Time Has Lost All Meaning

How a pandemic transforms the familiar into the unfamiliar

Courtesy of Ai Weiwei Studio

A pandemic changes the way we see ourselves, that’s for sure. What is time? How do we use it, spend it? We make a phone call, have lunch, brew some
coffee, apply makeup. Time can restart and begin anew, or it can hide entirely, get cut off, disappear. Time is more than what passes between this moment and another one, or the price required to finish a task. It seeds our imagination, and slows down when we’re creatively absorbed. It spurs action, and is bound up with how we press forward with life and with our resolve to make ourselves complete.

A nurse leaves a bedside, and a few days later the patient’s temperature drops and he no longer needs a ventilator. Then comes a tingling in her throat; her temperature rises, and she becomes obsessively focused on the length of her life. She remeasures her connections with her family and her society. Elsewhere in time, the politician performs his social role in the manner of a careening race car that strains to hold its balance around a curve without tipping over or crashing.

For so many others, there is no longer a something-to-do-next. Toss expectations into the memory bank! The distinction between this time and that time begins to blur. Life can go on without promises or fulfillment of duties. People who have lost their jobs have lost honor and vexation at once.

Similarly, time erases faith. There are no eulogies, no last words, and the corpses are no longer moved to manicured graveyards. They are put in refrigerated trucks, brought to parking lots. One loses belief in the government, in parents, in neighbors, in the very possibility that life will continue. How long can vegetables and melons stay fresh? Rice? Noodles? Will we have enough food a month from now? Several months?

The understanding of time is lost. It’s dark, but you don’t have to go to bed. The clock that runs is the one that counts deaths. The numbers mark the difference between now and a while ago. The death of an infant means that one life, even before consciousness arrives, passes from one eternity into the next. A ventilator is moved from the bedside of an elderly patient because less life remains to him than to a younger patient.

The difference between a human being and a virus grows elusive. A screen monitoring a heartbeat replaces the waves on the ocean, replaces the dangers of the stock market.

Wuhan becomes numbers to track: its coordinates on the globe, the size of its population, the number of people who fled before it was sealed off, their destinations. The “Wuhan virus” spreads to every corner of the world, deaths skyrocket, and the scale of its spread demolishes our understanding of order, science, regimes, freedom, dignity.

People want to know: How big is a virus? What does it look like? How does it get into a living cell? Where does it get the cell’s “key”? How does it copy itself, suffer attack from an immune system, eventually perish? To understand this tiny thing, far smaller than a bacterium, is about as easy as understanding the Earth and its orbit from the vantage point of the universe.

Space, location, scale, and time are the undergirding of self-knowledge. Abandonment of rational thinking leads to a collapse in which fear and joy, ignorance and wisdom, all blow in the wind. The new coronavirus, as it turns lives upside down, has led people to reflect on questions that had not occurred to them before. To wear a mask or not? What kind? When will the next batch of N95 masks be available?

These are serious topics in the news. And for a person, the feather-light mask carries all the weight of fears, hopes, pains, warmth. When the epidemic ebbs in China, the rest of the world finds itself lacking masks. The notion of “mask” drains other concepts of urgency. Masks become a banner for national pride. The imagination soars no longer toward moon landings and driverless vehicles. For the cost of a large commercial airplane, you could buy 10 million masks and 1,000 ventilators. That’s just the way it is.

But no airplanes are in the sky anyway. You don’t even get out the door. Cities are like mausoleums, streets like ruins. New York, Paris, London, Venice—they appear as if yesterday were doomsday. Behind all the shut doors and windows is this thought: That is my borderline; outside, the abyss, where I can be instantly attacked and no longer exist, or might visit disaster upon another.

A potted cactus, a piano, a bright table lamp, a microwave oven—all things familiar to us turn unfamiliar. Some become more important; others lose the ties to our inner life they once had. A plant dies as its owner succumbs. But flowers in the wild bloom without a thought. What do they care about human disaster?

The flowers have never been more beautiful, and at night a curved moon still hangs in the sky. Spring does not slow its arrival just because no one can go out and look at it. Nature is generous, sumptuous, and you’ve never seen cleaner air. Wild animals enter the city and saunter about. Fish and birds not seen for a time appear within their habitat.

Humans, like viruses, have hijacked the ecology of the Earth and wrought damage. Survival, desire, narrow dogma, and perplexing arrogance (the arrogance arises from ignorance) fill humans whose bodies last a set time. Like viruses, humans need hosts. When science and reason someday give us the key to everything, that may be the moment we lose everything.

This essay was translated from the Chinese by Perry Link. It appears in the July/August 2020 print edition with the headline “Time, Space, and the Virus.”