This crisis has swept the streets clear of familiar sounds.
I always assumed historic events would be loud, since their echoes reverberate through the decades. In my mind, calamities are always accompanied by overwhelming noise: people shouting, bombs exploding, boots marching in unison. But this tragedy, for people waiting things out at home, is a silent one.
The lockdown feels like turning inward. And backward. Burrowed deep into our apartment, my thoughts and behavior seem to regress to those of a 1950s housewife.
Suddenly, our house is the center of my existence. Previously, it was more like a rest stop—a place to recuperate briefly, eat something, cuddle with the kids, before racing on to work or seeing friends.
Now I understand how “keeping house” once took up a woman’s entire time. In a distant past (six weeks ago) the dust would fly up and settle in my wake unnoticed. Now my brain is torn between the larger implications of the crisis and whether I should clean the bathroom sink. The sink always wins—domestic details become my main focus. Existential fears are vacuum-packed into tight routines.
It’s a confusing feeling, to know you are living through a historic event: I catch myself looking back at something that is still happening. I imagine how unreal our current daily life will feel in a year or two, how surreal wearing facemasks or the fear of touching a bench on the street will seem. And I see my future self not worrying about a virus—imagining the absence of the thoughts that now occupy my mind—a comforting tranquility that now appears out of reach.
Tranquility and silence may seem synonymous most of the time, but these days they appear to be opposites. Silence is the overriding sound of this crisis. While the news informs me of the Dantesque scenes unfolding at hospitals around the globe, the streets are quiet. Loved ones die in care homes and ICUs, but those who knew them will not hear their last words, nor the heart rate monitors that give a long beep and then go silent.
Awareness of the ravage mostly comes to us through screens. No thud of the newspaper falling on the doormat or rustling of its pages—instead, the soundless, infinite scroll of my smartphone screen telling me how many have died. Videos are automatically muted; you need to press a button to put the sound on. I rarely do.
Clapping for carers, a dog barking, or the sound of an ambulance rushing past only underscore the stillness. I have no idea how my neighbors are doing, though we have never spent more time side by side in the same building. But we no longer run into each other in the hallway or on the stairs. All I know are the muffled sounds I occasionally hear through the wall: laughter, songs (they seem to be handling things better than we do).
Perhaps this is why the city feels so otherworldly. It looks like a ghost town but in reality, it’s the very opposite: I know that the silent houses I walk past on the way to the supermarket have never been fuller: everyone is at home, but the façades seal off whatever happens inside.
And then I wonder: is this the quiet that dominates the life of all those people in hiding as well? The smallness, the excessive focus on detail, the mind going around in ever smaller circles? Will deeper thoughts and grand narratives only make themselves heard after this is all over?
I suppose movies will be made that tug at our heartstrings, compressing monotonous months into a taut ninety minutes. I imagine watching such a film in the cinema, long reopened by then: crunching of popcorn, a no-longer-threatening cough from someone in the audience.
The music will swell, months of silence alchemized into a crescendo of violins, trumpets and percussion, and I will feel my eardrums vibrate with a memory that is not my own.
The Image archive is supported in part by an award from the National Endowment for the Arts.
Written by: Nausikaä El-Mecky
Nausikaä El-Mecky is a tenure-track professor in the history of art and visual culture at Universitat Pompeu Fabra in Barcelona. She specializes in censorship and destruction of art from the Stone Age until today.