Artillery Row

Time for the Covid-19 protest kiss

You don’t have to rush the Bastille to regain some freedom; a French kiss will suffice

It’s been a long time since a bit of simple tongue on tongue action felt so exhilarating and risqué. If there is one upside to Covid-19 it is that it has provided an opportunity for those of us now looking back far too distantly on their teenage years to relive those captivating moments way back then that despite their triviality seemed at the time so tantalizing and transgressive—the epitome of which was the good old-fashioned sloppy snog.

That pivotal decision point before a potential moment of intimacy with a person who not long ago was a total stranger has taken on an additional layer of split-second cost-benefit analysis in the era of Covid-19: My God! Not only will the two-metre rule shrink down to a lip on lip seal, but the risk of inhaling an air-borne pathogen will be escalated to a direct intake of saliva and exceptionally heavy breathing!

The notable thing is that once you have broken through the new rules and mental barriers, you are suddenly struck by how farcical and unnecessarily overwrought most of it all is. There is also an acceptance that come what may it was damn well worth it—a simple philosophical outlook on the challenge of risk versus reward without which most of human life would grind to a halt—followed by the thought that this is a form of resistance to Covid-19’s reshaping of societal norms that one could get used to.

Too many of us are missing the subtle power that is latent in tenderness

While I’m still allowed to say it, before some governmental diktat against coronavirus-related dissidence is sprung on us, might I suggest the time has come for civilised and tender rebellion against the strictures of our Covid-19-rule-encased world, both those mind-forged manacles and those imposed by the state and fanned by an increasingly disingenuous and partisan mainstream media. During nigh on 1,000 kilometres worth of trekking through the splendid northern Spanish landscape attending the famous Camino pilgrimage, I’ve encountered what you could call a hesitant, almost reluctant revolutionary spirit among my fellow pilgrims.

They have come from countries all over Europe, typically explaining that the desire to escape lockdowns and confinements formed a large part of their motivation. These are not your typical rebels: the vast majority coming from mainstream backgrounds and a good number are decades beyond the age of fervent student activism. But during extended discussions, after beginning with measured tones it isn’t long before a pilgrim is letting loose with enough passion and rhetoric to impress any anarchist: What the hell has happened?! Our government is panicking! The media are in on it, while the police are out of control! And we are all going along with it, which is most scary thing about Covid-19!

For pilgrims who have left or lost jobs, most say there is no point in going back while their countries and societies remain shadows of their former selves (one of the only English pilgrims I encountered, who had come from Berlin where he has lived for six years, expressed true shock at how the UK’s capitulation to Covid-19 fearmongering and sniping has exposed the true extent of the lack of community spirit and integrity in modern Britain compared to the rallying effectiveness in countries search as Germany).

Given the trajectory of the past year, despite the good news about vaccines, I remain wary that this will be handled in a way that won’t go on to form another chapter in the calamitous tome written in 2020. While a vaccine clearly offers reason for cautious optimism, even if effective, it will take time to coordinate effectively, and I, like others I speak to, remain highly doubtful that its implementation, while successful in saving lives, will remedy much of the psychological damage done to society and democracy by the strange new habits we have both had forced on us but also gone along with all too readily. The roll out of the vaccine could also cause further communal ruptures through laws tying freedom of movement to showing evidence of vaccination.

Cue the likes of the tender protest kiss which may well prove the only way to restore the life we once cherished

Remedying the loss of faith and confidence in our societies and their institutions, and in ourselves, will require a different type of antidote—which was needed well before Covid-19 came along—one that is generated at the level of personal responsibility to push back against the collective paranoia and angry confusion that has found its perfect crucible in Covid-19 unleashed in a world saturated by social media addiction, internet click-baiting and shallow posturing. Cue the likes of the tender protest kiss and other individual gestures of tenderness and compassion, which may well prove the only way to restore the life we once cherished.

“The Grand Inquisitor” is the most famous chapter in Fyodor Dostoevsky’s opus The Brothers Karamazov. It describes how Jesus Christ returns to the earth in Seville during the Spanish Inquisition only to be imprisoned as a menace to the Church’s efforts. The 90-year-old Grand Inquisitor criticises Jesus for burdening humanity with too much freedom when people do not actually want to have to choose, rather they desire to be led.

“The most painful secrets of their conscience, all, all they will bring to us, and we shall have an answer for all,” the inquisitor says. “And they will be glad to believe our answer, for it will save them from the great anxiety and terrible agony they endure at present in making a free decision for themselves.”

So it has proved during the Covid-19 outbreak, but it was also the case well before. We have devolved responsibility to the caprices of the free market economy and to the pronouncements of Google and the internet. This trend has peaked in America, where there appears an American counter revolution against its own revolutionary spirit, leaving many of us pining for the America we once knew.

“You wouldn’t necessarily guess that in a country undergoing a revolution, albeit a digital one, conformity would be on such a roll,” Tracy Dahlby, a professor and the Frank A. Bennack Jr. Chair in Journalism at the University of Texas at Austin, wrote in a 2011 article about Norman Mailer’s 1957 essay “The White Negro: Superficial Reflections on the Hipster.” Mailer defined the hipster as “a philosophical psychopath,” the quintessential American existentialist whose role was to assault society’s fear-soaked conformity by rejecting what Mailer had called “that domain of experience where security is boredom and therefore sickness.”

“What strikes me as odd in America today is our seeming inability to produce authentic nonconformists in any significant numbers,” says Dahlby, adding that he fears American have become locked into behaving primarily as economic actors: “We now routinely confuse our jamboree of consumer-oriented diversions, with its incessant internet distractions, with life itself.” This “triumph of economic convention over truth in our society has made it hard to talk about the scope of what really matters in life … today’s online revolution is helping blunt the very sensibilities we’ll need to strike some kind of humane balance.” The price for this, Dahlby says, is that “we’ve lost an actionable grip on the phobias that, if properly explored, were once thought to bring out the best in us.”

So much of the narrative that underpins how we function nowadays is centred on winning, acquiring, showing off, proving the other is wrong or has transgressed. It’s proving not at all healthy for us as we become, in the cautioning words of Hunter S. Thompson, “slaves to some bogus sense of Progress that is driving us all mad.” In a withering takedown of the American status system in his 1983 book Class, writer Paul Fussell concluded that despite all the evidence to the contrary, all is not lost. There still exists a category of citizen, like Mailer’s hipster, who is free “from the constraints and anxieties of the whole class racket … [and] can enjoy something like the LIBERTY promised on the coinage.”

Fussell illustrates the characteristics of this category of citizen by quoting E. M. Forster, who describes such non-conformists as the “aristocracy of the sensitive, the considerate, and the plucky,” those who are “sensitive for others as well as themselves, considerate without being fussy.” Forster also notes that “they can take a joke,” a fact of particular significance today, given the turgid rigidness and sour-faced insistence that passes for much of progressive liberalism, some of whose most ardent adherents might do well to read The Grand Inquisitor chapter. But it’s not just the progressive zealots who are losing sight of the deeper moral currents and truths that matter.

“Our primary allegiance, no matter what they say down at yoga class, is not mainly to our deeper selves but to economic imperatives that encourage core conformity and support our collective comfort zone,” says Dahlby, while emphasising the need for generating genuine nonconformists:

They comfort the economically afflicted and afflict the materially self-satisfied, and may help keep the rest of us computer-networked potatoes at least mildly aggrieved in our thinking … If life’s wisdom is to commit ourselves to, and to sacrifice for, achieving some kind of balance among competing values, it seems only sane to turn to our philosophical psychopaths to shake things up and keep the energy flowing.

Thank goodness, then, that we still have those other revolutionary stalwarts, the French, to remind us about what matters.

“It is possible to live without wealth, almost without one cent; lords and princesses, there aren’t many left, but living without tenderness, we could not…” the actor and singer André Bourvil croons in “La tendresse”, an old classic of the Republic that is so absurdly French it could be a self-parody of French romantic stereotypes and which I had the good fortune to hear recited by a group of tanked-up young French pilgrims after a boozy dinner celebrating the end of their Camino, during which the Gallic spirit defied almost every single Covid-19 rule in the book.

“…No, no, no, no!” the French pilgrims continued, swaying and clapping, “we could not.”

The word tenderness seems almost irrelevant these days, both in terms of the lack of its physical manifestation and of it actually ever being vocalised. You rarely hear of it, while so much of public discourse and the likes of Twitter feeds are wired in the entirely opposite direction. But we would do well to listen to the admonitions of tipsy French pilgrims, because too many of us are missing the subtle power that is latent in tenderness, as Dostoevsky well knew.

The Grand Inquisitor eventually finishes lecturing Jesus. He can tell that Jesus has listened intently the entire time, and he longs for Jesus “to say something, however bitter and terrible.” But instead Jesus approaches “the old man in silence and softly kissed him on his bloodless aged lips. That was all his answer.” The Grand Inquisitor shudders, though he releases Jesus while warning him never to return. Dostoevsky then tells us that though “the kiss glows in his heart … the old man adheres to his idea.”

From the utterly muddled melee that has been our response to Covid-19 to the so-called culture wars, we are bombarded with more and more new ideas, while often being scolded that the old ideas are patriarchally outdated and useless. Which ideas we adhere to should be a conscious personal choice that resists being swayed by the crowd, the high stakes of which we often don’t realise at the time, especially when the algorithms and online echo chambers drive you to the news that comforts your prejudices and generates the satisfying distractions of self-righteous anger and animosity.

If you feel yourself starting to boil over, perhaps use the internet instead to seek out some sentimental French rallying cries to regain perspective. You could also just lean in for that kiss or, at the very least, a non-conforming hug.

“A child embraces you because we make him happy, all our sorrows fade, we have tears in our eyes,” Bourvil sings. “My God, my God, my God, in your immense wisdom, immense fervour, make it rain endlessly deep in our hearts, torrents of tenderness to reign love—reign love, until the end of days.”

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