today’s pandemic. Such as the line “Stupidity has a knack of getting its way.” Or the way Camus describes the war between the individualists and those who argue that the only way of defeating the plague is to realize that we’re all in this together, which President Trump acknowledged after months of denial.
Then there’s Camus’ life-long rebellion against the silence of God. Just as prayer is useless in “The Plague,” religion is downright lethal against the amoral randomness of the pandemic. Gatherings for prayer, in fact, are among the most hard-hit in America and the world, regardless of religion.
The ineffectiveness of prayer could drive one to despair, particularly if one is a true believer, but the lessons for Camus are different. We have to forge our own meaning and morality rather than rely on puritanical religious bodies. Another lesson is that we need to recognize the front-line workers and scientists. Dr. Rieux in “The Plague” and Ed, a paramedic in the wrenching play "The Line" from the Public Theater, eschew the idea of heroism, but it’s Dr. Fauci, I mean Dr. Rieux, who proves to be the shaman of Oran. For all the sadness in the world, there is a resistance to plagues and self-aggrandizing politicians that is inspiring. You can say the same thing about how Black Lives Matter and #MeToo movements have turned tragedy into galvanized political action today.
The pandemic also has those of us of a certain age thinking about our own mortality. Three friends from the Boston Globe died during the pandemic, though none from the plague. (A great guy, Ron Hutson, did die of COVID-19, but I unfortunately didn’t know him well.) I worked at the paper from 1971 to 2006 and copy editors Louis Bell, Al Rossi and writer Bob Levey defined what a fun, extended family the paper was when it operated on Morrissey Boulevard. Normally, a Globe funeral or memorial celebration turns into a kind of alumni/alumnae party with remembrances galore, often fueled by adult beverages.
I can imagine the gales of laughter about Bell sending a smoke bomb down on what was called “the bunwarmer” to his antagonists in the composing room; Rossi thinking he was sending an email about a coworker farting to a friend only to discover he had sent it to the wind-passer; and Levey telling jokes with the panache of Mort Sahl.
Still, there’s something almost holy about remembering them by myself. They kind of encapsulate my 35 years at the Globe — Bell driving me and my roommates home in the ‘70s where he’d get stoned and often pass out on the couch; Rossi and me having a wild weekend in Las Vegas in the ‘80s; telling Levey a joke that made him roar in the ‘90s when we both made career changes and became critics in the Living Arts section, he with food and me with television. These memories are somehow dearer to me for thinking about them in confinement — they define me as well as them. Obviously I’m sad that they’re gone, but the smile on my face when I think of them is different than those gales of laughter at the memorial services that weren't to be.
And, of course, their deaths presage my mortality as well. It’s hard not to think about that while reading John Williams’ "Stoner" or Joseph O'Connor’s "Shadowplay" as protagonists (including Bram Stoker in "Shadowplay") reflect on what their lives have amounted to — or come down to. (Talk about sad, Stoker was not a literary success. "Dracula" rose from the dead 10 years after he died.)
Bob Dylan’s “Rough and Rowdy Ways” has mortality writ large from the opening lines — “Today and tomorrow, and yesterday, too/ The flowers are dyin’ like all things do” — to the final 17-minute "Murder Most Foul," ostensibly about the assassination of John Kennedy.
Almost every song speaks in stoical terms of loneliness, bitterness, sad guitars, dark days, killing frost, the age of the Antichrist and approaching death. Yet the whole album is both consolation and celebration. It is, among other things, a celebration of the Anglo-American 20th-century songbook, with Beethoven, Chopin and Liberace thrown in for good measure. Name a musical strain worth celebrating and it’s in “Rough and Rowdy Ways,” the title nodding Dylan’s head to Jimmie Rodgers and continuing through Frank Sinatra, Ella Fitzgerald, Elvis Presley, John Lee Hooker, Jimmy Reed, Etta James, Otis Redding, Ray Charles, Oscar Peterson and countless great jazz pianists, Sun Records, gospel, Leonard Cohen, Rick Nelson, the Everly Brothers, Rodgers & Hammerstein, the Beatles and the Stones and countless others. (The 21st-century songbook is for others to write, Dylan implied in a recent New York Times interview with Douglas Brinkley.)
Are Dylan’s references just name-dropping? No. It’s a look back at his life, his life in song, the life of America in the 20th and 21st centuries — and what lives they were and are. He’s a man of many muses and many moods, as he says in “I Contain Multitudes.” The influence of Walt Whitman’s “Leaves of Grass” is everywhere in “Rough and Rowdy Ways.”
And like Whitman he’s also “a man of contradictions.” Some observers have said that the album sounds like a farewell, but as one critic observed in the 1970s, many of his songs are suitable for both funerals and weddings. Like Camus and his Dr. Rieux, Dylan has to embrace the sadness of his days in order to come out the other side in a search for meaning and a kind of immortality.
As he sings in “I Contain Multitudes”:
“I go right to the edge, I go right to the end
I go right to where all things lost are made good again.”
So for all the sadness and intimations of mortality that he faces in “Rough and Rowdy Ways,” there is a full embrace of life in all its melancholy and all its merriment.
Robert F. Kennedy makes a cameo in “Murder Most Foul.” RFK has been cited as the person who popularized the "interesting times" quote, in a 1966 address in South Africa: “There is a Chinese curse which says 'May he live in interesting times.' Like it or not, we live in interesting times. They are times of danger and uncertainty; but they are also more open to the creative energy of men than any other time in history.”
Though South Africa was still in the grip of apartheid, Kennedy delivered the plea to end discrimination on what he called a “Day of Affirmation.” We, too, live in interesting times and it’s up to us, like Kennedy and Camus, to see it not as a curse but as a personal and political affirmation.