On the morphology of the virus

When the virus started spreading, we learned it was spreading to many countries and steadily if unevenly into their territories. We knew that the tool needed to detect the presence of the virus in a human, the testing kit, had not yet been manufactured in sufficient quantities to provide a confident measurement of the spread. There was also the matter of inconsistent symptom presentation: many who had the virus in their bodies seemed not to display readily observable signs of infirmity and would therefore be unlikely to get tested for the virus even if the test were more widely available which, recall, it was not.

Responses to the reported spread of the virus included measured reassurance, various forms of panic, and denial. These responses were easier to monitor than the virus itself, being legible and right there on the computer—you just had to go and look for expressions of the responses, and they could easily be found on the virtual social networks to which most of us had convenient access.

Many more children than usual were at home because schools were closing in large numbers to contain the spread. Curiously, it seemed, children could carry the virus but were unlikely to become sick from it, making their potential as carriers all the more pernicious. Suddenly a hug offered by a child seemed like something to regard with more caution than before. Indeed, hugs became something one had to approach with a great deal of caution across the board.

For my part, I still hugged the dogs, it being my understanding that dogs could not host the virus or transmit it to a human, even though the virus seemed to have originated in some other animal, presumably domesticated. My girlfriend and I hugged throughout the day, especially after arguments, which luckily became less frequent during the spread of the virus, the prospect of widespread and painful death seeming to put things into a new perspective that diminished our commitment to our opinions about what specifically transpired in the quotidian manifestation of our life together.

We avoided crowded places even more than usual, though if you know my girlfriend you will also know that she was never one for crowded places anyway.  But we embraced the new injunction to avoid unnecessary contact with other humans, and we paid for two jigsaw puzzles to be delivered directly to our house, disinfecting them with a liquid spray upon their arrival. We took the dogs on hikes, reasoning that, even if the trails were to become a bit crowded, as they often did, the virus would quickly disperse and could not concentrate into problematic density, the outdoors being what they are, namely very open and large, at least by our judgment.

One of the jigsaw puzzles was a painting by Hieronymus Bosch, “The garden of earthly delights”, separated, of course, into many interlocking pieces that we would later attempt to fit together in order to recreate the original, vivid scene depicted by the apparently troubled Dutchman so long ago.

My girlfriend worked on her computer and I read my books in silence, as was my usual habit, though I felt that the phenomenology of reading for me had become more intensely personal, in light of the virus and its uncertain spread among humans. I read new books and classics, books that provided highly readable accounts of popular scientific trends, novels with difficult images and language that I had to plod through sometimes quite slowly, frequently consulting a variety of references to more fully engage with the text. I carried out my daily Zen meditation practice, having in the last few years become something of a devout Buddhist, owing to certain developments in my personal life.

A commonly shared conviction was that our community’s collective efforts to avoid each other should have the result of appearing, down the road and in hindsight, as an overreaction to the virus, their effectiveness causing the virus to seem like a considerably less severe threat than what we had allowed ourselves to believe it was.

I found it helpful to review my high school Latin dictionary when prompted to do so by my reading. After encountering an allusion to St. Benedict, I was put in mind of the English word benediction—good word. We all sought the good word, I thought, whatever meaning this might have for a given individual in a given set of circumstances. Virus, of course, was Latin for poison. Perhaps misleadingly unrelated to virile, virtue, whose etymologies both point ultimately to the Latin for man along their respective semantic and morphological diachronic trajectories. I had a teacher, years ago, who couldn’t stress it enough—language change is atelic, an English word derived from the Greek telos, for end, which we encounter more mundanely (from Latin mundus, or world, i.e., in our worldly affairs, I am tempted to think) in telephone, television, telemetry. Language change is not driven towards some end, in other words, as many once believed, long ago, in this country and in many others.

We know that the English lexicon is rife with morphological overlap with Latin largely due to the conquest of territories populated with English speakers by French-speaking Normans in the 11th century. The result being that English is now a Germanic language with a surprisingly Latin-via-Norman French-derived lexicon. I experience especially poignant reminders of this in the enviable decomposability of many German words. Wörterbuch (book of words) instead of dictionary, Fernseher (far seer) instead of television, Handschuh (“hand shoe”) instead of glove. The still-Germanic morpho-lexical core of English seems to have flown under the radar of the conquest. Hand, shoe, word, see. Words so embedded in the daily lives of people that they could hide in plain sight and avoid contact. Though this metaphor must of course be abandoned, telicity being in the very marrow of what it would mean for the words themselves to be ascribed agency and the will to remain hidden or untouched.

So, too, the spread of the virus appeared to be atelic or at least impersonal, and its apparent lack of interest in children perhaps an unhelpful if encouraging anthropomorphization.