In the past few years, a lot of people have been struggling to articulate a certain type of malaise. Is it anxiety? Well, maybe. It’s anxiety-shaped. Is it our old friend depression? Could be! But then again, there’s more urgency in it than your garden variety depressive episode. I’ve heard it described as a kind of grief, a multi-faceted process, or as a low-grade trauma. I’ve also heard it described as “feeling sad and sort of uneasy all the time”, which is fairly bang on.
I’ve felt it, too, and agree that it feels new. I’ve lived with and been medicated for anxiety and depression for most of my adult life, and so I tend to be able to recognise those two assholes when they turn up at my door. While I think they probably gave this new feeling a ride to my particular brain-party, I can’t help but feel we’re not dealing with the usual suspects alone here.
It’s hard to describe a feeling. Ask an 18th Century poet to describe a landscape and they’ll be at it for hours — “comely branches” this and “embroider’d leaves” that — but to capture in words what a feeling feels like is substantially more difficult. So, I’m not going to really try to do that. Like the dandies writing about virginal oak trees, I’m going to stick with what I can see, and what I can see is a lot of very sad, very scared people taking a trip to Bonkerstown.
As with virtually all psychological phenomena, you can get your clearest view on social media. It’s not a completely accurate view, because social media is a viewing lens with both magnification and distortion, but I do think it does less of the latter than most people are comfortable admitting. Sites like Twitter incentivise the posting of patently insane screeds, but it doesn’t create them out of whole cloth. A 50-plus Tweet meltdown thread lives in each of us, and it’s just down to a handful of variables as to whether or not yours gets released into the world.
And we’ve been seeing a lot of that — meltdowns, I mean. From journalists, from our public figures, from our leaders, from people who, until recently, didn’t really have strong opinions about much at all. We’re seeing a kind of partisanship that borders on fundamentalist. We’re seeing a government completely paralysed with indecision. We’re seeing people on both ends of the political spectrum ratting on their neighbours, forming psycho-sexual relationships with health officials, espousing demented conspiracy theories about vaccines. In short, we’re seeing a very slow kind of unhinging, like a snake’s jaw when it’s about to eat an entire pig.
A lot of this is down to — and I hope I’m not generalising here — everyone’s least favourite iteration of the Coronavirus, Covid-19. But not entirely. Covid-19 is an invisible demon that has killed around four million people world-wide, so there’s a lot to dislike about it, but I think what’s sending us strange isn’t a feeling of impending Covid death, it’s that it seems right now, at this moment in time, that we are powerless to do anything, at all, about anything.
Robert Caro has an idea that runs through his multi-book, 3000-odd page (and counting) biography on Lyndon Johnson. It’s basically this: power reveals. If you want to know what a person is really like, watch what they do when they’re given a lot of power. This, I think, is true, but I also believe the opposite is true. Powerlessness reveals. (Whether or not Robert Caro agrees with me on this is largely immaterial because he’s never going to read this as he’s too busy interviewing a waiter who once served LBJ some soup so he can write four chapters on what the 36th President of the United States thought about soup.) This is all to say, if you really want to know what a group of people are like, see how they behave when they’re completely stripped of power.
The defining trait of the past couple of years has been the slow and terrible realisation that we are not in control of anything, really. Adam Curtis goes on about this a lot. The fundamental contradiction that we’re currently living through is that we venerate individual agency above all else, while the actual power that an individual can exert over their circumstances is rapidly diminishing. It’s not Covid, Covid just makes it plain.
People who have, for example, spent any time on welfare, are already familiar with the incompetence and cruelty of the systems that are meant to protect us, but there’s a whole new set of people — people in positions of privilege who haven’t really relied on the government for anything in their lives beyond keeping their credits franked and their gears negated — who are discovering this for the first time. This doesn’t bring about a simple frustration at incompetence; it's earth shattering. It’s a realisation for many that some of the fundamental tenets upon which they’ve viewed their entire world are actually fairly rickety. Maybe we knew this all along, maybe that’s been in the back of our minds, but you really only know how strong something is by stress-testing it, and we’re in the middle of a fairly grim stress test.
It’s interesting that, despite the recent apocalypse fiction boom, we generate very few stories about the bit before the fall. A lot of this stuff tends to be relegated to a pre-credits sequence where we see newsreaders saying things like “There is pandemonium on the streets” in various languages until the TV turns to static and then we cut to the actual end of the world bit. We’re far more interested in the part where people are all sooty and living in tents, talking about The Great Happening and other terms in title-case, using iPads as cutting boards and cute things like that. The part that I’m interested in is the part somewhere in between “Everything is Fine” and “Water-Barons Roam the Plains with Gangs in their Kill-Engines”. I’m interested in it for a couple of reasons, but most of all because I get the feeling that we may well be living through it, and I think that feeling of powerlessness, or at least the acknowledgement of it, is the beginning.
One of the reasons I don’t think this stage of decline is dramatised all that much is because there’s very little catharsis in it. There’s a horrible itchy feeling about it when there’s no release. The most uncomfortable sequence in Jaws isn’t the bit where the shark finally attacks, it’s Martin Brody sitting on the beach, watching the water. That sequence seems to go for hours. By the time the disaster actually arrives and we get the dolly zoom right up on Brody’s terrified face, we feel less afraid than we did moments before. And that’s where we’re stuck. We’re stuck on the beach waiting for the other shoe to drop, knowing, like Brody does, that when it comes, we and whatever systems we’ve put our faith in until this moment, will be powerless to stop it.
That’s what I think this feeling is.