Wrapping up one of his recent panoramically authoritative surveys of our altered landscape, inner and outer, my Atlantic colleague Ed Yong put it like this: “In the classic hero’s journey—the archetypal plot structure of myths and movies—the protagonist reluctantly departs from normal life, enters the unknown, endures successive trials, and eventually returns home, having been transformed. If such a character exists in the coronavirus story, it is not an individual, but the entire modern world.”
To be at sea, mid-story; storm-threatened or becalmed; to be adrift, disoriented, at the mercy of incomprehensibly avenging forces that somehow (and you know this, you know this) contain the secret of who you are … We’ve got a poem for that. Samuel Taylor Coleridge’s “The Rime of the Ancient Mariner,” first published in 1798, is—you might say—the archetypal archetypal journey. You might say further: It’s the dream-poem of right now.
Six hundred and twenty-six lines of customized Coleridgean English, a strange and wildly flexible hybrid idiom in which the long strains of the King James Bible are looped around a kind of loping, hacked-off folk doggerel, the “Rime” is … What is it? The last epic. The first case history. A Jungian voyage into modernity. A trip. On his way to a wedding, at the very door of the banquet hall, a man is buttonholed by a haggard and compelling stranger. He is detained; he is enthralled. No choice: He must hear this person’s story. And the ancient mariner (for it is he) has no choice either: He is condemned to tell his tale, to recite his rhyme, over and over again. He went to sea, he saw a beautiful bird, and then—like Meursault in Albert Camus’s The Stranger, because he could, because it was there—“With my cross-bow / I shot the ALBATROSS.” Cue the nightmare.