Professor Rudimentary White, Narratologist and Dating App Designer, Discusses the Story of COVID-19
The day was unflinchingly gorgeous, and Darling Street in Balmain was full of people, out to enjoy the brightness. The second wave of COVID-19 was ebbing away, yet restrictions appeared to be in full force. Professor Rudimentary White asked to meet me at a small nondescript café in the middle of the Sunday hubbub. We sat outside, nearly by the curb, and waited to order.
He glanced around as if he had just woken up, and idly sized up the young families, pensioners, and couples strolling past. He ordered poached eggs, one hash brown, a side order of lightly braised mushrooms, and a soy latte. When the waitress arrived with his latte, he immediately told her it was not hot enough and coughed. I could see the shock even behind her mask. He, on the other hand, was smiling softly and vacantly as if the most routine of interactions had happened. I apologised on Rudimentary’s behalf and decided to launch straight into the meat of the interview.
E: You work on narrative and the study of narrative. Has the global epidemic of COVID-19 impacted your work?
Rudi White: Not greatly. I don’t pay much attention to the news.
E: And why not?
Rudi White: The news is not my kind of storyteller, so I don’t see much purpose in listening.
E: Surely, now of all times, you’d want to stay on top of current events?
Rudi White: You’d do better to ask me about the story they are telling.
E: So COVID-19 is just a story?
Rudi White: Everything is. Everything comes to us or from us in the form of a story. Even data cannot be understood without a story. We’re not computers. I don’t watch the news, but the main story has made it into my ears anyway. Filtered, like a distillation process.
E: And how does this “distilled” story go?
Rudi White: There are many ways to tell it, but maybe the simplest way is to imagine that COVID-19 is the villain, a once-thought-mythical Dragon who has come from the outer darkness, breathing fire and death on the kingdom, surprising us and terrifying us. It is the emblem of an uncontrollable, inexplicable villain. And the king and knights and priests and heroes and all that sort are the Medical Authorities, the politicians and the World Health Organization and the doctors and the Bill Gates of the world. This heroic vanguard calls on the kingdom to submit to its methods of combating the dragon, with a clear narrative scope: you either follow us, or die. It’s simplistic, I know, but the essence of all functional social narratives is simplistic.
E: It also sounds quite realistic. The pandemic has infected and killed so many.
Rudi White: Reality doesn’t matter to the story.
At this point Professor White reached out to the passing waitress and tapped her quite forcibly on the elbow. He had eaten about half of his meal. Her eyes widened at the touch, and he calmly told her that the eggs were not up to standard—which of course was not her fault—but the message should be passed on for the benefit of the cook and the customers. He then thanked her profusely; he was all smiles, somehow absentminded. I leaned forward and told her to ignore him: he meant no offence, and she need not replace his meal or do anything else. She laughed nervously and walked off.
E: Forgive me, Professor White, but isn’t this mythologising metaphor a little trite? What purpose does it serve? Your analysis is known for its depth and complexity.
Rudi White: You’re not forgiven because you’re right. Yes, it’s trite—and as I said, simplistic—but it needs to be.
Rudi White: So people like you can understand it, my dear friend. And so I can throw up alternatives without confusing you. Ask yourself this: throwing aside any emotional attachment to the authoritative version, is there any way the story could be told differently with all the facts kept intact?
E: I suppose so. But what would an alternative story be? And who would get to tell it?
Rudi White: Imagine this instead. The current story begins and ends with the Dragon, so any new story must change this antagonist significantly. The great beast from an unknown realm surprises and terrifies with seemingly unstoppable and remorseless death. The great beast must kill or be killed, right? Now, how many in the kingdom have been burned by its attacks? 100 million, 10 million? How many have already died? 50 million, 5 million?
E: I think about 70 million have been infected worldwide and about one and a half million have died.
Rudi White: And the dragon, is it not merciless? How many who have been burned have survived its fire?
E: It depends. In some places, maybe there is a 50 percent survival rate among those infected, in others it is less than 20 percent.
Rudi White: Less than 5 percent from those who have suffered, less than 1 percent from the kingdom overall. A dragon, to be a dragon, must be merciless. How many people have become dangerously ill from a pathogen other than COVID-19 since the outbreak? How many have chronic disease? How many have died this year in total, and what percentage of those deaths did COVID-19 claim?
E: To be honest, this seems like old hat, a tired conspiracy…
Rudi White: My good friend, it doesn’t matter. I don’t need to know to know. It only matters how the story is told and what reality is created as a result, or how the rhetorical impact of this story both shapes us and reveals our social functions. We are sitting in a grand movie theatre, in the great amphitheatre, which you may call public discourse, the zeitgeist, social consciousness, human civilization, whatever. And, what do the authors of the story tell us? Be afraid, run, we are at war with this dragon on your behalf. And what do we feel as we gorge on this story? Despite a modicum of doubt (the necessary afterbirth of suspended belief), we all fear, submit, self-police, and obey. And, most importantly, why do we do this? Because, as in most modernist narratives, the spectre of death holds a teleological whip over us all.
E: So your point is that the current crisis can be spun differently? That, in effect, the current story is hype?
Rudi White: A hyped dragon versus a real dragon—what’s the difference? We’re still stuck within the same narrative structure, and my whole point in all this is to highlight how understanding fresh narrative options can reveal much about ourselves and our society. Besides, declaring something to be hype when everyone is in mortal danger implies you are unfairly trying to calm everyone down during the crisis. I’m simply saying that the current narrative can be told differently, with a different dragon or indeed no dragon at all, even with the same facts. Because facts come to us in a story, and a story always benefits the teller and his reader; in the hands of others, the story can be told differently, and when it is, emotive words such as “isolation”, “hype”, “protests,” “vaccine,” “lockdown,” and even “death” must take on an entirely different significance.
E: That seems a little far-fetched. Besides, from what you are saying, we are already well into this story, and we are all agents within it. How can we change the antagonist from being a Dragon?
Rudi White: Why not? We can change the story, change the villain, recast the characters, remould the rhetorical devices, redefine fear—all without changing the facts. One day, a great Dragon came from the great unknown to terrorise a Kingdom. The King and his Knights drew together his wisest Priests, who urged open war against the Dragon to save the people of the Kingdom. Despite the murmurings of the malcontents, the Kingdom rallied around the King and submitted to his will. The King and his Knights marched and appeared to push the Dragon back to the mountains, but it returned. The King sent his Priests and Wizards against it, and pushed the Dragon back again, but yet again it returned. The people grew weary under the strict paucities of war, but the King cautioned against being faint of heart, and sallied forth again to fight the fearsome Dragon, wielding an ultimate weapon, a sword that would slay the Dragon by effectively making its fearsome fire unable to harm human flesh. But then, a humble Princess (or some sort of Outsider) travelled to the mountains to learn why the Dragon had come to the gates in the first place. She realised that it only kills in certain ways and on certain days, and has itself a history, and it need not threaten the Kingdom once the Kingdom finds a place for it. She enters into a pact with the fell beast. This Princess, this New Hero, then returns to the Kingdom to confront the King and the People with a new way of living with the Dragon, because even if this Dragon is killed, and there is no reason why it will be any time soon, new dragons will always come from the great unknown. Now, I’m no writer (in fact, while I hire writers, I despise them as human beings, no offense to you personally), but you get the gist. The Dragon is welcomed, and beyond that, death and fear are accepted honestly.
Tell me this: is a slow and hackneyed death as sorrowful as a viral and novel death? Do you see in this COVID narrative a modernist fable, which assumes that death is unquestionably wrong and so, somehow, can be avoided? Why can’t we live with the virus, if we must, however unwillingly, live with death?
E: How does one live with death, even in a story?
Rudi White: Knowing the story is a story allows us to live with death. I see two reasons why the modern audience cannot accept this, and so must live with fear: the first is that the virus is the Dragon, and every infection is a crisis, a devilish breath of fire. So we are not permitted to ask certain heretical questions. How many deaths are acceptable? Why some and not others? Why, the sick and chronically ill are most likely to die. So, isn’t chronic illness in a weak health system the Villain behind the Villain? And could not COVID be a mighty fine way for these sick and ill to die, quickly and relatively painlessly, when compared to the slow deaths they are otherwise facing? Imagine this narrative, based on the above unacceptable, morbid, and shocking questions that we cannot accept: “There were 10 new cases of COVID-19 today. Of these, we cannot tell which are immediate and which have been only been discovered due to recent, rigorous testing. Thankfully, only three new deaths have been reported. Deaths stand at 5 percent of the death rate for the infirm, less than 0.1 percent among the healthy. With continued measures to isolate those at risk, this spread should increase inoculation and the death rate should remain stable and below that of other common causes of death, such as chronic disease. The Government is funding better health measures overall, such as limiting fast food advertising. This should lower the at-risk group over time and help us all adjust to a world with recurrent viruses but fewer deaths from illness on the whole. All is well; live well, die well.” We refuse to face death like this, with courage in the face of death’s pain, and the loss it brings.
E: But why do you think that is so? Also, what’s the second reason we can’t face this?
Rudi White: We don’t want good stories anymore. Good stories allow us to look inward as well as outward, and go past a simple antagonist. They give us options, allow us to move past the binaries by sowing the seeds of doubt and giving room for interpretation, which is vital to any good story. We can’t face the idea of living with a constant sense of impending death, coming and going without our full control. Rather, we must have stories that pit authoritative heroes, rebels or officials against the spectre of death. As a result, we cannot accept any death, much less this new kind of death by virus. We are all going to die, yet a root assumption upon which our kingdom and our story is built is that death is unacceptable. How is this sane?
The waitress interrupted us to ask if we wanted anything further. Throwing a sly look at me, Rudimentary very deliberately tucked his hands under his arms and refused to look the waitress in the eye. He then broke into a huge smile at nothing in particular and told the air in front him that he was delighted with everything, particularly her service despite all the issues with his meal, which were to be embraced as part of the fullness of life. She did not know how to respond to this; she looked at me. I nodded, and then mumbled something in apologetic tones about the bill right before Rudimentary scared her and a number of passersby with a terrific sneeze.
E: I see. And does this social avoidance of mortality feature in your plans for a new kind of dating app?
Rudi White: I don’t want to pretend it’s not serious. The virus is very serious. People are dying, are scared, the lockdown is also killing us. I’ll probably take the vaccine, especially if they forcibly inject it. What’s that? Yes, a new kind of dating. By the way, writing that’s hard to do, reading that’s tough, breaking down the usual narratives and exploring uncharted, challenging, even confusing yarns, trying to unearth the good stories: that’s why I started Add to Cart Magazine. But the quality of the story aside, I know our rulers must do something, and something is better than no attempt to stop this virus. But if only they were to weave a story which did not bring so much dread, anxiety, and fear. I can’t bear this exaggerated societal fear of death. It was the voice of 9/11, and it is louder and more pervasive now. It’s probably the greatest failure of the Enlightenment, the reason that its near five-hundred-year-old story will be looked upon as a tragi-comedy in the future, and it’s why we who have championed it as the triumph of Reason will be made to look like airheaded, disconnected fools.
Rudimentary was then silent for quite some time. He sipped his coffee and acted as if he did not hear my questions. Then, telling me he wanted to find a bathroom, he left and did not return.
His bill was unpaid.
It was a bright, sunny day, and people strolled past us with prams and ice creams and face masks.
Rudimentary White is a founding editor of Add to Cart Magazine. You can contact him here. If his rambling has given you some motivation to reconsider the narratives in which you live, please thank him with a small donation.