For two years we’ve been told to shut ourselves inside while the world goes up in flames. The pandemic has created new habits of thought and shut down old ones; it has upturned our understanding of home, community, care and freedom. It has urged a solidarity in separateness. But how does one meticulously avoid the world while continuing to care for it? What are poets for, indeed, amidst all this languishing and loss?
Bo Burnham, in his show “Inside”, performs in a single room. He plays with sock puppets and scrolls through Instagram. He does stand-up to a faceless audience. He speaks of genocide and climate change, of equal pay and the hypocrisies of capitalism, his hair and beard growing shaggier by the episode. He cries – softly, and then with gusto. It is a companionable watch, this man fighting with all his might the tedium that comes with crisis. It is companionable because we have all at some point felt like this man; perhaps the feeling still lingers. The impulse is not just to escape the four walls, to remap the contours of physical space, but to flee the very body and mind one inhabits.
Amidst this enforced sequestration, art has become a necessary portal to other worlds, as something that bridges and binds, and as something restorative to the self. Be it books, films, paintings, or poems – all manner of creative work has the capacity to call for proximity rather than distance; collectivity over solipsism and conversation over contestation. Reading is said to be an expansive act, the acceptance of an invitation, a portal to somewhere else. And as comparatists, we tread the delicate ground between ways of speaking, feeling, thinking, being. If literature constitutes a response to the changing times, then reading across and between, within and outside of the lines, promises to bridge a troubled politics with a potentially instructive poetics. Comparative Literature, rather than a discipline of exile, can be one of welcome, of attention and curiosity – faculties we are somewhat lacking in this age.
Some say comparison is the purchase of the privileged: it presupposes a certain access to other realms that not everyone is privy to. But the very enterprise of living is in fact mediated by comparison –we distinguish one moment from another, between faces, between deep and shallow, between shades of blue, and between blue and brown. Expanding one’s circumference of the comparable yields a certain equanimity – the necessary knowing that there is a world – worlds upon worlds – outside one’s own. The aim is not to collapse distinctions under the universal umbrella of ‘the human’; it is to show how we are the same in different ways; that we can be different in the same way.
As creatures of narrative, then, we would do well to hold out the hope that these two years have been not for naught. For the despair, grief and sacrifice we have endured, there arises an equal or greater measure of kinship, communion, and joy. We are undertaking an extended exercise in learning to live together. What else did the great books ready us for? If we are still stuck indoors, the houses are not set so far apart, and the walls are flimsy. In our periphery we see a murky blur of shapes. We fumble for the switch and, squinting through the glare, boldly ask what exactly we are looking at.