Reading Germs, I found myself wishing Wollheim, who died in 2003, were alive to apply his framework to the coronavirus pandemic’s staggered end. Since March, those of us privileged enough to work remotely have lived in an inside world of routine. (Essential workers, of course, have had far different experiences.) Our routines differ greatly from Wollheim’s; even the luckiest among us must confront daily fear, precarity, or grief. Our terror is different, too: The fears in Germs are never existential, and always temporary. Still, his notion that “routine [can be] a kind of emotion” rings very true, and his progression from routine to wonder offers real, if small, hope. As vaccination slowly returns inessential workers to outside life, many will have a new host of fears to deal with—but, Wollheim suggests, those fears can be a pathway to joy.
Read: The surprising value of a wandering mind
Wollheim is not nostalgic for his childhood, which he calls a “postponed existence.” He refers to his household as “the regime under which I grew up.” Still, he extracts loveliness from his early life on every page. His descriptions are lush, sometimes lavish; Sheila Heti, in her introduction, praises the book’s “glittering sentences, surely some of the more beautiful surfaces in English prose.” This is a feat, given that in Wollheim’s family, shame and prissiness seem to have been dominant. His childhood routines nearly all center on cleaning, bodily concealment, or evading social shame. His father taught him that the male body, unless rigorously groomed and immaculately clothed, is not “tolerable to the world.” His mother cleaned obsessively, fighting with his nanny over whether germs come from inside or outside the home, which meant, for little Wollheim, that neither place felt safe. His assimilated Jewish relatives, meanwhile, claimed that “synagogues were places where one caught germs.”
No wonder, then, that to Wollheim, it seemed “as hard to be well as to be ill.” Sickness and dirtiness were shameful, but at least, while sick, he knew where he stood. While healthy, he had to be on constant guard. No person could be counted as lucky to have contracted COVID-19, but after 11 months of near-nonstop worrying that we could be asymptomatically infectious, many of us know how exhausting constant vigilance can be—and how enormous the temporary relief of a negative test result can feel.
For Wollheim, routine often overlapped with low-grade fear. (A familiar phenomenon, I think, to anyone who, like me, spent last spring frantically wiping down groceries and Cloroxing doorknobs.) He seems not to have experienced any drawn-out times of grief or distress in childhood; perhaps if he had, routine would have struck him as more of a haven, much as self-isolation, as difficult as it is, is currently a source of safety. Instead, routine became a trap that Wollheim used terror to escape. Sharp fright was a boundary that “once crossed, could never be uncrossed, for [the] passage left an indelible mark” of “knowledge” and “shamelessness.” Sex is an easy example here, and a useful one: Wollheim describes losing his virginity as “a frightened experience of the body,” but later found unfettered joy in sexual experimentation. His experience with toilet training, a process he describes with palpable happiness, was similar. He writes that, in adulthood, it is still “what I think of when I hear moral philosophers discuss responsibility.” Odd though this sentiment may be, reflecting on it can be clarifying. Before his toilet training, Wollheim—like any child—was not in charge of his own cleanliness. In his germ-fearing family, receiving that responsibility would have been terrifying, then liberating. For the first time, he had the power to make himself contamination-free.