Freddie might be indulging in a bit of exaggeration for rhetorical effect here, responding to the “discourse of exhaustion”:
Listen. Listen to me and understand: you are exhausted because your species was a mistake. You are exhausted because life is pain. You are exhausted because for 200,000 years we evolved to run the plains like the wild animals we were, our social circles 10 or 12 people at most, and now our conditions have changed so quickly that evolution can’t keep up, so we sift through our thousands of human connections spellbound by the impossibility of maintaining them all as we sit in our cramped and sterile apartments in crowded cities that were never meant to exist. Once we were animals. Now we are something much worse.
Let’s grant, per argumentum, that all this is true. It nevertheless is also true that I have never been as tired at the end of a school year as I am right now. Covidtide has been distinctively challenging for many of us, it just has, though I don’t claim to have a full understanding of all aspects of the phenomenon.
One of the small comforts of the past year has been reading the blog of Ada Palmer, a science-fiction writer and historian of the Renaissance who also deals with chronic debilitating illness, and in the course of learning how to deal with her symptoms has learned a few things that might be helpful to the rest of us.
Among other things, dealing with occasional incapacity has made her attentive to elements of the historical record that others might pass over. She especially notices all the quotidian things that stand between us and what we want to do, what to be. For instance, in a transcript of a talk, this reflection on Michelangelo:
In his autobiography he’s talking about this lawsuit that arose because of the della Rovere tomb project, in great detail, and then there’s a line that says Michelangelo realized that, while dealing with a bunch of lawsuits and Pope Adrian and such, he’d been so stressed he hadn’t picked up a chisel in four years. Because he spent the entire time just dealing with the lawsuit. (Anyone feeling guilty about being overwhelmed by stress this year, you’re not alone!) And we have four years worth of lost Michelangelo production, because he didn’t do any art that entire time, because he was just dealing with a stupid lawsuit. And that’s not the sort of thing that fits into our usual way of thinking about these great historical figures. We imagine Michelangelo in his studio with a chisel. We do not imagine him in a room with a bunch of lawyers being curmudgeonly and bickering and trapped in contract hell.
And then — more directly connected to our moment — a comment on Isaac Newton:
Early in the pandemic the anecdote went viral that Isaac Newton came up with his theory of gravity while he was quarantining in the country from a plague, and many people (not jokingly enough) used it to say we should have high standards for what we produce in a pandemic, or that if we don’t set high standards it means we’re not geniuses like him. The true fact (historian here, this is my period!) is that Newton did theorize gravity while quarantining, but didn’t have library access, and while he was testing the theory he didn’t have some of the constants he needed (sizes, masses), so he tried to work from memory, got one wrong, did all the math, and concluded that he was wrong and the gravity + ellipses thing didn’t work. He stuck it in a drawer. It was only years later when a friend asked him about Kepler’s ellipses that he pulled the old notes back out of the drawer to show the friend, and the friend spotted the error, they redid the math, and then developed the theory of gravity. Together, with full library access, when things were normal after the pandemic. During the pandemic nobody could work properly, including him. So if anyone pushes the claim that we should all be writing brilliant books during this internationally recognized global health epidemic, just tell them Newton too might have developed gravity years earlier if not for his pandemic.
If you’be been able to be as chipper and as productive in this past year as you normally are, consider yourself blessed. I sure as hell haven’t managed it.