The time in between Godelieve Spaas, Week 3

Is It Possible to Know a Virus?

We have to realize that humans can’t solve everything alone. Other animals are working hard to save the world, like bees. If we pay attention to this, perhaps we can learn to cooperate more.” Lydia Baan Hofman on the philosopher Donna Haraway

We have been in the grips of a microscopic creature for several months now. We have declared war on COVID-19, which has completely disrupted our daily lives, as well as businesses, economies, and governments. These disastrous consequences frighten me even more than the virus itself. I wonder if we can work with a virus instead of against it? Would cooperation be an option if I got to know them better?

What Are Viruses?

Wandering around the internet I discover the following: A virus is 15 million times smaller than a human cell. There can be 10 million viruses in one drop of water. They outnumber any other species on earth and they are everywhere. On the table, in the water, between your toes, in your brain, on streets, trees, flowers, and animals. They just barely don't fit our definition of life and yet they seem to be alive. By 2018, 4,958 species of viruses (a fraction of the total number of species) had been discovered, divided into orders, families, subfamilies and genera.

What Do Viruses Do?

Like most creatures on earth, they do both good and evil. They manage the bacteria in our body so that the number of bad bacteria is kept within limits. There are theories that the evolution of our brains is due to viruses. At the same time, they have been responsible for hundreds of millions of deaths over the centuries.

I also know what they look like. In pictures in the media, they have wonderful colors and shapes. Luke Jerram makes glass works of art from all kinds of viruses. I love to see them. It gives me the feeling of living in a cloud of invisible beauty and lethality.

godelieve-spaas-week3 Virussen

What Do Viruses Want?

Maybe viruses are also trying to save the Earth, like humans and bees? If so, could I work with them to find solutions to, for example, climate change or diseases? Maybe some families of viruses want the best for humans and others are looking out for the earth, animals, or stones. But how do I find out?

On the internet there are videos circulating where people thank the COVID-19 virus because it supposedly woke us up, because it was making us aware of the state of the earth, of our overly busy existence, and of the effects of globalization. Of course, these are all meanings that people attribute to the virus. Whether that's the intention of the virus, I can't say.

Assigning human traits to other beings is a way to relate to them. Through the ages countless stories have been written about what we can learn from other living beings. I think about Animal Farm and freedom, equality, and power, The Fable of The Bees: about an economy for the benefit of all, and Alice in Wonderland, in which logic, fantasy, and sensibility are mixed together and often hard to distinguish from one another.

Stories like these help us to understand ourselves better and give us jumping-off points where we can investigate, comprehend, and engage in the relationships between and with other species. This is a type of tentacular thinking (Haraway 2016): thinking in tentacles, lines, and relationships, all based on the idea that everything is connected.

Living with Viruses

I try to imagine my entanglements with viruses. They are a part of my existence. They most likely contributed to the origins of life and maintain balance in systems (like our bodies) by giving and taking life. It would help me if there were stories about viruses. Fairy tales, poems, novels that mix fact and fiction—these would help me construct an image of who or what viruses are and what they are all about.

I’m reminded of drawings by Henk Visch that show people surrounded by enchanting symbols and figures. His drawings span what he calls “the gap between that which is possible and that which is real.”


Henk Visch, Untitled drawings from 1994, 1997, and 1999

It’s easy for me to imagine that my existence is comparable—moving between infinite different and miraculous viruses. Some infect me, others do not. Often they help me or another person but not always.

I’d like to get to know them better so that I could visualize their significance and their contribution and build a relationship with them. To get to that point, I want to know facts, but I also want to experience, read, and listen to stories in order to arrive at a concept of viruses—who and what they are. It may well be that other organisms are far better suited to dealing with viruses; perhaps I could serve as a go-between species. Perhaps that way I could find ways to co-exist with viruses that are less disruptive or different enough so that I don’t have to feel as afraid of the consequences of the war against viruses. I’ve already begun searching for information about this and I found this beautiful poem on the equally beautiful website

“The Virus”

The invisible thing that now shapes our reality
The metaphor of our times
Were we deceived by the relentless pursuit of progress?
Our timeless desire to unite the four corners of the world is precisely what has turned it upside down

Did rummaging in the cellars of the unknown disturb the darkest secrets of our ignorant Pandora?

No more hugs no more kisses
Because our longing for togetherness made our atmosphere unbearable

The metaphor of our times.
– Dewald Visser
(Translation by Alana Gillespie) (Coronapoem dot nl) is a website started by Mario Reijnen and Netherlands Poet Laureate Tsead Bruinja. The website was designed by Studio Het Nachtdier in collaboration with Poëziecentrum Nederland.

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