Sarah Manguso on How Lockdown Is Re-Inventing Slowness

Retro pleasures are a smokescreen that fails to conceal the painfully quick dismantling of institutions that have lasted centuries

This essay is the fourth in a series of memos by artists, writers, curators and scientists written to the world after the COVID-19 crisis. In homage to Italo Calvino's Six Memos for the Next Millennium (1988), they are divided into six categories: 'lightness', 'quickness', 'exactitude', 'visibility', 'multiplicity' and 'consistency'. 'How Lockdown Is Re-Inventing Slowness' was written in response to 'quickness'.

In the mid-1990s, I edited copy at a big communications firm and, throughout the day, instant-messaged with friends. Before I got up from my desk, I’d announce on AOL Instant Messenger that I would be away for however many minutes or hours. ‘You’re bad at this,’ a friend messaged me one day after such an announcement. He meant that I was bad at understanding this new way of being, this new quickness, within which all time away from an activity was understood as an intermission before the activity was taken up again. He didn’t seem to feel the need to close the loop; he just left it open, endlessly, which made me uneasily alert in a way that felt unnecessary, back then, a decade or two before that very alertness became my permanent state of being.

In the time before mandated quickness, back before all business was done online, back when mailing a letter prompted a lag of unknown duration, I used to complete tasks and feel that they were finished. Waiting was a given. Yearning was a given. The past 25 years have eliminated such yearning.

Anne Pratt, Ploughmans Spikenard from Wild Flowers, 1891, book illustration. Courtesy: Society for Promoting Christian Knowledge, London, and Collector/Getty Images

Communicating with friends now means that someone will read a notification on her phone within seconds of my sending a note. My working memory seethes with data. I click and tap, hoping to find some response or hoping to find nothing at all. Every day I need to make the same decision many times: will I be the one to stop this text volley, or will I wait for the other to do it? Even after the decision is made, or seems to have been made, I feel a lingering uneasiness that, at any moment, I might need to snap to attention. To send out a piece of correspondence is to open a channel that will never close until one participant gives up.

A few weeks into his home-based schooling, my son wants to know the definition of a word, ‘nard’, that we’ve found in a crossword puzzle. He asks to look in my old Merriam-Webster Collegiate dictionary, a theatre prop that I no longer use but can’t bear to get rid of. Perhaps he senses its sudden appropriateness. He doesn’t know how to use the page guides or decipher the abbreviations, so I do it for him and then page ahead to ‘spikenard 1b’, skimming the answer. ‘It’s like ginseng!’ I say. ‘Like a bright, spicy tea.’ My son looks bemused. All of this, just to get to tea, when we could have googled it? I watch him imagining what it must have been like in the olden days. He’s just time-travelled. I’m reminded of my own childhood, when I packed a bindle and walked into the woods.

Gareth Cadwallader, Bath, 2015–16, oil on canvas, 29 x 22 cm. Courtesy: the artist

What my son and I are doing now, thanks to the lockdown, is re-inventing slowness. Children, who are used to creating and synthesizing the world, instinctively invent, and my son is summoning a new slowness while he watches his parents do the same. No more running to the store anytime anyone has a hankering; no more rushing to and from school or the taekwondo dojang; no more infernal birthday parties. We clean the house together. We eat lunch together. These slowed-down retro pleasures are a smokescreen that fails to conceal the simultaneous, painfully quick dismantling of institutions that have lasted centuries and once seemed immovable.

Main Image: Pierre Bonnard, Dining Room in the Country (detail), 1913, oil on canvas, 1.6 x 2.1 m. Courtesy: Minneapolis Institute of Art

Sarah Manguso is the author of seven books of poetry and prose, most recently 300 Arguments (2017) and Ongoingness: The End of a Diary (2015). She lives in Los Angeles, USA. 

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