In her book, “Illness as Metaphor,” Susan Sontag bans us from using metaphor to describe disease. We need to toughen up, she thinks, and forgo the flight away from the thing itself, the marauding crimes wreaked on the body by maladies too many to count.
As Sontag writes, “Illness is the night-side of life, a more onerous citizenship. Everyone who is born holds dual citizenship, in the kingdom of the well and in the kingdom of the sick.” It is a passport none of us wants to hold, and a trip nobody wants to make.
More than ever before, many of us feel the duality of our citizenship, and how close we live to the border between sickness and health. We are too close to COVID-19 to abstract it away or gauzily distance it from our own bodies and the bodies of those we love.
We are still checking our throats for a cough, watching where our fingers go and who breathes where. Huddled in quarantine, robbed of much of the world’s pleasures, COVID-19 is the most real thing in the world, right now.
You might say, without exaggeration, that COVID is the world. Or that the world, for this brutal interval, is COVID’s. We live in plague times.
For many of us, our closest contact with plagues is in the sticky Haggadah pages, the three quarters mark towards the seder meal. We are a lucky and blessed generation. But this year, we need to read the Haggadah with plague eyes.
The story of the Exodus is one of divinely imposed contagion and resistance, immunity and vulnerability spelled out across neighborhoods and smudged over doorposts, separating out the contagious and the quarantined, striking at Pharaoh’s palace and in the muddy shacks along the Nile.
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Passover is the naturalization holiday for this dual citizenship. The seder is a border crossing from past to present to future, slavery to freedom, the province of history to the empire of the imagination. But it also affirms that both passports jostle in our pockets uneasily, and chafe against each other; we are always both.
That bothness mirrors the reality that so many of us feel these days, when the lines between the sick and the healthy and the safe and the dangerous seem as blurry as our isolation feels stark and brutal. Sontag banned metaphor because she didn’t want us to anesthetize the pain of this doubling. It cleaves us, and that’s the point.
Because on the other side of this rich grey is the potential for healing, the slave feeling the first drift of sand underneath free feet. To be sick implies the possibility of being well, just as loss always presupposes something worth losing.
The kingdom of illness is vast these days and has far too many suffering subjects. But like the Egypt of old, its grip on power will not last forever.
Plagues freed slaves from Egypt, and we will win our freedom from this plague. I can’t wait to hear the song we sing on the far side of the sea.
This is one in a series of pieces on Passover during coronavirus. Read the rest of the series here.
Ari Hoffman is a contributing columnist at the Forward, where he writes about politics and culture. His writing has also appeared in The Wall Street Journal, Tablet Magazine, The New York Observer, Mosaic Magazine, The Jerusalem Post, The Times of Israel, and The Tel Aviv Review of Books. He holds a Ph.D. in English Literature from Harvard and a law degree from Stanford.
The Seder is a passport to the past and the future