Stigmatizing Human Breath

I just read a new headline from The Washington Post that absolutely crystallizes the essence of our hysteria pandemic: “The coronavirus is airborne. Here’s how to know if you’re breathing other people’s breath.” The details of the article, urging the use of carbon dioxide monitors as a proxy gauge for determining whether the air in any given space has traces of human breath in it, though revolting in its implications, is almost irrelevant (as is typical in today’s “news”) next to the message delivered by the headline itself.

That nearly explicit message, the apotheosis of a year of fearmongering totalitarian propaganda: “Other people’s breath is a mortal danger, and avoiding inhaling it the only way to save yourself — or even, shall we say, to purify yourself.”

Breath. One ancient Greek word for breath (and blowing) was psyche, which gradually evolved into the philosophical notion of the soul. And this evolution, as I have explained in the past, was no accident or coincidence, but rather a deliberate and profound extension of the word’s meaning. Homer, in The Iliad and The Odyssey, describes death in battle (and also the death of a speared beast) with evocative phrases such as “breath left him,” using the word psyche in a strikingly figurative and (as it must have seemed to the Archaic Greeks) mysterious sense. Later, less poetically inclined Greeks, approaching the issue dialectically, asked the pointed question: What is it, exactly, that “leaves” the man who dies? In other words, what is that mysterious substance or essence — that thing captured by the poet with the word “breath” — which distinguishes a dead body from a living human being? 

All our philosophical and scientific developments of these notions must be seen in the light of this early transition of psyche from its strictly literal sense to its poetic metaphorical usage to its rebirth as a theoretical question about the nature and properties of that seemingly immaterial essence which makes a pile of lifeless flesh into a warrior-hero, or alternately unmakes him, as he is slain.

And the dialectical nexus operates the opposite way as well: All our efforts at “psychology” and the understanding of human nature must somehow hold true to the simplest and most ancient roots of our inquiry, namely that life is breath, and death the absence of breath.

But if life is breath, then human social life — our peaceful and mutually helpful interaction with others of our species — is essentially the sharing of breath. A society, then, in which that shared breath is regarded with fear, suspicion, and even hatred for those who dare to breathe among others, is a society in chains, a society of men isolated from one another, a spiritual enslavement which could only occur by dint of the one entity in any society with a vested interest in such forced isolation of man from man, namely a tyrannical state.

All the natural institutions of human social development are by definition instances of men breathing shared air in an atmosphere (the right word here, indeed) of trust and fellow-feeling. The family is shared breath: the communal dinner table, sleeping together under one roof. Friendship, each human being’s primary conduit to the world beyond the family, is shared breath — conversation, commiseration, working and learning side-by-side. Community, the structured but nature-bound friendliness and mutual support established among many families living in close proximity, is likewise shared breath — the market, the church, the theater.

And what, after all, is a nation but men’s attempt to extend these natural interactions, through conventions and founding laws, into a wider simulacrum of the shared breath of natural man: the body politic. In its most liberal incarnations, the body politic is nearly identifiable, and inclines to identify itself, with the almost religiously rigorous protection of two specific freedoms, those of speech and assembly — the direct political approximations of friendship and family, respectively.

A society that rejects these symbolic ideals, that dares to actively stigmatize and even criminalize the sharing of breath — urging us to monitor our air for telltale evidence of other men’s dangerous carbon in our midst — is rejecting that simulacrum of a soul which gives nations whatever quasi-life they have, or ought to have. In so doing, the society renders itself a dead body politic. Breath, i.e., life, has left it, in all three senses — literal, poetic, and theoretical.

This is the trajectory on which we are travelling today, at runaway speed. We are rejecting the life-breath that makes us both desirous and worthy of living together. We are, in other words, returning to the condition of pre-civilized savages, unable to perceive our own neighbors as companions and compatriots, but only as objects of terrified wrath, to be escaped or destroyed in hysterical acts of irrational self-protection.

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