On Covid

It seems the world is on its way to losing the game of fighting the Covid virus. What that will finally mean we can’t yet know, but warnings abound. We see Europe’s fumbling responses, the continuing disaster in India, the confused and irrational reactions from masses of Americans—and the obvious conclusion is that many more will die, the variants will easily proliferate, and the world will incorporate this virus into its domicile of disease, just as it does with cancer.

There is something maniacal about Covid, its ability to adapt and thrive, multiply and avoid the vaccines, and finally infect people’s minds. J.M. Coetzee wrote about this some fourteen years ago in an excellent lesser-known book of his opinions called Diary of a Bad Year. I just finished reading it and was struck by the author’s visionary thinking—and how little we have learned in those fourteen years. Here are some excerpts.

If we can speak meaningfully of viruses as possessing or being possessed by a drive or instinct, it is an instinct to replicate and multiply. As they multiply they take over more and more host organisms. It can hardly be their intention (so to speak) to kill their hosts. What they would like, rather, is an ever-expanding population of hosts. . . .

The protagonists are involved in a strategic game, a game resembling chess in the sense that the one side attacks, creating pressure aimed at a breakthrough, while the other defends and searches for weak points at which to counterattack. . . . Two parties who embark on a game of chess implicitly agree to play by the rules. But in the game we play against the viruses there is no such founding convention. It is not inconceivable that one day the virus will make the equivalent of a conceptual leap and, instead of playing the game, will begin to play the game of game-playing, that is to say, will begin to reform the rules to suit its own desire. . . .

We assume that, as long as it is applied with enough tenacity, human reason must triumph (is fated to triumph) over other forms of purposive activity because human reason is the only form of reason there is, the only key that can unlock the codes by which the universe works. Human reason, we say, is universal reason.

But what if there are equally powerful modes of “thinking,” that is, equally effective biochemical processes for getting to where your drives or desires incline you? What if the contest to see on whose terms warm-blooded life will continue on this planet does not prove human reason to be the winner? The recent successes of human reason in its long contest with virus thinking should not delude us, for it has held the upper hand a mere instant in evolutionary time. What if the tide turns; and what if the lesson contained in that turn of the tide is that human reason has met its match?

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