Pandemic! by Slavoj Žižek; Where Is God in a Coronavirus World? by John Lennox – review

A philosopher and a Christian evangelist find hope in modernised Marxism and the Lord in contrasting attempts to make sense of the current crisis

Detained at home with time to write instant books, two septuagenarian sages here make very different attempts to wrest a meaning or moral from the coronavirus pandemic. The Slovenian theorist Slavoj Žižek treats the disease as an intellectual malaise from which we will only be rescued by a “philosophical revolution”; John Lennox, an Oxford mathematician who moonlights as a Christian evangelist, approaches Covid-19 as a theological conundrum and tries to explain why God seems so unbothered by our distress. While clinicians work on decoding the coronavirus, Žižek unhelpfully inflates it to an imaginary bogey, a “spectral fantasy”. In the absence of a vaccine, Lennox prescribes prayer, which at least is better advice than injecting bleach.

Žižek deplores our superstitions about the virus as a regression to “pre-modern thinking” and in Pandemic! he rethinks the crisis with the aid of the usual postmodern gurus. Michel Foucault’s account of the disciplinary state prompts him to mock hygiene rules: warned against touching our faces, are we being told not to play with ourselves? (Well, no, because the health authorities in New York have officially recommended masturbation to the shut-in users of dating apps, advising ”you are your safest sex partner”.) Drawing on the psychoanalyst Jacques Lacan, Žižek says that a blindly self-replicating pathogen has loosened our hold on reality and exposed “the ultimate abyss of our being”. The remedy is a dose of updated Marx: because the pandemic is a byproduct of global capitalism, the solution must be “some kind of reinvented communism”.

The pandemic reminds Žižek of the alien invasion in HG Wells’s The War of the Worlds, where humanity is fortuitously spared because the Martians have no resistance to microbes, “the humblest things that God, in his wisdom, put upon this Earth”. But what if it were God who, in his malice, concocted coronavirus in the first place? In the Old Testament, the vindictive ogre whips up an exterminating deluge, followed later by the 10 plagues of Egypt. Lennox, however, is anxious to rule out divine retribution and in Where Is God in a Coronavirus World? he declares that the “wonderful and good capacity” of free will with which the creator endowed us “also makes us capable of evil”. This means, I assume, that airborne contagion must be a consequence of our bad choices. It’s a grotesque notion, though it could be applied to the Trump-loving protesters against lockdown in American states: for them, liberty means the right to go back to the diner or the nail salon and to die after doing so.

Lennox backtracks by defining Covid-19 as a specimen of “natural evil”, which sounds like an invitation to demonise the bats, civet cats and scaly anteaters at the Wuhan market, even though they too are surely God’s creatures. As so often, theology stumbles over the problem of undeserved suffering and Lennox defies both logic and common decency when he contends that Covid-19 might turn out to be a blessing in disguise. Viruses, he insists, “are in the main beneficial”. They recycle nutrients through food chains, regulate which species eat what and keep ecosystems functioning smoothly; a medical researcher therefore calls them “unsung heroes”, as if they were selfless NHS workers. Agony like that caused by the coronavirus can be an aid to what Lennox calls “character formation”: after all, “American football, British rugby and boxing” demonstrate that “enthusiasts will put up with a great deal of pain in order to excel”. So should we admire the sporty zeal of patients on ventilators and see them as athletes in training for some spiritual version of the Tokyo Olympics?

For Slavoj Žižek, the pandemic has already resulted in ‘some kind of ethical progress’
For Slavoj Žižek, the pandemic has already resulted in ‘some kind of ethical progress’. Photograph: Antonio Olmos/The Observer

By contrast with this happy talk, Žižek describes the virus as “a dark shadow” that will continue to haunt us. At one point, he pictures it as a ghoul from a horror movie, calling it “undead” like a vampire or zombie. Elsewhere, he visualises this invisible enemy as a sci-fi monster: like Wells’s Martians sucking blood from their human prey, it is a parasite with a “stupidly repetitive, pre-sexual life” that uses the bodies of those it infects as “its copying machine”. Television news reports show us a purple grenade studded with spiky red coronets; Žižek’s less decorative image is grislier and truer.

Lennox may be God’s apologist, but it is Žižek, paradoxically identified as “a Christian atheist”, who does a better job of deriving good from evil. Invoking Hegel’s idea of a spirit that pervades nature, he calculates that the pandemic has already resulted in “some kind of ethical progress”: next time you deliver an elderly neighbour’s groceries, please consider your act of kindness an exercise in transcendental idealism. But Žižek zanily overdoes it when he volunteers to grapple with the devil and harrow hell. He says that he sometimes longs to contract the virus, which would demystify the “spectral agent” and drag it down into physical reality. I’d advise him to be careful what he wishes for.

Housebound isolation even leads Žižek to liken himself to “Christ on the cross”, abandoned by God but accompanied on Calvary by Julian Assange, who is crucified “in his prison cell, with no visits permitted”. Despite such grandiosity, Žižek does acknowledge the stress or dread we are all experiencing. Lennox is more glibly optimistic. Playing on words, he makes the coronavirus mutate into the “crown of thorns” worn by Christ, which somehow enables him to conclude that the pandemic may ultimately prove to be “very healthy”.

Perhaps as a sign of desperation, Žižek’s book begins in the same way that Lennox’s ends: both ponder Christ’s resurrection, luckily without noting the coincidence of BoJo’s emergence from hospital on Easter Sunday. Žižek remembers the risen Christ telling Mary Magdalene not to touch him and ingeniously links this with the protocols of physical distancing. We must learn, he says, to transmit emotion by semaphore, relying on a “deep look” into someone’s eyes rather than a handshake. Lennox finishes with another slippery pun, promising that when Christ next reappears he will perform a mass coronation and award “the crown of righteousness” to those who have kept the faith. We’re given no date for the saviour’s second coming: let’s hope that while we wait we’ll be reprieved by medical science.

Pandemic! Covid-19 Shakes the World by Slavoj Žižek is published by OR Books (£12)

Where Is God in a Coronavirus World? by John Lennox is published by the Good Book Company (£2.99)


Contributor

Peter Conrad

The GuardianTramp

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