As a disease both vast and deep, COVID-19 will favour aesthetic interpretations like no epidemic in collective shared memory since AIDS.
The most remarkable aesthetic mechanism of the Covidian [appears to] be revelation, an aesthetics of epic time and epochal time-suspension; the Apollonian and Dionysian flanks of which are, respectively, the tragic, as aesthetics of sacrifice and pharmakoi, and the panic, as aesthetics of invasion.
Revelation is mind-shattering and world-destroying; entailing simultaneous irreversibility and reversal. It is the aesthetic culmination of the Saturnalian, the world-upside-down trope —and so it is not incidental that one of its leading symptoms is transvaluation.
Like Semele, we have been granted the appalling privilege of staring God in the face with only two possible outcomes: death or permanent scarring. No one will remain unmarked; we’re all Cain now. At this scale, revelation is uniquely democratic.
And even as Anubis seroassays the heart of every solitary individual, it is telling that our Revelation manifested, rather literally, as Plague, the crowned horseman of the apocalyptic collective. It feels almost forced, inelegant and scriptedly angelic; tailored for a tone-deaf audience that was tested and found unwilling, or unable, to understand by any other means.
Pseudo-fatality prevails. Form will be carved not from marble but meat, with a cleaver.
Revelation is the most epistemic of aesthetic experiences, premised as it is on the violent curren[t]cy exchange between thesis and antithesis, the phantasm of synthesis flung into the featureless future as anxiety, or unsustainably durational desire.
And in this cruelty there is a clarity. The doors of perception are cleansed. We’re seeing everyone as they are —naked—, and everything as it is: [in]finite. This is the Nietzschean noon, the Loosian witching hour: world-at-an-end, world-without-end, world-without-shadows.
II THE TRAGIC AND THE PANIC
Tragedy belongs to the city and the theatre; panic to the wilderness and the immanent body. The two are attingent: one involving social distancing and expulsion; the other immersion, self-absorption unto [un-self]possession. Tragedy delivers us outside the wall, to the grave of Polynices; panic shoots us straight into the vascular uncharted.
In tandem, they enact the alternance between belonging and intimacy. To trespass against the polis is, at least, impertinence, transgression of the norm; while panic is inextricably linked to violations that attack identity and rootedness in form.
The tragic and the panic have a goat at their source. It lurks behind the two, to manifest as the propitiatory corpus of the scapegoat or with the threatened formlos of the satyr. The book that best captures the plasticity of the intercourse between them is Klossowski’s Baphomet, in which the ghosts of the Knights Templar reconvene, within/without time and/or in a final, pineal surge of tribal excitation, to commemorate their execution by possessing animals and children —the very innocents corona will, for the most part, spare. Κορωνίς prefers ambergris, cadaverine, in its repast.
I am increasingly of the opinion one should not look to books on pandemics for insight on the epochal turn if what one is interested in is not the virus so much as the transformation. Pandemic is the symptom —a king among symptoms, perhaps, but one that has really gained traction because the body social its destroying was already terminally decrepit—. We are suffering a lavish psychosocial gangrene and amputation, a (potentially lethal and certainly global) bloodletting plus brainwash of sumptuary scale.
The trope is not foreign to us, even if —in agreement with its Saturnalian nature— it is playing out as the reversal of the Death of the Egyptian Firstborns; where, as we recall, the Israelites smeared their thresholds with the blood of lambs —a marking of liminal spacetime— so the Exterminating Angel would pass them over. (There’s even the blink of quarantine in Exodus, with the Israelites sheltering indoors despite being ‘extramural’ —we’ll return to this when we discuss the status of our own more or less “essential” workers— to Egyptian Society).
Kultur is the rebirth of tragedy, and panic its maieutic.
III THE BAPHOMETIC AND THE KATABATIC
The baphometic is half-animal, half-human; the panic, half-human, half-god.
IV THE ABYSSAL
An abyssal humour, a humour past depth.
V THE MOHINI
These are trickster emergency forces, procreationally fissuring in strange places.
Less trickster gods than goddesses: Morgan, Mohini.
VI THE CULTERAN
Culteranismo. Towards a culteran aesthetics, as opposed to 20th century conceptismo.
Involves the inoperancy of language.
VII THE NEW VERTIGO
The exponential of panic is vertigo. Amp it to a global and collective high —a singularity in historical communion— and it will soon take on the ring of the orgiastic or the charnel.
What makes the COVID epidemic so unique are its mutually imbricated magnitude and scale. If, in earlier iterations, vertigo was viscerally attractive; the new one is no less enthralling—if cosmically so. It is not so much seductive and insidious as it is compersive and explosive. This is the closest that we, as a species, may come to partaking in the psychonaut’s utopia of the total trip, to be shared by all and (almost) no matter how bad.
We can imagine similar, vertiginous sensations overcoming discrete human groups —families, tribes or nations— prior to this, though nothing as life-warping as a plague has crept into every corner of the inhabited world before and been experienced by so many of us, simultaneously and with our levels of interconnectedness, at such a scale. The potential for social-behavioural reorientation is patent, within an optimistically limited time-frame of maybe two years. Which is another way to look at this and tremble.
The gaudy vertigo a world event brings with it, its change in speed, belongs not to the uncanny homely but to the prodigious. I’m surprised there hasn’t been an uptick in five-legged calfs and two-headed snakes yet.