Nymphs and Satyr as painted by William-Adolphe Bouguereau and dated 1873. My eyes were reeling with such images lost in my forest, but having found my way out of branches and roots and the winding, gyring paths of Dr. Seuss and Quantum Mechanics, I’m back home to cut a filet of elk into stew pieces on a course charted by Juliet Child in Mastering the Art of French Cooking.
As is the case with most famous dishes, there are more ways than one to arrive at a good boeuf bourguignon. Carefully done, and perfectly flavored, it is certainly one of the most delicious beef dishes concocted by man, and can well be the main course for a buffet dinner. Fortunately you can prepare it completely ahead, even a day in advance, and it only gains in flavor when reheated.
Time to open a bottle of Châteauneuf-du-Pape for the bourguignon and for Gabriela and myself. Then it’s simmering bacon to a crips, removing, and then sautéing the elk piece by piece. Once the browning has been accomplished, then the sliced carrots go in for their turn to caramelize in the good fat and juice.
With all that finished, bacon and elk and veg tumble around in the pot with a sprinkling of slat and pepper and flour. Into a hot oven for several minutes for a crust to cover all, and then out for a generous pour of wine and deer stock, squeeze of tomato paste and toss of sliced garlic, shake of oregano and thyme, then the pot is covered and put back in the oven for two and a half to three hours.
Which now means I can sit down with a glass of my favorite Rhône wine and contemplate what the World Health Organization (WHO) names “severe acute respiratory syndrome coronavirus 2 (SARS-CoV-2).” As a disease, it is named “coronavirus disease (COVID-19).” SARS Coronavirus may be seen as “an agent of emerging and reemerging infection.” The Rona. Swirl and sip. Virus comes from the Latin for a slimy liquid, a poison. A pathogen from πάθος meaning passion and suffering, a germ which can be living or non-living pathogen and cause disease. An infectious agent which is a stain or corruption that acts–that has agency in the world. Agency as in “Hannibal Lecter does have agency in the world.”
A virus has agency in the world. A world as researched by Eugene V Koonin, Tatiana G Senkevich, and Valerian V Dolja.
The virus world is construed as a distinct contingent of viral genes that continuously retained its identity throughout the entire history of life. Under this concept, the principal lineages of viruses and related selfish agents emerged from the primordial pool of primitive genetic elements, the ancestors of both cellular and viral genes. Thus, notwithstanding the numerous gene exchanges and acquisitions attributed to later stages of evolution, most, if not all, modern viruses and other selfish agents are inferred to descend from elements that belonged to the primordial genetic pool.
A selfish agent. A moral actor. A manipulation of a network. Psychology and physiology. This sub-microscopic act of agency, of moving forward and staying in motion, replicates itself in another living organism. To have agency means that an organism even microscopic can “differentiate agentive entities such as themself from inanimate objects in the environment and recognize the agentive and receptive roles and interactions.” And yes, they are legion as studied by C. Martin Lawrence, Smita Menon,Brian J. Eilers, Brian Bothner, Reza Khayat, Trevor Douglas, and Mark J. Young.
Viruses populate virtually every ecosystem on the planet, including the extreme acidic, thermal, and saline environments where archaeal organisms can dominate. For example, recent studies have identified crenarchaeal viruses in the hot springs of Yellowstone National Park and other high temperature environments worldwide. These viruses are often morphologically and genetically unique, with genomes that show little similarity to genes of known function, complicating efforts to understand their viral life cycles.
If the Rona has agency, an agent acting in self-interest, with its own life cycle then why not refer to it as politicians, health experts and journalists have talked of it–the “big enemy,” “common enemy,” “invisible enemy,” which “we will beat.” So then, we are dealing with an entity which if we follow Aristotle who views definition as “an account which signifies what it is to be for something” (logos ho to ti ên einai sêmainei), can not only be named but its properties uttered. In De Anima, Aristotle defines living as,
Living, that is, may mean thinking or perception or local movement and rest, or movement in the sense of nutrition, decay and growth. Hence we think of plants also as living, for they are observed to possess in themselves an originative power through which they increase or decrease in all spatial directions; they grow up and down, and everything that grows increases its bulk alike in both directions or indeed in all, and continues to live so long as it can absorb nutriment.
Again, let’s consider the good Dr. Hannibal Lecter.
Aristotle and a Roman emperor offer us ways to approach and question the Rona. For this virus, for any virus really what it is to be is be information, biological information, genes if you will, and following Meditation VIII.11 follow the question,
What is this by itself in its own constitution, what is its substance or substrate, what its causal element, what its function in the world and how long a time does it persist?
For the Rona, it’s causal element, it’s function in the world is replication. It seeks to be everywhere and everything. It has purpose. It is Agent Smith.
Does the Rona commit an action in pursuit of a basic need, a basic covetousness? Yes, to be in a host and to rewrite that host in its name, and then continue on to the next warm body. A living entity. In Scientific American December 2004, Luis P. Villarreal writes,
For example, a living entity is in a state bounded by birth and death. Living organisms also are thought to require a degree of biochemical autonomy, carrying on the metabolic activities that produce the molecules and energy needed to sustain the organism. This level of autonomy is essential to most definitions.
An entity–a being, a thing that is in Latin which gestures back to the Greek meaning that which is. That which has an essence. Villarreal then offers us a seed,
A seed might not be considered alive. Yet it has a potential for life, and it may be destroyed. In this regard, viruses resemble seeds more than they do live cells. They have a certain potential, which can be snuffed out, but they do not attain the more autonomous state of life.
Dr. Villarreal’s faculty profile from UC Irvine, in part, reads,
In the last decade metagenomic assessments have led us to realize that viruses are the dominate biological entities of the biosphere and are the most numerous, diverse and dynamic genetic agents on Earth. Although viruses have long been dismissed from the Tree of Life a simply destructive and selfish extra-genomic genetic parasites, comparative genomics now makes it clear that viral colonization distinguishes all domains of life.
So, a type of entity long on the planet and one everywhere seeking to everywhere and have dominion over all as it already does. Pan. And Pan does seek to be all. Consider this bronze mask of an orgiastic Pan outside the ancient Galilean city of Hippos-Sussita. Consider what happens to the girl who is operated on, “a slight lesion in the grey matter,” so she can see the Great God Pan.
Suddenly, as they watched, they heard a long-drawn sigh, and suddenly did the colour that had vanished return to the girl’s cheeks, and suddenly her eyes opened. Clarke quailed before them. They shone with an awful light, looking far away, and a great wonder fell upon her face, and her hands stretched out as if to touch what was invisible; but in an instant the wonder faded, and gave place to the most awful terror. The muscles of her face were hideously convulsed, she shook from head to foot; the soul seemed struggling and shuddering within the house of flesh. It was a horrible sight, and Clarke rushed forward, as she fell shrieking to the floor.
Three days later Raymond took Clarke to Mary’s bedside. She was lying wide-awake, rolling her head from side to side, and grinning vacantly.
“Yes,” said the doctor, still quite cool, “it is a great pity; she is a hopeless idiot. However, it could not be helped; and, after all, she has seen the Great God Pan.”
Here, Pan as drawn by Austin Osman Spare for Machen’s novella. Mary never returns from this state, but she does give birth to a child–a child of Pan. It seems to see what is beyond the veil, to see Pan, means that Pan enters into you, that Pan replicates himself in you, and through you will grow into your world and have agency. Mary gives birth to a daughter–a Helen V. who appears as a young woman later in the story.
As it happened, a labourer, Joseph W. by name, was working in the forest near the Roman Road, and at twelve o’clock his little son, Trevor, brought the man his dinner of bread and cheese. After the meal, the boy, who was about seven years old at the time, left his father at work, and, as he said, went to look for flowers in the wood, and the man, who could hear him shouting with delight at his discoveries, felt no uneasiness. Suddenly, however, he was horrified at hearing the most dreadful screams, evidently the result of great terror, proceeding from the direction in which his son had gone, and he hastily threw down his tools and ran to see what had happened. Tracing his path by the sound, he met the little boy, who was running headlong, and was evidently terribly frightened, and on questioning him the man elicited that after picking a posy of flowers he felt tired, and lay down on the grass and fell asleep. He was suddenly awakened, as he stated, by a peculiar noise, a sort of singing he called it, and on peeping through the branches he saw Helen V. playing on the grass with a “strange naked man,” who he seemed unable to describe more fully. He said he felt dreadfully frightened and ran away crying for his father. Joseph W. proceeded in the direction indicated by his son, and found Helen V. sitting on the grass in the middle of a glade or open space left by charcoal burners. He angrily charged her with frightening his little boy, but she entirely denied the accusation and laughed at the child’s story of a “strange man,” to which he himself did not attach much credence. Joseph W. came to the conclusion that the boy had woke up with a sudden fright, as children sometimes do, but Trevor persisted in his story, and continued in such evident distress that at last his father took him home, hoping that his mother would be able to soothe him. For many weeks, however, the boy gave his parents much anxiety; he became nervous and strange in his manner, refusing to leave the cottage by himself, and constantly alarming the household by waking in the night with cries of “The man in the wood! father! father!”
As the story continues, it’s clear that Helen V. meets Pan and also has the qualities of Pan. The effect of meeting with her out in the woods is to enter into a world beyond the veil, which has many disturbing and deadly effects such as above. An invisible world always connected to our and always wanting further entrance. Time to dish out the Viltkött Bourguignonne. I’ve already sautéed in butter oyster mushrooms and sprinkled with salt, pepper and dill so this tops the dish along with parsley sprigs.
I have not directly experienced times like these. I lost friends to HIV/AIDS. I have read about the plague in Athens. I have read about the Spanish Flu. Read Camus’ The Plague, Boccaccio’s The Decameron, Poe’s The Masque of the Red Death, and Saramago’s Blindness. And yet, this is biological and psychological and physiological and yes, cultural journey, so to the Rona entity who is sharing this world with me, let’s listen as Nina Simone sings “Black Swan.”