10. Equity–and this is the point of this post, if it has one beyond indignation–was all but uncertain in this new landscape, as the inequities of poverty, unemployment, housing conditions, medical care, and unequal schools–deep rooted inequities that have been long accepted as part of the natural geography of so many American cities-was thrown into relief, with disproportionate rates of death, hospitalization and infection and heightened risk not only increasingly apparent but ongoing vulnerability.
I had begun an extensive, immersive novel about national sacrifice, a dilogy of an actual wartime, but far more than global war, and the ghosts that inhabited civilian populations affected by it, by Vassily Grossman, that focussed on a family of Jews. The range of characters combining voices and social registers–soldiers on the front lines, miners, factory men, villagers, scientists, front line soldiers and officers, and even voices from the Berdichev ghetto, and those jailed as Stalinist subversives, composed a social canvas contesting to the diminished world of social distancing and sheltering in place. Grossman’s Life and Fate was about the manner that war the was often unable to be perceived at the front, as in its predecessor, Stalingrad, was felt deeply at the home front–and how these two fronts painfully interacted in the siege of Stalingrad by German and fascist troops, leading up to the confrontation between German and Russian troops along the River Volga.
The novel was less of an escape of an alternate world, but a reminder of the deep difference of the reality of a war, fought on borders, and a pandemic that new no lines of national divide or front line: the organization of war on a map contrasted to the inability to process the unfolding disaster that revealed the extent of nationwide inequities, and utter inadequacy of the military metaphors of a war that the Commander-in-Chief was so terrifyingly overfond: we were not in a war where we had any strategy, nor was there a sense of a home front or from line: the war was all around us, and we had allowed it to grow out of control in our blanket denial of danger over months. As so-called “front-line” workers were engaged in treating those ill, they were not on a front line, however harrowing struggling against the diesase was, but a line that ran through cities, had predominantly affected disadvantaged populations, and whose mortality rates were high in nursing homes, among the elderly, and those rendered vulnerable to the diseases. The broad range of underserved communities at a disadvantage to access to medical are or health services would be unable to be considered a front line of war, but were evident in the broad range of medically underserved communities throughout the nation.
The inaptitude of the military metaphors and constructs to the novel coronavirus were clear, even as death tolls across the nation rose beyond the fatalities of Americans in all twentieth century wars: the cascading scenes of casualties and chapters interrupted by the arrival of mortars or shells along the Volga during the siege marked a counting of mortality, as the ghosts that inhabit Grossman’s narrative; as a war journalist, he was writing as a witness to the war, summarizing his experiences both on the front, and in his family, in two huge tomes that bear the traces of his reading and rereading of War and Peace during the war. We had failed to mobilize our nation in any concerted way, and as the spirit for engaging in the war–Grossman inserted much Soviet patriotism especially in earlier published versions of Stalingrad, which he had titled for the Soviet censors For a Just Cause, whose second volume would never be printed in the Soviet Union, and he was told it would never be able to be printed for hundreds of years when it was completed. As death tolls mounted across the nation, focussed in New York, we could only wonder how much the failure to provide testing, in the face of a massive waves of death that ran through cities, were not a basis for the disruption of a social compact within American cities. Were we actively being fed incorrect information, or facing institutions of statistical censorship, in effect, by the suspensions of widespread testing or the weird failure to invest in organized testing bodies, relying rather on kits that were sold at pharmacies for such a long time, testing only in states that were the first sites of viral spread–rather than mobilizing for future testing needs?
The global spread of the coronavirus seemed one that we had brought upon ourselves, without any clear playbook of how to respond and oddly hampered, inflexible in our ability to test populations or contain an ever-spreading infection we watched in point format in data maps,–as if uncertain of where it would spread next, even as increasing rates of contraction seemed inevitable. But as the front of German advance in World War II into Russia was felt throughout the dilogy I was reading, whose multiple perspectives track the changed world in wrought, mapped from the perspective of a Russian family in Stalingrad, as troops advance and withdraw across the steppes, it asked one to assemble shard-like narratives in familiar ways. The author, Vasily Grossman, a Red Star correspondent, fashioned a narrative from wartime experiences that moved from soldiers to bombed cities to a Jewish family apprehensively tracing the arrival of antisemitism with Hitler’s troops from their homes in Stalingrad, whose members were on the front line, modernizing War and Peace–whose narrative of Russian resilience before the Napoleonic invasion led to its broadcast on Russian radio for Russian troops, as its storyline served to rally morale during the Russian retreat, as officers traced the advance of German troops by blue pencil atop large-scale wartime maps where they plotted the latest developments, under electric lamps, abbreviating possible resistance encoded by arrows, circles, or triangles, until the German front line merged with the Volga’s blue.
Grossman wrote as witness of the scale of German invasion to transcend journalistic reportage, and capture the difficulty of moral compass during survival before a staggering face of loss of life. The novels attempted to offer a map to this new world, tracing cascading effects of the retreat of Soviet soldiers retreating in synchrony with the German military advance, spectrally haunted by the deaths of soldiers, civilians, and Jews in the cities advancing troops organized mass executions, the story of a war whose progress could barely be processed, it underscored the narrative inadequacy of maps–and the reliance on the point based maps that we used to try to grasp, narratives, or chart the spread of COVID-19, maps that seemed poor surrogates for the lack of testing, and which increasingly seemed unreliable guides to the infection’s rapid growth. The absent meanings of schematic maps of military engagements may have led to Grossman’s sprawling, capacious account situated the extended Shaposhnikov family, spread across domestic spaces, scientific laboratories, factories, the front line, and destroyed towns, tracing the new settings and experiences and losses we were still scrambling to register from COVID-19.
Were the presence of these images of those killed from police violence not a powerful site of cathecting, whose meaning compensated for the eruption of an absence of clear meaning or commemoration for the rising mortality rates of those tragically and needlessly infected with COVID-19?