In Lars von Trier’s movie “Melancholia,” the viewer comes to grasp, slowly, with a mix of terror and powerlessness, that the world is about to come to an end, colliding with the planet Melancholia. At the film’s end, the audience indeed watches, mesmerized and paralyzed, as that planet travels on a course to crash into Earth. Initially just a faraway point in the sky, it becomes an expanding disc, ultimately filling the screen, as it collides with our planet.
I first read about a strange virus appearing in China in the American press during the second week of January, and it caught my attention because my son was due to travel to that country. The virus was still far away, like the distant disc of a dangerous planet. My son canceled his trip, but the disc continued on its inexorable course, slowly crashing into us in Europe and the Middle East.
We now all watch, transfixed, as the world as we knew it has shut down and the pandemic continues to unfold.
The coronavirus is an event of a magnitude that we struggle to grasp, not only because of its planetary scale, not only because of the speed of the contamination, but also because institutions whose titanic power we never previously questioned have been brought to their knees in a matter of few weeks. The primitive world of deadly plagues erupted into the sanitized and advanced world of nuclear energy, laser surgery and digital technology. Even in wartime, cinemas and bars have continued to function, but the normally bustling cities of Europe have now become eerie ghost towns, with their residents all in hiding. As Albert Camus put it, in “The Plague,” “all these changes were, in one sense, so
fantastic and had been made so precipitately that it wasn’t easy to regard them as likely to have any permanence.”
From air travel to museums, the pulsating heart of our civilization has been shut down. Freedom, the modern value that trumps all others, has been suspended, and not because of a new tyrant, but because of fear, the emotion that overrides all others. The world has become, overnight, unheimlich – uncanny, emptied of its familiarity. Its most comforting gestures – shaking of hands, kissing, hugging, eating with others – have turned into sources of anxiety and danger.