The flu pandemic is so reminiscent, in all its media manifestations, of so many movies about viral outbreaks that it is already an artistic event. It has also brought out certain baffling elements of the contemporary artistic character.
Let me explain those two points in order. First, the obvious echoing of movies, and how it makes us think instantly in terms of movies. I took a sick baby to the hospital last week, nervous of course that he had The Flu and nervous that if he didn't have it he certainly would - we all would - by the time we left the hospital. And there is certainly a military edge to hospitals these days. There are the big red signs everywhere. There are the full emergency rooms, the tired doctors popping acetaminophen at the juice counter, their faces marked with the red lines of masks. And then in the waiting room there is the big-screen TV tuned to a local news channel with uninterrupted commentary on - guess what? - the progress of the flu, the inadequacy of the vaccination sites and shots of long coughing queues that look like refugee camps somewhere else in the world.
And what is the first reaction to this scene of a contemporary person? It is of course to visualize the next shot in the movie. The editing speeds up, cutting among various sick people in the waiting room. Someone vomits, someone passes out, there is shouting, the music grows frantic, there is a sense of chaos. ... And then, hard cut, the music is silent: The same room is empty. Masks and syringes litter the floor, posters warning to stay inside are faded on the walls, perhaps blowing in the breeze from a smashed window ... The camera pans down the empty halls and then into the empty streets, where the hulks of cars lie in the middle of intersections. ...
You've seen this movie a dozen times.
Okay, so that's how life imitates art, or rather that's how immersed in art we are: that we can't but see life as a pale echo of it.
Now, how do artists themselves react to the threat of illness? Interestingly, almost completely irrationally. They too do not think in terms of real life: They think in terms of fantastic conspiracies and romantic resistance. I know this because I see and talk to a lot of artists daily: I correspond with them and I drink with them and I teach them. And I can report that the virus that has spread among the sensitive people of Canada is not physiological; instead, it is a bizarre belief that science is corrupt, that the government is incompetent, and that you can't trust medicine.
Everyone has gone to see her naturopath for advice about the flu shot, and of course the naturopath says don't do it; it's a toxic chemical and you're probably allergic to eggs anyway. I step into my classroom, and the students (master of fine arts students, so a naturally alternative bunch) are talking about the dangers of the vaccine: It has never been tested; there was that one YouTube of a nurse who took it and was paralyzed. … "I'm suspicious," said one student, "of the government telling me to put a chemical into my body." These are intelligent people, not flakes: They have read James Joyce and can tell you what exegesis is. We saw the same thing in a Globe and Mail article last weekend: Of prominent Canadians asked whether they were going to get vaccinated, three noted artists - two singers and a film director - said they would not. And a writer and an actress said they were undecided.
Why are artists opposed to public-health policies? Are they not generally on the left? Doesn't the left support public health? After all, we are talking about massive public expenditure here, to provide free health care to everyone - is this not the triumph of the caring democratic state? Since when did medicine become associated with corporations and exploitation? And since we're asking, when did "government" become synonymous with coercion and control? My left-wing friends are starting to sound a lot like the nuttiest libertarian don't-tax-me right.
It can be explained: Since the 1950s, we have all realized that a number of commonly used chemicals were actually dangerous, and a few medicines were improperly tested (Thalidomide has a lot to answer for), and this gave rise to a generalized fear of "chemicals" (the term is now elastic and includes medicines, anything that comes from a lab). The left, ever since romanticism, has always privileged the natural, or what is perceived to be natural. (I see nothing unnatural about medicine, myself.) Hence the magic power of the word "organic." Things that come from labs are artificial, artificial means cancer. And so the left is caught in a paradox: To be sensitive right now means to be hostile to the products of the very sophisticated public-health-care system that they themselves would passionately defend.
I am very glad, of course, that we have so many artists in this society and that they are generally a skeptical bunch, and that their paranoid imaginations give us so many dramatic movies about corrupt science.
I am glad, however, that they are not in charge of my actual health care.
By the way, the creative left is enthralled by a homeopathic remedy for the flu that uses Gelsemium, or yellow jessamine. Gelsemium is highly poisonous (look it up). But don't worry, the quantities used in homeopathy are so infinitesimally small they are medically negligible. So it won't kill you.
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