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Telling tales

Covid-19 as a graphic novel

Shiv Visvanathan Published 19.11.20, 02:47 AM
'We need a return to storytelling. Science and society have their roots, their creative myths, there.'

'We need a return to storytelling. Science and society have their roots, their creative myths, there.' Shutterstock

One of the things I love about old cities like Calcutta or Chennai is what I call the availability of eccentrics. These are outstanding, outspoken people who have lived a full life and now play philosophers in retirement. Unlike retired bureaucrats, they rarely invoke nostalgia. There is an openness to their conversations and questions. I especially love their questions because they raise issues I have not thought clearly of. Whenever I am a bit depressed, which is often in Covid-19 time, I call one of them.

My favourite is an old scientist, a student of my father, who still goes to the laboratory regularly. I asked him what he thought of the Covid crisis and he answered, “Covid is a failure of storytelling and ethics.” The crisis stems from that. I was surprised, I asked him to explain.


He smiled wryly; at least one could sense it. Science often becomes barren in these moments. It gives you facts, but facts without perspectives do not tell you much. One needs literature, the texture of a fable or a parable, to tell you that. He added, “Look at the way the government is pushing all the mush about the new normal, as if it is a mini-utopia. A Kafka could have squashed it in a minute.” He paused and said, “I know I have told this story often but it still has insight. It is, I believe, the only story Kafka wrote about India.”

A group of forest people decide to hold a sacrifice. On the day of the full moon, they invite the high priest to perform the ceremony but a tiger comes and eats him up. Undeterred, they wait a fortnight and hold the ceremony and the tiger comes and eats the priest again. The village goes into a crisis and summons a meeting. One of the people attending it is the village idiot. He raised his hand and offered a suggestion. He said, ‘Why not make the tiger that is eating the priest part of the ritual?’

The old scientist said the idiot understood the new normal. No logic of numbers can capture that. In fact, numbers as narrative have been one of the first casualties of Covid. He explained, “It is not just a question of statistics being value loaded, it is the way numbers let you look at an event. When you talk about an exponential rise of casualties, talk of body counts, the fact of death acquires an indifference. You lose your sense of mourning and the sacred. Death acquires an inevitability. You begin saying, 45,000 deaths are tolerable, normal for a population like ours.” Numbers destroy the potency of storytelling where every individual counts.

Even science, he said, “has lost its sense of storytelling. People talk about science as problem-solving. The philosopher, Thomas Kuhn, immortalized it in his work. Problem-solving banalizes and routinizes science. You invoke the same method, the same predictable pattern of discovery. Talking normal science, you lose your sense that science today is about risk, uncertainty, an adventure of the unanticipated. You lose your sense of exemplars like Alexander Fleming and Louis Pasteur or Robert Koch. Science as method, reiterating a normal science, loses its sense of fable.” It is the same with policy where the expert pretends to know what he does not. He loses the humility before nature and the life that science demands. But the worst casualty of Covid, he claimed, is social science.

In describing Covid, social sciences lost their sense of the social, a sense of norm, of altruism. Economists forgot about the informal economy, of thousands of migrants who became visible. The State destroyed the sense of old age by treating it as a form of obsolescence. The idea of the social, which forms a grand frame of understanding in Marx, Weber, Durkheim, just disappears. “Covid becomes an abstract story of vectors without community. The social scientist had almost nothing to say about Covid, apart from playing second fiddle to the State. This is why policy is such a second-rate, voyeuristic form of narrative. Policy is not even a third-person narrative. In fact, it lacks a sense of the person and sounds like a pathologist’s report.”

I told him, “For a scientist you tend to be sceptical of science.” He smiled and said, “It is my scepticism that makes me a scientist. Scepticism and faith go together. Science gives me a sense of the sacred, of the sense of the limits of a science, which still sustains a sense of mystery.”

He paused and then continued. “In this age where people fetishize the scientific temper as if it is another vaccine, this might sound unfashionable. This much is clear. Method alone does not make science in this age of uncertainty. Science needs judgment, it needs a sense of character. Science without ethics is incomplete today. This ethics is more than table manners. Yet ethics can be as experimental as any science.”

The sad thing is that debates on Covid rarely mention ethics. Ethics is not a catechism of dos and don’ts. “Look at it when the migrants were waiting at the bus stations, you sprayed them with chemicals with an objectivity that was frightening. It was as if you were spraying a troublesome crop. When death is treated with indifference, all you see is a corpse. Human rights should begin in an anatomy class.”

He stopped, was silent, and then said, “When you managerialize a crisis, you banalize even spirituality. You create handbooks of spirituality as if it is another technology. In Covid, psychology, management and spirituality continued to create a feel-good feeling. You sensed it in the colourful succulent supplements newspapers produced. You have a science of well-being for the middle class and the affluent but you had no language of suffering, no sensitivity to pain.” Cost-benefit analysis has no sense of pain. This is the first time there was no Mother Teresa, no religious group talk of sacrifice. Stories of heroism are few and far between. Science without altruism does not go far.

He then explained problem-solving. The idea is touted as activist but the concepts are routine. Problem-solving alone cannot resolve a crisis. “Any epidemic is also a crisis of values. It involves choices. The fact-value distinction breaks down in these moments where game theory does not work.” He added, “It is at this time you need storytelling, method and discourse to intersect.” He claimed the philosophy of science we read in India does not go beyond Popper, Kuhn. They are textbook science, but textbook science is too insulated to handle a crisis in all its complexity. The idea of the new normal is scientifically flawed and ethically illiterate. Yet our leaders spout it like god’s truth. The new normal reflects the mediocrity of ideas in India.

He stopped, then said, “The trouble is Covid should have been a graphic novel, a moral fable, a new kind of case study like the neurobiologist, Oliver Sacks, would write. It should bring out the choices we need to face. Sadly, we operate in the new flatland called policy. We need a return to storytelling. Science and society have their roots, their creative myths, there.”

I listened, spellbound. It was a fine assessment of a crisis. I merely waited to write it out as the work of an exemplar, as the articulation of a different paradigm.

I felt grateful.

The author is an academic associated with Compost Heap, a network pursuing alternative imaginations

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