Nick Admussen: Being Twenty-One During Coronavirus

2020-04-10 ☼ blog

In this letter to his students at Cornell University, Nick Admussen draws on 史铁生 Shi Tiesheng’s essay The Year of Being Twenty-One”, which I translated for Asymptote Journal several years ago. It felt strange and moving to be reminded of the essay — one I hadn’t thought about for a long time — in such an unexpected context, and it made me reflect on how the coronavirus has refracted so many of the texts I’ve recently been teaching and reading. In Yoko Ogawa’s The Memory Police, the world fades away one object at a time; this article by Joshua Keating perfectly captures how the book (first published in 1994) suddenly feels more sharply apposite in the era of physical distancing:

The losses start small and insignificant. At the local coffee shop, the first thing that disappeared was the table holding the lids and the self-serve milk. Then half the tables vanished. Then all the tables. Then the whole shop closed. Then you hear that the employees were laid off. One by one, vacations, dinner plans, birthday parties, and professional opportunities that had been lined up for the next few weeks disappeared. First you lost handshakes with acquaintances, then hugs with friends, then any personal contact at all. Workplaces, schools, public spaces, sports, conferences, political rallies, international travel, domestic travel—all disappeared one by one.

The isolation of Emily Dickinson, whose work I’ve been reading with my graduating class, now resonates in an entirely different way. And the book I started before and finished during lockdown — William Gibson’s The Peripheral — which depicts a depopulated future where people interact via remotely controlled avatars, had become more relevant even before I saw this story about students graduating via robot stand-ins. My students will not be getting a graduation, nor completing the exams they’ve been working towards for the last two years, and I am doing my best to make our last few classes together (but not together) as meaningful and valuable as I can.