Every now and then, the world produces a perfect news story: a wondrous gem of sheer happening, in which the world stands revealed in a hyperreal strangeness and profoundness and hilarity. The story of the Big Cow, Knickers, who was literally too Big to process into meat, was one such story; another was when that baboon polycule escaped from a scheduled vasectomy and ran amok on the streets of Sydney.
This Monday, we received another one, just when it seems we needed it most. In Australia (actually all these stories happened in Australia), The Guardian revealed, as the world locked down into quarantine to slow the tide of the coronavirus outbreak, a man had been hospitalized — for sticking magnets into his face.
As the story goes Dr. Daniel Reardon, an astrophysicist living in Melbourne, was admitted to hospital after “getting four magnets stuck up his nose in an attempt to invent a device that stops people touching their faces during the coronavirus outbreak.” Originally, Reardon, who despite his qualifications has by his own account “really no experience or expertise in building circuits or things,” planned to use his time in self-quarantine exploiting an “electronic part” he had which “detects magnetic fields” as the basis for a device that — worn as a necklace, with a powerful neodymium magnet worn on the wrist — would set off an alarm if you brought your hand too close to your face. This backfired when it turned out that Reardon’s part did the opposite, and that he had accidentally “invented a necklace that buzzes continuously unless you move your hand close to your face.”
After this initial failure, it seems, quarantine boredom really set in. Reardon started playing with the magnets, clipping them to his face: “I clipped them to my earlobes,” he said, “and then clipped them to my nostril.” “Things went downhill pretty quickly when I clipped them to my other nostril.”
“Reardon said he placed two magnets inside his nostrils, and two on the outside. When he removed the magnets from the outside of his nose, the two inside stuck together. Unfortunately, the researcher then attempted to use his remaining magnets to remove them.”
There now follows, in the article, two of the greatest paragraphs the English language ever has or will produce:
“After struggling for 20 minutes, I decided to Google the problem and found an article about an 11-year-old boy who had the same problem. The solution in that was more magnets. To put on the outside to offset the pull from the ones inside.
As I was pulling downwards to try and remove the magnets, they clipped on to each other and I lost my grip. And those two magnets ended up in my left nostril while the other one was in my right. At this point I ran out of magnets.”
Ultimately, after some further struggles involving some pliers which became magnetized, Reardon was hospitalized — with his partner, who works at a hospital, taking him in “because she wanted all her colleagues to laugh at me.” After the magnets were successfully removed, Reardon received some medical notes which contained the phrase: “Denies difficulty breathing. Denies further magnets.”
Admittedly this might just be because I have myself only left the house in the past week to walk the baby to sleep or buy bicarbonate of soda, but it is my contention that Reardon is a hero for our times. Dr Daniel Reardon, the Magnets Australian, whose only concrete achievement — yes — is to have wasted medical time during a pandemic, is the hero that we all need right now.
There remains a tendency to understand the coronavirus crisis simply as a “pandemic,” when in truth it is so much more.
To see this, we must first appreciate the seriousness of the situation we have found ourselves in. Obviously by now almost everyone — even systematically unserious people who have become very powerful and successful precisely through their basic unseriousness, like Donald Trump and Boris Johnson — realizes that coronavirus is something very serious (I mean, Johnson’s even got it). We have finally, as a culture, managed to navigate the transition from “oh, it’s just the flu who cares” to “we are going to have to (at least) temporarily suspend every aspect of our lives.”
But there nevertheless remains a tendency to understand the coronavirus crisis simply as a “pandemic,” when in truth it is so much more. Coronavirus does not only threaten our lungs, it threatens all our institutions — it has revealed our economy as little more than a precariously-balanced heap of garbage, the last grimy food wrapper that causes the whole of the bin to spill over the kitchen floor. A heady combination of systematic underinvestment, especially in health services, and the consumer capitalist cult of just-in-time efficiency have left countries like America and the UK completely ill-equipped to deal with something like this, and now everything seems exhausted, used-up: supply chains are collapsing; employment is atrophying; whole industries are dying. Food may be about to start rotting in the fields.
This is why it is quite natural to see lines forming outside supermarkets, or experience the emptiness of a city like New York, or even just see nature returning to areas where one had never seen anything close to nature before (the surprisingly large flocks of magpies outside my window, hello), and parse what is going on as apocalyptic; why it is more than simply hyperbolic to compare what is going on, as Molly Jong-Fast has done in Vogue, to what happened at Chernobyl. Of course there are some pretty significant disanalogies — no one, as yet, is needing to contain anything in a giant concrete sarcophagus to prevent it from gradually poisoning the entire world. But Chernobyl has been credited by Gorbachev as the catalyst for the collapse of the Soviet Union — making a state of emergency out of a hypocrisy and malaise that had been allowed to become systematic throughout its institutions. Coronavirus now looks set to represent, for consumer capitalism, something similar. “This is the moment the Apocalypse got real for me,” said one tech worker quoted in a Financial Times article about food delivery apps struggling even despite the quarantine, as he contemplated the closure of a chain Japanese restaurant. “No Wagamama.”
Suppose “the normal” really is gone — what will replace it?
“The end times are here,” Hayes Brown wrote in an essay published on this website last year, about the climate apocalypse, “and I am at Target” — marvelling at the basic normality of people shopping for groceries even when we know, outside, our ecosystem is collapsing. It is this normality that has now, at least temporarily, been suspended. “Pubs” and “restaurants” are no longer possibilities. I have begun looking back on trips to the Big Tesco with the wistful longing of Walter Benjamin writing, from Paris at the time of the rise of Hitler, of his bourgeois childhood in 1900s Berlin. With coronavirus and the various emergency measures that have been put into place, we see, at a minimum, the possibility of the possibility of the loss of our whole “normal” way of life. Will I one day be trying to explain to my son, as if I am telling of some alien technology, what it was like to navigate the various tiers of supermarket own-brand pasta, from least to most Italian-looking packaging, or experience the giddy thrill of infinite pointless subtleties between different brands of IPA?
On a certain level, this loss of what we call “normality” is to be welcomed. Coronavirus is a disaster, but the disaster was also something we were already living through. Our way of life was destroying the planet — and it was destroying us too (one recent study found that in the past decade, life expectancy in some parts of the UK had plummeted in ways that, according to its author “are usually only seen in countries that have seen a ‘catastrophic’ economic or political shock”). Obviously it is always going to be difficult to abandon what we have been used to as normal — we do not even really know ourselves except as atomized, consumer capitalist subjects who count out their lives in jobs and salaries and possessions. It is not for nothing that Theodor Adorno claimed that, as the “citizens of the wrong world,” we would most likely find the right one unbearable — that we would be “too damaged for it.” But normality is no longer necessarily something we can cling to.
The danger lies in what comes next. Suppose “the normal” really is gone — what will replace it? If the analogy with the Soviet Union stands up, well, what happened in the aftermath of the Soviet Union’s collapse was hardly better than what came before. As it stands, the most likely post-coronavirus settlements seem to involve elevated levels of social control (keeping in place police powers which people were willing to acquiesce in given the emergency), the prospect of renewed austerity (to “pay for” the economic protections the coronavirus crisis enforced), possibility some sort of eco-fascism, and possibly western governments trying to deflect from their own poor handling of the pandemic by inciting conflict with China. We need something else to work towards — but what? We must find some way of definitively transcending the old, bad normal, even from within a context in which this is all we have ever known.
It is into this void that Dr. Daniel Reardon steps, with magnets in his face. We do not know the good — do not know what to hope for, or what to aim for. So what can we do? As far as I can tell, all we have left to do is play. And luckily, one side-effect of the emergency measures has been to leave a lot of people with the time and space in quarantine to be creatively bored. Daniel Reardon was one such person — and he used this time and space to fill his face with magnets.
In and of itself, of course, this was hardly the right response — as I’ve noted, its main consequences were to cause himself physical pain, and to waste a number of medical professionals’ time. But perhaps some other bored experiment could be. Reardon, note, was attempting to direct his creative energies towards helping others — to inventing a magnetic anti-face-touching necklace. Who knows what other people are trying to invent, or bring about? (People who might under “normal” circumstances have found their creative energies directed towards, for instance, finding ways to make people buy shit they don’t need). Together, or alone, the compulsive play of those with time on their hands and despair to offset could well be the engine of the process through which some new conception of the good is able to emerge. And so creative boredom can become a form of radical hope.
By now, I’m sure, the vast majority of us are yearning to “get back to normal.” But the normal is almost certainly no longer an option — and it probably wouldn’t even be a good one if it was. If we are to have any chance of building a better world in the wake of this, we must all start (metaphorically) sticking magnets on our ears, and up our nose. Let a thousand magnets bloom!