I, too, am declining to write the next ‘King Lear’ as a protest against capitalism

Quarantine is already having a bad effect on writers.

A thought experiment, or a game you can play in your apartment where you pretend you’re on a quiz show. Something to do, no? When was it, exactly, that Rosanne Cash posted the following on Twitter: “Just a reminder that when Shakespeare was quarantined because of the plague, he wrote King Lear.”

a) At least three weeks ago
b) Definitely after that basketball player touched all the microphones, but before we found out about Tom Hanks
c) Four days ago
d) “Time” is a bourgeois construction

If you wanted to build a case for (d), I would probably let you get away with it, because I never know how seriously you’re meant to take people when they say stuff like that, and it is likely that you would advance your argument with more belligerent conviction than I have ever been able to muster up, for any reason. Still, and as ludicrous as it may seem, the correct answer is c).

It was four calendar days ago, only, when the eldest daughter of Johnny Cash got on her iPad and issued the remark that sent a number of people thoroughly off the deep end and ushered in what cultural historians will one day identify as the turning point in a new era of Writers Making It About Themselves. They’ll write papers about it, half-understood paraphrases of which will be published in articles titled “When Your Personality is Nothing To Write Home About at the Outset: How Quarantine Made Writers Somehow More Insufferable” and “Squaring Up To Shakespeare,” where the first paragraph says “mounting evidence suggests that an incredible lot of writers believed that they’d be able to write King Lear, given some free time and a nice quiet room with a lock on the door. King Lear, mind you.”

It really didn’t seem all that bad, on the face of it, and given all the other bad things out there. At worst, you might look at that tweet and conclude that it was slightly tone-deaf, perhaps even an open and shut case of chiming in for no reason. Take it elsewhere, Rosanne Cash. You might read it and think “You know what this is, to me? It’s meaningless. It’s so much hot air.” If you were feeling somewhat maudlin and freshly in love with the ordinary world, you could view it as a beautiful attempt to light a candle in the gathering dark. A sort of “chin up, friends” thing. Be of good cheer. Great art emerges even in desperate and frightened times. We are physically isolated from one another at this moment, and that is in itself skin-crawlingly horrifying in a way that some of us perhaps did not anticipate, but we can still come together and collectively marvel at the resilience of the human spirit, or even just at the genius of the big man himself. Imagine being able to sit down and write King Lear! “The worst is not/So long as we can say 'This is the worst’” etc.

Valid and reasonable responses, all of them, but tell that to the many writers who took the whole thing as a grave affront, a personal attack, an ugly little moment that laid bare Late Capitalism at its most life-denyingly rapacious. Poor old Rosanne Cash, just trying to tell some online pals a fact she learned about the man she probably refers to as “Billy Shakes,” and unleashing absolute hell in the process. Just unbelievable stuff out there, startling glimpses into the inner worlds of people who apparently believe that the main reason Shakespeare wrote King Lear was because he felt an obligation to be “productive” during a period of quarantine, and also that although they themselves were clearly capable of churning out something of a similar quality, given the right conditions, they would not be embarking on that journey, because to do so would be to succumb to capitalism’s overweening demands. Standing unbowed even as capitalism’s hot, meaty breath is huffing in your face, even as its bloodied claws swipe at your midsection, not writing King Lear. Head held high, tremulously belting out “The Internationale” to the accompaniment of battered tin flutes, refusing to take the sucker’s path, which is to write King Lear. Leave that sort of bullshit to the weak and the brainwashed, the helplessly conformist. Stand firm, and make an incredibly big deal of your plans to spend your period of quarantine eating sugar out the jar, or furiously masturbating, or playing Mario Kart.

There’s a lot happening at the moment, but I hope it’s still possible to take a 10 minute time out to applaud the efforts of all the terminally online writers who have managed to frame as an act of defiance their repeatedly stated intention to spend their quarantine period playing computer games. This could be the self-isolation talking, but there is something incredibly lovable about this sort of behavior, possibly even verging on life affirming.

Catastrophes, by their nature, are merciless in the way they expose the failures and fault lines of a society. Absorption of this information can be very painful, even when it is something you thought you already understood. For instance, it is one thing to believe, in the abstract, that the people purportedly in charge are utterly unequipped to deal with a full-scale disaster, in the practical as well as the moral sense. It is quite another to have this belief relentlessly affirmed, minute by minute, over and over. We are all learning a lot about the way the world works at the moment, and much of it is profoundly alarming, even to those of us who thought we knew a thing or two. It’s a relief, then, to see that writers have no tricks up their sleeves, and a limited capacity to surprise.

You can put a writer anywhere, it seems: in quarantine, on the moon, in the middle of the desert, and they will still behave exactly as they usually do, getting offended by comparisons to Shakespeare, rigging up some incredibly half-hearted argument about not writing King Lear as praxis, being just endlessly full of shit, taking literally every opportunity to insert into the situation a head and shoulders shot of themselves. This is all as it should be. I’d worry if it was any other way.

Rosa Lyster is a writer in Cape Town.